I always thought that what I lack in the ability to make friends with strangers, I more than made up for in my commitment to structure and routine. Since I moved in with my husband four years ago, I have taken the same route to the park. Between walks by myself, walks with Griffin, and runs through the neighborhood, I sometimes take the same path up to three times a day. I have probably looped the 1-mile track around the park over 1,000 times. For awhile, I feared that doing it with such frequency would lead me to tire of it, but after four years, I no longer have that concern. Though the path may be the same, the scenery changes.
I can tell when the man on the corner has his kids for the weekend, or when his girlfriend has stayed the night. I know when kids go to college, or new parents welcome a baby into their lives. Without knowing their names, I find it amazing that I can know so much about them; stringing together what I know to be true with conjecture that is conjured up over years of observation.
My favorite neighbors are the ones with character, as I can easily assign names to them. “Hoo-Ah”, named for his vanity plate, never acknowledges my presence, but I know that I’d run to his house in case of an emergency because of the perception of a strong military training. “Weird Bird Lady” is the lady at the end of our street who walks around with a parrot on her shoulder, lets her plants grow out of control (much to the consternation of our uptight condo association), and who had the gall to install a front door with a round window rather than the square ones that the rest of us have to live with. (They fined her $75). “Panda’s Owner” is the elderly woman who walks her dog Panda, a black and white Pomeranian who should have been named “Bandit” for the distinctive black mask around her (his?) eyes. Somehow it was easier to ask what her dog’s name was than what her name was. My interactions with Panda’s Owner were varied. One day she told me how Panda “loves counting squirrels” on their walks. But that interaction would be followed up a week later with my asking, “How many squirrels have you seen?” and getting a response of “what…?” I haven’t seen Panda or her (his?) owner in over a month, and last week, I saw a large garbage container in her driveway. Bonnie walks her dog Annie regularly when it’s warm, and only rarely when it’s cold. What I know about Bonnie is that she has three daughters and that she could “do without” one of her son-in-laws.
Occasionally, I get positive reinforcement from the elderly gentlemen whose homes I pass. Bob has run over 50 marathons and is closing in on his goal of running a marathon in every state. We wave to each other in the mornings, and he shouts encouragement to me when I run by. “Run happy!”, “Make sure you ENJOY your run!”. One time, he raced me to the water tower. I think he’s embarrassed that I know he smokes early in the morning.
One of the houses we pass is a big brown house with few windows facing our path. Because of the lack of windows, I don’t “know” much about the inhabitants; only that they drive a silver CRV that frequently has large Goodwill bags in the trunk. The most surprising encounter I had was with this resident. It must have been a Sunday evening, because Griffin was with me. As we passed his driveway, an old man with a rugged, scratchy voice yelled after us, “Hey! Come back here!” Fearing we were somehow in trouble, we turned around with trepidation. “Wait here! I’ll be right back.” He trotted into his garage and came out carrying pruning shears. I could feel Griffin tense up beside me. He does not like confrontation. The man slowly approached his carefully manicured rose bush, cut off a single stem with a pink flower in its prime, and handed it to me gently. “I always see you walking out here,” he said, “and I like that you do that”. It made my week. I haven’t seen him since, but I know he’s still there because nothing on the exterior of the house has been suspicious. No new cars in the driveway. No “For Sale” sign in the yard.
And what I’ve learned from the old man, Bob, and Bonnie, is that while I have been observing my neighbors for years, they have been observing me too. They’ve made their own nicknames for me. One lady told me that she and her husband refer to Griffin and I as “The Active Couple”. And what do they know about me? They’ve probably picked up on the fact that I don’t like change. I assume they know I value exercise. That I like breathing fresh air. That sometimes I walk, and sometimes I run, but always, I take the same path by their house. And maybe that’s my way of developing friendships; with consistency, persistence, a gentle wave in the morning and a smile on my face.