Hey, Boston, you can say ‘hello’ on the street

By Laura Everett
Special to WBUR

“HowYaDoinNow?” he said, as if all one word. “Doin’ alright, thanks” I answered. We kept on walking in opposite directions.
Then it happened again, each interaction a variation on a theme: a friendly question and a kind, quick reply.

“Ain’tThisABeautifulDay?” the next person asked. “Yes, it is,” I replied, trying on this new way to walk. A call and response among strangers on the sidewalk, a litany of acknowledgment.

This all happened on a recent work trip to Durham, North Carolina, when I’d gone for a walk in their city. In the 30 minutes I wandered their streets, more strangers spoke to me than had in the last 11 months in Boston.

The contrast was stark. I’m used to moving through my city, earphones in and eyes down. More often than not, I’m also scanning for things that seem unsafe or listening for a catcall. I walked differently in Durham, still cautious but trying on this more interactive way to move on city streets.

I am devoted to Boston. But we have a chip on our shoulders, and most often, a scowl on our faces. In many ways, our sour demeanor is understandable; for starters, we have a transportation system that is failing everyone. It’s hard to be kind when we’ve been sitting in traffic for 57 minutes, need to pick up a kid from school, and just want to be home after a long day.

Boston also has a residual dominant culture of white upper-class formality, competitiveness, and a professed independence that breeds isolation and avoids any interaction that might slow us down. While Boston may be known and celebrated for many things, our friendliness is not one of them.

But acknowledgment in public is more than just friendliness, it’s an affirmation of worth.

On another work trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I walked with a colleague, a black pastor, from a nearby city. Again, we nodded, greeted, spoke to, and engaged ever so briefly each person who passed us on the street.

“This talking to every person is so very different than in the places I’m from,” I said. He stopped and turned to look me directly in the eyes. “Laura,” he said. “I live in a world that seeks to deny my worth, dignity, and safety as a black man every day. We acknowledge one another on the street as an act of defiance and an affirmation.”

I saw it, too, after I got married. My wife and I would be out in public, holding hands, and I witnessed the secret queer head-nod of acknowledgment. With just the slightest pull of the chin upward — a move so subtle that you might miss it — another person signals that you are seen.

And so, I’m trying something new, even here in icy Boston. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God. This is foundational to my beliefs. Why would I not acknowledge them thusly?

My wife jokes that her idea of a good bike commute home is smoking another cyclist in a faux race, while mine is making a new friend on the bike path. Admittedly, I am trained as a pastor to both hold silence and encourage people to talk. But this practice of acknowledgment is different than just chatting up a stranger because you’re an extrovert. Acknowledgment commits us to seeing the dignity and worth in others, even and especially when we are jammed together on a delayed MBTA train.

Acknowledgment is a commitment to justice. I’ve arrived at a place in life where I expect people’s personal behaviors to be consonant with their professed commitments.

Tell me you support the equal rights and dignity of women? Then don’t cut in front of me in the bike lane as we wait for a light. Tell me you reject ableism and see the equal worth of disabled people? Then shovel your sidewalk wide enough for a wheelchair. Tell me you care about those living outside in our city? Then make eye contact and say hello to those experiencing homelessness, and better yet, share a little money.

I’m trying something purposeful and intentional, so that my movements through our city match the commitments in my heart. I am saying hello to strangers. I am nodding to elders. I am laughing with the high schoolers playing around while waiting for the bus. I am trying to unlearn all the icy tendencies I’ve developed over years in New England, because it doesn’t have to be like this. I don’t have to be like this.

A friendlier Boston will not fix the deep and persistent divisions and inequalities in our city. But I’m not really doing this for the betterment of Boston — I’m doing it for me. Acknowledgment is about how I want to show up in the world, and what kind of neighbor I want to be. When I acknowledge others, it changes me.

Now, I begin the call and response, “How you doin’?” The only way I know to “love thy neighbor” is to start by acknowledging that your neighbor exists.

Laura Everett is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. She is the author of “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.” This article was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on Jan. 2. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.