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The social patterns of a dog park

The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.

When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.

It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.

This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.

“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”

Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”

Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.

“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”

Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.

 “I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”

I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.

When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.

In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.

After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.

Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”

There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?

Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.

Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.

Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.

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Michael Paterniti won the 1998 National Magazine Award for his article "Driving Mr. Albert," which was first published in Harper's Magazine. A former executive editor of Outside, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Details, and Esquire, where he is writer-at-large. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son.
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Submitted by J.B | December 20 2012 |

This story is true, but on the other hand not true. I have been taking my dog, Grace, to the dog park for 7 yrs. now. It is true that I still do not know some people's names,and I do know all the dogs names. To be honest I have made many friends there over the years. In fact, I have 3 very good friends with whom I interact out side of the park very frequently. We regulars, there are about 20 of us, converse every day and not just about our dogs. We have watched each others dogs when needed, helped each other get to places when cars were being serviced,gone out to lunch with some of the widowed, brought donuts and treats for our birthdays as well as our dogs. A dog park can be a great place to meet people and make new friends. Not only is it wonderful and helpful to our four legged friends, it can be a treasure trove of new experiences for us two legged walkers also.

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