THE BLOG
11/24/2014 10:01 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

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It took about two years before Francis cracked a smile with me. He's in his late 50s or early 60s, Caribbean accent, grey afro, permanent scowl. I see him, depending on my work schedule -- I am a freelance costume designer -- sometimes as often as five times a week. He's the guy who cuts my fabric at the discount store in South Philadelphia.

Here's what I know now about Francis: He moved to the U.S. after his wife persuaded him to leave Barbados. Less than a year later, she died after a brief and unexpected battle with cancer. That was over 20 years ago. He still works at the fabric store. He hasn't married again.

For most of my relationship (yes, I use the term "relationship") with Francis, I didn't know any of this. I knew that I wanted 5 yards of chiffon and 10 yards of braided trim, and I wanted to pay with my debit card, and I was in a hurry. I knew not to place my bolts of fabric on the cutting table, because it irritated him to have his workspace cluttered. I knew that the hard way: I had done it myself, unthinkingly, on more than one occasion, and suffered the scowl and the finger jab at the sign in Sharpie marker: Please keep your items off the cutting table.

The moment it changed was the day that two women ahead of me in line spent 20 minutes placing their items on his table, disregarding the sign asking them not to do that very thing, blatantly ignoring his silent and then vocal requests to clear his workspace. They reduced him to invisibility in that way that is so commonplace in the world of everyday transaction and customer service: a refusal to acknowledge the presence of the people who make our daily lives possible. I could see Francis shutting down, his scowl deepening, his eyes becoming sharp and dagger-like, as he silently cut their fabric anyway. The two women continued their conversation, texted their friends, offhandedly snapping specifications in his direction without once deploying phrases like "please" or "thank you."

By the time it was my turn, I began my transaction with a loud, pointed, "Hey, Francis. How's it going today?" One of the women ahead of me, who was checking her receipt, turned around, suddenly aware of her surroundings. It was just a brief moment, and perhaps I am projecting, but the look on her face was powerful -- a combination, I think, of awareness, guilt, and shame.

I purchased my items. I thanked him and wished him a nice day.

As I left, I paused on the stairs. The radio was playing a Katy Perry song, in heavy rotation on the pop charts at the time. To this day, I can't hear the chorus of "Baby, you're a firework," without picturing it tunelessly sung by a grey-haired man rolling elastic back into a cardboard tube. The slight smile on his face felt like a private victory. Something so seemingly basic -- acknowledging that the person on the other side of the counter had a name, and taking three seconds to ask how his day was going -- had an effect. I can see now, in retrospect, how that moment was a tiny stepping stone to building an actual relationship. It took another few months of greeting him by name and inquiring about his day before he began to remember my name, and smile when I walked in the door.

I took this past summer off from designing costumes and therefore had no need to purchase fabric. When I walked back in the store after several months' absence, I was greeted like an old friend. "Where have you been? It is so good to see you!"

It was a wonderful feeling.

There's an earworm from my childhood that, I imagine, is familiar to anyone raised on a diet of public television and Sesame Street:

"These are the people in your neighborhood, your neighborhood, your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day."

It's a fallacy of our modern lives to assume that the concept of a "neighborhood" only encompasses a select group of people: our actual neighbors, our coworkers, our family, our partners. In truth, our neighborhoods are vastly more sprawling and interconnected than we frequently choose to acknowledge. My neighborhood is a vast network of taxi drivers, the guy who delivers my pizza, the cashiers at the mall, the baristas at my favorite coffee shops, the woman at the dryc leaners, the bartenders at my local dive, the voice on the other end of the customer service hotline, the custodians at the theaters where I work.

It's so easy to self-select out of this concept in the age of the cell phone, when you can opt to focus on a curated Facebook feed rather than the person bagging your groceries. It's easier to pretend that the person pouring your coffee or toasting your bagel is merely an extension of their specific function -- a bagel-toasting, coffee-pouring machine barely distinguishable from the toasters or the percolators themselves. It certainly makes it easier to skimp on the tip when you view the world this way. It's much easier to behave badly when you only need worry about offending a toaster, not an actual human being.

I'm not arguing that every encounter with another human requires a significant emotional investment; I don't think that's a particularly useful way to navigate the world, either. Not every person you meet will become your trusted soulmate; the real world is not the stuff of quirky small-town fantasies or of Sesame Street's singing muppets.

But since I made the commitment to engage with my neighbors in a more honest and connected manner, I genuinely believe that the quality of my life has improved. I tip better. I smile more often. I'm greeted with a smile more often. I remember that my barista is named Frankie, my bartender is named Jonny, the cashier at the craft store is Cathy, and the guy who delivers my pizza is Anthony. Aimee, who runs the shoe repair place, has a tremendous laugh. Dwayne, the facilities manager in the building that houses my office, is an amateur photographer with a soft spot for donuts. And Francis, as it turns out, has a real fondness not only for Katy Perry, but also Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift.

I forget sometimes. I occasionally need the reminder: Put the cell phone away. Make eye contact. Make small talk, but don't force it. Read the signals of those around you, in their body language, in their demeanor. Say please, and thank you. Tip well, or don't go out to eat.

Smile. At the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day.