I never saw him outside the barber shop, never met his wife or children, never sat in his home or ate a meal with him. Yet he became a terribly important fixture in my life. Perhaps a lot more important than if we had been next-door neighbors. The quality of our relationship was partly created by a peculiar distance. There’s a real sense of loss in his leaving. I feel like not having my hair cut anymore, though eight feet of hair may seem strange.

Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with a minister and congregation. Or with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, co-workers. Good people, who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways.

— Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

There’s a guy whom I see often at the grocery store, or walking on the street nearby. Skinny, maybe in his fifties or sixties, with a scraggly beard, and always wearing what I think of as a “star-spangled stovepipe” hat. It’s made of felt, with a stars-and-stripes design, perhaps a little more Dr. Seuss than Abe Lincoln. It’s like the sort of novelty hat you might wear on the Fourth of July, only he wears his all year long. I don’t know how long ago I first noticed him, but it was certainly years ago. I see him at least once every few weeks, sometimes more. I’ve never spoken to him, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him speak, but he’s a familiar presence all the same.

He belongs to a class of people which I’m not sure has ever been officially identified. Not friends, and not even acquaintances, but not quite strangers either. They’re like silent acquaintances, or, as I like to think of them, as life extras. People whose role is to walk by in the background while the focus is on the main character, only you notice them in scene after scene. The gym is another place where I encounter these people. There are some folks I’ve seen several days a week for a couple years without ever having a conversation or learning their names. Sometimes we invent names for them, but other times, they appear in the credits only as “That Guy” or “That Girl.” Taken for granted most of the time, I notice them in their absence: “Hey, I haven’t seen That Guy in a while. I wonder where he went?” And, of course, even if I wanted to ask about him, I don’t know any distinguishing details to mention. If I were to see them in a different social setting, I don’t doubt that we would share a nod of acknowledgment and possibly even a few words (“Hey! Fellow gym-goer! How are you?”), but in our normal habitat, we navigate each other’s presences silently and obliquely, as if with sonar. At most, we might engage in the universal sign language for, “Are you using this machine?”

In the gym, at least, my trainer thinks that this phenomenon is largely due to the lamentable (to him) popularity of smartphones and ear buds. Prior to that, he says, you would have been a lot more likely to eventually strike up a conversation with those people. Well, maybe in that specific environment, but as with Mr. Star-Spangled Stovepipe, there’s still space for people to exist in an indeterminate state, both known and unknown.