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Snapshots of Life in the City

The City Keeps Us Young

An Asian couple very short, skinny, and very old, walked so slowly inside the grocery that everyone glanced at them. They sort of shuffled along, seeming to nearly fall with each step. The woman was a bit heartier than the man and she patiently waited for him at various points along the way.
 
I don't think I have ever seen people walking quite that slowly ever and, for others to notice, it was a thing. In that grocery, shoopers stay in their own heads, not really seeing anyone else.
 
The couple wound up ahead of me in line to check out and I watched them go up to the checker, slowly put their items on the table, and then they retrieved a few bags from the checker, placing them slowly in their own small personal cart. They paid and slowly shuffled to the door, with the man pushing the cart. 
 
I was next.
 
"Those people are amazing!" I said.
 
"God bless them. They have lived a long time and are still going," said the checker. "The woman argued with me about how expensive these rolls were and removed them from her order!" 

 

I looked at the rejected bag of rolls that were placed off to the side and smiled. "Good for her!"
 
Then the checker shook her head with a furrowed brow. "Where are their children? They should be helping them!"
 
"Maybe they don't have any children or maybe they died or something," I said.
 
The clerk dropped her head and stomped in place. "Oh I should not have judged! Of course they might be alone."
 
"That's ok. I understand. You meant well – you have concern for them!"
 
"I do. But I shouldn't have said that." She continued stomping, as if to punish herself.
 
"I bet this keeps them alive and healthy - having to get their groceries and walk around," I said.
 
"Maybe it's a kind of exercise plan for them!" She said and she stopped stomping, the furrow in her brow receding.
 
"That's right. This could be an important part of their day that they look forward to. They don't need children to help them!"

 

"Right!" She exclaimed. 
 
We smiled and said goodbye, relieved and satisfied that we had wished the couple well. In fact, we clearly were a bit in awe of them.

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A Quirky Sign for a Quirky Hotel

"Every 180 Years, One Needs a Little Refresh.'

I have seen a lot of building renovation signs in my day but this one really is unique. This historic building, opened in 1839, used to be a post office. It's now a quirky hotel.

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"I Was Invited to a Divorce Party!"

Returning from the suburbs, I got into an uber car hoping the driver would be reasonable because I anticipated a 20-30 minute trip back to the city.  It would have been ideal to have a quiet ride but that was not in the cards.
 
"I haven't lived in this country very long," he said. "But today was the limit. I was invited to a divorce party!"
 
"Oh?" I asked.
 
"In my country you don't go to divorce parties! Divorce is shameful - you hide this kind of news as much as possible!"
 
But he soon started laughing boisterously and I joined in.
 
"And I was fired from my first job here in America because I refused to sell condoms to a woman," he said. "In my country, women don't buy such things!"
 
"So what happened?"
 
"The woman called for the manager and he sold them to her. But I just couldn't do it. So I lost my job."
 
Again he started laughing almost uncontrollably. "This is one crazy country!"
 
"So are you thinking about going back home, leaving America?"
 
"No!  Of course not!" And he described how much fun it is to relay stories of life in America to his friends and family at home.
 
But as I exited his car at the end of the trip, he still wasn't sure if he would go to the divorce party. I suggested that if he did, it might make one great story to tell people back home.
 
He turned fully around in his seat to look at me while nodding vigorously, laughing uproariously, and then he waved and wished me a good evening.

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"He Looks Scarier Than He Is"

I walked to a nearby jewelry store with the simple goal of getting a watch battery replaced. The workers keep the door locked and there is a sign saying you should knock on the door.
 
There is no electronic means to let people in. You just wait until someone brings the key and lets you in. And then as you leave they have to unlock the door again to let you out and then lock it behind you when you are on the street.  
 
Lots of quaint steps in that security system.
 
As I waited inside the store for the battery to be changed, a short, extremely skinny man in rag-tag clothes appeared in the glass door outside. He was waving awkwardly but excitedly, and he seemed to be talking while smiling from ear to ear. Surprisingly, one of the store workers took the key and went outside to talk with him.
 
"Poor guy," I said when the worker came back inside. "Nice of you to go out to talk to him."
 
"He's harmless. He's been on our street for over 15 years now.  He looks scarier than he is."
 
"It's amazing that he has lived this long on the streets – it is such a tough life."
 
"Oh, he has people all along this street who have adopted him. We watch out for him. His name is 'Howard.'"
 
As I left the store, he unlocked the door for me, and pointed to the street. "See that car? The guy who owns it gives Howard a lot of resources so he's OK."  (The car looked expensive.) 
 
"I'm glad people have adopted him – it's really terrific. One day, I hope someone might adopt me if I need it," I said.
 
We smiled at each other and I walked out onto the street. I heard the lock click behind me but I didn't walk away. I stood a short while and looked up and down the street but Howard was nowhere to be seen.
 
I'll remember Howard's name and watch for him when I happen to be on that street in the future. I'd like to greet him properly and ask him how he's doing.
 

