Saturday, November 29, 2008

Morning Regulars

How much do you know about the people around you? I don’t mean your colleagues at work, but what about the people living next door to you? Or the people that you interact with on a daily basis?

I grew up in a suburb south of San Francisco. It was a wonderful neighborhood and community. We knew all of our neighbors, we knew the people walking down the street with their dog, and the kids riding their bikes around. Parents knew each other. My friend’s younger brother might be in the same grade as my younger sister. Their older sister would have been our babysitter. We were all interconnected.

When I moved to San Francisco, it all changed. Not only did I know longer know my neighbors, but I was living by myself, and I felt more cautious. I’m lucky, I generally feel extremely safe in my neighborhood, but I still don’t let down my guard, and have to remember that it is a city. And things are just a little different.

I found myself thinking about this a few weeks ago when I was waiting in line to cast my vote in the elections. (There sure is a price for civic duty—lines at voting booths were long that day as it was one of the highest voter turnouts in history!)

In any case, I found myself looking at the people in line—they were all in my precinct, which meant they all lived nearby. Since I live in a pretty high density neighborhood, it meant that everyone in that line was literally living within a few blocks away from me (as there were 2 other voting stations within blocks!). And yet, not one familiar face. It was odd to me how little we know about the people around us.

After I voted (or Ba’rocked the vote if you will), I headed up the little hill and stood waiting for the cable car (some days I walk, some days I take the bus, but when I can, I enjoy taking the cable car to work. It’s early enough so none of those pesky tourists are on and it really is the most enjoyable way to get to work!). I looked around me. Now here were my many familiar faces. The school crossing guard lady that I see every morning. She was talking away to the kids and parents. The lady walking up to the corner restaurant, unlocking and opening her doors and beginning her long day. Then there was the guy that ran the corner liquor/grocery store. He was outside smoking, smiling at his regulars walking by—including a nod and smile to me as I walked by. I looked across the street and who did I see? My cable car buddy. An older gentleman that’s on the same schedule I am, and almost always on the my cable car I’m on when I take it to work. Always with briefcase in one hand, and book in the other. And always a serious look on his face.

I didn’t know any of their names, and they don’t know mine, but I see all of these people virtually every day. In some creepy way, there’s something comforting about that. It’s not a suburb. It’s not the type of place where you do know every one of your neighbors. But yet, every morning, I could count on these people being there.

As I got on the cable car, I thought about the conductor I haven’t seen in weeks now. He’s my favorite. Really smiley and talkative. He grew up in the Mission neighborhood, and has since moved out to Alamo. He’s got kids (a son and a daughter) and his parents still live in the same house that he grew up in. He’s great. He’s literally held the cable car in the middle of the street waiting for me when he seems me half way down the block walking up. He knows the stop I get off at. And when ever I’m leaving and we’re saying good-bye, he always leaves us with “Bye, have a good day kids. See you all tomorrow, now don’t be late!” I never had to take a school bus to school, but I’d imagine this is what it would be like. He’s great. Oh, what’s his name you ask? No clue.

Well, I have been secretly fearing that he was gone. Retired. Or off the route. Or what if something happened to him? It had been weeks since I’d seen him. So on this morning, as I was thinking so much about my neighbors and ‘morning regulars’, I asked the other conductor about him (also a guy I see regularly, and ummm, yes, also another guy who’s name I don’t’ know!) After he finally realized who I was talking about (I guess not having the name didn’t help), he said, “Oh! Just on vacation, he’ll be back next week!” Phew!!

Cheerfully walking down the street, I was excited that I’d be seeing my regular conductor next week. Next week—I’ll learn his name.

As I continued on my short walk to work, I realized. There were ‘morning regulars’ everywhere! The doormen of the three hotels I walk by each morning—all of them always wave or smile at me. The guy that opens up the doors to the convenience store by the tunnel, so cheerful always! And what about the maintenance guy at the French church/school? He’s always outside sweeping or cleaning the steps and sidewalk with a hose—he’ll see me walking down the hill from a distance and stop the watering so I don’t get wet, and then smile and say “Good Morning”. Every time.

Speaking of ‘morning regulars’—what about the most important one of all? Your Starbucks barista! We all have our local, corner Starbucks (or ten or twenty), and at mine, I have a favorite barista. He knows my name. He knows my drink (grande soy chai on a cold day, grande non fat iced latte on a hot day). He greets me by name, and is always smiling.

A few months ago, I was going in for my coffee and after he handed me my order, he told me, “Today’s my last day.” I literally stopped in my tracks. WHAT?? How could this be? What would I do without him? He excitedly told me that Apple had recruited him and hired him to be a manager of one of their new stores they were opening. Wow. Good for him. With his fantastic customer service, Apple was lucky to have him (I’ve been a fan of Apple for a while—but ever since their public support and generous contribution to the NO on Prop 8 campaign, I kind of have an even greater love for them.) I wished him luck, and as I walked out, I realized. All these months, and all these conversations, I didn’t even know his name. How rude of me! I was only comforted in that I saw him on his last day and hadn’t decided to skip my Starbucks indulgence that morning. Otherwise, I would have never even have known what happened to him.

Most people I know have some type of routine. Whether it’s a morning routine in getting out the door for work, or that yoga class Monday nights that they love to go to, or even that meandering path to the Bart station to avoid the pesky pigeons, everyone’s got some type of routine at some point of the day. Something. If you’re paying enough attention, you’ll realize, you see a lot of the same people around you. They may not be people you have an actual interaction with, or you may just make small talk with them.

But regardless, would it be so bad if we all took a little bit more time to get to know the people around us? Could we create a better sense of neighborhood in some of these high density city neighborhoods? Don’t tell me we’re really that busy and can’t take an extra minute to say hello to someone. Why not start by learning their name?

Me? I’m going to vouch to start with my cable car conductors. If a man can back up traffic for me and keep the cable car waiting for me, I should at least know his name, right??

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