Culture: Readers Write
July 16 2014
The Year of the Dog is associated with kindness, good fortune, harmony and humanitarianism; idealism is supposed to overshadow materialism.
For us, the Year of the Dog began early. Just before Christmas, as I strolled through San Francisco’s Washington Square Park on the way to the post office, my dog Jeff met Midnight.
As the two performed the doggy circle dance, a young man put down his newspaper, rose from his bench and introduced himself as Junior. He explained that he was taking care of Midnight, a throw-away, but she wasn’t really his. “I just don’t want her to be destroyed.”
From the look of things, Junior was trying to keep himself alive as well. “I can try to find her a home,” I offered. Junior liked the idea. “One of us at least could have a home.”
From my gallery nearby, I went to the post office often; stopping to talk with Junior became routine. I dropped off Christmas cookies for Junior and his bench friends, a couple, aging alcoholics. I brought dog food. “Her coat is better, but I think she’s sick,” said the woman with few teeth and bright lipstick. Junior disagreed: “I think she’s just unhappy.” He wanted to have her spayed.
I began asking around for a home. She’s lovely, I told people, very quiet and gentle, mostly Border Collie. She had black, silky fur with a white chest and white feet. I felt she would have perked right up with a little care.
One night I spotted the man–dog pair on the street near my gallery. Two Pit Bulls, residents of the housing project on the corner, set after Midnight. Terrified, she flew into the street. Junior and I got to her simultaneously. “I’m sorry,” Junior mumbled to the dog. “I love you.”
“She’s in heat,” Junior said, on my next visit. “I called the SPCA but the fee for spaying is $35. I don’t have any money.” I called. No matter what I said about homelessness, unwanted puppies, desperation, the fee was still $35. I told Junior I’d pay. I’d pick her up on Wednesday. But on Wednesday, man and dog were nowhere to be found.
“Pregnant,” announced Junior, with obvious chagrin. “Crack’s the father.” We all knew this street dog, a tough little brown thing with a stub tail who belonged to an older guy from the projects who called himself Hitler.
My real concern was the dog, but I also wondered about the man. “I’d like a simple life,” he told me. “Nothing special. Just a little apartment, an ordinary job, a family.” Junior, who was 26, had a nine-year-old son he rarely saw. “I don’t want my son to see me like this,” he explained. Once, while we were talking, he dashed away to assist a disabled man who had fallen. “You’d be good in nursing,” I suggested. “I worked in a nursing home for two years,” he said. “It’s too hard on me. People dying all the time. Maybe I could do house-painting.”
I had begun to ask around for a job for Junior. He was slight, with a somewhat askew and whimsical face. He was bright and fun to talk to, charming and gentle. I didn’t see why the situation couldn’t have an easy fix. Man with job and dog in little apartment, gets son back.
I was beginning to plan the spring exhibition for the gallery. I’d met the artist several years earlier when I was a juror for a photography competition. Looking over the photographs, we all knew immediately which would win first place. It was a large, black-and-white solarized print of a bough of roses, beautiful and sad. We’d not heard of the artist, someone called Gay Outlaw, apparently a pseudonym. At the reception, we were astonished to find Gay Outlaw to be a gracious, elegant, young Southern woman, using her given name.
In January, as Gay and I were discussing the show, she said, “I’m thinking of getting a dog.” Within minutes, we’d arrived at the park and were rubbing the now rotund Midnight. “I might be interested in one of the pups,” Gay told Junior.
From then on, Gay and I were partners in the save-the-dogs mission, conferring constantly. We brought food daily for Midnight and sometimes for Junior too. We talked to vets and animal rescue groups. I arranged with Junior to bring Midnight to the gallery for the birth, but not long after, we found Junior on his bench next to a basket of puppies. “They were born out on the pier,” he said. “I slept through it.”
There were nine pups. Then four. Then three. Then, somehow, four again. Gay chose the only female and gave Junior $60 to hold Suzette. James, a nice young man who worked in the neighborhood, fell in love with the largest one and put down $50 for Jordan.
