i don't know if the city made me an introvert or if i was born that way. but new york's custom of treating strangers like strangers suits my penchant for privacy.
my desire for solitude comes under assault during lunch hour, when entering one of chinatown's crowded restaurants i am asked if i will share a table. while i like eating in a communal atmosphere about as much as i like standing next to an un-showered straphanger during rush hour, i say yes-lest i be seen as anti-social. led to a large round table, my dining partners will be staring straight ahead, with eyes that threaten to propel icicles. to discourage any talkative customers i lock my gaze onto my newspaper, with all the intensity of a teenager peering at pornography.
sometimes i will be seated next to a tourist, who will penetrate my defenses by nauseatingly saying, "hi!" with a big smile. "you talking to me?" i want to ask, with dinero-like menace. but instead i will weakly say "hi," hoping that my unenthusiastic tone conveys the right message.
my quest for anonymity extends to my apartment building, where i have lived for 25 years. the building has several veteran tenants, with whom i have developed stock conversation topics.
"the republicans won't give obama a break," i'll say, riding the elevator with patrick, a fervent democrat, who has been in the building longer than i have.
or i'll say, "the yankees need pitching," when i see mark, my baseball-crazed next-door-neighbor of 15 years.
but most of the tenants are relative newcomers. i will acknowledge them with a perfunctory "hi," but nothing more.
a few months ago a married couple moved onto my floor. the first time we crossed paths in the hallway, i was startled when they approached me.
"we're your new neighbors! this is bill and i'm donna."
they were in their 20s and had just moved from seattle. they had two pugs who would playfully jump on me in the elevator.
bill and donna were incredibly cheery, but not sickeningly so. i found their naiveté charming, and romanticized the idea of these newlyweds embracing their big-city adventure. i liked running into them, so i could hear their thoughts about their adopted home.
"there are so many people on the trains!" donna once said to me, as we headed toward the subway.
outside new york, friendliness between neighbors is expected. and during a recent visit to my college-buddy neil in indianapolis, i found that this familiarity can be carried to breathtaking extremes.
i went with neil and his wife to a neighborhood party. neil's wife left early, and he asked if she needed their house keys.
"i'm going with hillary. she has our keys."
"why does your neighbor have your keys?" i asked neil, incredulously. "we all have each others keys," he said-as if he had never watched a news interview where the neighbors of someone caught with bodies buried beneath his house talk about how he seemed like a regular guy.
obviously i could never live in indianapolis, as it is filled with the type of people who introduce themselves while eating in chinatown. the constant rush of friendly strangers would be as disconcerting to me as new york's crowded subways are to people like donna.
soon after returning from indianapolis i saw my building's super, ernie, in my hallway.
"problem on the floor?" i asked.
"the couple with the pugs moved out, so we're getting the apartment ready for the next tenant."
i felt sad and a bit insulted. i couldn't understand why they left without at least saying good-bye. -- ben krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the upper east side.