I walk my neighborhood streets each evening in a feeble effort to blend in with humanity. Humans are social animals, and I am clearly a failure as a human being. If not for sitting in diners while I write and strolling around my neighborhood I’d be a modern day hermit, happily cloistered with my records and my books and my blissful lack of anxiety-ridden social interaction.
Yes, and so my evening stroll is sort of my attempt at integrating with society; well, to an extent. Most of my conversation is reserved for cats, who alternate between staring at me apathetically and licking their own butts while I coo, “What are you doing outside on such a warm day, Puss Puss?” I keep my eyes peeled for women, too, but not for the reason that you might think. I worry that I’ll make them nervous if I look at, walk near, or–God forbid–speak to them, so I cross the street hundreds of feet before I near one. During a one hour stroll I weave back and forth across the street again and again, until I imagine that any birds watching me from above think I’m a drunken fool staggering through the neighborhood, babbling to the furry little assassins that chase them into the trees.
Soccer practice is a popular activity at the park near my house. Each night the big green field is partitioned so that ten or so teams can practice simultaneously. A single gray ribbon of sidewalk winds through all of the action. Walking through the many teams’ practice sessions is like sitting front row at Thunder From Down Under: an exercise in dodging flying balls. Occasionally I’ll stoop and pick up an errant soccer ball, then throw it back to its respective team. The players never say thank you, but that’s okay. As far as the feral little beasts are concerned, it’s an old man’s job to serve them.
When I notice litter on my walks, I pick it up. Now the birds watch me as I weave along the streets with my talons full of trash. Maybe they think I’m a giant, drunken, cat-loving crow.
Picking up trash might represent the greatest cost to benefit activity one can engage in to improve his or her self esteem. All you need to do is bend over and pick up a car flattened McDonald’s cup and you’re a hero. You are single-handedly beautifying America, saving the whales, righting a wrong, and drying Iron Eyes Cody’s tears, and because there’s no other person involved in this transaction, there’s no risk of a stress-inducing social interaction.
Picking up trash is like praying for a stranger: It is its own, private reward, and no one will ever get in the way of you doing it. The downside is that once you have touched garbage it becomes your garbage. I am duty bound to carry my flattened cup with me on my evening walk until I find a trash can. Tossing it back into the street will set Iron Eyes to bawling again.
Fortunately, I live in a neighborhood with curbside garbage pickup. Big green trashcans abound, most tucked away close to their respective houses, but the occasional straggler remains near the curb. My obligation is to carry my litter until I walk past one of these. I do, finally, only to find a message painted on the lid: No Dumping For Use By 105 Kelly LN ONLY! I don’t want to upset the delicate balance of 105 Kelly Lane’s segregated garbage, so my flat cup and I keep walking.
I near a sweaty old man who crouches next to a ’93 Mitsubishi Eclipse, tugging on the front valance. Traffic prevents me from crow hopping across the street. He glares at me as I near. “Howdy,” I say. It seems like an appropriate drunken crow greeting. He doesn’t reply. “Valance come loose? Did they use those cheap plastic fasteners?” He glares some more, and I keep walking.
I spot a black Labrador pacing around a front yard. She’s older, well fed, and sporting a nice red collar–clearly an inside dog not used to being outside. When I’m in front of the house, she approaches me. “What’s the matter, girl?” I ask. “Are you lost?”
Jesus, the birds chirp from their perches, is there anything he won’t talk to?
The Lab moves in that agitated, anxious manner common to lost dogs. “Is this your house? Did you accidentally get out? Come on, let’s go knock on the door.” She follows me up the driveway and stands beside me as we we wait for someone to answer the door.
“Yes?” the homeowner says. She’s maybe in her thirties, looks like a young professional just home from the office.
“Hi, you wouldn’t have a black Lab, would you?”
“Yes, that’s my dog,” she says.
A few seconds pass between us.
“Well I was walking past–”
“We’re watching a cat.”
“–and I saw her wandering around. No leash, no fence, I thought she was–”
“We’re watching a cat,” she repeats, as if that explains things.
“Okey doke,” I say, and she shuts the door in my face.
A few blocks later I encounter a small black pug running free. He doesn’t suffer from any of the old Lab’s anxieties. No, this good boy has gone full doggy Shawshank. He’s tunneled out of his cell and left behind nothing but a poster of Doggy Rita Hayworth.
Can you believe it?! he wags. I’m free! I can pee on everything now!
“Freedom comes with a price, my man,” I tell him. “Look at me–I’ve been stuck with this damned paper cup for a mile now. No, you’re better off at home with your bed and your chew toys.”
Oh my God, is that a fence across the street?! I’m going to pee on it! he wags, and he runs across the street.
I knock on the nearest door, which triggers a chorus of barks inside the house. That seems like a good sign. Three and a half hours later whomever is inside has unlatched the two dozen locks on the door. An old woman opens the door roughly the width of a human hair. “Yes?” she says.
“Hi, are you missing a black pug?”
“A black pug.”
“A dog. Are you missing a black dog?” I ask.
“A SMALL BLACK DOG. ARE YOU MISSING A SMALL BLACK DOG?”
“No, why?” she asks.
I point to the dog who is pissing on the battleship of a car parked in her driveway. “He seems to know your yard. Is he yours?” I ask.
“Do you know who he might belong to?”
A few seconds pass through the hairline crack separating us. “Okey doke,” I say, and she shuts the door and locks the 24 deadbolts.
Oh my God, is that a bush?! the pug wags. I’m going to pee on that!
I knock on the neighbor’s door. “Hi,” I say.
“My dog’s out. I knew it as soon as you knocked,” the homeowner says. She shoves past me and walks toward the pug.
“Okey doke,” I say to no one in particular.
It’s at this point that I accept that this is not who I am. This Mr. Helper suit of clothes I adopted on this walk belongs to someone else: someone who doesn’t cross the street to avoid interactions with strangers; someone who isn’t quite so sensitive to the world’s rudeness.
So here’s the deal neighborhood: I’ll keep walking your streets aimlessly, but you can pick up your own damned garbage and stick it in your own jealously guarded trash cans. You can watch after your own dogs, fetch your own soccer balls, and suffer the indignities of cheap plastic body panels alone. Mr. Helper is dead: Long live Mr. Helper.
But I’ll keep talking to cats. That’s just good manners.