As we neared each other walking from opposite ends of the bridge, I nodded and said “Good morning,” as I always do. Sometimes people respond in kind, perhaps a little surprised by the social interaction. This elderly, bearded man seemed not to have heard me. We passed within a foot of each other, yet by his behavior you wouldn’t know he had even seen me. He just stared straight through and beyond me with empty, unblinking eyes. As he passed, I noticed the US Air Force Staff Sergeant insignia on the arm of his jacket. I wondered if he had served during the same time as my father, and I wondered what stories lay hidden behind the wall of his eyes.
Parts of this military town are falling apart through neglect, where businesses have closed and none have taken their place, or property owners have allowed their houses and rental properties to age naturally. Others, though, are defiantly well-maintained — new paint or fence, a lawn you could putt on. They’re the retaining wall of their neighborhood.
When I needed a haircut, I decided to try out the barber shop that’s within easy walking distance of my apartment — but only if it wasn’t too pricey. I stepped in the door. The only person there, a small oriental woman, put down her paper and rose from the barber chair to greet me.
“How much for a haircut?” I blurted out rather suddenly. It echoed in the empty room.
“Eleven dollars?” I said.
“You take plastic?”
“Um… do you take debit cards?”
“No. No debit car.”
“OK, I’ll go get some cash and come back.”
As I strolled over to the local grocery store to use the ATM, I reflected that I had been too abrupt and maybe even a bit scary to this small woman all alone in an isolated building. I decided to be more polite on my return. I engaged her in conversation, which she eagerly picked up. I found her English difficult to understand, and she punctuated every other phrase with “know what I mean?” — to which I felt obliged to respond with a “yes,” a nod, or at least an approving grunt. In her pronunciation, “know what I mean?” came out “noah mean?” I couldn’t help but imagine myself responding, “Actually, by all accounts Noah was a pretty nice guy — apart from getting drunk and cursing his grandson.” But I kept those thoughts to myself.
She told me how much she liked the neighborhood and the people in it. They’re private people, she said, but they’re good. She told me that even though she rents the space for her business, she likes to take care of the landscaping herself, to make it look nice. She even takes care of the adjacent property, where a bank closed long ago and nothing replaced it. I had noticed this property before — the bank building is all boarded up, but the grounds are beautiful. The local police found her working on it one day and asked her what she was doing. She explained that she wanted the neighborhood to look nice. Later, she said, the same policeman told her after seeing the result that now he understood her motivation.
I thanked her, gave her a good tip, and told her I’d be back next time.
Despite the housing market, some inexpensive new homes are going up just down the hill. It was in that area that I first saw another of my neighbors. She was yelling at the construction workers. I don’t know what about, but I heard her say, “I just can’t take it!” several times as she walked away from them. The workers mostly ignored her, so I assumed she suffered from some sort of mental illness. Her voice trembled, yet she walked with a strong and steady pace. She headed in my same direction, so I crossed to the other side of the street and stayed well ahead of her.
I’ve crossed paths with her several times since then on my walks, in various parts of the neighborhood. I always nod politely and say “Good morning,” and quickly move along. Once she seemed slightly afraid of me. Another time, confused. Poor woman, I thought.
Today, she stopped and spoke to me. “Did you see the young eagle?”
“No, I didn’t,” I responded, smiling intentionally. “Where is it?”
“It was in that tree over there. It flew off a few days ago,” she said. “We get one every few years. The last one fell from the nest and died, but this one made it and left with its parents. Pardon my voice,” she said, touching her throat. “I have polio. It took away half my voice.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“My husband wishes it had taken the other half, too.”
I laughed out loud.
She continued, “Well, that’s what happens after 57 years of marriage,” and she smiled and left.
“Take care,” I called after her.