There is this guy who walks around our neighborhood. Constantly. That is pretty much all I know about him, but from this one facet I have constructed a world for him.
Here’s what I know. I guess him in his 60’s, but could be older. His standard outfit is a gray sweat suit, dark sunglasses, bright orange reflective vest, with matching orange hat and gloves (when necessary), and a walking stick. He walks hard, but not in that goofy heel-toe race-walker way. Drive by and he stops, raises his hand and gives you this great smile from under his full, gray beard. Drive too fast and he first gives a slow-down hand signal in a gentle way that reminds you that dudes are walking, folks are jogging, and kids are playing. Then he waves, smiles, turns on his heel and walks.
If you are outside when he is walking, he rarely slows down, but will always say hi, wish you a good day, and not break stride. If you want to chat, though, he will happily stop and tell you how great the lawn looks, how much he likes how the perennials are growing in, ask about the kids. It’s never about him, just all the things he is observing about the neighborhood he loves to move through, to look at, to know. He never stays even one word beyond the moment when idle banter becomes awkward.
He carries the stick because of some ill-behaved dogs in the neighborhood. Less so the German shepherd on the corner, or the two English bulldogs across the way that will suffer Hanna-Barbera contortions as they run through the electric fence lines. He really doesn’t even worry about the American bulldog pups that a new family is struggling to control on the circle around the way. More so the angry schnauzer at the steep part of the big hill, the old basset-retriever mix with a death wish that chases cars, bikes, and anything else that moves. If Jax is out in the yard, though, he will stop and kick his soccer ball for a while, patting his head each time my dog plays snout soccer to get it back to him.
I don’t know much of his story. I don’t even know his name, but he knows each of my kids’ names. He never pushes himself in conversation, but from what us neighbors have pieced together, he is a widower that had some serious health issues of some sort in the last few years. Walking is part of addressing them, and…this guy walks. On the way to work I pass him one way, on the way home I pass him the other. On the weekends, I see him coming down the hill, always hugging the curb to his left, taking the whole cul-de-sac at its widest, never cutting across. He walks for hours. I suspect he has some military in his background.
After six years of this Walking Dude, he is as much a part of my day as coffee or a shower. Something is…less-than…if I miss him somehow. I am usually late. I usually deserve the slow-down reminder. The fact that he actually stops and turns to wave as you pass…it makes it more than a courtesy, it’s a ritual.
The fact that I know so little about the whos and whys behind him has allowed me to fill in the mad-lib details of his life as I like. I view Walking Dude as the symbol of…content, happy. Savoring each day in a consistently dutiful, caring, observant – but above all – thankful way. I have penciled in his adjectives so that he has this honest nature, a gratefulness for each and every day, and a ceremonial way of expressing it.
Walking Dude is my metaphor for being thankful for each day, and for clearly comprehending why I should be thankful for each day. If his laps run counter to my drive times…I feel like I missed something that day.
I wonder what he would think of all this. I am sure his life has its complications, its pains and regrets and mornings where the knees can’t get him out on the streets. I’m sure there are times where behind his smile and wave he is really pissed that I was driving too fast, that he was really distracted by some thought from his past. But I need him at this distance. To know more would make him something other than the Walking Dude. I need his…metaphor.
I have a lot of folks that I have reduced to metaphors. People from my past that I misremember in convenient ways to support my smoothing and tucking of the random and the guesswork of days past so it realigns into a story, not just a collection of moments. I force whole people into single slices of what I knew, or what I choose to remember, good or bad, discarding the rest. The less I knew, the less I remember, the more likely all that you are is represented in my head as some one-liner.
I wonder how many people might remember me as a metaphor. I wonder how the intersection of our lives combines with what they need to remember to define my metaphor.
I wonder whether I should get to know Walking Dude, or keep him as this wonderful metaphor.
The last day of this trying year was defined by a several hour trek through an expectedly bad snow storm in an SUV that suddenly decided that it would not slip into four-wheel drive. I live in the country, at the end of a last-plowed cul-de-sac that however you approach it requires the scaling of some steep slippery hill. With only front wheel drive, I tried every way back home, finally finding myself actually sliding backwards down a hill into oncoming traffic. A rather shitty metaphor to close out this year.
I guided my over-priced sled into the curb, hit the hazards, pulled up the hood, and started hiking home to get some chains for the tires. A couple hundred yards into it, with about a mile still to go, a trooper pulls up and asks if that is my vehicle on the side of the road. Yup. Sure is. Make me an offer, any offer, and it's yours… He clears his front seat and offers me a ride. Nice guy. Great timing.
As I he pulls up to my house, I notice he is in jeans and I ask if he got called in because of the snow. No, he says. He is off duty today, but had his cruiser at home and it was the only way he could get through the snow to get milk and diapers for his family. He was on his way back from the store, when an old guy in a funny orange vest flagged him down and told him that a car was stuck on a hill and might need some help.
A rather wonderful metaphor to close out this year.