One hundred and seventy-six

The friendly neighbour

If someone walked by you in the street, smiled and said “good afternoon”, what would you think?  How would you react?  In the suburbs where I grew up, or a small town, you would smile back at them and say something nice.  In Toronto, though, everyone lives in their own bubble and are usually in a rush.  Rarely does someone look you in the face as they walk by.  Or they are talking on their cell phone or listening to their iPod.  The people who do say hello are usually tourists, crazy or want something from you.

I am just as bad a culprit as anyone else here.  I don’t like making small talk with the bank teller.  I hate when people are walking slow and in my way when I’m trying to get somewhere.  I usually have my headphones in.  I’m suspicious of what people want from me when they say hello or start to approach me.  I’m not proud of this, but living in cities most of my life has made me this way.

They say it takes less energy to smile than it does to frown and that smiling releases endorphins, natural pain killers and serotonin which changes our mood for the better and makes us feel good.  So, if this is the case, then we should all be smiling more and being friendlier to the people we encounter in the city every day.


Parkdale is a largely working-class area of Toronto, with a number of low-income apartments, new immigrants, artists and young professionals.  There are quite a few boarding houses for out-patients with mental illnesses.  The main street is becoming a place to hang out for young people because of the large amount of bars, cafes, shopping and restaurants that have come to the area over the past few years.  It is an eclectic group of people who live, work and walk the streets of my neighbourhood – yes, this is where I live and I love Parkdale.

But it is not somewhere where you talk to people on the street.  If they aren’t crazy, they will think you are crazy, or they are suspicious of your motives.  And that is why I spent the day walking the area, smiling, saying hello and trying to make contact with my neighbours.  These were some of the reactions I got:

  • “Do you have a cigarette?” he asked me, when I smiled at the man who always hangs out at the end of my street.
  • Most people kept their eyes down so I couldn’t even catch their eye to smile at them.
  • I walked past a day camp and smiled at the kids, then stopped because I realized I might look creepy doing that.
  • Most men reacted like I was trying to hit on them.
  • Most women looked at me strangely.
  • A lady with her boyfriend gave me an evil look.  I’m not trying to pick up your boyfriend!
  • I tried to catch a man’s eye as I walked by him, but he was starring at my chest!
  • Not one person smiled back at me.

It was really hard, but actually made me feel great.  The smiling did brighten my day.  And I really observed who my neighbours are.  But it did make me sad.  Why are we all so suspicious of each other?  What happened to community?  Or is community now defined differently than where you live?  Do I just need to accept that unless there is some familiarity, I will not get a smile from a stranger?