We moved from Times Square, vortex of all that is crazy, crowded and neon, to Riverdale, a lovely part of the Bronx with views of the Hudson River, lush with trees and fresh air. After six years, we're moving back to Manhattan to be closer to work. I'll miss the ever-shifting beauty of the trees, moon and stars, and the Hudson grandeur. But most of all, I'll miss the dog park, the place where I met my neighbors and learned to chat.
On my first day in the dog park, just across from our apartment complex, a raging discussion was in progress. The subject? When were they going to bury Anna Nicole Smith's highly contested but rapidly decomposing body. "Why are they fighting over that body anyway?" a woman wearing pin curlers shouted, pointing to a New York Post. It's just a body - it's not her. When I die, I want my ashes scattered over the dog park." We roared with laughter.
It was a varied group - a professor of Russian literature, an admissions officer at a private school, a clerk at a big-chain baby store, a nurse (in the pin curlers), a loud, foul-mouthed but extremely funny artist, a bridge-builder (not the metaphorical one, but a real one), a recovering stockbroker-now-third-grade teacher. There would be more over the years, people came and left, all with varied backgrounds, outlooks, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation. It was like the set of a play. Or maybe a sitcom. Every day several of us would get together to watch our dogs run and wrestle, and to chat about things, from the mundane (the healthy texture of dog poop) to the transcendent (symbolic imagery in Buddhist art, the athletic grace of Derek Jeter). One morning the issue among the ladies was whether or not one had to wear a bra to the dog park in the morning (most voted yes). Other days I'd argue with the Russian lit teacher over Shakespeare and off-Broadway plays. We talked of work, family, joys and sorrows, and became friends.
Although this kind of easy camaraderie goes on all over, whether it be in dog parks, children's playgrounds, bars or diners, it meant a great deal to me. I was a loner bordering on the misanthropic. I spent years in academic research and then law, more comfortable with books than light conversation. And much of that time was at The University of Chicago, known for taking one's blush of youth away and replacing it with book-learning and poor social skills. I sparkled when teaching students, but was awkward speaking with adults and hated going to dinner parties or other social gatherings. In New York City, not many people talk with or even know their neighbors in the same apartment building, so it was no problem. But then I moved to Riverdale, got a puppy, and had no choice but to meet, and talk to, the neighbors. I'm so glad I did.
Slowly, day by day, my reluctance to engage with others dropped away. What was great about the dog park is that I met people I would never have met had I not gotten a dog. They were outside my usual circle of colleagues, and maybe this made it possible for our conversations to be deeper, more joyful and carefree. It was like having an extended family without the psychodrama, or dropping in for coffee at a neighbor's house as shown in American ads in the '50s. I recognized the same phenomenon in Roger Ebert's beautiful essay in which he describes the joy of getting to know people outside his circle at AA meetings.
I needed this. The reason I got a dog was to ease the unbearable grief from my mother's passing (it helps). Within a span of three years, two other elders close to me died. I had relied on these three to watch over and be proud of me (my father died when I was young). But then I joined the dog park group. They gave me advice when I got a cold, I rejoiced with them over good job news, we worried together over the awful troubles of the world and cried together when dearly-loved dogs died.
They were in many ways ordinary people who worked hard every day in demanding jobs to make ends meet while managing households or school study at night. But once you got to know them better, you discovered how extraordinary they really were. Some had heavy added burdens such as caring for a paralyzed brother or declining parents, which they did without complaint.
Remarkably, these same people found time for creative pursuits as well. The owner of the scrappy Boston Terrier/Frenchy mix did lamp working - making gorgeous, translucent colored glass beads that she turned into lovely necklaces and bracelets. She's Jewish, but crafted a delicate rosary in glass to match the color of family members' birthstones for a Catholic friend when she became gravely ill. The "mom" of the lovely black and white Papillon had one of the sharpest minds I ever encountered and did amazing, detailed needlepoint work, while the owner of the Katrina rescue German Shepherd-mix (my dog Darwin's best buddy) regaled us with tales of her cooking adventures, most recently Korean cuisine.The construction guy who owns the magnificent, kindly Rottweiler also painted pictures of scenes in Cuba. They all did something to give a flourish to their lives.
I'm moving to a high-rise in Manhattan in a couple of days and do not expect to strike up close friendships among my neighbors. But I leave the Bronx transformed.
Thank you, my friends.