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Under My Hat: You never know about the people you meet

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    This quiet, small-town Lafayette Street neighborhood was rocked by a brutal domestic stabbing over Thanksgiving. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published December 15. 2017 07:46PM

I became familiar with Robert B. Bailey on my daily 4-mile walk through town.

He walked daily, too, and his strong physique offered proof. He was 52 and in great shape. Nice-looking man. Neat and trim, sporting a buzz-cut.

“I work at the plant up in Hometown,” he said, referring to his job as a packer at a rural manufacturing site.

Whenever I ran into him, I walked alongside and we talked until reaching his house on Lafayette Street.

I know the neighborhood very well. I grew up on Broad Street, two blocks away.

When I was a kid, the Kakareka family lived at Robert’s place. But time has moved on and the neighborhood has changed.

Robert told me he didn’t own a car. So he trekked more than 3 miles uphill to his job, always a coffee in hand, or maybe a cigarette.

Yet he’d never accept a lift, not even from someone he knew.

“Nope,” he said. “I’d rather walk. When I walk, it’s my time to think.”

Somehow, it made sense. Robert was contemplative, independent and serious. He rarely smiled. He walked and walked, always deep in thought.

“I might bid for a new job,” he told me. “Working the forklift. I know how to operate it and it’d be more pay for me.”

I admired his work ethic and told him so.

One cold winter day I saw him taking a coffee break at McDonald’s and I sat with him.

“I give you a lot of credit,” I said. “In a day when lots of people don’t want to work, you not only put in a 10-hour night shift, but you hike uphill on a busy highway. And in the winter you do it in darkness.”

He didn’t respond.

“Aren’t you afraid of being hit by a truck?” I said.

“Nope,” he replied in his usual, stoic manner. “When your time is up, it’s up.”

One day early last year, he seemed to be unusually upbeat.

“I’m gonna get married,” he told me.

“Good for you, that’s great,” I responded.

I knew he had a girlfriend; he mentioned her a few times.

Sometime after the ceremony, he told me he was looking for work. He apparently left his job at the plant.

I didn’t question why, or ask what happened. I understood Robert to be a very private person. If he wanted you to know something, he’d tell you.

“I’m gonna get a job at Amazon in Pittston,” he said, in his direct, brusque manner.

“Wow,” I replied. “That’s a good hour north of here. How will you get all the way to Pittston each day when you didn’t have a ride to Hometown?”

“I have buddies who work there,” he explained. “I can ride along.”

After that, I didn’t see Robert for quite some time.

I figured he was working out of town.

But we met up again by chance on Thanksgiving Day about a block from his house.

He was walking a cute little dog. The morning air was chilly and the dog wore a sweater, which reinforced my positive thoughts about Robert. Anybody who cares about animals is a friend of mine.

Robert looked at me and said, “You even walk on Thanksgiving Day?”

“Oh sure,” I answered. “One day is like another. So, how’s your new job in Pittston?”

“No, I’m not working; I didn’t get the job,” he said. “I failed the background check because of my past and what I did in New Jersey.”

I paused, not sure what to say.

I decided not to ask about his trouble in New Jersey. I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know.

We chatted a while longer. Then I continued on my way, where I saw his wife, Diane, sitting on the porch. I stopped and we talked — mostly about the weather. She was pleasant and outgoing. So very charming and friendly.

They’re opposites and a perfect match, I told myself. Opposites attract.

He’s deep and quiet. She’s bubbly and personable. Yes, a perfect match.

Just three days later, I heard an emergency radio dispatch.

Some kind of scuffle broke out on the sidewalk at Lafayette Street.

Turns out, Diane was savagely attacked and stabbed to death in front of her house.

Robert was picked up a few blocks away, carrying a bloody knife.

I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say. It’s just so tragic and I can’t make sense of it.

I’ll probably never figure it out.

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