Where have my neighbors gone?
I’ll admit that I never knew the couple that lives next door to me very well, or even at all. When we first moved in, I grew suspicious of the broken blinds and the shattered flowerpot that remained unfixed in front of this seemingly vacant condo. There never was any light source. During some nights even, when I was returning home, I could have sworn I saw a pair of inhuman eyes fixated on my every move. It wasn’t until several months later when I bumped into my neighbors as we concurrently walked out of our opposing doorways that I realized they did exist. They were two attractive newlyweds and were both, to my surprise, quite normal. Since then, I have run into them a few more times while they walked their dog, a Yorkshire Terrier which finally explained the looming eyes at the window sill.
But it has been a while since I have seen them. A few mornings ago, as I hurried past their door, an uncanny sight caught my attention and paused my right foot midair right above the staircase my mysterious neighbors and I share. I withdrew my step and pivoted cautiously towards their entrance: next to the still-crooked blinds, a mailman had stuck not just one or two, but five USPS redelivery postal stickers onto my neighbors’ slightly stained door. Underneath the door handle and all the bright stickers, gathered a massive pile of packages. I stood and gawked for a good minute or two before abandoning this eerie glimpse, unnerved by the startling scene.
On my walk to school, I analyzed the situation and tossed around all my options. Perhaps, I could call them to let them know of the stack of packages? But I didn’t have their number. I didn’t even remember their names. Maybe I could ask the guard? What if they were kidnapped? What if the kidnappers saw me watching earlier? What if the husband killed the wife and ran off? Maybe her body was still in their apartment.
While my mind calculated all the possibilities, my pace quickened and a bit of guilt began settling into my stomach. Because despite being neighbors for a year, I knew so little about them. Also because during this span of time, I never tried.
In my defense, this really has become the societal norm. Long gone are the days when you bake a casserole for your new neighbor to foreshadow the two of you soon becoming confidants. Instead, we keep to ourselves and have created the etiquette of professional neighboring – not bothering and not to be bothered. Granted, when my roommate and I first moved into this complex, we made an effort to meet our neighbors. For almost a year, we used the excuse of “Hi, we just moved in” to bake cookies and knock on doors. And two years later, when we moved a few doors down in the same complex, we tried to recycle that excuse. Despite our efforts to bring back the ways of old, we have kept in contact with absolutely none of the few people who actually opened their homes to us.
There was one international post-doc. He confessed he was lonely and missed his wife and daughter who were still overseas. Then there were two graduate students that came over for dessert and shared their cultures with us. But that was the last time I saw these two students. Sometimes I think about them and wonder where they might possibly be. As for the post-doc, however, I have seen once more when I was driving out of our complex. He was carrying a bag of groceries towards his apartment. I stopped and was about to offer him a ride when I spotted trailing behind him was a woman and a six-year old girl.
So what exactly are we, my neighbors and I? I can’t say we are complete strangers. If we were, I wouldn’t have cried a little out of happiness when I saw the post-doc finally with his family. But how else would I define this distant intimacy I shared with these individuals? Although the term “familiar stranger” coined by Stanley Milgram makes me cringe with its callousness, I can’t help but wonder if that is all we will ever be – separate entities a bit closer than simple strangers, but nothing more.
A friend of mine once shared his wisdom with me, saying that social media creates the fictitious illusion that we are connected with one another much more deeply than we actually are. With the ability to swipe and see more updates than we probably care for, we have settled into the comfort of knowing. Along the way, I guess this deception has eliminated the need for conversations, especially those that are face-to-face. Our time has become so consumed with catching up with our thousands of virtual friends and online followers that who has time any longer for actual live and dynamic beings around us. Strangely, we might have chosen quantity over quality as we graze past the veteran that sits at the crosswalk with a cardboard sign, the girl who always walks past with her head down, or the couple that has lived beside us for more than the full 52 weeks of the year with 7 days in each of those weeks and 24 hours a day.
I’m not sure if I have a solution for this fate woven into our generation. Realistically, I’m not even sure if there needs to be a solution, since this is indeed the era of the Millennials. But sometimes, it is nice to ponder on how Mrs. McCluskey from Desperate Housewives would say in her nagging voice, “Let me tell you about a neighborhood. It's not just a bunch of houses in the same place. It's a community. It's lives that are connected, people who care about each other. I know it sounds sappy, but damn it, it's true. And these wonderful people I've lived beside they're my family.”
And wonder what I am missing out on.