I love dogs as much as anyone; I grew up with them, I often adopted a stray in my college dorm-- it grounded me, gave me a sort of domestic vibe that took the edge off the academic competition and relief from the exhausting chatter of my fellow roommates. But here in the city, and I have kept adopted strays and loved and cared for them, there is a dog-luxury-culture that turns me off. One of my neighbors wheels her poodle around in a baby stroller. I mean, if you're childless and lonely, this is a solution. The dog seems only slightly ashamed. But recently a sort of storefront canine day-spa has opened where a tek-serve-type place closed.. .and I've been spying on the patrons. Mostly there are several dogs running around on a linoleum floor with few toys or distractions. I guess they get some exercise, like prisoners doing yard-laps. But they seem agitated and embarrassed--- like a cat in a huge fishbowl. I mean, what's so bad about staying home? Watching a little TV. Looking out the window. Waiting.
My stray dog Rags was a wiry foxy hybrid of the Harlem/Bronx 1980's variety-- before Pit Bulls infiltrated the mutt population. He was the one that escaped a Soho bar and came more than 100 blocks uptown to find me. But he also seemed to have little regard for the boundary of my home, and ran away every chance he got. He did often return, but not after giving me some sleepless nights and reminding me that he was an animal, not a human member of the household, and he intended to go back into his habitat when it suited him. I had to respect that. He wasn't particularly social and besides feeding and walking him, I left the grooming to a bi-annual bath which was miserable for both of us.
I have one neighbor who somehow lost his show-quality Golden Retriever and immediately bought this Great Pyrenees as a distraction. It weighs as much as a small bear. They are rarely home and 2 or 3 people come in and out daily to walk it. It's alone. Waiting. I wonder if city dogs have shorter lives; plenty of them seem to get cancer-- tumors, diseases, allergies. There is a pit bull near my friend's gallery in Chelsea. Occasionally when I'm there it walks by… it's a little terrifying and tough… but for some reason, it loves me. Its owners warn people not to touch him; but he seems to recognize me from another life. I remind him of someone. When they pass the gallery, sometimes the dog just sits and refuses to move. Waiting. I love that dog, but I ask it, silently, how it feels to be on a rope and have to repress all instincts and sit politely in some strange non-earthy environment all day waiting to be fed, waiting for company, waiting? No wonder dogs in packs have another mentality.
So I have this dog-repression empathy now. A few of my friends-- well, their lives revolve around their dogs. The ones that are home all day-- well, that's okay. But a couple of them buy these high-maintenance breeds that require 24-hour air conditioning and special diets. They hate the heat, and they look beautiful, but also a little psychotic. Ugly childless couples who would have nerdy funky kids with short legs and frizzy hair and big ears. They get these Siberian huskies to stand in for the graceful blonde/blue-eyed Nordic leggy kids they will never have. And the dogs do crazy things. They bite people and they puke in the house, and their expression is like a cry for help. Ah Wilderness, their icy eyes say. I'm a Jack London novel shelved with Sex in the City. I'm hot and I want to dig a hole in the snow and sleep. I want to kill me some pigeons and squirrels. Help. They live short lives and die of bizarre things like vitamin overdoses or intestinal parasites from eating mice. They crave mice.
My Swedish ex-boyfriend once told me he fell in love with me because I looked like his German Shepherd. Maybe I am the dog. I feel like I can read their minds. The bulldogs with their long lists of ailments and weaknesses whose eyes bleed fluid. The skinny little chihuahua mixes who shiver and beg you not to touch them. The puppies who are joyful and pampered and haven't yet figured out that their life is going to change, that they are very soon not going to be as pettable and cuddly and will be relegated to an empty dark apartment where they will spend long bored hours sleeping and waiting by the door to have their basic needs met. I pity them. I want to set them all free somewhere.
It seems unfair that anyone can adopt one-- whether they intend to mistreat and torture it, or whether they unknowingly condemn it to a life of boredom and enforced waiting. So many of them are 'whims' to satisfy the kids, or a selfish indulgence that gets stale and begins to annoy, once the novelty has worn off and the weather has grown cold and rainy and you want to have a drink after work with that sexy woman who gave you 'the look' in the office, and your dog is at home, waiting in his apartment prison. And some of these people come home resentful. Some of them become abusive-- or give the dog up, let it go, pretend it ran away. Facebook pages are devoted to these poor animals stuck in public and private shelters, wondering how they got there, and maybe thinking their crummy apartment was better than the cage and the fluorescent lights they must endure now. Thousands and thousands of them, the victims of human neglect-- and not like kids who are conceived and born into families-- these dogs were deliberately adopted or bought or acquired.
Who has not commented on the anagrammatic significance of the dog-word? Maybe this explains our connection. But they are everywhere in the urban streets… the sleek and beautiful and the mutty and ratty, the long and short legged, the spotted and spiky and furry-- the pug nosed and snouty-- more variety, it seems, than humans… on a rhinestone-studded leash, running in the park, tied outside Starbucks, peeking out of a handbag on the subway-- the cared-for, the uncared-for, the cheerful and the depressed. Somehow they all break my heart, like foster children. They don't want to be photographed-- they can't see the the stupid selfies, they can't see themselves in mirrors, they have no idea how ridiculous they look in their little rain boots, or why their owner will never have a date or a bedmate, besides them. They dream of mountains and forests and snow. Of other dogs. They are lonely… they sleep, they pace out their apartments. Waiting. My dog-owning friends, and these are many-- will hate me for this one. But I don't want a dog. I don't want to own anyone or anything living that doesn't follow me of its own accord. I don't want to subjugate an animal or pull it or humiliate it. It feels wrong.
For all the Manhattan parents who cannot control their children because they will all say embarrassing things, get acne, be rude to teachers, wear hideous clothing… their dog will look exactly as the breed dictates. It will stay photo-perfect on a leash and will have a little preventive muzzle if it bites. You will force it to behave, and if it doesn't, it will rarely come outside. It will make you feel normal. Man's best friend, like a kept woman who never speaks up. At worst it will bark. But a dog's best friend will always be a dog. A-dog.