Matthew Gilbert

Matthew Gilbert is the TV critic at the Boston Globe. He appears on a weekly show about TV called “We Like to Watch” at BostonGlobe.com, has written for Slate and appeared on NPR. Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park is his first book.

Culture: DogPatch
Off The Leash
Cell Phone Lady
Dog Park Illustration

That spring, my new park friend Hayley lectured me about talking on the cell phone at the dog park.

“I like to leave my phone at home,” she volunteered to me, when she saw me having an animated conversation with my brother in Philadelphia. “How sad to be miles away while Toby is playing joyously at your feet.”

Ultimately, I was persuaded. The idea of a daily intermission from the virtual, a spot of sun through the cloud, appealed. Like the rest of

civilization, I was leashed to my devices, as well as to my Facebook friends and my 24-hour news scroll. You were in a room or on a street or at a gorgeous park, but you were somewhere else.

As if on cue, a stout woman with a brown shag haircut started coming to Amory Park that April, climbing out of her low beige sedan with a cell phone forever cradled between her shoulder and her ear.

Talking, she’d let her two Westies out of the back seat, then follow the pair of white pom-poms off the tar and around the grass, never looking up, idly holding empty poop bags in one hand like little jib sails. It was painful to watch her twisting her neck to keep the phone in place, looking and nodding into the middle distance as she talked. Now in her 40s, she was heading toward some expensive later-life chiropractic sessions.

Hayley and I hated her right away. Whenever she’d pull into the parking lot, we’d look at each other and raise our eyebrows. “Hate her.” Here she comes, the lady who doesn’t care about being here, twilight-zoning her way through this beautiful place. We had attitude about it. For a half-hour, she’d linger on the phone, her dogs drifting together by themselves ahead of her, an absent-minded shepherd with her flock of two.

Finally, she’d click the phone off as she returned to the parking lot, and they’d all get back in her car. It was as though the park was merely a necessity in her day, to be gotten through, like taking out the garbage.

Cell Phone Lady looked a bit like her dogs, as is often the case—feathered hair, wandering forward close to the ground. She seemed weighted down by the world, and her conversations didn’t appear to be particularly cheerful. She was the absentee leader, walking behind them, in another world, out of touch. At least the dogs had each other, I thought. Then one blue-sky day she showed up, and midway into her shoulder-led trip through the park she clicked off her phone and put it in her pocket.

Her call had ended.

Her bubble popped, and she stood blinking, looking up. It was strange, and she seemed lost standing on the field without her crutch. Her dogs, sniffing the ground side-by-side, didn’t notice. It might have been the first time she’d really looked at the place, taken in the trees and the grassy hill and the other owners.

I saw my chance, split off from the grouping of people and dogs, and moved toward her with Toby skipping at my side. “Hello Cell Phone Lady,” I said as I approached. She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and she clearly took no offense. Suddenly I was very curious about who she was. She brought an unexpected amount of eye contact to our encounter, and she said, “Hello park person.” Again, she laughed.

It was day and night, my impression of her, the way it switched over in a moment like a page in a book. Suddenly I wanted to be on her side. Toby headed over toward the Westies, sniffing and sniffing. It was as if he’d sensed my shift in reaction. “What are your dogs’ names?” I asked. She was with “Miss Midge and Miss Hope, 3 and 8,” she said, and they were all on a break from work. She said something about how they loved getting a break from “the house” and “the clients,” so I asked where she worked. She was the manager of a halfway home for intellectually challenged youths, and she was on her lunch break but still in contact with the other counselors at the house.

This was her time to coach and supervise. Sometimes the counselors needed pep talks; burnout was common in her field, she said. She found she could muster positive energy when she was away from everything for a few minutes. The clients at the house loved the dogs, too, and she was glad about that. Midge and Hope were a healing presence, with Midge the grande dame of the whole human-dog litter. The kids really lit up when the dogs were underfoot. And she lit up when she told me that, her puffy eyes taking on a sparkle. She went on sharing, as people often do at the dog park, about all the special times the clients would have with Midge and Hope, and how dogs had been her savior when she was young and afraid.

In short, Cell Phone Lady was the best person ever, a combat fighter in the war for the needy and helpless. She was completely sympathetic, and her love of the park was real, if entirely different from mine. It gave her freedom from her routine, a little slack on her leash. Like me, she let go at Amory; we were just letting go of very different things. I’d gotten her relationship with Midge and Hope entirely wrong. She was the backbone of their trio, just getting a stretch. She was so damned maternal, there for all those kids and colleagues and dogs. I felt like a silly fool having judged her, and so did Hayley when I told her.

“You mean WE were wrong?” she asked in irony.

From that point on, when we saw Cell Phone Lady on the field, doing her thing, straining and straining her neck, we nodded at each other. “Love her.”

Adapted from Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert. By Permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.