Birmingham. A public park. It was sunny. I was walking my bloodhound, Thelma Lou, trying to get her to do her business. I wore a blue plastic poop-baggy over my hand, ready for action.
The park was alive with people. People of all kinds. From all walks.
I passed a priest. The padre was elderly, with dandelion-fuzz hair. He walked on the paved track alongside a young man whose hair was in cornrows, whose skin was painted in tattoos. They were having a discussion about something evidently important.
At one point I think the boy was crying. Whereupon the priest put his arm around the young man, and they hug-walked in silence.
I also passed a middle-aged man with freckles, sitting on a blanket with his beautiful wife. They were having a fancy picnic, complete with champagne. My dog nosed around their plates, and we were instantly introduced. We talked.
“Today is our 30th anniversary,” said the woman. “We met when we were in the Air Force, overseas, in Germany.”
I asked them to say something in German.
“Ich liebe dich,” they said to each other. Then they kissed.
I asked what this phrase meant. The woman just smiled at me and said, “Look it up.”
I practiced this phrase several times, committing it to memory, using a faux German accent. But, much to their amusement, I sounded like a prodigious idiot.
Meanwhile, in the distance, I saw a busload of young Black girls filtering into the park. They were maybe 8 or 9 years old. There must have been a hundred of them.
They were running on the track, jogging in various directions, hollering, laughing, doing cartwheels. Some wore school uniforms. Many had beads in their hair.
Several girls were playing elaborate hand-clap games at breakneck tempos, shouting in loud rhymes.
“Double double this, this! Double double that, that…!”
A few of the girls were interested in my dog and followed me.
“What’s your dog’s name!?” they shouted.
“THELMA LOU!” they all swooned.
One little girl reached into her pocket to remove a handful of candy. “Does Thelma Lou like Starburst?”
Does she like Starburst? Thelma Lou’s idea of a five-star meal is cat poop á la mode. So yes, she likes Starburst. And, as it happens, so do I. So everything worked out.
Next, I met an older woman who was supervising a half dozen young adults who shuffled along the track, walking with uneven gaits and uncoordinated movements. Some of these young people were talking aloud to themselves. One of the young men was constantly slapping himself.
As I passed him, the young man spoke between slaps to his temples. “LOOK! A DOGGY!”
The next thing I knew, my dog and I were swarmed by six dog lovers. Thelma Lou had 12 hands petting her at once.
“YOU’RE SUCH A PRETTY DOGGY!” said one of the young men.
“I LOVE YOU,” said another woman.
The young man who was striking himself said, “THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME PET YOUR DOG, I NEVER GET TO PET DOGS WHERE I LIVE.”
Then I received several hugs from strangers and a few handshakes.
I nearly choked on my Starburst.
When I reached the parking area, I met two Ukrainian young men. I know that is the country they were from because they told me so. They came to Alabama for school, not long before their homeland erupted in a blood-red war.
They were eating lunch at a picnic table, speaking in rapid-fire Ukrainian. Before their meal, I noticed them praying together. I don’t speak Ukrainian, but it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to know what they were praying for.
When I asked the young men if they missed their homes, they smiled painfully, and one answered, “I miss my mother.”
When our walk was finished, my dog still had not done her business, but I was thinking about how much I’ve changed as a person over the years.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but long ago I used to think this world was indifferent to me. I felt alone, isolated, disconnected, different, outcast, and fill in the blank. But I don’t feel that way anymore. Not here. Not now. Not today.
Sometimes I look at people in public places, and I feel so similar to my fellow human that it’s bewildering. Corny as it sounds, sometimes I feel like we’re all related somehow. And I make no apologies for my corniness; I grew up watching “Love Boat.”
Still, oftentimes I wish it wouldn’t have taken me so many years to fall in love with the human race. I wish I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.
I told the Ukrainian young men that I sincerely hope they see their mothers soon.
“Thank you,” they said.
I crawled into my truck and waved goodbye. Then I noticed the young men snickering at me because, as it turned out, my hand was still covered in a vibrant blue plastic poop-baggy.
Ich liebe dich.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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