The small ad agency where I work has a full kitchen, complete with—quite improbably—gas stove. Mostly, though, people use the microwave, the coffee maker and the big, communal fridge.
The other morning my colleague Matt asked if he could mooch a little milk from me for his coffee. He then said he was always doing that, borrowing stuff or even occasionally filching it [the former is fine with me, the latter drives me nuts]. I told him our styles were just different. When he brings food in, his philosophy is “what’s mine is yours.” I never take him up on it, though, because, as I told him, my philosophy [at least regarding communal fridges] is “good fences make good neighbors.”
That led to a discussion of the Robert Frost poem I had referenced and Matt had picked up on, Mending Wall, which of course led to us looking it up online and reading it. It was as wonderful as I’d remembered it to be. I’ll include it in its entirety below, so stick around.
The poem talks about two different ways of looking at life—one open, the other private, turned inward. It also talks about the walls we put up between ourselves and others. When the narrator of the poem questions the need for the stone wall he and his neighbor are repairing between their rural New England properties, the neighbor simply answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Besides reminding me yet again of the simple beauty of Frost’s writing, the poem also got me thinking about how, on some levels, “good fences” make urban living work as well as it does.
I live in Chicago and, like in New York, our subways and els can be packed, especially at rush hour. Once my brother was visiting me from small town Mississippi, and he took the el with me down to my office one morning. He expressed surprise later that all these people were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train and nobody spoke to anyone else. Living in a place where everyone says “Hey” to people on the street—sometimes even people they don’t know—it seemed cold and unfriendly to him.
To me, though, it is just creating one’s own private space in very crowded conditions—and respecting the privacy and boundaries of others. And it’s what makes this kind of situation work. Riders adopt the 1,000-yard stare or read or pop in the earbuds and the “good fences” go up. Even in this most public of situations, they can retreat into their own privacy—precisely because their fellow riders have, for the most part, signed off on the same unwritten contract to respect those fences.
And it’s not that people never speak or acknowledge one another. Delayed or stopped trains will start a buzz, for instance. I’ve gotten into conversations over what someone was reading. And once, when a fellow passenger took the whole privacy thing a little too far, hauling out an electric razor and shaving, another passenger made eye contact with me and mimed brushing his teeth, causing us both to smile, nod and roll our eyes. But all these are moments of genuine contact, however fleeting and casual, rather than enforced cordiality. I have spent a lot of time in small towns, watching relatives offer up a friendly “Hey” to someone passing by in the name of small town politeness, only to follow it up with a muttered scurrilous aside to me about that person’s character, lack of good sense or some other grievous shortcoming.
The subway isn’t the only place “good fences” come into play in urban living. A friend was recently in Shanghai for work and was amazed by the constant crush of people everywhere and the attendant reduced personal space. If you were walking too slowly on the sidewalk, someone would gently touch your shoulder, a sign to move aside and let that person pass. This scene is repeated thousands of times a day, and no one gets upset or takes it as an invasion of privacy. Nor is it cause for greetings or conversation—it is simply how this many people get where they are going in such a confined space.
And in New York, with its astronomical real estate prices, stores are typically designed with narrower aisles. As a New York magazine article on the Duane Reade drugstore chain put it, New Yorkers are more tolerant than most people of the “butt bump”—someone brushing past you in a crowded space.
Which is not to say the fences don’t come down, even in the big city. On one visit to New York, Marion and daughter Laurel were in the Sephora store on Broadway on the upper west side. I was standing outside, enjoying the cool morning air and the passing scene. I had my can of Diet Pepsi in one hand and Laurel’s Coke in the other. A young woman hurrying by glanced my way, made eye contact and smiled. Pointing at the soda cans, she said, “So which one tastes better? Haha! Just kidding!” I smiled back and nodded, and she continued on her way. It all happened much faster than the telling of it, human connection for just an instant. I’ll take that kind of connection over an enforced “Hey” any day.
And now, the Robert Frost poem that sparked this whole diatribe.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me—
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
About photographer Travis Ruse
In December 2004, New York photographer Travis Ruse began what he planned as a one-year project, to photograph his daily subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and post one photograph of each day’s commute on his blog. With occasional breaks here and there, he actually continued the project into June 2007, posting 684 images in all. Together, they form a glorious mosaic of New Yorkers and that quintessential daily New York experience, riding the subway. Ruse’s project has been written about in the New York Times and exhibited at Redux Gallery in Manhattan. It has also caused my inner New Yorker countless pangs of longing.