A simple greeting

One day when I was - or fancied myself to be - a hip 18-year-old, I was walking down a neighborhood street. It was a warm summer day. I was barefoot and wore a faded pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt. My hair was down to my shoulders. I had a bushy beard. A turquoise thunderbird earring. My appearance was not so abnormal for the times, but it must have been intimidating.

As I walked along I noticed a stooped elderly man making his way toward me. We were alone on the walkway, and our paths were bound to cross. Perhaps my wild appearance would make the man fearful. Should I greet him? Should I look away and just breeze past? Should I cross the street? Why such thoughts for such a simple meeting? I wonder now.

I stared straight ahead, stepped to my side of the path, and walked on. Just as we were opposite each other the man spoke. ''Good day to you,'' he said, and then he was past me.

I wish I had run back to stop him and shake his hand and wish him a good day. Even now, years later, his voice resonates in my mind.

The old man's gift was his greeting. He did not miss the opportunity to give it. I failed to give or even reciprocate the simplest touch. How often I had held back a greeting, a smile, a nod to another person, a stranger.

Jacob Bronowski ended a part of the ''Ascent of Man'' TV series with the words:''We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.'' During the past two years, living in Moscow, I often recalled the old man on the street of my hometown and Bronowski's words.

The Muscovite on the street tends to wear a cold, emotionless face that, while having nothing to do with the true Russian character, often intimidates foreigners. It is easy in such an environment to join in on the blank-faced parade.

I did my best to greet those I came into contact with on the street: the militiamen, the babushkas, the knife grinder in front of the butcher shop, the man I passed as I walked to work each morning. A nod, a smile, a word - sometimes returned, sometimes not.

One day in the middle of winter I found myself on skis chasing a Soviet friend through a birch forest on the outskirts of the city. He was giving me a workout and was so far ahead that I had lost sight of him.

Coming into a little clearing, I saw an elderly gentleman skiing toward me at a leisurely pace. The forest was silent except for our breathing and the swishing of our skis. The man obviously saw me, but he chose to look away. Thinking only of the immediate opportunity, I called out, ''Dobry dyen' '' (''Good day''), as we glided past each other.

The man did not know I was an American; we were just two people passing in a cold forest. I sped on to catch my friend. The man said nothing. I am sure he did not stop or even look back. But he heard me. Ah yes, he felt my touch.

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