Waves of Kindness
No man is an island — especially one who walks five dogs
By Maria Johnson
The first time I saw the canine wave, a bubbling tide of blonde fur about one foot high, it was rippling down a sidewalk near Lake Brandt Road and Lawndale Drive.
A powerfully built man in a windbreaker walked behind the swell. In one hand, he gripped a massive stick that looked like it could be used to greet or beat, depending on what the occasion called for.
From the other hand, a twist of leashes fanned out to his charges. How many? One, two, three, four . . . Wait, was that one or two dogs? EYES ON THE ROAD!
It took several more sightings — and the realization that it would be easier to count leashes than furry heads or tails, all roughly the same color — for me to be confident in the number of pups.
He was walking five dogs. Not a record number, by the standards of professional dog walkers, but enough to make for a memorable sight. Big guy, big stick, big team of little dogs.
Somehow the scenario balanced. It also suggested to me a gentle strength and confidence on the man’s part. Whereas a lot of tough-looking guys seem to enjoy marching around with equally threatening-looking dogs, there’s something touching to me about a strong guy with a delicate pup.
It takes a big man to walk a little dog.
Over time, I noticed something else: The man had a loyal audience in motion, the drivers who hailed him with a steady flurry of beeps and raised hands. From far away, the man lifted his walking stick to acknowledge his public so steadily he looked like he was waving away mosquitoes.
He reminded me of Ralph Vaughn, who used to sit on his porch, near Lake Brandt Road and Kello Drive — in the very same area trod by the man with five dogs — and raise his hand every few seconds to the drivers who sounded a symphony of beeps as they passed his house.
Ralph died in 2006, but sometimes I still catch myself looking at his concrete porch, ready to see the cigar-chomping former Marine, ready to punch the center of my steering wheel and throw up my hand for a quick, “Hey.”
I’m sure I’m not the only driver who has transferred my beep-and-wave skills, honed by years of greeting Ralph, to the man with five dogs.
Sometimes, I ask myself why I bother with such a small gesture toward someone I really don’t know.
I suppose the answer is the need to connect.
We all like to be noticed, known, remembered even in the smallest ways — by the cashier who recognizes us and waves us over to her empty register; by the waiter who asks if we want the red curry with tofu, as usual; by the postal clerk who smiles at all of the packages going to our sons in New York.
These are the silky strands of belonging, the barely perceptible filaments that lift our hearts, bind us to a place and weave the shape of home.
The feeling sticks on both ends of the exchange.
Ralph Vaughn, a gruff-voiced teddy bear of a man, told me so. After open heart surgery, he took to his front porch to recuperate. The passing sparks of affection warmed him as much as much as his honking admirers.
“It seems like there’s one big family driving around out there,” Ralph said.
Mark Hunt would understand. He’s the man with the dogs.
Recently, his daughter, Cynthia-Mae Hunt, wrote a book, The Man Who Walks the Five Dogs.
In the book, Cynthia-Mae, whose family moved here from New Jersey, reveals that the dogs are shih zhus: Sir John and his mate Duchess Robyn and their three pups, Duke Turner, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the last two named for eldest children of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Typically, Cynthia-Mae writes, her father walks the dogs three times a day, shooting for 10 miles overall.
She writes how surprised and happy he was when a passing driver stopped to give him an umbrella in a sudden downpour.
She tells about a woman who once ran out of a subdivision, chasing down her dad to hand him a wooden walking stick that she had carved so he could protect himself and his tsunami of Shih Tzus.
Cynthia-Mae, who studies neuroscience in college, writes that she admires her father, who has multiple sclerosis, for his dedication to healthy living.
And she thanks the people who, in fleeting seconds, throw her father the faintest tethers of attachment, which he gladly catches and tosses back.
“Greensboro is a special place because people here show acts of kindness without any incentive,” Cynthia-Mae recently told the hosts of a local TV morning show. “I hope it shows the world and the people of Greensboro how special of a place it is.”
Sometimes, those silky strands weigh more than you think. OH
For more information, see the Facebook page for The Man Who Walks Five Dogs. Paperback and digital versions of the book are available on amazon.com.
Maria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrated by Grisel Montes for The Man Who Walks The Five Dogs