On the front stoop where normally are perched three distinctive, unusually peaceful and wise-looking dogs, there were, tonight, three cats each in the dog’s usual respective places. They watched as I passed by, taking my own pet for a midnight stroll. The cats’ eyes darted hither and fro, following me like peepers behind bad paintings in a bad movie. They looked like they’d been caught, but didn’t dare to move and doing what I don’t know. Other than stirring in place, however, they barely moved. They shifted just a little, waiting to see if I might do something unusual. They waited for the unexpected. To my surprise, my dog ignored them, and I wonder if he saw them.
It was so odd, how they stood in the usual place of the very striking but quiet dogs. These three dogs are so striking, in fact, that when I met my neighbors recently who are moving, and we tried to place each other, and wondered as a matter of conversation if in fact we passed each other many times in the last decade (though it was apparent no flicker of recognition sparked from either side). I started to mention walking my dog — maybe i had seen them then.
“Do you know the three dogs,” they asked. When they asked it, “know” was kind of long and drawn out, like there was the question. No, I explained I only have one dog. I started to tell of the other dog I had till he died a couple of years ago and how he was truly amazing, but I realized that was outside the gates of this conversation. So instead, “I know them but they’re not mine,” which opened the path for us to gush over the strange qualities of the beautiful dogs and let drop like a feather to the floor the fact that, now it was certain, in more than ten years, we never even nodded to each other, let alone said hello. But we both knew the dogs that lived between their house and mine, and satisfied ourselves with the shared appreciation of them. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to be a neighbor. As we showed each other that day, talking amidst the cast-offs of their lives on our block, it is never too late.
We did not mention the dogs’ owner’s name. I think they did not know it. I would need a moment to remember it. But it was enough that we knew the dogs. It solidified things.
There is another name that has been on my mind recently. It is the name of a flower, shared with a lady down the street. She has a singular style. Long white-blonde hair, white-blonde and gray all over, long hair in two loose ponytails hanging down each side of her, topped with a gardener’s hat marked by a big floppy pinned-on flower. Big boxy running shoes that make her ankles look even smaller and fragile than they already are, with socks pulled all the way up almost to her knees. Her skirt never reaches that far, and her knobby knees jut out, leaning into the conversation. I started talking to her, finally, a year or so ago. She was unusually striking and bright, brimming with eagerness and compassion. Although I had to strain to understand the words beneath her accent, I learned she was from Eastern Europe, where she’d seen hard things. Her bright eyes would never belie it. I wish now I could remember more of what she told me. I wish now I had written it down. Where I think she lived does not look the same anymore. Eventually, maybe later this summer, I’ll start asking around whether anyone has seen her. For now, I like to imagine that she went back home, as she seemed to always hold some longing for it. I’m not ready to be told otherwise.
The moving neighbors gave me a type of ginger plant. I tried to plant ginger in the front last year after a weekend trip to Saratoga Springs, which was marked by my own sudden decision to grow heirloom tomatoes, and my partner’s patience with me as we trekked back to the city with tomato plants in tow. We set them on the window ledge of the hotel we stopped in when we were too tired to plow all the way through to Brooklyn. We made special trips for them when it was obvious my bags would tumble, I would tumble, or the tomatoes would tumble. I remember looking out the window at the parking lot, and seeing the little baby tomato plants resting on the curb, waiting for the rest of the family and all the various family stuffs to pack in the car. We gave the tomatoes a lot of love that weekend. They spent the rest of the summer giving it back.
When I passed the main corner tonight, I saw two trucks near the subway entrance. On the side of the small trucks were the words “Mobile Wash Unit.” On my way toward that corner, I passed several groups of people. Everyone happy, some families, some young people. Out and about on a late April Saturday night. I turned around and headed back a few blocks into the other side of the main corner. It felt cold and odd over there. It was now past midnight, and people looked at me like I was a stranger intruding. People were coming home from bars. One man left a house quickly and quietly, walked half a block then turned around and walked the other way, passing in front of the house he left and darting glances across the street toward me. On the second story of the house he left, a man stood on the porch, waiting outside the door. He looked like he didn’t want to be seen. And so, I guess, I didn’t want to see him. At one point in one of my many careers, I interviewed cops. They talked about “perp fever,” which is the feeling you come to get, like a sixth sense, after being on the beat for a long time. I don’t think I would like to be a cop because I sometimes get that feeling, and usually do not want to know if it’s justified and why.
I crossed the main corner and headed back home. The second floor apartment that often has a person or two smoking on the porch outside, while music is unable to be contained and flows out onto the street, was having its usual Saturday night soiree. It’s Saturday night, and the block seemed to be saying it was okay. The porch light of the moving neighbors was on. So was mine. Even though I’m not crazy about the flourescent light it’s shining, it was on for a young man from my hometown who lost his life in our war. Porch lights were left on until his remains’ return. Lights lit from Orfordville, Wisconsin to all over the globe, from neighbors lighting the way for his return, stayed on till he came home recently. He’s home now, and the neighbors, I believe, are closer than ever, having shared some pain and ritual, loss, compassion, and absurdity.
Strange that the moving neighbors did not have a dog of their own but would select the neighbor between’s dog as a point of reference. Those striking dogs, come to think of it, have more the demeanor of cats than dogs. They don’t interest themselves much in the passersby. They just sit back and watch them, like it’s a mobile museum of paintings passing before them. Sitting in the quiet company of themselves. Lucky dogs.