I’ve lived in Berkeley long enough–more than 30 years, more than half my life–that I’ve become familiar with a whole cast of characters who are actually total, or nearly total, strangers. Store clerks, panhandlers, fellow passengers on the train, commuters who stroll through the neighborhood. There have always been a few of these unknown ones who don’t fit into any of those predictable slots. Just people I’ve seen over and over during my walks. Most memorable is a man with whom I happened to ride to San Francisco one day in the casual carpool from North Berkeley BART. I had seen this guy before and never had any occasion to interact. But on this particular morning, we wound up in the same car with a man driving over the Bay Bridge into the city. Somehow, the driver’s occupation came up. He was a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. That information prompted my fellow passenger to disclose that he was on the way to see a doctor. He was being examined for prostate trouble, which he proceeded to describe in generous detail. Quite a performance, and for years afterward, whenever I chanced to pass this guy on the street, I’d ask, “How’s your prostate?” Coming from a complete stranger, the query always got a startled look.
There’s another guy I’ve been seeing on the street for decades. The reason I first noticed him was his hair: blond, waist length, and very lank and straight. He walks with an almost unnaturally erect posture and always seems to have a serious expression and to keep his eyes straight ahead. He walks a lot, I think, and walks a little faster than I do. I’ve encountered him dozens of times in different neighborhoods and even up in the hills. We’ve lived in our neighborhood since the late ’80s, which is probably when I started seeing this guy. I know I’ve aged in those years. He hasn’t aged much. We’ve never spoken in all those times we’ve passed each other, and I’ve wondered who this severe-looking hard-walking stranger is.
A few months ago, Kate and I were out on a Saturday morning walking The Dog. We made one of our regular turns, and up ahead I saw the long-haired stranger. He was wearing a white bathrobe and was picking up something from his lawn; I think he was dealing with a leaky sprinkler or something. We said something as we passed–“Good morning,” I guess–and he responded with a friendly “good morning” of his own. That’s all that happened. But it was enough to make me feel like I had some connection to this stranger after all these years. And for all I know, he (and how many others?) have been wondering about me, too.