Finding my neighborhoodDavid Hoppe

I met my neighbor Barb in the park the other day. I hadn't seen her in ages - months, probably. "You need to get a dog," she told me. It was George's job to make sure that all the trees were still there and to conduct an inventory of its myriad smells. As for me, these jaunts were an invaluable way of keeping in touch with my neighborhood.

My dog, George, died over a year ago. His passing was a blow to everyone in our family. He'd seen our son grow up from a kindergartner to a college student. At night, while my wife and I were dreaming, his snoring was the background music. His barking kept our house safe from villains.

Most of all, George took me for walks.

George was a cross between a collie and a golden lab, working breeds that need plenty of exercise. It took three walks a day to keep him healthy and in good spirits. Luckily for us, we live near a small park. First thing in the morning and late at night, George and I would make a tour of this place. It was George's job to make sure that all the trees were still there and to conduct an inventory of its myriad smells. As for me, these jaunts were an invaluable way of keeping in touch with my neighborhood.

Whether I was finding gang signs spray painted in the alley, or a posting on the tennis courts proclaiming the start of another season of junior lessons, when I was walking the dog I felt like I had a better sense of what was going on. One summer, a lone guy used to park his car by the park every night just after nine o'clock. Needless to say, George and I kept an eye on him. Another year, some guy who'd probably been thrown out of his place slept there in his van. And then there was the period when, every morning, George and I would catch sight of a haunted-looking young woman across the park who seemed to be training for a sport that no one but her would probably ever understand. If she noticed us watching, she'd disappear around a corner.

One night as George and I walked down the alley on the far side of the park, I spied a couple of guys skulking in a yard behind someone's house. This was an unusual enough occurrence that I called the police when I got home. "Wow," said the dispatcher when I told her I'd been walking in the alley after 11:30, "do you think that's safe?" Sure, I said, I was with my dog.

Going out with George was a spontaneous blend of the solitary and the social. Although it wasn't unusual for us to make it around the park without seeing so much as the odd feral cat or bumble bee, our walks were always enhanced by encounters with fellow dogs - and dog walkers.

There was Barb, of course, with her black-and-white-freckled pooch. We'd stop, and while the dogs flirted and then became bored, the two of us talked - politics (usually pissed-off), books (usually enthused), kids and grandkids (ecstatic). When the weather was bad, the ground covered with ice or the wind whipping rain, we gestured to one another, showing solidarity in misery.

Mornings I got used to finding Joe walking with his pug, Buddy. Joe was a retired gent and Buddy was his companion. Though Buddy stood about knee-high to George, he seemed to want to hang with the big dogs. George was cool with it. There was the obligatory butt sniff followed by a tolerant condescension. Joe and I talked about our dogs, the neighborhood, the weather - all things that we were experiencing at the moment. It was a bond. Those days when the dew was particularly thick and the grass in the park was uncut, Joe picked Buddy up and held him on his shoulder.

Bob's dog was like a cousin to George, a rusty black mix of shepherd and collie. On election night 2000, the four of us happened to meet at the far corner of the park. The news had just come in from Florida where, earlier in the evening, Al Gore had been projected to win that benighted state. Now the networks were saying there was a reversal. Florida was being taken out of Gore's column and it looked like it was going to Bush. Bob and his dog left his house at practically the same moment George and I left ours. We tramped around the edges of the park from opposite directions. When we finally met, we stood there together beneath the night sky in a shared state of disbelief. As we talked things through, the dogs laid down and waited.

In the weeks right after George died, I found myself getting up and going for walks around the park at night. It was like muscle memory. The trouble was I walked too fast by myself. The quality of my attention was different. What used to take 20 minutes now took five. I was also afraid I'd run into Barb or Bob or Joe. I wasn't ready for that yet. I quit going for walks and stayed indoors.

I'm glad to say that time passed long ago. Life, as they say, goes on. In many ways it's better. But I think Barb was right: I need to get a dog.


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