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My walk with Malcolm

I don’t get out to walk much these days.

Or, I should say, I walk 15 to 20 miles a day and so don’t get out into my neighborhood like I used to.

In the last year, I’ve put over 5,000 miles on three pairs of boots. For the last three months, I have carried a route that has 623 stops and ushers me over 17.5 miles through an area of Leawood that stretches from 89th Street to 95th Street in a diagonal corridor between Lee Boulevard and Mission Road.

That’s all good. I have seen changes over the last months on this route. People have moved in and out. The houses under construction when I started now have residents—hopefully happy ones. My customers have established relationships with me. Several people regularly come out of their houses at my approach to say something nice and get their mail. Everyone is happy to see me.

But I wonder what’s happened in my own part of town. Before I started with the Post Office, I walked our two pups, Molly and Sadie, two to four miles through the Westside and Downtown. Over the last decade, I watched buildings fall and new ones rise in their places. Empty, litter-strewn lots and fields sprouted luxury apartments. The population of the neighborhood grew and the demographics changed. More and more white people moved in, displacing the Hispanic and Black neighbors. Young up-and-comers built their massive dream homes and forced property taxes through the roof.

I was just fine witnessing these changes, though I wasn’t always happy with the changes themselves. I don’t fight the act of aging. I’m older now than a host of my friends who where once my age. Their passings cemented in my mind the fragility of life and its frighteningly short duration.  

Better said, many of the people I grew up with, came to know over the years, formed relationships with have become very old men and women—they have become as old as any human being gets. Nobody gets any older than dead. I suppose that because I have yet to join the ranks of the cremated, buried, and forgotten. I’m still a very young man.

I am fortunate to have a wide group of friends and acquaintances. Before the Post Office, before Coronatime, I was meticulous about keeping in touch with these people. Poetry readings, literary events, cups of coffee shared on sidewalks. I made an effort to get out with them as often as I could. Working 65- to 70-hour weeks over the last year put an end to most of that. We have the phone now. And texts and social media. Somehow, it just doesn’t take the place of seeing these human beings in the flesh.

I miss taking them into my arms, seeing their facial and bodily tics and quirky ways. You can’t smell your friend over the phone, the kind of soap and shampoo they use. You can’t smell how their deodorant or body spray or perfume mixes with their personal flavors and makes odors unique to them.

All this is why, when my friend Malcolm sent me a message offering to come to my house and take a walk with me, I jumped. I hadn’t seen him since I started at the Post Office. We are not close. In fact, we are just now coming to know one another in ways that will bond us for a lifetime.

He came at the right time of day. I had a five-day break-in-service at the Post Office. Normally, I get a day off about every eight days. But the USPS essentially has to fire me for five days a year, so they don’t have to pay me a good wage and the slate of fed-employee benefits. (This will change soon when I convert from assistant to career-status employee.) I hadn’t done anything but gain weight and fold clothes for five days. The break after a year of hard work and mistreatment did me well. But Malcolm arose me from my somnambulant state. It was late afternoon going on evening. The weather was crisp but warm enough to get by with a jacket.

I leashed up the dogs, donned my mask, and set out with Malcolm. He wanted at some point to see the river. With little effort and at a saunter, we walked up through the neighborhood around the schoolyard and Jarboe and Mulkey parks. Crossing the 14th Street bridge over I-35, we moved along up Pennsylvania toward Case Park.

He listened patiently as I told him about life at the Post Office, its quirks and routines. He asked questions that kept the conversation going for some time, probably as far as 12th and Pennsylvania where the old apartment and hotel buildings that still stand on 12th Street meet newer developments and office buildings from the 1950s to 1980s.

When conversation turned to him and how his last year has gone, he told me of personal health setbacks that reaffirmed to me what I am absorbing about the tentativeness of life. He suffered conditions that limited his movement and threatened him with disability. I was ashamed to say that on this break I had actually been to the doctor and found that I’m in stellar shape. But he survived a brush with death and is getting better every day. I admired his strength of will and character. Lesser men, including me, would not have come out of an ordeal like his with the perspicacity and good cheer he displays.

All along the way, each easy step—and these steps were easy compared to my mail-carrier pace—I noticed how things in the neighborhood had changed in the last year and I remembered the vast changes I’ve seen since 1996, when I first moved into the neighborhood.

Sometimes, when I witness things moving along incrementally, I struggle to see just how vast the changes become over time. As I walked with Malcolm, I saw that people in the neighborhood have built addendums to their houses and yards. I was able to understand that, looking at this apartment building or another, they had not been there five years ago. I could see in my mind the empty lots and overgrown alleys. I remembered the construction crews and excavations, the foundations being formed and poured, the walls being erected, the final touches being put into place.

When we arrived back at my house a little over two and a half miles later, I bid Malcolm good bye at his car. With the virus, I wasn’t able to hug him on our parting. But that will come.

As I entered my door and unhooked the dogs, I was struck by what we had seen from the point at Case Park. There, we looked down the hill toward the river. Everything was changing. The city is remaking itself. People are moving, dying, growing old. But there was the river. The eternal fact of Kansas City. It made me realize again that for all my trying, there will be a city here when I have become as old as anyone ever gets.

I’m grateful to Malcom for getting me out of my chair. It made me feel just how young I still am.

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