Whatever happened to nosy neighbours, chatty guards and curious colleagues? When did they disappear from our world?
I don’t know my neighbours. I don’t know the lady who wears fuchsia pink too often and walks her dog at the same time every evening down the narrow car-flanked lanes of my apartment complex. I don’t know the two kids who play cricket with plastic table tennis bats in the first floor balcony of the building opposite mine. I don’t know the office guard who checks my bag and hands me a half audible greeting every time I enter my office. I don’t know their names and I’ve never really tried to find out. All these strangers that I’d recognise anywhere, these faces I’d be able to pick out in a roomful of more faces; I’ve only ever said a handful of perfunctory words to them.
I know the universe is expanding. It’s a basic fact that I must have picked up while making my way through all the usual chapters and lessons and classes that most of us do; at the end of which we’ve forgotten most of everything, but retained just enough to know pertinent, relevant facts like yes, the universe is constantly expanding. Zoom in a little closer and things still stay the same. A population explosion here, a mushrooming city there; a planet more crowded with people than ever before, a world where, if you live in a big city like I do, you will brush against a shoulder, bump into a stranger, step on a foot and say a hundred excuse-me’s per week. And then you'll come back home, slip inside your world, and suddenly, you will find yourself smack in the middle of another lesson. A lesson in contradiction.
During a recent holiday, I saw a poster advocating eye-contact between metro passengers. While it didn’t actually get me to make eye contact with anyone just then, it did get me thinking. Why didn’t we do it? Why didn’t we smile at strangers and shake hands with neighbours and stop and chat with the security guards? Why did I step out of my house with my trusty people-blinkers on, limiting my exchanges to the minimum, speaking only when directly spoken to, discomfited and suspicious when approached by anyone who didn’t check all the usual boxes of respectability? Why was my world shrinking?
If I limit this to myself, if I only examine and understand my motives, hoping that I’m not the only one, I do have an answer, or a few. A blend of easily found ingredients; a big city, both familiar and strangely alien, a grown-up equivalent of the old don’t-take-sweets-from-strangers adage, and a self-assuredness that comes from having what we assume are ample friends and family. This way, I can convince myself that I don’t really need to know more people. This way, my neighbours can live in their world and I can live in mine. We can be polite and exchange misdirected mail, we can nod briefly when we pass each other on the stairs, and we can smile indulgently just in case we see them with a gurgling child. And this way, we can continue to be unseeing, unaware; the kind of people who walk the streets seeing their phones more often than they do faces, the one who talk in texts more than they talk in words, the ones who hurriedly avert their eyes and clutch their purses a little harder if a stranger comes too close. After all, it won’t do to allow interference in a life we have so carefully constructed, so fiercely protected.
What happened to nosy neighbours? What happened to keeping up with the Joneses? More importantly, what happened to knowing the Joneses? Not like any of these were ever particularly attractive concepts. They usually served to fill hastily scribbled Agony Aunt Columns and whispered complaints to friends. So, in a way, this comfortable cocoon of alienation is welcome, isn’t it? We’ve been handed our privacy back, in a new and improved package that includes closed door and averted eyes.
And of course, there is always that sturdy, useful argument against over-friendliness, against trusting and believing. The argument that tells you how the world isn’t a good place, not really, and you’d be better off sticking to the people you know. A competent, sensible argument, unfortunately. One that can act as your very own evil-eye locket. It won’t do to be naïve in this world. It won’t do to pick up conversations with strangers and to trust too much. It won’t do anymore to invite your neighbours in when you don’t really know them. It makes sense to hold yourself back a little bit.
Why then, does that locket sometimes feel heavy around my neck? Why, when I find myself suddenly meeting a particularly garrulous girl outside a building, am I envious of how easily she can talk to me? How she doesn’t seem to be wearing this very important, sensible locket herself. After all, I’m a stranger and I could be any one, right? I could be one of the many evils lurking in the world; I could be a nasty person with a sharp tongue and a mean heart. But then, when she is done chatting about this and that, asking perhaps a thousand inane questions; when she is finally walking away, I find myself wanting to be her.