A month ago I read an article about a man named Al Nixon.
Al spends nearly every morning on a park bench in St. Petersburg, Florida, watching the sun rise and the people go by.
His simple, consistent presence – and his open body language as he sits, legs outstretched, arms resting on the back of the bench – invites people to wave, say hello, or stop for a quick conversation. Over the seven years he has been relaxing on his bench, Al has listened and offered advice to many.
This CBS News article includes a nice video interview with Al and some of the people who have come to rely on his calming presence.
Al credits the start of his routine – his being at the bench each morning – to a stranger who stopped to talk to him after he’d been sitting on the bench for about a week as a way to work through his own troubles. “I know, when I see you sitting there, that everything is going to be alright,” the woman said, and Al realized his presence could have a purpose beyond himself.
Al’s story reminded me of a man I fondly remember as Green Lake George.
And yesterday, running with Conall on leash along a local road, Conall pulling me in his eagerness, I thought of George again. George and dogs, especially eagerly-pulling Alaskan Malamutes, go together in my memories.
From late 1985 until 2005 I lived in the suburbs north of Seattle, not far from an urban park with a lake at its center: Green Lake. It’s a popular place. People picnic, toss Frisbees, flirt and sunbathe on the well-kept lawns; walkers, runners and cyclists circle the lake on its dirt and paved three-mile paths; a boathouse supports high school rowing crews and helps kayakers and sailors learn boating skills.
And some people, like George, go there to fish.
At the south end of the lake are the remains of a large outdoor theater, built in 1950 as part of the City of Seattle’s first Seafair Summer Festival. The Aqua Theater boasted a floating stage surrounded by a moat, a floating platform for an orchestra, high-dive platforms and grandstand seating for 5,600 spectators. For several years, the facility hosted the Aqua Follies and their “swimusicals” combining aqua ballet, stage dancing, and comedy. Bob Hope performed there. In May 1969, The Grateful Dead gave a concert there, and in August 1969 Led Zeppelin played, but that was the last event held at the Aqua Theater because the grandstand was found to be unsafe due to lack of maintenance. In 1970, most of the facility was dismantled and the remains repurposed, including a storage space for small boats rented to the public. A dock for launching crew boats, kayaks and sailboats extends from where the old floating stage was, and a concrete walking pier was added nearby.
It was near the old theater’s remains where I first encountered George.
While in my twenties, attending the University of Washington from 1977-1980, I fell in love with Green Lake. I appreciated its year-round accessibility, safety, and park setting. It was just two miles from my off-campus apartment. I had dabbled in running since 1975, but having Green Lake nearby during those years turned me into a true runner. After a five-year detour, to law school in a different city and my first legal job on the other side of the state, I returned to the Seattle area in 1985, living in a neighborhood just six miles north of Green Lake. I joined a running club that met at a YMCA just a mile from the lake. Our regular Wednesday-after-work runs included a loop around Green Lake or a speed workout on the park’s track, while our longer Saturday morning runs often incorporated one or more loops around Green Lake.
The people watching at Green Lake was hard to beat.
So it was natural, when I added Alaskan Malamute Maia to my life in 1999, that as soon as she was old enough, I took her running with me at Green Lake. (Before that, I spent many happy hours walking puppy Maia at the lake, where people gushed over her.) Because Maia was an enthusiastic and strong runner, I used what’s called a Gentle Leader head halter so that she wouldn’t pull me off my feet when she spied a squirrel.
In 2001, I added Meadow, another female Alaskan Malamute, to our pack. Soon after Meadow arrived, I discovered that trying to handle two leashes while walking with the girls was too difficult. The girls would wind around each other, around me, around sign posts or people wanting to meet them, getting us all tangled. So when Meadow was still a puppy, I bought a coupler – a device made of leash-type webbing, about 18 inches in length, with an O-ring in the middle where the leash attaches and clips on each end that attach to each dog’s collar. One leash, two dogs. At first I tried attaching the coupler to each girl’s head halter, but when puppy Meadow suddenly pulled hard one direction, it pulled Maia’s halter tight, which was hardly fair since she wasn’t doing the unwanted pulling. I ditched the halters and worked hard with them on verbal commands – “Leave it!” and “Whoa!” – to keep them from pulling me off my feet when they saw something exciting.
I used “Whoa!” a lot.
Mostly, that worked.
Except when it came to George.
I don’t remember how many times we ran past George before discovering he had dog treats – lots and lots of dog treats – in the bucket he used as a seat while “fishing” at the edge of the lake. (I put fishing in quotes because I don’t think George cared a whit about catching anything other than smiles and conversations with others at the lake.) George was a big Black man – tall and portly – and always in the same spot, much like Al Nixon on his park bench. A familiar sight. George always seemed to be chatting with someone, often other men of his age (fifties, sixties, seventies – I never knew how old George was, and he was one of those men impossible to age) who also pretended to fish. But George was different, more gregarious and outgoing, always greeting and talking to passersby as well as his fishing pals. I could tell George was a happy, friendly man.
