The Strangers On My Front Stoop

IN my city, there's a picturesque lane that must be in every guidebook ever published.

Having lived at one end of it for nearly a year, I've grown accustomed to camera-wielding tourists from all over the world showing up as late as midnight to click and coo.

For the most part, these visitors are courteous. But there have been exceptions.

There was the guy who decided to seek the shelter of my fire escape to change his clothes; the woman who thought she would treat herself to one of the pots of impatiens I set out on the front stoop; and the anonymous person who left two muddy footprints on the hood of my car, doubtless trying to peer into one of the lavish backyard gardens that abut the lane.

One sleepy Sunday, I heard a tremendous din outside my window. There was excited chatter, the rustling of coats, laughter, and, finally, the sound of footfalls on the slate porch right outside my door.

I hurled my newspaper angrily at the floor and headed out, readying a few choice words and my most virulent scowl.

Swinging open the door, I found, to my surprise, a group of about 14 Japanese children, no more than eight or nine years old, jostling for position on my front stoop as one of their chaperones tried to snap a photograph.

When I appeared, they eagerly waved me down, and before I knew it, I was sitting amidst these pint-sized tourists, posing for pictures.

Eager to practice their English, the students took turns saying, ``Hello. I am glad to meet you.''

Whenever they mispronounced a word or otherwise messed up, a ripple of giggling spread generally through the group.

After I had responded in kind to each of them, several of the students pulled out small notebooks, handed me pencils, and gestured for me to write.

I signed my name and wrote things like, ``I hope you have a good time in America'' and ``Thank you for visiting.''

A boy who identified himself as Taro gave me two sticks of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, a gesture deemed by his classmates and me as quite significant.

After dutifully peeking down the lane and listening to a short monologue about it, the youngsters trailed away, waving goodbye.

Right then I realized that I had become, in a matter of months, a curmudgeon.

When people travel a great distance to visit someplace, they have a natural impulse to take away something more than just pictures or to leave something more than just footprints. Remembering my collection of rocks from famous places, I realized that I, too, am guilty of that disposition.

As the last of my Japanese visitors rounded the corner, I vowed that I would never roll my eyes again at the exuberance of a tourist and that I would try, as these youngsters had, to mark my visits with a less conventional sort of souvenir.

Now, wedged between my piece of the Roman Colosseum and my slab of the Grand Canyon, there's an unopened stick of Bazooka Joe.

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