THE POCKET WATCH: A Walk in the Park

My old neighbor, Per Ostland, used to marvel at the way walking in the park next to our homes was like being a cast member in some great play. He could tick off the characters: the old guy who walks backwards, the woman who performs elaborate arm exercises as she goes, the crowd of old ladies shouting at each other in Chinese, various people and their interesting dogs, the young woman who talks on her cell phone the whole time.

I never thought much about Per’s observation at the time, because, back then, I wouldn’t be caught dead walking around the park. Then, last year, my doctor told me that I just might be caught dead if I didn’t start walking around the park sometime soon. And so, I succumbed to this medical threat, staked out a route along the greenbelt that runs throughout my neighborhood, and began incorporating a half-hour-long, 1.5-mile walk into my daily routine.

A few years back, I moved away from the park I used to share with Per, but I’ve recently realized that we host a production of the same play in this neck of the woods, with a different cast that is interesting in their own right, and Per’s observation came echoing back to me. He was right. The park is its own little world, and I’ve noticed that, if you pay attention to it, you can easily find enough interesting things going on to take your mind off of the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other for what would otherwise seem like an eternity.

The first thing I did when I embarked on this new program was to download an app to chronicle my efforts—I decided on “Runkeeper”, which was heartily recommended by a couple of friends who have made a similar conversion to exercising for exercising’s sake. I also recruited a companion to accompany me on my voyages—the family dog, a Jack Russell Terrier by the name of Trixie, who basically pulled me through the course our first couple of times out.

I noticed after those initial walks that you do tend to see the same faces out there on the greenbelt who all stick to a consistent time of day for their daily jaunt. Start your walk an hour or two later, and you get an entirely different set of characters who consistently appear at that time. One particular timeframe suits my schedule best, and I’ve enjoyed the crew that works the park at that specific time of day.

The one guy I see most consistently is a guy I affectionately refer to as the “Fit Jogger”, who, with his Labrador retriever, not only passes me and leaves me in a Roadrunner-esque poof of dust, he delivers a friendly “good morning”, impressively not out of breath in the least. I look into the camera with my best Wile E. Coyote look of resignation as he zips up the trail ahead of me, and the Warner Bros. theme music plays him out.

An older gentleman with a utility belt of water bottles seems to have sussed out Trixie’s m.o. immediately. “Good morning!” he says, then, looking at Trixie, “Tough guy, huh?” Trixie approaches every walk like this is going to be the day she finally bags one of those elusive gophers or, better yet, a crow. As fast as she is, she doesn’t have a prayer of catching either, but I do admire her optimism. The sad truth of the matter is that, if she were ever challenged by any other living creature, great or small, she would immediately dive into that universal position of dog subservience, flat on her back with her legs up.

Every five minutes, a woman from the Runkeeper app pipes up on my smartphone to tell me how far I’ve gone and what my minutes-per-mile pace is. At first, I tried to improve my time with each new outing, but then I realized that such a thing would one day have me breaking the sound barrier. Eventually, I came to appreciate all the sights and sounds that I encountered out there to the point that I don’t necessarily want to hurry through them. Like this one coming up right here, for example…

She is an older gal, in green tights, jogging with the most feminine stride imaginable. It’s like she’s running on a cloud. She’s considerably older than me, but she’s beautiful. This is probably what my wife will be like when she’s that age. And she doesn’t just say, “good morning” as we approach each other, the way most of the others do. She gives a kind of combination wave and finger point with a turn of the wrist. There’s a warm smile, too, and, wait… was that a wink? I call her “Betty”, as in “Hello, Betty…!” from the old Dentyne chewing gum commercial.

There is a woodpecker that lives out here somewhere. I can’t pinpoint the exact spot (too much loud rock and roll in my past), but that sound, like the sound of a rattlesnake rattling, is unmistakable. Sometimes it sounds like I’m directly beneath it, and then it suddenly sounds like it’s off a little further in the distance. When you’re walking, it’s like there’s nothing else to do but walk, so your mind tends to wander. With me, I catch myself slipping off into my thoughts and memories. The sound of the woodpecker brings up one of my favorite stories that my grandpa used to tell me.

When he was maybe 12 or 13 years old, living in Vacaville, he was home one day, sick in bed with the flu, trying to rest. He had finally managed to fall asleep, but, first thing in the morning, the jackhammer sound of a woodpecker against the house stirs young Grandpa from his slumber. He turns over, trying to maintain his semiconscious state, hoping that the woodpecker will fly away. No use. A few minutes later, the woodpecker is at it again. Angry at the interruption, grandpa gets out of bed, slides his window open, and spots the woodpecker working on the wood trim around his sister Annie’s window at the end of the house. With that, grandpa retrieves his .22 rifle from his closet, leans his entire torso out of the window and picks the bird off with one shot.

Next comes my favorite part of the story that I always made my grandpa repeat several times when he told it: After shooting the bird, Grandpa puts on his pants, goes downstairs and retrieves the dead bird for his mother, Grandma Juanita, who promptly plucks it and makes Grandpa some nice woodpecker soup for breakfast that morning.

Better pick it up again. The Runkeeper lady has just chimed in to tell me that my average pace per mile is now 18 minutes and 23 seconds. I remember a day when it was a matter of miles per minute rather than minutes per mile. Now look at me… Like grandpa used to say, “You can’t beat Father Time.” Man, I miss my grandpa.

I just realized that this must be my old friend Carl Packard’s house. He always used to talk at work about living next to a park, and that HAS to be his Alfa Romeo out front. There aren’t too many cars like that in Sacramento. His wife tends a beautiful flower garden in the strip of Earth that runs between their house and the walking path. I always look for Carl when I walk past. Haven’t seen him in ages, and it would be nice to catch up.

Before I know it, I’m on the last leg of my journey, I see many more members of the cast of characters, the woman who walks her immense dog and pushes her kid in a stroller at the same time; the lady with the white fluffy dog (never on a leash), and who always stops me so that she can offer Trixie a dog biscuit from her ziplock (which is the only thing, other than lettuce, that I’ve ever seen Trixie refuse to eat); the husband and wife walking team who wear matching sweatsuits. Everyone says some form of “Hello” or “Good Morning” as they pass.

When I return home, I hit “STOP ACTIVITY” on my smartphone. The Runkeeper lady then offers me my final numbers, along with an aerial view of the neighborhood with my route that day traced onto it. I swipe through the walks I’ve done to this point, all neatly filed on my phone. Technically, they’re all workouts, but if I were to consider them as such, I’d lose interest almost immediately. Luckily, they’ve become something much more to me. Visits, maybe. A promenade of visits with friends whom I don’t really know. Whatever they are, they seem to make time pass quite quickly for me, my only hope for a consistent exercise program. Further, they seem like something that only a resident of the Greenhaven/Pocket community can enjoy.

“The Pocket Watch” appears in every issue of the Pocket News. Jeff Dominguez can be reached at jeff.dominguez@yahoo.com

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