Neighbors We Don’t Know
I spent a majority of the pandemic at my parent’s home, an unexpected result from what was supposed to be only a few months visiting. In the early stages of the pandemic, with so many unknowns, I found myself uneager to go running or walking in the crowded local parks and instead found myself traipsing up and down the empty neighborhood hills either before or after my work from home days.
When I walked in the evening, I always ran into a man with two dogs. I don’t know him. But in those beginning days of masks and uncertainty, he was one of the only people I regularly saw besides my parents. (And when I say “saw” I mean saw a real 3D person, not a virtual screen colleague.)
I eventually figured out which house was his and saw him later walking with other family members. But still, I knew next to nothing about the man with two dogs. So I made up a story. I imagined we both worked from home and that when 5 o’clock hit, his dogs were just begging to get outside. I imagined he closed his work computer, just like I did. I imagined he fed the dogs and put on socks for maybe the first time all day. I imagined him walking on those early spring evenings and thinking (like I was) about how nice it was to not be commuting.
For almost two years in New York City, I made the same morning commute to my nonprofit job in midtown. And I began to see a few routine people—the man who always read the New York Times during rush hour, the street musician whose work I’ve followed for years, and the mother/daughter duo who were always, always, always smiling.
But my favorite person from that commute was a tall, brooding man who I definitely would have had a crush on in middle school. Peak skater boy meets hipster, I lost track of how many days we stood silently side-by-side on the platform together waiting for our connecting train. He became a source of comfort, familiarity, and reassurance—even if that reassurance just meant I wasn’t going to be late.
I used to laugh with my roommates about how I fall in love every time I step on the New York City subway. How I make up stories for every passerby. How I love this idea of strangers becoming friends and unopened memories waiting to be discovered. How maybe there’s something to this idea of the neighbors we don’t know.
I’m back home for the holidays now and as my parent’s car turned onto our street, I saw the man with the two dogs. There’s my friend! I started to say. I trailed off, of course, realizing I don’t know his name. Realizing I’ve never had a conversation with him more than a hurried wave and a smile. Realizing that, in the middle of a truly unprecedented year and time, I hadn’t comprehended the comfort of familiarity he gifted me.
When I was graduating high school, a friend was talking about the people you wouldn’t stay in touch with. Not your best friends or the people you still talk to ten years later, but the people you had one class with in ninth grade. The people you aren’t really friends with but the people who make your life better all the same. The neighbors we don’t know.
I’ve gone through life since then collecting faces. Memories. Stories. I don’t know your name and so you become the Man with Two Dogs. I don’t know how the pandemic impacted your life and so every time we pass each other on the street I wish a little light to your family. I don’t know why you showed up in my life in this Truman Show-esque routine and so rather than question it, I say thank you.
Thank you to the neighbors I don’t know… to the small world moments on the subway… to the classmates I haven’t seen in years. Thank you for unknowingly being a part of my life and for providing a certain level of comfort and joy just by showing up. And thank you, reader, for being someone’s Man with Two Dogs. It might sound ridiculous. But you just might be that unknowingly beautiful addition to someone else’s story.