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White Pigeons Too?

As I noted in an earlier blog, some city residents are all about the white squirrels disappearing from Franklin Square. I showed a picture of a white squirrel on the national mall and said how they aren't entirely gone. 
 
Then just a few days later, first cup of coffee in hand, I pulled back the shade to my balcony and what to my wondering eyes appeared?
 
A white pigeon!
 
There it was – in all its glory - accompanied by a traditional silver pigeon, bobbing around on my balcony floor. They didn't fly away nor react to my sudden appearance.
 
I hurried to get my camera, snapped a picture, and then I stood watching them. After a while, they flew off together. 
 
Is the universe messing with me?

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Suddenly, Swings

I was walking past Liberty Place and stopped dead in my tracks. There were several swing sets - I guess an adult version - all pink and shiny and new.
 
I say "adult" because also suspended was a table, with three seats to each side of the table, so that "swingers" could eat lunch or play chess and other games with each other. (Probably anyone who suffers motion sickness might avoid this seating option.)
 
I marveled at this – where did these swings come from? I walk by there several times a week and seemingly out of nowhere these appeared!

 

Was this an attempt by the city to show a fun, lighter side?  Was it a way to offer new seating while discouraging staying too long or even sleeping - because these were seats always in motion?
 
About a week after this siting, I noticed several sets of swings outside of the Building Museum, many blocks away. So it wasn't something unique to Liberty Place.
 
There is no sign, no indication of why these swing sets have appeared or who put them there.
 
Maybe they will be gone in winter. If so, perhaps they will be whimsically replaced by moving sleighs.

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The Return of the White Squirrel

I don't much care for squirrels.
 
As Carrie Bradshaw, a character from Sex and the City, once opined, "You can't make friends with a squirrel. Squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits."
 
It was a good summation as far as I was concerned.
 
But there was an outcry by city residents regarding the white squirrels, once so easily found at Franklin Square, who were now gone. Gone by the hand of gentrification of that park, apparently. I took note but didn't think too much about it.
 
Then one day I was walking on the national mall and what did I see but a white squirrel! I took out my phone and easily approached the squirrel who seemed unafraid, ready for its photo op. Was this squirrel from the former Franklin Square address – did it move to greener pastures - literally? 
 
The next day, I wanted to stop back by that area just to see if the squirrel was still there and to my delight I saw several such white squirrels. They were foraging on the ground and running up and down trees while keeping an eye on the human audience gathering to take pictures.
 
An older woman, toting a serious-looking professional camera, emerged from the crowd.
 
"You can get closer to her," she said.
 
"I was here yesterday and noticed how tame the squirrel was – but I didn't know there were so many white squirrels here!"
 
"I noticed them showing up here about two years ago. This one is called "Snowball" and she lives in that tree," the woman said, pointing to a very old, gnarly, and beautifully lush tree.
 
Surely I looked at her with skepticism but I remained silent.
 
"Oh yes, these squirrels are very territorial. That is Snowball's tree. And by the way, she had five babies a few months ago, one was albino and the others gray. And her mate lives in this tree over here."
 
"So this couple has separate apartments?" I asked.
 
We smiled to each other. But clearly, the white squirrels were serious business to her.
 
We had an extended conversation – it wasn't that I had time for that, but I was compelled to stay and listen to her stories. She showed me many pictures of these squirrels that she had taken over time. As I left her, I said I'd look for her next time I was on the mall to see what's new with the squirrels.
 
"Nice to meet you – my name is Judy," she said. I offered my first name in return. We nodded and parted ways.
 
And as I walked away, I marveled at her passion for these white squirrels, these rats in cuter outfits.

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Hot Town, Summer in the City*

The height of summer is the worst time to be in the city. Everyone looks bedraggled and unhappy except maybe for the tourists. The sidewalks seem to sizzle and pop with the heat. And pedestrians duck under shade whenever they can and otherwise limit time in the direct sun.
 
I reach a point every summer where I feel like running down the street screaming -I'd rather be anywhere else!
 
The other day, the temps were well into the 90's and the humidity was raging but I had to run an errand. So outside I went. Over the short span of about 90 minutes, I experienced a series of inexplicably maddening scenes. Here were just a few:
 
A man arrogantly and openly smoking pot on a metro platform with smoke billowing out like a chimney, forcing many of us to choke and move;
 
Another man dragging leaking, large-sized garbage bags onto the train (yes, leaking, and with God-knows-what contents) so I had to rush to get onto a different car before the train pulled out of the station;
 
A metro worker, who I simply asked whether there was a phone nearby connecting us directly to the station master above. "Yes" or "no" would have been good answers, even "I don't know." And yet, she kept shaking her head saying over and over, "I pick up trash. That is what I do. I don't do anything else." 
 
And, in the closing moments of my errand, thinking it was all thankfully almost over, I'd be home very soon, a man yelled directly into my ear:
 
"EXCUSE ME! I HAVE A TRAIN TO CATCH! EXCUSE ME! I HAVE A TRAIN TO CATCH!"
 
