Your Friends & Neighbors

Trying to get close with those close by is no easy task

“I have no friends here,” I thought recently.

It was not a sad thought, just a passing one. It came to me as I walked from a cafe to my apartment in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. It was after an acquaintance stopped to tell me what had happened in her life since we last spoke, several years ago, and after I talked to two men sitting on a stoop who just moved here and wanted a restaurant recommendation, and after running into a professor I knew from the gym at the café and, over coffee, hearing about his sabbatical in Paris and telling him about my recent move to New York City and back.

I have friends here of the sort who give me a jolt of pleasure when I run into them and who I have coffee with a couple times a year to catch up. What I miss are the friends you spend hours with, at the movies and dinner, walking and dissembling some meaty topic, arguing over a book or a politician or an artist.

It’s not a partner, spouse, lover or family member I’m talking about here. They may be like a friend, but they’re not your friends. You have a commitment to them through ceremony, blood, shared objects, verbal or written agreements. You can’t blow them off for two years and then get together like it was yesterday.

Don’t get me wrong, I have quite a few close friends. They’re friends from two years ago in NYC to 50 years ago in LA. They include people who came back around after I went through periods of being a total jerk and not going to a wedding or art opening, or concert, or reading, and didn’t call when their parent died, not because I didn’t love them but because I was too self-absorbed to understand how much they meant to me and too young to really get it that humans don’t last forever.

All these friends are big city people and, with a couple exceptions, are in California and New York. I’m a big city person. I think of myself as a New Yorker even though my formative years were in Los Angeles. I moved to NYC when I was in my 20s and everything major happened after that.

In NYC, you leave your apartment and stream along the sidewalks as one anonymous being among the masses. Sometimes you run into a friend, see a neighbor, but a huge percentage of the people around you, you don’t know, and they don’t know you. Meeting another person who sparks your interest, who crosses the divide between stranger and friend is a matter of chance, luck, randomness, and spontaneity multiplied many times over.

In a small town, especially this small elite college town with four more colleges in the area, mostly white people, and a solid middle-class, people congregate in communities of sameness. I’m not sure why. Lawyers hang with lawyers, doctors marry doctors, professors might branch out into the proletariat but eventually circle back to professors, and therapists share offices with their therapist spouse.

When I moved to Northampton from New York City in 2000 with my then-partner and kids, I eventually made acquaintances, but only among the communities that I qualified for — namely lesbians, parents, Jews and gym rats, and any combination of those.

I didn’t quite warm up to anyone enough to call them my friend. I always felt a little too much of an outsider; too “city,” too excessive, lipstick too bright, heels too high, mouth too big. I was in the land of the reserved and polite, formerly of pilgrims, three-cornered hats, buckle shoes and witch burning; puritans, blue bloods and serious poets.

By 2010, I was single, my kids left for college, and I moved back to New York City. I was happily among my old friends. I made new friends with people whom I shared no obvious community — we walked our dogs at the same time, or had a mutual friend, or were crackerjack Lexulous players, or got into a conversation in the park.

Two years later, I couldn’t keep up with the expense of the city. My every breathing moment was spent trying to find freelance editing and writing jobs and personal training clients. I had a lot of work but, damn, the city is expensive. And I started writing a book, which would have given me a bohemian allure … that is, if it was 1955 and I was a 20-year-old.

So I moved back to Northampton and here’s where this story starts.

I’ve decided that I want to make friends I don’t have to drive 3 hours or fly 3,000 miles to see. Maybe I’ll join things, take a class, reach out more to people I like, cut through the pleasantries and ask direct questions. When the spring rolls around and the sun warms frozen New England, I’ll plan to walk every day, for no reason other than to observe, and talk to people, and maybe make a new friend.