They are different. They stand out a little or a lot. They may be “eccentric”. Or they may have some mental challenges that cause them to always be way outside the “normal” box.
When I was a kid, we had Mr. Bender who always wore a bowler hat and was seen regularly being dragged down the street in our town by his huge german shephard. He always tipped his hat at ladies and mumbled some jibberish that could only be interpreted as suggestive. You could also catch glimpses of him in other towns, without his dog, attempting to get a ride back home by shuffle dancing around, bowing, waving and tipping his hat while hitchhiking. I suppose someone from our neighborhood would drive him there and drop him off. I think he was mostly alone. I don’t remember seeing him much with other people…other than when he got a ride. We had a few other characters, but most were not as colorful as Mr. Bender. It was a small town.
Living in an urban neighborhood as an adult, we have plenty of characters. “Running lady” who always wears braided pigtails, bright red lipstick and runs to the bus stop as well as home from the bus stop…not because she’s late for something. It’s just what her body or mind tells her to do. “Yelling guy” who rides a bike in cowboy boots and yells at imaginary people. The old guy in the dark grey suit and fuzzy grey white hair and beard that shuffles around mumbling. These are the characters that really stand out.
But there are others that you may not think of as characters. The guy with the tattooed head who could always be spotted pushing a double stroller. The cyclist that rides to and from work each day pulling his dog behind him in a laundry basket on a trailer. The neighbor that is always organizing stuff, attending neighborhood meetings or passing out fliers. The super friendly clerk at the game store or the owner of the BBQ joint with the distinctive voice that stands in the doorway and talks to everyone.
These people are filling an important role in a community. They add to its identity. They create common experiences and knowledge that can shared by members of the community. “You know the yelling guy?” “Yes! He rides by our house all the time!”
They enrich our daily experience while we are moving through our day and along our familiar paths to work, to school, to the store. Our communities are not only the buildings, streets, and parks that create the spaces we occupy but the people that create the energy and the color of our experience. Without them, our experience might not be as colorful.
I have to say, they all make me smile. Some make me sad. On any given day I can be reminded of the fragility of the human brain. I can appreciate their creativity and ingenuity. I can be fed by their friendliness. I can admire their authenticity. I appreciate that range of emotions they spur in me.
I had a sister with Down’s Syndrome that died when she was only three. But I think of her. And I think that had she lived to be a somewhat independent adult, I would have wanted her to live in a community where she could walk to stores to get what she needed and ride the bus. But most importantly, I would have wanted her to live somewhere where people would know her, recognize her and say hello to her. She may have been a neighborhood character, because she would have been noticeably different and I imagine she would probably have been very social and said hello to everyone.
I appreciate that my children get to experience this with me. They have grown up knowing that there are SO many different kinds of people…no one is weird just because they do things differently. It’s ok to be just who you are. I am so thankful for that gift.
One of the underlying reasons a community has or does not have characters is housing. If a community has all different kinds of housing options… large, small, affordable, not so affordable, condos, single family, apartments, group options, rooms for rent, or ‘mother in law’ apartments …a wider variety of people can live there. A mix of uses is another key. Shops, restaurants, library, post office, bus stops, grocery stores, services within walking distance can support a wider variety of people…with and without cars. A walkable, mixed use neighborhood is not just a trendy idea for coffee shops and sidewalk cafes. This gets people out into the world. Young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled… Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience each other.
And we wouldn’t experience our neighborhood characters. They would be in cars. Or somewhere else.
I would love to hear about the characters in your community!