I was not obstructing his passage in any way, nor was anyone else, and I have no idea why mine was the ear that had to be screamed into.  (I swear he was so loud that my hearing was affected long after.)
 
So that was it – he hit my limit of tolerance for the day - and I yelled back:
 
"BFD!" 
 
Obviously, this was not my greatest moment. (Well, at least I used initials and not the words.)
 
When I got back to my air-conditioned place, errand done, I was satisfied that I survived and could kick back a bit. And hours later, totally rehydrated and settled, I went out onto my balcony – yes, outside! - and I looked down upon the world below.
 
These were just people trying to get through the day – a hellishly hot one – but a day.  And I noticed that even the traffic seemed to move sluggishly, just like the people on the sidewalk.
 
Maybe if the day had been cooler I would have hardly noticed the crazy behaviors while I ran my errand. I just should have shown more restraint a few minutes longer, not respond to the guy who was yelling about his train. I didn't need to add to the pain of the muggy, searing hot day.
 
After all, I choose city life. I have to take the bad with the good.
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*With acknowledgment to the Lovin' Spoonful song, "Summer in the City."

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A Joyous Sniffer Dog Scene

I was waiting for the subway in Union Station and noticed several people watching a scene on the train platform. In a small area under one of the escalators, there were two men, one in police uniform, interacting with a sniffer dog (a dog trained to detect hidden contraband).
 
I decided to position myself to get a better view.
 
Luggage of various sizes was strewn about the contained area. The plainly clothed man slowly walked the dog on a leash, taking him in front of each piece of luggage. When the dog correctly stopped and pawed at a certain piece of luggage, both men would praise and pet the dog, sometimes giving the dog a treat.
 
This reinforcement phase would result in apparent great joy not just to the dog but to the men also! The dog would yelp a little, sometimes raise up on hind legs as if to dance, and the men would smile or laugh and continue to offer statements of praise.
 
This training was repeated several times while I was there. After a successful trial, one of the men would move the luggage to an area where the dog couldn't see him. Then he would put the contraband inside a different piece of luggage and then would carry the various pieces of luggage back to the spot under the escalator, and place them randomly for a new trial.
 
Most people were smiling as they watched the action.  Some, like me, were fully engrossed.
 
During a break between trials, I approached the man who stood waiting with the dog while the other man was moving the contraband to another piece of luggage. "Are you training a new dog?"
 
"No – this dog is great and has done this work for a long time. We are just reminding him of the job, doing some scheduled re-training."
 
"So this is a booster session?"
 
"Yup, this is a booster." He was smiling, probably was used to a curious public.
 
Usually I hardly notice who is on the platform with me while I wait for a train to arrive. It was nice to be part of a small community engaged in such a joyous, if not quirky, scene for a short while.

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I Practice Walking Defensively

One rainy day, I was walking down 7th Street and I suddenly noticed that I was in the middle of some kind of vortex of people. They were everywhere, and seemingly trying to block my every move. 
 
There were walkers, runners, bicyclers, and worse, people on motorized scooters. People emerged unexpectedly from restaurant doorways. Some were trying to enter doorways and were standing in the way of this human traffic. And there was one person on a skateboard wearing a Darth Vader mask, gliding quickly through the masses, looking hilariously foreboding while doing it.
 
When it was time to cross a street, of course we all jammed up and had to let traffic go but as soon as the light changed, people crossed from both directions and the madness ensued for the next block.
 
Where in the heck did all of these people come from? I wasn't aware of any big events.
 
Worse, I didn't know why I hadn't noticed this scene apparently looming ahead a few blocks earlier. But then suddenly there I was, a part of street madness.
 
I bobbed and weaved and tried to avoid crashing into anyone or any vehicle. Quickly, I went into autopilot mode.
 
Then a young woman somehow fell in step near me and said, "Hi, my name is Barbara."
 
Really?!  
 
Was I wearing a nametag or something – how could she have my name?
 
I glanced at her while deftly maintaining my autopilot mode.
 
"I'd like to tell you about a church I belong to," she said pleasantly, trying to hand me a small post card.
 
"I'm not religious at all," I said. I made an attempt at a kind smile. Failed, probably.
 
"Well Jesus loves you." She didn't seem upset at all.
 
"Right," I said. And then I picked up my speed the best I could.
 
Soon after that, I nearly tripped over a homeless person who was sitting on the ground, leaning against a building, but whose legs were too far out onto the sidewalk. But I didn't fall. I wound up sort of leaping - or dancing awkwardly - over his legs. I saw that move as almost poetic on my part!
 
It suddenly occurred to me how when I was 16 years old and learning to drive, the idea of "driving defensively" was preached. Actually, I bet it's engrained in most of us. It's kind of a cultural meme.
 
But no one ever talked about learning to walk defensively!
 
Clearly this is an omission that needs to be fixed.

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