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Connections

The case for making eye contact in a digital world

Belonging to the community where we live means looking up and really seeing each other.

illustration by lily padula for the boston globe

When my husband and I moved to Teele Square, one condition in choosing a home was that it be along a commercial route so that I wouldn’t feel afraid walking alone at night. Several times a week, I descend Holland Street to Davis Square to catch the Red Line or a yoga class at Samara or a session at The Burren.

By now, I’ve surely thumped that sidewalk 600 times, passing Dave’s and Nellie’s and Renee’s along the way — though as far as I know, I’ve never set eyes on Dave or Nellie or Renee. I also pass the House of Tibet Kitchen. I doubt I would have ever noticed it were it not for the cook, Gyeltsen, who often sits on the stoop smoking and smiling at passersby.

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Making eye contact on the street is something I work at. I say “work” because my tendency toward shyness counteracts my desire to connect. It’s always easier not to look up, but I’m trying to put a stake in the ground for an old world where we knew our neighbors and it mattered that we acknowledge one another.

Connecting on the street is increasingly rare, if not impossible, given all the earbuds and phone screens barring the way. But the first time I passed him, Gyeltsen looked up with a smile and a nod. From then on, we exchanged this silent blessing: I see you and I am glad you are there.

Perhaps as long as a year later, we added some words. He would say, “Hi, how are you?” to which I would say, “I’m fine,” whether or not it was true. Within a few paces, however, I inevitably would be.

My steps would slow, and I would try to preserve the contact even after I’d passed him, but I never stopped. It never felt right. We were strangers. I had somewhere to be. There wasn’t time. It wasn’t appropriate. What if it got awkward? I feared losing this gentle sunbeam on my day.

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Then, last year, my beloved cat died and normal life screeched to a halt. The blow knocked me down (it still does, sometimes), and when I stood back up, I felt the wind rushing through my cracked shell.

The next time I approached Gyeltsen, he put out his hand. It was almost choreography: I slowed, stopped, and took it. It felt like leather in the sun. We held hands and talked about small things and how beautiful the day was. I learned that he was born in Tibet and fled to India before winning a visa to come here.

These days, people are captivated by our new wirings. But what about the old ones, those we’ve ripped out for being antiquated and inefficient in our upgrade-happy, disposable-everything world? In our fervor to hook into every spot on earth, we have unhooked from the very patch on which we stand.

In the House of Tibet, I nibble Tse-Ril Noomtak and Shogo Ngoepa and sip Gamuk Dangzi Ja while watching the summer-kissed locals hoof by in their flip-flops and T-shirts. Hardly anyone looks up into these windows. PJ Ryan’s, on the corner, sees most of the activity on this block.

While I eat, I wonder: Why am I here? Why do any of us frequent the restaurants that we do? Even when eateries excel in food, service, and ambience, few of us are deeply loyal. We like variety and flexibility. We are drunk on choice.

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I am here because my friend is cooking. In many parts of the world still (as it was for us, at one time), food is ultimately about the people. If I can drive, fly, or Skype to friends and family anywhere on the planet, what, then, does it mean anymore to belong to a place?

Rachel Greenberger teaches food systems and entrepreneurship at Babson College. Send comments to connections@globe.com.


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