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Familiar Strangers

Every afternoon, right before supper, she would appear.  It was the early 80's, so her cat-eye glasses and sandy-colored (does she, or doesn't she?) beehive did not seem uncommon. Her lips curled downward into a scowl, and she stared straight ahead.


I called her the Chihuahua Lady.  She walked her tiny Chihuahua Taco down our street every day, a well-known fixture in our neighborhood.  A few times we would stop our play and rush over to see Taco, a fawn Chihuahua with a long tongue that wagged with his bouncy gait.  Neither of them were especially interested in children, but her route must've been routine, children be damned.


I wouldn't say the Chihuahua Lady was rude, but she wasn't overly friendly either.  Just polite enough.  She and Taco had a job to do, and sweaty, eager children weren't going to slow them down.


Still, she was a familiar sight.  When I saw her turn the corner and walk down my street, the leash out in front, Taco obscured by the brick walls in front of each of our homes, there was a sense of comfort in it.


We felt the same way whenever we heard the Ding-a-Ling Lady.  I have few talents in life, but one of them seems to be the ability to give nicknames.  It wasn't long before Chihuahua Lady and Ding-a-Ling Lady were household names.


Ching, ching, ching--the Ding-a-Ling Lady was a weathered woman with frizzy grey hair.  She usually wore a white sunhat, white t-shirt and jean shorts and rode a bike with a giant freezer attached to the front.  On the handlebars, she had attached a little brass bell that jangled whenever she pulled the long string.  She would sell you a red, white, and blue bomb pop, fudgesicle, creamsicle, strawberry shortcake popsicle, or ice cream sandwich.  The most expensive item was a dime, some could be purchased for a nickel.  I remember one time, feeling particularly rich, I "tipped" her and gave her a dollar for a couple of my items and told her to keep the change.  She protested, but I insisted.  I felt good about myself that day.  It was the first time I had tipped anyone.


Another familiar stranger was Startrucker. He wore a London Fog trench coat, looked a bit like Charles Manson with his long black hair and long black beard, and he mumbled incoherently to himself as he rambled down the sidewalks of our small town.  The theories abounded.  Since I grew up in a college town, it was no great leap to say he was professor who had fried his brain on LSD.  Everybody claimed that he was rich, came from rich parents, but that he had a mental disorder.  I never remember being frightened of him.  We probably all should've been.  We were children.  But, it was the early 80's and we didn't think that way yet.  So, if we passed him on the street, in our traditional Midwestern way, we nodded and smiled, "Hello."  He may or may not have replied.  But, at least we maintained our cultural heritage and friendly politeness to strangers.


Earlier this year, I bought a puppy, a Chihuahua.  I walk him several times a day around my apartment complex.  Some of my elderly neighbors look for him.  When he was gone for a few days, they all asked about him.  Where's Edgar?  One of my neighbors is in his 80's, has a heart condition, but he smiles and waves every time I see him.  When Edgar returned from his time away, I swear this man bounded down the stairs to pet and scratch my tiny puppy.  Children race out of sliding patio doors and rush to chase him and romp with him.  They don't know my name, but they know his.  Just like I knew Taco's name but not his owner's. 


The other day, a woman came out of her apartment as Edgar and I walked by.  She smiled and fawned over Edgar and his unique brindle coat.


                "Can I pet him?" she asked.


                "Absolutely," I replied.


                "I've seen you walking him every day. He's so adorable."


I smiled.  When I was a child, I found comfort in those familiar strangers.  I never thought that one day I would be one.  Knowing this changed my walks with Edgar.  We are familiars.  The sight of us makes people remember their own childhoods, transforms the isolation of an apartment complex into a neighborhood with smiles and friendly nods.


If only Edgar could've known Taco.