It was a Friday night. My friend Ben was visiting from out of town, and we’d made plans to go out to eat in my neighborhood. As we walked, I listed dinner options---Thai, Korean, Italian, Japanese---but it wasn’t long before I realized I’d lost my audience. Half a block behind me, a wide-eyed Ben stood transfixed in front of the window of a neighborhood barbershop, one I’d passed many times before but to which I’d never paid much attention. “Let’s go here,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, incredulous.
“Here,” he said. “Let’s go here. They’re watching the Pacquiao fight. Let’s join them.” Then, in response to my blank stare: “Pacquiao’s a boxer.”
Still several yards down the street, I proceeded to list the thousand-and-one reasons I thought this was a crazy idea. It would be rude, I insisted, to assume that this group wanted guests---judging from the music and the laughter that was coming from the shop, they seemed to be having a wonderful time as it was, without us. We weren’t invited, we’d never met---therefore we’d be intruding. And, I huffed, it was getting late. I was starving.
“We can do whatever you want after the fight, I promise,” Ben said. “Please can we do this? It’ll be fun. These people are your neighbors.” He paused. “Afterward, it’s your call, I swear. Anything you want. We can eat ice cream and watch ‘Father of the Bride’ if that’s what sounds good to you.”
Ten minutes later, I found myself seated on a bench in the front of the barbershop, in the center of a flurry of activity. Men placed bets in Spanish, swiveling in leather barber chairs. Couples salsa-danced to music on an old boombox in the back corner. Beer bottles were opened with cans of hairspray. Ben had joined some sort of raucous conversation with a cluster of Pacquiao fans; meanwhile, an old man pacing the front of the shop graciously attempted to explain to me the complexities of boxing. A girl in the corner about my age offered me a shy smile, a gesture of camaraderie.
“I told you this would be fun,” said Ben.
He was right. It was.
That was almost a year ago. I’ve passed the shop many times since then and have peeked in on occasion, but the barbers’ backs are often turned, or they’re too focused on their work to notice passersby in the street. Last week, however, I ran into the owner on the sidewalk outside a local bodega two blocks from my apartment.
I gave a cautious wave, thinking he might not recognize me; instead, I was met with a giant hug and an ear-to-ear smile. Despite our language barrier, we exchanged pleasantries: we were doing well, enjoying life, working hard as usual. Before saying goodbye, I told him I’d stop by again soon to watch another fight, punching the air awkwardly in a poor attempt to mime boxing. “Yes, yes,” he replied, holding me at arm’s length. Then he did something I’ll never forget.
“Look at you,” he said, beaming, “You’re wonderful.”
All my life, the cities I’ve lived in have felt like temporary homes. Growing up, my family moved back and forth between Los Angeles and Honolulu, and I knew that Santa Cruz, where I lived for four years in college, wasn’t a city I’d remain in after graduation. Now, though, for the first time, I’m beginning to get a sense of what it might feel like to be a part of a community. To settle in. To make a place my own.
And I’m realizing I don’t just want to exist as part of my neighborhood---I want to know it. More importantly, I want to know the people I share it with---and not just the ones whose lives look like mine. It makes me so happy to be able to say hello every day to the man across the street who feeds the pigeons every morning, to the bearded bartender next door, to the crew of barbers down the street, and the dreadlocked tattoo artist around the corner.
Two years ago, when I lived deep in a hipster-dominated pocket of Bushwick, someone plastered a sign over a chainlink fence that read, you are not your neighborhood.
Perhaps not. But aren’t neighborhoods largely a reflection of the men and women and children---the barbers, bartenders, artists, hippies, hipsters, and everything in between---who populate them?
We may only know each other well enough to smile and wave and say hello, but this makes us more than strangers.
This makes us neighbors. And together, we are our neighborhood.