One day, for some reason – probably for me to drink from the water fountain on the side of the boathouse next to the Aqua Theater, or for the girls to get a drink from the lake – we stopped near George. The girls pulled me toward him, and he encouraged them by reaching his hand out for them to sniff.
“Can they have a treat?” George asked me.
“Yes, of course!” I replied.
George took the lid off his bucket/seat and reached for a plastic bag. The girls, like all sensible dogs, immediately perked up, knowing treats often appear from of plastic bags. I asked the girls to sit, which they did, eyes and ears focused intently on George and his bag. He gave each girl a treat, then another, and another…until I finally asked him to stop, afraid they were getting an entire day’s worth of calories and wouldn’t want to finish our run!
We left George happy, me smiling big, the girls with extra spring in their strides.
From that day forward, Maia and Meadow always searched for George at Green Lake.
If we were running, they would pick up the pace as we neared the Aqua Theater until they were pulling me so fast I could hardly keep up. People walking or running on the path would see us coming and quickly jump aside, amused at the spectacle we provided. George would hear the commotion, give a big hearty laugh and start reaching for his bag of treats to be ready when the girls arrived. Having asked me their names early on, he’d call out, “Maia! Meadow!” in his deep baritone, which only spurred them on. George would then wait for the girls to sit – they didn’t need to be asked, they knew the drill – and give them their treats.
One time while running around the lake, the girls, sensing George ahead, started truly running. I tried to keep up while simultaneously pulling back on the leash, but ultimately I had to drop it to avoid being pulled off my feet and dragged. Off the girls ran, full speed. I knew they would make a beeline for George, but still, I worried they might accidentally knock someone off their feet in their rush to get to him, so we immediately started working on the command “Easy!”
I was strong enough then to (usually) control the girls when they decided to pull, although I think most people seeing us at Green Lake doubted it because I’m not very big. But I’m strong for my size! My upper body always got a workout when George was at the lake, because with time the girls were able to sense (smell) his presence from the moment we got out of the car and started our run at the other end of the lake, pulling hard for a good 1.5 miles to reach him as fast as I would allow. (Too bad I couldn’t enter 10K road races with the girls running toward George; I would have set a PR for sure!)
Some days the girls wouldn’t pull. And sure enough, when we got to George’s beach, he wasn’t there.
I remember only one time they were wrong about George’s presence. They pulled me half way around the lake, but when we got to George’s usual spot, we didn’t find him. Maybe he’d just left. The girls were crestfallen. And once, for a period of several weeks, we didn’t see George. I was worried. Had he died? Or was he hospitalized? The girls missed him, always checking, always hoping, each time we ran past George’s beach. Eventually George reappeared. The girls were ecstatic. I told George the girls had missed him, and that made him happy.
Like the woman who told Al Nixon that seeing him each morning on his bench meant everything was going to be all right, I always felt that all was right in my world when we saw George fishing at the edge of Green Lake. He never failed to make us happy, just by being there, smiling broadly and offering the girls some treats. I always exchanged pleasantries with George when we saw him, but I never stuck around long enough to really talk and get to know him. I regret that, now. I wonder what his backstory was. I wonder why he had so many treats for dogs – his bag was large; he never ran out; he never failed to have treats with him. Was he missing a dog from his past? Or maybe, unable to have a dog of his own, he was gathering unconditional love from the dogs at the lake? Or perhaps he knew that giving treats to dogs was a great way to meet their humans.
I wish I had a picture of George and the girls. But those were pre-cell phone days. I didn’t carry a camera on those runs. Eventually I moved away and never saw George again. I have no idea how his life played out.
As I walked with Finn and Conall through our neighbors’ fields this morning, thinking about writing this post, I pondered whether I could be a George or an Al. Imagine the people you’d meet, the stories you’d hear. Talk about fodder for blog posts! The sheer number of media outlets that covered Al’s story earlier this year is testament to the universality of the theme and the need for that sort of social connection. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel so helpful, useful, and appreciated? But I had to admit that I could never do it. It takes an extrovert to thrive on the frequent interactions, to feel energized by so much contact. I’m an introvert, and as much as I might enjoy each interaction individually, string a few together and I would start feeling overwhelmed and drained, as I often did hearing the sad and troubled stories of my family law clients. I’d need to go home and take a nap.
On the flip side, I suspect it’s mostly introverts like me who avail themselves of the Georges and Als out there, appreciating their quiet, calm and easy friendliness, with no social strings or obligations attached. Just enough connection to provide us a social boost when we engage, with the comfort of knowing they’re there if we need them. Such simple yet meaningful and welcome therapy.
We need more people like George and Al. People who, simply by being in a place, day after day, year after year, offering a kind and welcoming presence, without judgment, make the world a brighter place.
Feature photo: Drone image of Green Lake, looking south toward Lake Union and downtown Seattle, Mt. Rainier in the hazy distance on the left. Photo: Reddit.