Big city side-eye

I remember reading a short story many years ago, written (I think) by Morley Callaghan (most famous for punching Ernest Hemingway’s head), about a professional executioner arriving in a small town hoping to have a “good, neighbourly time” before anyone realizes why he’s there. Having tasted the first delicious drops of local friendliness, the hangman’s cover is blown and all is ostracized loneliness.

Making friends in a big city can feel just as unlikely and uncomfortable. It took me a long time to find my people here; my neighbours proper have never been very promising. My husband and I lived for many years in high rises, which are really nothing but stacks of hermits’ caves piled high; they are, however, wonderful for ease and security, not to mention great views (e.g., watching silly persons drive their cars down the flooded Don Valley Parkway and then having to be dramatically rescued with cranes and floodlights).

My current neighbours include an elderly recluse on one side, whose door we knock on periodically if we haven’t heard his TV in some time, to make sure he’s still alive; on the other side, our neighbours include a rolling assortment of short-term tenants looking to buy fixer’ uppers in the area or to smoke weed uninterrupted beneath our bedroom window. In one place, our nosy, pervy old neighbour knocked on our door the day we moved in to tell us the whole building was working together to make sure Rob Ford was elected mayor. None of this makes me think I’m wrong to generally not want to talk to anyone, ever.

Not that one always has a choice about being isolated. Torontonians don’t like making eye contact. When people’s dogs come running up to us—and this happens all the time, perhaps because we tend to shriek “PUPPY!! HI!!!” at every dog we see—they get really nervous, or even sometimes rude, for fear their pooches have committed them to something impossible to escape. It’s like they think a friendly animal bridges directly and irrevocably into pot lucks, community bottle drives, sharing clothing or borrowing the lawn mower and never giving it back. We really only want to talk to their dogs.

My favourite people are my people and other people’s dogs, yes.

Besides my actual friends, who I like very much, I’ve found another sort of community here. On the bicycle and running trails, the concrete of our shared urban reserve breaks down just a little. I’ve been seeing many of the same people every day out there, some over years; we began nodding or smiling at each other eventually. Some people never allow their guard to drop—the individual members of the roving gangs of middle-aged men wearing $5000 worth of gear and riding $10,000 bicycles, for example—while others just take time.

One man, in particular, I saw every day for a year before he responded to my tentative “Good morning.” He walks his dog along the Cherry Beach path and given how unlikely the aforesaid gangs are to either slow down or ring bells for time, tide, flora or fauna, I can’t blame him for not immediately warming to another cyclist in shiny tights. But he did finally start responding after noticing that I always slowed down for him and his pup.

We reached a new level of good neighbourliness recently. My husband and I were riding together when we came upon him, his friend and their two beautiful dogs; we reduced speed, as usual, but then the bicycle gang (there are more than one, of course, but I always see this particular one, and recognize certain individuals in that oblivious herd) came rushing around the corner and towards (or away from) their high-powered corporate jobs. After they’d passed, my previously mute and surly dog person turned to me and said, “We refer to those people as the denizens of the Planet Spandex,” and laughed merrily and only a little bit sarcastically.

Besides the bipeds who have accepted me as part of their morning routine, and vice versa, I keep a sharp eye out for wild beasties. Rabbits are among the regulars I greet each morning, but I’ve also seen chipmunks, minks, deer, beavers, gophers, and groundhogs. I wish them all a jovial good day; they don’t tend to respond in kind, but I prefer their distrust and silence. I find it hopeful that wild animals can remain just as they are even as their lives are invaded by aliens, spandex-clad or otherwise.

Alien as we are, to each other and to other animals, it occurs to me that urban dwellers are basically a sub-species of groundhog. The groundhog I saw yesterday was crouched at the side of the trail, angrily munching some morsel he’d just lucked upon and trying to ignore the starlings and seagulls screaming and duking it out all around him. He was furtive and anti-social and would acknowledge me only with an irritated glimpse from the corner of his little eye; it was like walking down any street in this city on any given day. But as I come more and more to adore my suspicious and nervous fellow urban groundhogs, I count it rather as a success when they give me even this much of their time.

groundhog side eye

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara Ellis says:

    Fun post. It reminded me of my father whom I regarded as dreadfully antisocial because he made it a principle never to speak to anyone waiting in a bus queue because it might commit him to talking with them on future occasions. He did not choose to risk being bored, thank you very much.

    1. Colleen says:

      Your father was a very sensible person. The only thing worse than being spoken to at a bus stop is being spoken to on an airplane; then there’s really no escape.

  2. I just started a new job last week. After eight years of thinking $10,000 bikes, were the bike to work on, I decided $500-1000 bikes are better. More importantly the people are better. Cycling excites them and they bring their bikes in when something is really wrong — not their power meter won’t sync with their Garmin and a slight ticking noise every eight miles. Real people who ride bikes.

    1. Colleen says:

      I take it you’re happy in your new workplace–that’s great. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Congratulations! And hurrah for bikes beaten up and beloved.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Minnesotans are very much like the folks in Toronto! I’ve been doing lots of long rides on trails every weekend and I try hard to not be “one of those” cyclists. I warn people when I am coming up behind them, I slow down until it is appropriate to pass, I stop at intersections, etc. I’ve not recognized any regulars out and about but I do notice more cyclists are saying good morning to me which is nice. And when dog walkers are good with their dogs and don’t let them range obliviously over the shared path, I am especially nice to them, say thanks when they reign in their animals and even compliment them on how pretty they are which they always seem surprised about. It’s a really nice community feeling when everyone is considerate.

    1. Colleen says:

      I don’t mind dogs running free on the paths…but I am so generally biased in their favour that I’m willing to compromise on anything. Which is why I would be a terrible dog owner, unless that dog were so placid that it didn’t try to be the alpha and kick my ass all day. :p

      1. Stefanie says:

        Sounds like if you had a dog it would totally be the boss of you! 😉

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