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Strangers on the Streets

By Charlotte R. Moses
Charlotte R. Moses ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Cabot House.

I live in a city that’s big, but the sidewalks are small, and I run into people I know more than I would like.

It’s only in a fantasy that these meetings are anything but the worst. My twilight bodega purchases have never revealed unknown commonalities with my neighbor — only Nutella cravings I wish had remained hidden. I have never impressed anyone with my sense of fashion — just depressed them with my weekend sweatsuit. And I have never bumped into a friend with whom I accidentally lost touch – only those ex-friends I had purposefully ghosted.

I didn’t start out a misanthrope. With each of these meetings, I simply grew into it.

Friends would text to tell me that their mother’s brother’s cousin saw me on the street and waved, but that I didn’t wave back. Oh no! I would say. I didn’t see them… (And well, it wasn’t quite a lie. I would see them, and then I would stop at a bus stop or cross the street or stare at my phone to make sure that I really didn’t see them at the moment when they saw me.)

I have learned to avoid people with the best of them.

My city felt bigger and sadder and stranger these last six months — as masks and gloves first became common and then required, restaurants were closed and then opened onto the street, buses and subways were empty and then half full.

I should have run into people I knew more often; I was too caught up with my own errands and the pocket with my Purell and the fit of my mask and the distance between all of us on the now much-too-small sidewalks to scan and evade them. But they were too caught up as well, too caught up to say hello.

Everyone became a stranger. Even acquaintances.

I’ve moved onto campus since then. Now, I live in a city that’s smaller — somehow even the sidewalks are smaller — but I never run into anyone I know.

That feat is not thanks to my finely-honed skills of evasion or even to the preoccupations of a pandemic-era outing. I just don’t really recognize anyone here. To me, most of the Class of 2024 is still quite unknown.

Those I have met are only a disembodied head and shoulders floating in a tiny Zoom square. I recognize their preferred photo background or the placement of that ubiquitous silver dorm lamp in their video frame. I know the headphones they use and how likely they are to start speaking while still on mute. I remember how early they like to enter the Zoom room and how late they like to stay after class asking questions. But none of that niche expertise does me much good on the street.

To recognize someone, even to avoid them, I need answers to more basic questions of identity. How tall are they? What do their clothes look like beyond the shoulders? What backpack or bag do they carry? How do they walk? Or stand? Or talk without a slight transmission lag?

In fact, the other day, I ran into a classmate on the trek back from the Yard. We’ve been working on a project (via Zoom) in and out of class four or five times a week for the past month. I thought that maybe I recognized her. It turns out that she thought that maybe she recognized me. Neither of us said anything. We continued walking right next to each other — as close as good street social distancing etiquette allows — for blocks and blocks. I tried to pass her and avoid the situation altogether, and we made accidental eye contact. She said hello. It was the first time we had ever met in person.

But that experience is an anomaly. Mostly, I walk these streets without recognizing anyone and without anyone recognizing me.

And when I’m walking, and lonely, I miss those spontaneous city meetings. I want to renounce my misanthropic ways. And I’m asking all my classmates to do the same.

Please, students in the Class of 2024, wave to anyone who seems even possibly like another Harvard freshman. (And come on, it’s not that hard to recognize us around here.) Smile really hard, so that your eyes crinkle and your smile can be seen even with a mask. Make eye contact and wave with one hand — or if you’re really feeling the moment, wave with two.

And then, stop — on the street, in the Yard, around Quad lawn. Stop and talk, at least for a second.

Distancing is built into every aspect of life here, and, sometimes, it can feel like isolation is too. But it doesn’t have to be. We can still build community; the first step is actually easy. We just need to say goodbye to the misanthrope in us, and say hello to everyone — please.

Charlotte R. Moses ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Cabot House.

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