The Morning Commute

Posted by Doug Shidell, May 15th, 2017

Burl walks with his shoulders high and rolled forward. His head leads his shoulders by a couple of inches, but otherwise his posture is upright, especially for an 80-year-old man. I first noticed him several years ago on my morning bike commute. He always looked to be hunched against the wind, even on a calm summer morning.

I waved and said “Good Morning.” It startled him, but he managed a “Hi!” in a voice too low to hear. Although I could read it on his lips. We repeat the routine whenever we pass each other. That simple exchange inevitably raises my spirits.

Others notice.The dog walker in Hyland Park, for example, picks up the vibe and says “Good Morning.” In early spring and late fall he walks the trails wearing a heavy jacket with wool hat, gloves …and shorts.

The runner doesn’t notice. He runs with a heavy shuffle. The balls of his feet land with a thud and shift forward with each step. He runs with a permanent grimace, eyes mostly closed and head down. I see him frequently. We pass within inches of each other each morning, but we’ve never exchanged a greeting.

For one glorious summer, I saw a young woman gliding the trails each evening. She skated with a sweeping exuberance unlike any other inline skater I’ve seen and it showed in a radiant smile that engulfed everything ahead of her. I didn’t see her for at least one season, then she returned with a male companion. I haven’t seen her since.

There are people who I don’t expect to see again. The elderly couple, for example, with squeaky bike chains. I saw them several times per week for a couple of seasons. They disappeared for a while, then one morning the man was on the trail alone. It was the last time I saw him.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the older woman who walked the morning trails regularly in full sun protection: a large floppy-brimmed hat, long sleeves and a loose piece of material draped over her hands.

One morning I waved to Burl as I passed, then spontaneously slowed, circled back and introduced myself. That’s when I learned his name and his age. He worked in the warehouse at Super Valu and felt a lifelong gratitude for the way they treated him. His niece, a Physical Therapist, got him to start walking, something he does daily. In winter, he walks the mall. That’s all I know about him. I don’t know if I’ve spelled his name correctly and I can’t guarantee that the details of our conversation are accurate. It doesn’t matter.

I saw him again last week, after nearly a month. I felt a sense of relief, waved and said Good Morning. He said Hi and raised a hand. A few minutes later the dog walker said Good Morning and the runner passed by without a word.

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