A bespectacled, mustachioed man exited my neighbor’s apartment as I left mine, his hands filled with some kind of tray covered in a knotted pink sheet. He turned to his right toward the elevator, then looked back at me.
“You might want to take the stairs,” he said. “We’re bringing her down now.”
At first I didn’t understand. Had she had some kind of accident? I must have looked confused because he sympathetically offered, “She passed away.”
“Oh,” I said, as the corners of my mouth drooped and turned into sadness. How sad that she had passed away. In the next instant, though, I realized I had no idea who he was talking about.
I only knew that the Korean newspaper was delivered to the door next to mine once a week, that the sound of a duo or trio of Korean ladies yelling at each other carried through to my apartment every so often, and that sometimes the cooking smells coming out of their apartment made me hover with delight at my own door, just so I could smell them a little bit longer. Beyond that, I had little idea who my neighbors were. My guess is there was one elderly woman being cared for by her daughters, and this was the woman who passed away.
I know we tried to meet them (her?) once because we were having a party in our apartment and wanted to apologize in advance if it got noisy, but they (she?) never answered the door. We left a note, but it stuck to the door for three days before it was suddenly gone.
I felt a stillness in the hallway unusual for a Saturday morning. When the sun is bright, it seems to draw people out of their apartments, buzzing and excited like bees at a hive. There was none of that energy now, and I moved down the stairwell, conscious of and grateful for being able to tread in the hallway on the tired, dingy linoleum I always wished would look a little cleaner. I did not know this woman who passed away, but I still felt sad, sad for her family who would now have to empty her apartment, sad that a life that was so physically close to me had ended and I had never known the life at all.
I heard often that this was the nature of apartment living in New York. We all live so close together but don’t enter each others’ lives, choosing instead live in some kind of hermit-like bubble. It’s almost as if we say “This is MY LIFE and it is NOT YOURS,” to each other. “Just because we live so close doesn’t mean I want to know you.” So we never do know each other; not really anyway.
There was one especially cold weekend when NP was away and I needed change of $20 to do my laundry. Rather than go outside, I knocked on my neighbors’ doors and asked them for change. I met a few of them that way. Their apartments are much larger than mine, and they were on the whole very friendly. I like to think we bonded over our shared distaste for the laundry room.
For the most part, though, I can identify the people who live in my apartment building, but I only know a few of their names. Last night Brad from downstairs came up to say that I was walking around my apartment too loud in my heels and had woken up his baby. I had never met him before, but I apologized and told him I liked his Beastie Boys t-shirt. We smiled and shook hands, and I took off my heels.
Mike lives two floors up. He has some kind of job that involves a suit and I always see him coming back in wearing athletic gear. The first night I arrived, he offered to help NP, my mother and I move allllll my stuff into the apartment. I think I have had three conversations with him ever, all in the elevator.
I recently met a lady who lives down the hall from me. I think her name is Norma and she has a white pixie haircut. She held the elevator door for me while I fumbled with my keys outside. “It’s nice to know your neighbors,” she said and smiled sweetly.
There’s also the lady with the llama dog. It’s not actually a llama, but it’s almost tall enough and hairy enough to be one. In the fall and winter it has luxurious flowing locks of tawny fur, but the lady recently trimmed its hair for the warm weather so it looks much less glamorous and more like a sad third grader with a generic haircut.
There’s the thin Russian lady with the black cherry hair, the mother who was dressed in bee costume for Halloween and her children, the kind of hipster looking tall man with clear-frame glasses, a ruffly, fifties-like pompadour and a charcoal-colored French bulldog dog named Rick James.
But I don’t really know any of them. After the Korean woman passed away, I realized that we tend to put a cap on the number of people in our lives, as if to say, “We’re no longer accepting friend applications, thank you.” When do we do this, and why do we stop? This is not to say that quantity beats quality as it certainly doesn’t, but after a while we tend to close ourselves off to the experience of meeting new people, as if we think there’s only a few times in our lives (college orientations, first days of work, etc.) when we’re supposed to do that, and that time has passed. But it hasn’t. My mother once told me that if you let someone into your life even for a little while, they can enrich it more than you would have thought possible.
So I’ve recently been trying to make an effort to meet my neighbors, to be a little friendlier in the elevator. I don’t think a smile and a little small talk ever hurt anyone.