When we got our first family dog, I was surprised to learn a new way to walk. Not the forward and up-to-sky and skyline gaze of an architect, but the down-and-outward search of an 8-inch-tall fur ball of pent-up energy. Unseen sounds and smells guide Hey Dan (or HD, though my daughter insists his name is Hayden) as I work to remain untangled, surging left toward the granite cornerstone, then pivoting back toward the bike chained to the street tree fence, and then stopping, listening with ears cocked, anticipating the dog rounding the next corner. Here, a recurring dynamic unfolds — the gravitational pull of dogs straining on their leashes, circling toward each other, whether old friends or new acquaintances.
HD's unquenched drive to encounter anyone and everyone who passes by, dog or human, feels like a referendum on our Northeastern norm of passing one another without much acknowledgment, eyes averted, moving in our own lanes. Walking with him, I break out of my lane, waving good morning at 5:25 to the woman tossing our morning paper from her slow-moving car, conversing at 8 AM with our neighborhood plumbing contractor (who is always at the ready with a doggy treat) while his dog and mine check each other out, and running into unknown neighbors in the evening who say hello to HD and recount having seen my wife or daughter on a previous walk.
With HD, I navigate my neighborhood much more often than ever before. I encounter the daily parade of its different groups: the early risers, the workforce marchers, the families hand in hand on the way to school or to the playground, the university students hauling books during the day and laundry at night, the elderly couples strolling, the joggers and boot campers, the shopkeepers leaning out their doors, the liquorstore manager who welcomes dogs as well as their owners—and, of course, my fellow dog walkers, with their stop-and- start pace.
On each outing, I encounter my neighborhood, brick paver by brick paver. I decipher the complex micro-topography of our sidewalks: looking for the story behind missing pavers, feeling the slow progress of a tree trunk warping my path, pacing myself to the rhythm of stooped entries and cellar doors, marveling at the variety of mini gardens in planters. I map the pattern of quiet streets and active streets and measure their narrowness. With each trace of former storefronts converted to ground-floor housing, I think of the fragility of retail in our neighborhood and worry that I should be a better customer in the future.
Even the messy stuff of dog ownership is instructive. Being responsible for a dog in the city, ever ready with extra plastic bags, has made me hyperconscious of our mutual responsibility for keeping our streets and sidewalks clean. Walking a city's open spaces — its streets and plazas, parks and waterfronts — is what I remember most vividly about cities I've visited and has always been the best way to get to know a place. For 30 years, I have been grateful for living in such a walkable city as Boston, and these days, I am seeing my neighborhood anew. It's a slower, friendlier place — a place where we pick up after ourselves and look after one another. My corner of the city feels a bit more village-like, each time I traverse familiar terrain to walk the dog.