On the Old Gentleman and His Dog

There is an older gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. We normally cross each other’s path in the early morning–me, trying miserably to turn a morning run into a habitual action in attempt to stabilize my life; him, walking his gorgeous lanky German Shepard down the side walk. I don’t know who he is, what he does, or even his name. But each morning we make eye contact and nod our heads in greeting.

I found comfort in our encounters. His presence became a part of my morning routine. A constant in a new life I was trying to settle.

The German Shepard was an extension of the gentleman. Both were long bodied, wrinkled faces, worn skin and faded fur, all filled to the brim with stories to tell. It reminded me of the cartoon dogs in 101 Dalmatians, each one a complement of their owner.

One winter morning, I noticed he and the dog standing on the corner of the metro. This time, his eyes meet mine with a forlorn gaze. He was still. Not moving. Blending with the muffled background noise. His furry companion stood stoically at his side.

I continued on my path, padding through the fresh snow, beautiful and pure, yet untouched by the grime of the city… and I couldn’t stop thinking about how lonesome I thought the man looked.

I imagined that he was living alone. That perhaps his wife passed away, or divorced him. That he never married in the first place. I had never seen him with anyone else, after all.

Maybe he was a veteran living with a faithful companion that served alongside him. Maybe he was a recovering alcoholic.

Each day I passed him, I told myself a new story. I began to feel sympathetic. I wanted to help him, but didn’t know how. My brain was complaisant in believing what it had falsely contrived.

One afternoon, in early spring, I saw the gentleman walking his dog and pushing a stroller with a smiling expression. His eyes still deep, still filled with stories. But this time it was different.  A woman beside him gazed towards him lovingly. She held the hand of a little girl who was playfully patting the dog. All of them walked together.

As we passed one another with our familiar nod, I felt a sense of relief.

I was wrong.

Now, I probably could’ve learned this lesson by re-watching the end of Home Alone (which almost always makes me cry). But you know the cliche about experience.

Perception and judgement sneak out of such small fractions and cracks. They stuff big birds in small cages. But just as writing expands ideas as we write, ideas and stories change as we learn more about the people and the world around us. And that’s something so beautiful about perception. There is never one story. There is never one opinion. There is no black and white. There is an ecstasy in the process of observations. Of getting out of ourselves.

We all makeup stories in our heads about the people around us. What sort of encounters have helped you get outside of your own head for a while? Who/what/or where inspires you to be observant of the world around you? What do you like noticing in other people?

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