When we moved into our place two years ago, I didn’t know much about our neighbours. It’s a 70s Soviet-era apartment complex of several hundred flats, with a noticeably older population, diluted by a couple of young families and students. I can’t claim that, after two years, I know them that well either. Yes, I say hi to most people I see in the hallway, I small talk with other dog owners when our dogs come nose-to-nose, and I even have had cake with the old lady down the hall. I know that my former hairdresser lives upstairs, and I can identify which car belongs to whom, especially the two cars that I, being a freshly minted driver, scratched not too long after we moved in. But I don’t really know much about the people. Neither do I spend a lot of time pondering their ways, with a few exceptions.
As I was walking my dog on one of the colder November nights, I saw a guy lying on his back on the sidewalk under one of the arches that connect separate sections of my gargantuan building. The light was dim, but his face was lit by the phone he held in his left hand as he was… doing crunches. A passerby, a neighbour from a different section of the building perhaps, approached him with a concerned “is everything alright?”, which was met with a sigh followed by an annoyed “I’m fine”. Of course, the guy was fine. He was just doing his thing, only that day, the thing involved doing crunches in sub-zero temperatures.
The reason I didn’t approach him was that I had recognised him. I’d seen him before, doing all sorts of weird exercises in the pitch-dark area by the lonely basketball hoop. The first time, probably not long after we moved in, that I saw him, he was shadowboxing in the dark, wearing an oversized sports jacket. I must admit, it freaked me out a little. I kept my distance and kept him in my peripheral field of vision, grasping my massive keychain (which probably still has the key to the place we rented three years ago), and plotting escape routes. It wasn’t the fact that the guy was exercising at night that unsettled me, but the combination of location, attire, time of day, and type of exercise.
Since that first encounter, I have seen him many times. I don’t think I’ve ever said hello to him, because A) he’s usually busy with something intense; B) unfortunately, in Lithuania, not saying hello is the norm. He doesn’t freak me out anymore, although I still can’t figure out his routine. It usually involves long stretches of standing in the darkest corner of the former basketball court interrupted by bouts of shadowboxing. And, as I have witnessed this winter, sidewalk crunches in the cold.
I grew to admire the guy, not only because his physique is surprisingly good, but also because he’s just there, doing his thing, no matter what. Admittedly, there might be better places for an ab routine than the sidewalk by our building, but that’s not the point. The guy probably knows that others might find his choices weird, hence the annoyance at the passerby that just wanted to help, but he sticks to those choices any way.
He doesn’t seem to care what others might think, while many of us second-guess even the most mundane things. Some can’t imagine going to dinner alone (“What if someone thinks I’m a loser?”). Others avoid showing even the tiniest bit of personality, in fear of rejection or judgment. There’s the extreme end, of course. The eccentrics, who want their every move and choice to subvert, surprise and confuse. I’m not a huge fan of people who weaponise their eccentricity and turn it into a way of elevating themselves above the NPCs, the normies, the human plankton. But the guy shadowboxing in the dark is a reminder that you can just do your thing and the world won’t fall apart. On the contrary, it becomes a slightly more interesting place to live in for the rest of us.