Friday, June 1, 2012

Mr. Argyle

Autumn has arrived in the park.  A cooling breeze paints the air with the muted hues of blue and indigo as it deftly brushes over a dying summer, a pleasantly mild wind with only a hint of the cold that will arrive with winter.  The current of air courses the length of the open lawn and curves into the grove of oaks guarding its perimeter.  Leaves tussle against the breeze, their tenacious grip on the trees weakening as they quickly age from green into the dark golds and browns of fall.  This one and that one loosen their hold and, mounting upon an invisible wave of air, dance a twisted little jig above the lawn until the wind loses its breath and the leaves float haphazardly to the earth.   As if in concert, two oak leaves circle the park bench a few yards ahead of me and settle at the feet of its occupant, Mr. Argyle.
As has been my habit for the past three years, since moving into an apartment two blocks east and three blocks north of Hayward Park, my regular running route takes me through the gated entrance of this urban oasis, along its varied footpaths and bridges and after circumscribing its boundaries returns me again to this very spot, a row of benches facing the lawn green, near to the wide wrought iron arches that bid welcome to the neighborhood.   And near to Mr. Argyle.
Across the street, a series of small shops look toward the park, attached one to the other along the length of the block, a small train of commerce having reached its destination, with a café as its engine and a quaint little bookshop anchored as caboose.  Directly in front of me, two benches distant, Mr. Argyle sits amid a scurry of fat gray squirrels and even fatter pigeons, a small paper sack cupped in his hands.  From time to time he reaches into the bag and tosses peanuts about the ground, causing a flurry of activity among his feathered and furred companions.
 Mr. Argyle comes to the park most every day.  This I know because I also come to the park most every day.   For upwards of five hundred times in the past three years, he sits and feeds the animals while I run and feed my obsession.  Yet, despite the longevity of our encounters, we are acquaintances of the urban kind, which is to say that we are not acquaintances at all – merely two strangers whose lives regularly intersect near the periphery of a green.   On occasion our gazes meet and a proper nod is exchanged.  At other times simple phrases and greetings, as small as talk becomes, is our mutual signal that we are aware of the social convention which seeks an acknowledgement of the other.       
I stretch my calves against the brick edge of the walkway, bending to the left then to the right, holding each position until the muscles say “uncle” and give up their tension.  As I stretch, I notice that Mr. Argyle has dressed for the approaching season, a crisply starched long sleeved oxford shirt underlying his signature sweater vest.   “Dapper” is an appropriate descriptor for Mr. Argyle’s dress.   “Urbane” is too contemporary for the polished but well-worn loafers he commonly wears and “proper” is too stuffy for a man whose outfit includes a wool peacoat in January.  “Dapper” it is.
The gentleman’s name who regularly supplements the diet of Hayward Park’s birds and rodents is unknown to me.   I assign him the moniker “Mr. Argyle” as a consequence of his ubiquitous habit of donning –on each and every outing to the park, save those times during the heat of summer – a sweater vest knitted with the overlapping and three-dimensional diamond patterns of varying colors and shades whose name is that of its wearer.   I’ve lost count of Mr. Argyle’s inventory of sweater vests, yet find myself anticipating each new arrival as eagerly as I might expect my next edition of Runners World magazine. 
Today the park belongs only to the two of us as it often does.  Weekday mid-mornings aren’t popular, what with school and work schedules, and the vast expanse seems at times to have been gifted exclusively for two men to enjoy at their leisure.  If it were summer, Mr. Argyle and I would be the lone patrons of the ice cream vendor making his morning rounds through the green.   I choose vanilla.  Mr. Argyle prefers pistachio in a cup, never a cone, and he saves the last few spoonfuls until it’s melted enough to slurp. 
Springtime brings argyle-patterned sweater vests of yellows and greens and a large kerchief folded and tucked in his right front pants pocket to catch the sneezes and drips courtesy of allergens.  Yet, despite the promise of a stuffy nose and enflamed sinuses, still he arrives like clockwork, feeding the animals or reading The New Yorker, sneezing and dripping through the pages.
Winters are my favorite time to run and Mr. Argyle’s favorite time to feed his cherished park creatures.  Arriving daily with bags of nuts and pieces of fruit that he most certainly prepares himself, he sets a winters banquet for the likes of doves and pigeons, gray and fox squirrels, and the occasional colony of migratory fowl that wanders through.
The last of the peanuts are scattered on the grass and Mr. Argyle rises from his bench, crumpling the bag between fisted hands and eyeing the waste basket near the entrance.  Arcing his arms upward, he propels the paper ball towards the container and it rounds the opening, disappearing inside.  “Two points,” he says, grinning in my direction.  I smile and nod.  Walking under the archway, he leaves the park and heads to the café across the street.
I continue to stretch out my quads and in a few minutes he appears in the picture window of the eatery, walking to the table just to the right of the framed glass, a smallish table meant for two but usually occupied by one, a table with a slight tilt that makes the coffee in your cup lean against one side.  I’ve sat there myself.
Stretching finished, I look about the park for a minute before gathering my water bottle and heading for the exit.  I’ll need to consider long sleeved tech shirts from now until next spring.  A cool wisp of wind confirms my thought as I cross the street and step on the sidewalk in front of the café.  Mr. Argyle spots me through the window as I meander by and he raises his cup of coffee.  I offer a wave in return.
As I walk home, I wonder which sweater vest he’ll wear tomorrow.  I wonder where the heck he buys those sweater vests and if the peanuts he feeds the squirrels come from the vendor on the corner near the bookshop.  I wonder what he does when he leaves the little café and if he knows that a festival is scheduled in the park for next weekend.  I should mention it to him.  He  especially enjoys the park during festivals.  I turn the block and begin a mental plan for tomorrow’s run.  I’ll take the long course over the far bridge and round back across the inclined pathway.  A good workout.
 He’ll probably wear something with an autumn-colored argyle print, if I had to bet.  Not that it really matters in the scheme of things.  We’re far from friends.  I don’t even know his name.

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