08/07/2009 09:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Knowing Your Neighbors Even If You Don't Know Them

We've all got them. I'm talking about the neighborhood characters we see regularly, even daily, but whom we never meet, often never even make eye-contact with. They're the people whose presence we begin to take for granted without even realizing that's what we've done. We notice things about them and maybe even begin to worry when we no longer see them, if we no longer see them.

Frequently with this dramatic personae, these bit players, these cameo appearances in the movie of our daily lives, we never know anything about them other that what we see. Sometimes, however, we do come by shards of information that begin to fill in the huge blanks, and that's just happened for me.

I've found out about R. I even discovered R.'s full name but have decided not to use it, because I'm not convinced what I'm about to write isn't some form of privacy invasion. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. R., you see, is an habitue at the Starbucks around the corner from me, a Starbucks I only visit occasionally.

R. sits at the middle table of three in the window facing the avenue. Perched sideways to the window, he doesn't face the avenue. He looks neither right or left but straight ahead, which is to say he faces north. I won't say he stares blankly ahead, because his gaze isn't blank. It's concentrated--on what is something I, of course, can't say.

Every so often, R. leaves his table to smoke a cigarette on the street. When he's indulging that pleasure, he does face the avenue but doesn't appear to be looking at it but rather directing the same concentrated gaze somewhere across the street at, I'd see, approximately second-storey level.

Needless to say, when R. stands on the street in a manner suggesting a gentleman at leisure in his club's smoking room, he offers a more complete view of himself. He's a man in his fifties or sixties, about six feet one or two inches tall and the owner of an imposing bay window. That protruding belly is so girth-y that the polo shirts he usually wears (in the warm weather anyway) often don't have enough material to cover him. He's flashing--if that's in any way an appropriate description--a part of himself to the world.

On finishing his cigarettes--my rough estimate is he downs two or three an hour--he returns to the table he's secured by leaving some belonging on it.

I've never spoken to R. I've never received a direct look from him, although I've shot many at him on the correct (so far) assumption that he won't return my silent inquiry in kind. I just see him all the time and grapple with what to me seems inevitable: speculation on what life must be for someone like him.

No, not for someone like him. For him. What kind of life must he have that affords him no other preoccupation than sitting in Starbucks from morning to night, day after day? Actually, he puts me in mind of William Wordsworth's old Cumberland beggar, someone there to make you grateful for your own life.

Expecting never to know more of him than the little I'd already gathered, I ran into a friend the other day who frequents that very Starbucks for an hour or two several times a week. He's usually drinking coffee while working at his. Although it hadn't occurred to me previously to ask any pertinent R. questions, I suddenly inquired if he'd ever noticed R. I didn't use a name, of course.

I figured he would instantly know the fellow to whom I referred but would also know no more than I did. To my surprise, he could report a few things. "You mean R," he said, giving a complete first name. (Incidentally, I'm not using the correct initial.) "What do you know about him," I asked. "I know he comes in every day from 11 to 3 and then again in the evening. He lives in the house across the street."

My friend was referring to a medium-sized building that housed men with mental disturbances, many of them who sat on the steps in front of the building not saying much to one another. These men did have the blank looks that R. didn't employ and that therefore seemed to differentiate him from them. "His entire life is limited to that short distance," my friend continued. We shook our heads at the somber thought.

Then my friend said something we both found amusing as well as annoying: "The Starbucks staff takes good care of him, but that didn't stop him from writing a letter to the manager saying he wasn't being treated well."

So there's the skinny on that neighbor for you.