Just as with plants, it takes time to cultivate neighbors

I'M no snob when it comes to foliage. I think real greenery feels and smells better than fake, but if you only need shrubbery to hide the fact that your urban wasteland is the least natural environment possible, then go with the plastic. I won't care, and you won't have to care for a living thing.

There are those who have substantial beefs with plastic plants. They often like gardening or have developed aesthetic tastes. I'm in neither category. Sure, I'd rather people planted real trees and flowers — for the environment's sake as much as anything else. Plastic takes oil to produce, while real plants breathe out oxygen. But why plant a real plant if you're just going to let it die? That's even more depressing than a gaily-colored plastic dahlia.

I assume my apartment building's owner or manager put out fake potted plants instead of real potted plants to save on maintenance. The plants appeared, as most improvements here do, without warning or explanation.

I discovered one day that the mailboxes had locks and another that the black door was white. Our building's manager, Jorge, doesn't speak the best English, so I shy from trying to clarify the schedule of cosmetic upgrades.

Perhaps I should mention at this point that, a year ago, this building was an elder-care home. We moved in after the renovation, but you can tell, once you see the huge elevators, that human freight once had to move up and down these floors.

Every so often an elevator decides to stop at a floor other than the one I picked. Paint and plants we get, but the elevator can wait.

So, a few days ago, my husband and I noticed the new potted plants outside. We checked the one nearest the door and verified its fakeness. And then, a few days later, we left the building together and noticed Jorge watering one of the new plants.

We exchanged a look. Then we looked at the scene for a second time. Then we glanced at each other again.

"He has to know those are fake, right?" we whispered to each other once we'd gotten out of earshot. "I mean, he put them there! Does he know? Should we tell him?"

I decided to say nothing to Jorge. The language barrier didn't stop me as much as the absurdity barrier did.

That night, I felt a few plants again. Still fake. I told a neighbor about the watering when I saw her in the foyer.

"I think some of them are real. And maybe he was washing it," she suggested.

I don't remember her name or what apartment she inhabits. Apartment buildings, in New York especially, don't encourage neighborliness.

We keep the noise down, we don't contribute to vermin problems and we push misdelivered mail under our neighbors' doors. That's being neighborly — leaving people alone.

But we still say "hello" and "how are you" in the foyer and try to remember names and warn each other about the elevator. I can't decide whether that's polite or fake or both.

I miss real neighbors, like the ones my parents had in Pennsylvania. But growing those friendships takes a lot of work.

I work a full-time job, I take classes, I barely see my husband and I need my "Colbert Report." Why plant friendships that I don't have time to water? And if all this chitchat in the elevator is merely pleasantries, the outward facade of neighborliness, then why should I reach out to people who don't want me in their lives? Why water a plastic tree?

I know a little about my neighbors from the evening sounds I hear in the hall when I'm walking home from work.

In the morning people don't make noise, and our apartment's walls seem surprisingly thick. But they cook great-smelling dinners and they watch TV and one apartment has a baby. I think the mom once told me it's a girl. I want to cheer that baby up whenever I hear it cry.

Babies crying on the subway I can help — I just walk over and make silly faces. Somehow that's easier with a stranger than with a neighbor.

Today I walked past the plant that Jorge had watered, and felt and smelled it. It was real. It had brown spots, and rough edges. It was real.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.