A Whole Neighborhood of Half-Strangers / by Karie Luidens

It’s official: these are my last few weeks living in Seattle. By mid-October I’ll be repacking my intrepid vehicle with all my worldly belongings and relocating for the second time in as many years, this time to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Land of Enchantment! Green chile, pueblo architecture, dazzlingly sunny winter skies—I’m already giddy and I haven’t even hit the high altitude yet.

But I’m also sorry to be leaving Seattle so soon. Despite acting like a constant tourist ever since I arrived, I’m still getting acquainted with the city, and as I walk the blocks around my apartment I have to wonder: am I still an outsider here? Have I made real local connections in the year and a half after arriving?

My conclusion: yes and no. I live in a whole neighborhood of half-strangers.

Who do I know nearby? There’s the guy at the grocery checkout who always high-fives me when he checks my ID and discovers, again, that we have the same birthday. I don’t know his name, but I know that he likes to break into a song about how cool it is to be a Taurus. In turn, he knows next to nothing about me except, if he’s attentive, my eating habits. (Lots of strawberries, spinach, and chicken, but also a penchant for whiskey and whipped cream.)

After I’ve high-fived my fellow May-baby and bagged my groceries, I know I’ll pass the man who begs on the corner. He looks nice enough, just worn down by the decades, pressed into a standing slouch in the same spot day in and day out. He always glances up and asks for spare change; I always reply with a shrug and a guilty half-smile: no change, I pay by card. At least I try to catch his eye and offer a hello each time. That’s as much as we’ll ever talk, so I’ll never know his story, but he may have gathered a bit about me by watching where I walk: I tend to head to the library on my lunch break and hit the grocery store right before cooking dinner. With all that path-crossing we exchange nods so often that in my mind he’s as much of a neighbor as the others living in my building across the street.

And even they are strangers. The walls between our units are thick and we keep our doors closed. It’s only when I head down the hallway, grocery bags in hand, that I hear a cat yowling in the apartment next to mine and a TV on across the hall. I wonder what my neighbors know of me from bits of audio evidence caught in passing—do they know that I listen to NPR while I cook? That I can’t watch a TV show without singing along to the opening theme? That’s more than I know of them: I’ve only ever talked with my neighbors when we’ve bumped into each other while emptying hampers into coin-operated washing machines. We haven’t exchanged names, just made tight chit-chat while ignoring each other’s dirty laundry.

If anyone in my neighborhood can be said to really know me—to have a sense of my soul, my personality beyond pleasantries—it’d have to be the local librarians. They’re the ones who receive the materials I request and shelve them with tags printed on receipt paper: LUID, KAR. If they pay attention to my patterns, they know I like memoir and literary fiction, and that I recently (finally) watched the Die Hard series.

Of course, my librarians may have noticed none of this. The same can be said for the neighbors and the beggar on the corner. The guy at the grocery checkout must not remember me if he repeats his Taurus bit each time we meet. He probably high-fives every twelfth customer, brightening his own workday without bothering to keep their faces from blurring.

The neighborhood doesn’t seem like much of a community, does it?

Perhaps it’s fitting that the local alt newspaper I pick up while running these errands is The Stranger. It’s available in unlocked metal boxes that dot the main road every few blocks. It’s also stacked by the dozen on the library’s counter—it’s everywhere. We take it for granted. We take it for free. It provides fresh content every week, but the editorial voice is comfortingly consistent, even predictable. It’s a little anonymous, but not unfriendly. I think that captures the spirit of my neighborhood. It is a community of sorts, if only in the way readers of a newspaper are connected by shared ideas and experiences despite never speaking directly to one other.

Despite the fact that we’re still half-strangers, in an odd way I know I’ll miss these people when I move. After all, when it comes to the grocery clerk and the begging man and the librarians and me, we do more than just exist in urban proximity. Our lives intertwine with each day’s transactions: we feed each other and stock each other’s bookshelves; we share sidewalks, walls, and washer-dryers. A couple hundred smiling hellos have added up in my mind over sixteen months. I may not know my neighbors’ names, but I’ve grown attached to their participation in my routines. I’ve developed a certain fondness for them.

And I’ll never know for sure, but maybe when I disappear from their routines, a handful of others will notice my absence and miss me too.

As for you, my anonymous community of invisibly linked readers, see you next month in sunny Albuquerque.