Monday, November 26, 2012

Street Friends

I have been living in the same neighborhood in New York City since moving here nearly five years ago from the country. There's a special arrangement urban dwellers are accustomed to following with regards to greeting street acquaintances. Those are the neighborhood locals whose paths you will cross at least once a day- the balding short guy from the liquor store, who always has a hearty smile as he stacks up cardboard boxes on the side of the store to be recycled. He and I smile at each other in passing if the mood strikes. There are no hard feelings if one of us isn't in the mood to exchange acknowledgment of the other's existence. There's Jimmy the block guard, who is always in uniform, and always insistent on greeting every human who walks down our block with a bellowing announcement to the neighborhood that you have arrived home. This used to really irk me- I have prided myself on my hard-earned annonymity, and one greeting from Jimmy would set me back months of secret re-entries into my apartment building. Rather than explain my disdain for the boisterous greetings, I simply nod and smile silently in response to him. This preserves the mystery of my identity from would-be serial killers. Better to be prepared, as you never get a second chance to escape insanity. As you can see, I may well have missed mine. Back to the street friends- there are two guys that live next door. One is very small and has an overall grey appearance- his face is kind, and he looks like he walked off of the set of Oliver Twist. I smiled at him once in the beginning, and he smiled back very broadly and genuinely. He and I always smile to each other now in passing, and that is the rule. The other guy that lives in his building has a very shifty look to him. Slicked-back dark brown hair, a pinched nose, and watery brown eyes. He's skinny and always wears dress pants. He smokes nervously. We rarely make eye contact, and if we accidently catch each other's glance, we quickly pretend it was a mistake. When I first met Claudio, I taught him how to play Botticelli. We didn't know that many people in common, so it was a little bit of a challenge. He had me guess his person first, and when I failed to guess who he chose, he told me, 'The Snitch'. I knew immediately he was referring to this same watery-eyed neighbor I just described. If the snitch were an animal, he would be a rat. I'll never forget dragging my 50 pound air conditioner down a flight of stairs and out my two front doors to get rid of it. A small group of men watched from across the street as I struggled to bring it down the last few outdoor steps, simultaneously striving to protect it and my back from permanent damage. As soon as I turned to go back in the building, the snitch was rushing across the street to examine and later carry the unit back into his own lair. I wanted someone to get use out of it, but not him. He was not my street friend. But the street person I have greeted and conversed with more than anyone over the years doesn't have a nickname. He's just the Cuban guy that sits on the corner. He has a little folding chair, and has spent hundreds of days sitting on it right outside the liquor store. Sometimes he has a few friends holding vigil with him. These are older gentleman, wearing derby hats and brightly colored dress shirts. I always want to greet them too, but they're not my official street friends, so we usually don't speak. So basically, there are two members in this elite club. Today on my return from a run in Central Park, I see the snitch. He is standing in front of his building, with his back to me. I know he will turn around, and we will have that awkward moment which is no longer awkward of avoiding each other. I feel an uncharacteristic sympathy towards him today. I wonder if he cares that I don't ever say hello to him. It must have dawned on him how unfair it is, particularly when he is walking with his Oliver Twist friend, and I greet the latter, but not him. As I arrive at my building, I look him in the eyes and give a small smile and a little wave and say 'Hi', as though we have been greeting each other this way since the beginning. He does the same. I hope we don't have to do this again tomorrow.