One Small Step Forward…

The Bronx ParkThere’s a beautiful park in Bronx, NY, with a paved walking trail paralleling the Bronx River Parkway running south from East 233rd Street down to the Mosholu Parkway. The park is about two miles long, with the Bronx River (the Bronx stream, really) skirting the entire length of the park’s western edge. This past spring, when this incident took place, I’d been in the habit over the previous several weeks of beginning my days “in the city” with a walk along this trail. It gave our Sheltie dog Annie and me some exercise, and killed a little time until the library near where my wife Jeanie’s son Aaron lives opened at ten a.m. This day would be the last day I would take my walk in the park before Jeanie and I left New York to return to our home in Colorado.

Despite its beauty, I hadn’t really enjoyed the park as much as I wished I could have. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first is its location. The Bronx River Parkway is like most other traffic arteries in most large cities. Huge. Noisy. Four (sometimes six) lanes of traffic, nearly always busy, and a Metro North Railroad track on the other side of the Parkway, with trains running (screaming, actually) by every few minutes. On the other side of the park (it’s a narrow park, about fifty yards wide at its widest point), is one of the several neighborhoods that comprise Bronx, New York. Large apartment buildings, schools, the busy Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. It’s predominantly poor–which leads me to the second reason I had not often enjoyed my walks. There is an attitude I often see in large urban areas populated by mostly poor people. How can I describe it? Unhappy. Angry. Frustrated. Depressed. People I encountered in the park rarely smiled as I passed. They rarely said anything. They rarely even looked at me. And if they looked at me, there seemed (to me) to be something angry and threatening in their faces. I felt likely to be attacked, even in the broad daylight, by someone waiting for me behind a tree or bush.

I realize I bring a lot of my own garbage into whatever situation I happen to find myself. I come from a poor background myself. I lived for several years in the McLaren District of San Francisco, otherwise known as the projects, until I was eight years old. There were many angry, frustrated, depressed people there, too. I learned firsthand just how violent such people can be. And I learned to be cautious, even suspicious (dare I say, paranoid?), when I was anywhere near them.

All of this notwithstanding, I still managed to suck it up and gut it out, so to speak. I dutifully snapped a leash onto Annie’s collar every day and together we strode purposefully from one end of the park to the other and back again. I told myself I’d be damned if I was going to let a little fear keep me from doing what I wanted to do.

Of course, there was no reason to think that this day’s walk would be any different from all the ones before. But as I started down the path, I noticed up ahead a young black couple crossing the street from (I assumed) their large brick apartment building and heading into the park on the grass. What caught my eye was this: the man carried what looked like a small shovel with a bright red handle; and the slender woman held a small bundle to her chest, about the size of a twelve-pack of beer, wrapped in red cloth, a blanket or towel perhaps. This was a city park, I thought. Why would they need a shovel? The pair walked slowly, deliberately, as if each step required great effort. When they came to a small shade tree still frosted with pinkish-white early spring blossoms, they stopped. They stood there motionless for a few moments and stared at the ground in front of the tree. Finally, the man took the shovel and drove it into the ground with his foot and began to dig. The woman stood and watched him, swaying a little, patting the bundle at her chest as if it were her baby.

It didn’t take much thought to figure out what was happening. They had come to the tree to bury a pet, a small dog or cat.

The paved trail passed within a few short yards of where this little ceremony was taking place. Something prompted me to stop for a few seconds, maybe even to say something to them. After all, I was walking Annie, whom I had grown to love over the nearly five years Jeanie and I have had her. Back at the fifth-wheel coach we were traveling in, we had our cats Angus and Argyle, and our Amazon parrot Pele waiting for us. They were (are) our “kids”, our family. I could easily understand what these people must have been going through. Nevertheless, I ignored the prompting, telling myself theirs was a private ceremony, I hadn’t been invited, and frankly, might not have been welcome. I hurried past without looking and continued my walk.

I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the park, the green against the sharp blue sky, the big puffy clouds like white elephants (to borrow from Hemingway), the smells of fresh cut grass (the park personnel kept the place immaculately groomed and free of the litter I’d been accustomed to seeing at other parks). But the image of the young man slowly digging into the grassy hillside, and of the young woman hovering nearby, watching, waiting, gently patting her precious bundle, followed me like an invisible ghost, whispering in my ear. How had the animal died, I wondered? Had it been sick? Was it old? I recalled the extraordinary efforts Jeanie and I had put forth just recently to save not one but both our cats from eating disorders and urinary tract infections which had nearly killed them. I guessed these people had had to put forth the same sort of effort for their own animal. I looked down at Annie, who was obviously happy to be outside, her tongue hanging happily from her mouth, her ears and eyes alert for birds or squirrels. It was easy to imagine the anguish I would feel if I lost her.

Suddenly, I realized, these people were kin.

That’s not to say that I had anything approaching a religious experience, that I was suddenly consumed with love and understanding and free of the fear which had plagued me. But something inside me seemed to shift just a little. I came upon a group of young girls, mostly black, sitting together inside one of the playgrounds. I heard their laughter; there seemed something free and clean about it, as if they’d somehow managed to avoid the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness amid which they lived. One of the park workers, a grizzled black man, looked up from raking a pile of dead leaves and nodded at me, just long enough to let me know he’d seen me. I gave a surprised nod back, and he turned and walked away, dragging his plastic trash can behind him.

The young couple at the tree were still working when I passed them on the return leg. The red bundle was gone, and the woman was patting and smoothing the fresh patch of dirt with the shovel. The man was busy nearby, carving something in the trunk of the tree with a large knife.

Once again, I was tempted to go over to them, introduce myself, tell them I was sorry for their loss. But, again, I resisted. I averted my eyes as I strode past with Annie, still telling myself they deserved their privacy. A few minutes later, I’d loaded Annie into the truck, and was pulling from the curb to begin the short drive back to Pelham Parkway where Jeanie and the library awaited me. And as I turned the corner for the on-ramp, I could see the two of them, she still tamping down the dirt, the man patiently working on the tree with his knife.

That’s the story, I guess, as far as it goes. And it might have ended there. I could just as easily have motored on as if nothing were different. But I think one of the things I am learning, slowly, is that pretty much everything we see, and how we see it, is a matter of conscious choice. If nothing changed in how I viewed life, it would be because I wanted for nothing to change. That day, I decided, I wanted different.

And so I tucked the moment away, safe in that small corner of my brain where I gather all the little snippets which serve to remind me that, despite appearances, we really are all cut from the same fabric, even if it’s from a far removed section of the patchwork quilt we call life. And I breathed a silent promise to this young man and woman, whom I would likely never see again, that I would share it with the other people in my life who care about such things, and so would understand.

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