I made new friends thanks to a bench.
Our condominium association added the bench in August 2021, the second COVID summer. We bought it online; it was used and needed to be scraped, sanded and repainted. Over the course of one sunny week, I worked on the bench for several hours each afternoon.
I ran an extension cord from the lobby and threaded it outside to where I had set up my workstation.
I placed heavy plastic underneath the bench to catch the paint remover and paint scrapings, then the paint dust when I switched to an orbital sander.
Many rounds of sandpaper later, the old paint finally fell away and the raw bones of the bench emerged.
What I had not anticipated was how many people I would meet and speak with during the course of working on the bench. Nearly everyone who passed by had an encouraging word to offer. Once it was stripped and very smooth, the next two steps – priming and painting – happened quickly.
I chose a bright aqua paint that was weather-resistant and suitable for metal. After priming it and applying multiple coats of paint, it dried in the sun. It was ready to be placed.
It took a few tries for my neighbor and me to find the best angle to position it under the tree. We looped a thin metal wire around one of the back bars and encircled the tree, then added a lock as a deterrent to theft.
Now it awaits company, as if it had always been there, watching over the busy corner at Kedzie Street and Judson Avenue. The bench offers respite to those who need to catch their breath, for those burdened with packages, for friends conversing, for babysitters pushing carriages and for dog-walkers with their canine charges.
And, of course, it offers a seat for grandchildren walking with their grandparents. Which brings me to my new friends.
Daood Shah is devoted to his grandmother, Muzzamla Begum, and accompanies her on a walk nearly every evening after dinner. They must live nearby, because if they are walking, they usually stop and rest at the bench.
We first met when I was outside gardening and saw them on their walks. Our conversation started with waves and smiles. One day, I mentioned to them how happy I was to see them using and enjoying the bench. Shah translated for his grandmother, from English to Urdu and back again. We don’t talk about anything significant. We make each other laugh.
Begum is here for an extended visit, timing her arrival a few weeks before the marriage of one of her grandchildren.
She enjoyed a mild Midwestern summer spent with her family. In the coming weeks, she will return home to Pakistan. Shah has taught her how to use WhatsApp so they can still talk every day.
They’ve made other friends in the neighborhood, dog walkers mostly. I know she is not a big fan of dogs, although she politely tolerates them when they are nearby. Mainly grandson and grandmother are happy to sit and watch what happens around them as the dusk settles over the street.
After a while, they always get up and walk home.
The bench stays, awaiting the next visitor.