A brisk walk before 7:00 a.m. was just what I needed, I thought as I pulled on my clothes and quietly left the house yesterday morning. There was frost on the rooftops as I headed down the street to the bike/walking path a block away.
No sooner had I reached it but I overtook my neighbor and his dog, whom I've seen walking these paths for over a decade. Our relationship demonstrates the way friendship sometimes develops by baby steps, or maybe I could call them old-man-walking-old-dog-steps.
I don't remember him from the first five years that we lived about six houses down from his, though I spent a lot of time on our wonderful paths that run along all the creeks through town. We were both busier, I suspect, and moving faster.
Ten or fifteen years ago I started noticing him with his dog. The dog was never in a hurry, and the man hunched a bit and shuffled, stopping and starting to avoid stumbling over his companion. He didn't often look up at me when I drove past or when I met them strolling the other direction, but if he did, we would smile at each other.
A few years later I got a chance to speak to him a couple of times, and I told him that I lived just down the street. I didn't say anything about how his yard was always neglected and full of tall weeds. Earlier on I had thought of bringing him cookies or offering to do some yard work, but once or twice I did see a woman there who I thought to be his daughter. Maybe it was she who planted some petunias one spring.
On this day, I had my perfect opportunity. Our relationship had progressed through the smile stage, into the speaking stage, and now, it seemed natural to slow my pace to theirs and say, "Good morning!" We started talking about his dog with the beautiful champagne-colored coat, a French sheepdog he'd gotten at the pound 14 years ago. "His name was Ben when we got him, but I changed it to Spunky."
Somehow the conversation turned to politics--it wasn't my doing! I walked alongside and followed their route, across this bridge, at which point Spunky stopped, changed direction, and was ready to go back more in the direction of home. That was as far as was his usual, his owner said. The whole hour I was with them I had to watch out for the leash and dog as they kept crisscrossing the path.
My friend told me about his childhood in Pittsburgh, PA, how he realized that if he didn't leave shortly after high school, he'd be working in the factory forever. So he left, and he joined the Army, and traveled, but didn't fight in Korea after all. His traveling gave him a different and broader perspective on the world from the average person, he believed. He recommended that I read The Economist, and told me about the three periodicals he reads to help him decide what companies to invest in.
Old men are often fun to talk to, especially if they like to talk about their lives and will carry the conversation. Then I can just show my interest and listen. Often they have a refreshingly old-fashioned outlook that I rarely encounter anymore. My neighbor doesn't care that his jeans have a hole in the knee, or that his jacket is dirty. He had enough manners to pause in his story and ask a question about me or what I thought, but he wasn't pushy if I didn't talk much.
Eventually we got back to his house, and stood in the driveway for another ten minutes chatting about the Middle East and other places he had visited, and about how he has lived in that house for 38 years. I pointed out my house. He looked at Spunky, who had settled down to rest on the pavement, and said, "I have to get him inside," but just before that I had introduced myself and found out that the man's name is Ray.
My time was used up, it was nearly 8 o'clock, so I just walked quickly around the block and went home to tell B. about my new friend.