Strangers

“I’m not a stranger,” said the approaching stranger, as I encouraged my dog to keep all four paws on the sidewalk.

Leo and I had been on the home stretch of our morning constitutional when I spotted the man across the street. He had the wide-open face of one whose mind is still that of a child.

“Is he a nice doggie?” he had called from across the street.

“Yes,”

Dog

I’m a nice dog.

I replied with no forethought, slowing to a stop. “He’s nice.”

Leo is a nice dog—at least to me, to my husband, to my son and even, mostly, to our cat. He’s nice to our older friend, who brings our son home from school twice a week to spend time on homework and projects. He’s nice to our most regular babysitter.

But the more complete truth—and one that I tend to forget—is he’s a bit of a bastard to everyone else. Trainer No. 4 (yes, we’ve worked with that many in the two-plus years since we brought him home from the shelter) diagnosed him as “fearful,” and I’m going with that. Why else would he address everyone but the few he considers his pack-mates with a guttural, commanding bark that causes everyone around to freeze in their tracks?

This young man had started across the street toward us, and I saw that I needed to add a bit of context. “But he’s not very comfortable with other people,” I said.

The man had kept coming, smiling at Leo, the “nice” dog, as another man, who appeared to be his older caregiver, or maybe his father, waited on the sidewalk. “He’s afraid of other people,” I clarified.

“BARK!!” Leo announced, and the young man leaped back and stopped.

“Sorry,” I said, “he’s afraid of strangers.”

That’s when the young man had looked at me, from the middle of the thankfully quiet street, clearly perplexed.

“But I’m not a stranger,” he said. “I’m a boy.”

Indeed, although he had the thick body and scruffy moustache of a young man, he had the clarinet-like voice of a boy. And the innocent self-assurance with which he made his declaration kept me planted on the sidewalk. For a moment. But there was Leo, pulling like a just-hooked salmon at the end of my line.

I apologized again, wished him a good day, and hustled my parochial hound down the block, the young man’s words staying with me, heavily.

What struck me was his combination of naiveté and wisdom. In a way he was right. He didn’t fit the image of a stranger, one of those people we’re warned to avoid, “stranger danger” and all that. He is a boy, Leo is a dog, I am a woman, and we were all there in the same place at the same time, so why shouldn’t we shake hands and paws and admire one another for a moment or two? He seemed to be living out one of my father’s favorite—sometimes tongue-in-cheek—sayings: “Strangers are friends we haven’t met.”

Leo, though, seemed like so many of us now in the supercharged aftermath of the recent election. Anyone who is not in is out. Strangers, strangers everywhere, the whole country feeling like a foreign land, who are these people who voted this way and that?

But of course—as is so often the case—the real question is “why?” Why are people angry? Why are people scared? Why do my neighbors have a different attitude toward the economy, foreign policy and certain groups of people than I? The beginning of the answer is not to circle our wagons. The beginning is to greet those outside our circles, to take time to listen and begin creating solutions together.

I want to be more like the man-boy on the next block. He didn’t know me or my dog. He didn’t care about our affiliations or agendas. But he was hopeful, and he reached out to us with a smile and a question, modeling what I believe is the only way we’re going to make it through this new reality.

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