During the day, Junior held court in the park. An old man came each morning, chatting at Junior in Chinese. A batch of private-school boys dropped by every afternoon to hold the little blind babies. Yuppies and drunks gathered to peer into the basket. Animal Control paid a visit. “Everything’s wonderful,” Junior beamed, passing out the pooper-scoopers they had left. He joked about the next litter.
At night, Junior dragged the basket, the mom loping along beside, to whereever they would spend the night. Sometimes they stayed outdoors and sometimes they slept in an old truck that belonged to Hitler.
“Midnight’s really stressed,” Gay reported, when the puppies were about a week old. “She’s barking and running after everyone. I’m afraid she’s going to bite someone.”
And bite she did. First, a cable-car driver. The police came. Junior was arrested and released. The next day, another bite, another arrest. Midnight and the puppies were taken to the pound for a 10-day rabies observation. Junior cried.
Our goal became to keep the puppies nursing for six weeks until adoption, then maybe rescue Midnight, too. Junior was frantic. “I’ve got to get my dog back,” he cried. I couldn’t decide if I thought it was worth “sacrificing” the dog for the happiness of the man.
On the release day, Gay and I went alone to the pound, feeling guilty and sneaky. We’ll take them all, we said.
Then, to our astonishment, Junior arrived, claiming ownership. Legally, he was right. I snagged an animal control officer, who led us through an hour of tense negotiations. He got Junior to agree that all the dogs would come to the gallery. Junior could walk Midnight during the day, but she would continue to mother the puppies for three more weeks. After that they could go to their new homes. Midnight would still be Junior’s dog. He promised to have her spayed. We all felt better. “This is a real nice place,” Junior said. He took a copy of the Questionnaire for Volunteers. Gay paid the fees. We all left in her car.
The gallery turned into a kennel. A show for a famous photographer I’d worked years to organize now looked down on shreds of newspapers, puddles and Purina crumbs. My assistant, Myung-Mi, disappeared for hours to coddle the little brown runt. The neighboring architects hung out in our space to watch our roly-poly cutie-pies. Passing children and tourists peered through the windows. Clients still came, and while I was initially mortified, they were enamoured. “You can be forgiven a great deal for a litter of puppies,” a friend said. He was right.
Junior bought Gay a book on puppy care. Gay bought him a watch. He came every morning at 10 to take Midnight to the park. He brought newspapers and mopped, too. “These puddles are arranged like art,” he laughed, catching on to us. At night, Midnight curled up on a quilt. Junior walked back into the chill.
The little ones grew bigger and bolder. They learned to eat and drink from bowls. They came when called. Unlike a matched set of purebreds, this litter had brown, black, white and tri-colored. No two of our puppies were exactly alike.
March 3 was an opening for a new show. We decided the dogs would move to Gay’s house. They still had another week to nurse. Junior arrived at moving time, drunk. Midnight jumped happily into the car. “Come on,” Gay said to Junior. “You can see where they will be staying.” “No,” snarled Junior. “I’m sick of all this shit. I’m sick of you. Gimme all my dogs.”
“Hit me, if you want to,” said Gay, “but you’re not taking the puppies.”
“Gimme my goddamn dogs,” he shrieked. Hitler showed up with Crack, on a chain.
I called 911. “Are there guns?” the dispatcher asked. The responding police officer proved to be another excellent negotiator. Jordan and Suzette, already paid for, were set aside as out of contention. We had to hand over the white one as promised to Hitler. Myung-Mi helped me put together $50 to buy Brownie on the spot. Junior left with Midnight. It was over.
Back in the gallery, exhausted, we locked the door, opened a bottle of wine and wondered what we’d done. Perhaps gotten too involved with too few skills. We had devoted several months to hysteria but rescued neither man nor dog. And I’d bought a puppy I couldn’t keep.
The pups stayed together another week. James took Jordan to his new suburban home. We gave Brownie to a designer we knew. Happy Suzette remains with Gay, romping in the garden, the source of the beautiful rose photographs. The gallery is quiet now. We’re back to showing real life in photographs.
Postscript: In May, Midnight was rearrested and put to sleep. Junior left—for alcohol rehab, we were told. A car hit the white puppy. Hitler was bitten by a woman.
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