There is an old man in our neighborhood. He walks slowly, hunched over and using two canes. He only wears button-up, long-sleeved flannel shirts, no matter the temperature. Every day - rain, shine, snow, or sleet - he walks his even older dog across the street to the expansive, grassy playing field by the elementary school so they can both get a little fresh air, and maybe the dog can feel some grass between his toes.
In the last five months since we moved to this neighborhood, I have watched him get progressively weaker. Back in October, he used only one cane, and the sunny, surprising days of good weather gave him an almost-jaunty gait. Winter must have been hard on him, though; now he leans heavily on two, and they wobble as they take his weight. I wonder if he has anyone who takes care of him. I wonder if he would be angry or embarrassed if I stopped and offered to keep him company or to walk his dog.
I don't know why I don't try. I don't know why I think this kindness might be met with anger.
This neighborhood is filled with contradictions: young families just starting out, complete with hipster-approved sideburns and pegged jeans, and older single people on the other end of life's spectrum, winding down. Adding one cane to the mix. And then another.
A farmer's market on one corner and a 7-11 on the other. Modern, renovated rowhouses on one street and houses with porches propped up with two-by-fours on the other. A bright, sunny park that used to be a place to buy and sell drugs. A few alleys with dark corners.
I love this city. I love the little pockets of beauty and community, all 250 neighborhoods that have their own flavor and feeling.
But as I watch the old man tottering up the hill, snow-faced senior dog leading the way, I think about what really makes a place. It's the people in that place. It's the way they treat themselves, and then each other. If you ask a little kid to draw a neighborhood they might draw a circle with houses all around, or maybe the winding streets of suburbia, or maybe rectangles in a row with triangle tops like so many of Baltimore's houses. But it's the people, shoveling each other's sidewalks in the snow or holding packages or watching the house when you're out of town. If those small bits of kindness, those free gestures, don't happen, then a place is lean and spare. Penurious in a way that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with spirit.
So the next time I see him I will stop. Maybe I will pretend I am just out for a walk myself, and stop to pet his dog, or comment on the weather. We are moving into our renovated house in a few weeks, and I have already waited too long.