Every morning I walk in a park similar to the one in The People In The Park. The horseshoe-shaped walking trail is 3 miles. Set in a small college town near Kansas City, the park borders the Missouri River on one side and railroad tracks on the other. On the other side of the railroad tracks is the college.
I first saw the park while attending a concert at the college. Lush green trees created the perfect backdrop for the river. It seemed so peaceful. I just had to walk there! At the time I was walking in another beautiful setting at a community college. But it paled in comparison to the serene waters of the river. First I walked in this oasis once a week. Then two times a week. Soon I had to be there every day. So every morning I make the 10 mile trek to the park to start my day in a beautiful inspiring setting.
In spring the sweet smell of newness fills the air. In summer the park is filled with children, walkers, students, and festivals. In fall the bright colors of the leaves create a kaleidoscope. In winter the trees are barren but the water in the river still flows.
Stately black wrought iron benches line the trail and face the river. I never saw anyone sitting on the benches. So I started bringing a book and after I finished walking I’d sit on a bench and read, or think, or plan my day.
I was fascinated when I first started walking there. Everybody seemed to know everybody. They would walk awhile and stop to chat when they met up on the trail. Belong long people would stop and want to know what I was reading. That’s how my relationship with the people in the park started. Through books. Sometimes I had a novel. Other times an inspirational book. Through books I learned about the people in the park. What they believed. What they wanted out of life. Their celebrations. Their heartache. Their pain. They shared with me their life stories. Now I know the people in the park and am considered one of them.
I’ve had interesting conversations with the people in the park. There are interesting people who walk there. For instance, there is a former member of the Platters singing group. He proudly brought me newspaper articles about him. So fascinating. He models now. When he got a commercial he shared the news. He was proud to be a spokesperson for a bank. When the print ad came out, he brought me a copy. I shared in his joy.
An opera singer. A playwright. Teachers. A former professional football player. Entrepreneurs. Doctors. Parents of students at the Air Force Academy. I’ve met them all.
Couples get married. Birthday parties. Family gatherings. Company picnics. Concerts. It all happens in the park.
When my book, The People In The Park, was published, word spread through the park like wildfire. The most frequently asked question I received was, “Am I in it?” I answered, “No.” The reactions were either disappointment or joy.
One day I was sitting on a bench thinking about a new story. My thoughts were interrupted by a retired policeman who inquired about my book. He had heard about it from someone in the park. He pulled out his wallet and said, “I want a book.” I don’t have the heart to tell retired people to go to the bookstore or order online. So I took his money, promising to get a book for him. At that moment, a woman neither of us knew was walking towards us on the trail.
When she saw him give me money she almost fell in the Missouri River. I can only imagine what she was thinking since I am African-American and the retired policeman is Caucasian.
The walkers have changed in the 5 years I’ve been walking there. Most of the people I knew in the beginning have moved on and new faces are becoming regular walkers. But the character of the park hasn’t changed.
The park serves as a mini-community of friends. A place to discuss the latest local and national news. A place where people aren’t shy about expressing their political and religious views. Regular walkers recognize me and speak and inquire about my day. Nobody is too busy to stop and share a morning greeting.
One morning I was sitting on a bench reading and a man stopped to talk. He had never talked to me before. He said, “My wife died.” I was shocked. I’d just seen his wife and talked to her the week before. He told me the details. She had simply gone to sleep that Sunday night and never awakened. After a few more words, he said, “I just wanted to talk to somebody who knew my wife.” My being there in that moment comforted him.
Her sudden passing was hard on the people in the park. She was in her mid-40′s and had a 13-year-old son at home. The walkers rallied around him and shared in his grief. He doesn’t walk in the park anymore. Too many memories.
I wanted a community just like this one for Lauren, the main character in my book. The people in the park are there for Lauren while her parents are consumed with their problems.
The people in the park I walk embody the true meaning of community. When I lived in a big city and walked in a park not once did I see people stopping to chat with someone who crossed their path. The people in this park look out for each other. If a week or two goes by and they haven’t seen anyone, they inquire of others about them.
Last year I was out of town for 2 months straight. When I returned to the park everybody wanted to know, “What happened to you? We missed seeing you.” Now when I’m going to be away, I always inform the regulars that I’m leaving town.
The people in the park where I walk hold a special place in my heart. Through them I’ve come to understand the true meaning of the kindness of strangers.
I’d love to write their stories for real one day.