A Dog Story

1200 words of distraction

Hi friends.

I published this essay earlier this year behind a paywall for a publication in the UK, but I hope they will forgive me for sending it all out to you during these most trying of times. This is not about writing but it is about support systems and so I shall file it under related. And also there are pictures of my dog so I shall file it under distraction, which I think we all could use.

Elegance & grace & messed-up teeth

I had been on the road for months on business when I first saw him on the internet. I had just given a talk to thirty eager young writers in a summer program, and was in a hotel room in Amherst, Massachusetts. My work was ceaseless at that time in my life, a decade of struggle had finally paid off with regular teaching and speaking gigs. Even though I was exhausted, I found it hard to say no to any of it – I had worked so hard to get there. At the end of the night, though, I was always alone in my hotel rooms, on my computer, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, looking for someone special.  I had been for months. Surely, I could find the one that would make me want to go home and stay put for a while.

And then one stopped me in my tracks: Brown-eyed, floppy-eared, 25 pounds of half-pug, half beagle, with an extremely goofy and adorable underbite, which favored his left jaw, making him look off-kilter. The animal shelter website said his name was “Buster.” Well, that won’t do I thought. But otherwise that’s the one. That’s my dog.

I got in my car and drove straight back to Brooklyn, to an animal shelter ten blocks from my apartment on the Williamsburg waterfront. I took Buster (ugh) out for a short walk. I’d hear it’s impossible to know a rescue dog’s true personality in the first month. They often just want to please you. I knew he was sweet, though – I could just tell. Even if he was a little dopey from his recent neuter surgery. Poor kid, I thought. My dumb heart swelled.

The many faces of Sid include this one, of utter joy

Back at the shelter, the manager told me dogs like him go so quickly. He had a good backstory – who knows if it was true or not. (The manager was a fast talker, and I wondered if he used that same story on suckers like me all the time.) He said that Buster had lived with a family with three children, and the father had gone to jail for a white-collar crime. The mother couldn’t keep the dog any longer. He came from a stable place, was the point. “This is a good dog,” the manager said to me in his thick Brooklyn accent. “You want him or what?” I wanted him.  

I renamed him Sidney, after my dead grandfather. My grandmother had passed away recently, but he didn’t look like an Esther. As I told my parents, “This is going to be the only grandchild you get from me.”

We were not instantly bonded, although I loved him right away. We needed to get to know each other first. And also, he needed some work. He was scared on the streets of New York, and tried to nip at people, hurling his short but stocky body in the air, specifically at joggers. (Though frankly, if someone had to go down, it should probably be a morning jogger on a crowded street.)

He was terrible at dog parks, too, and would throw himself at other dogs if they were running too quickly for his liking. My sense was that he had probably spent too much time in the home and didn’t know how to deal with the outside world. And sometimes the inside world: He was a cuddler, a love bug, and he adored having his soft ears scratched, but also he was a shoe- and lipstick-chewer. Once I returned home from a night out to find his face and paws stained pink, an innocent look on his face even as the evidence was right there. I realized then I was dealing with a real con.

The thing that I had secretly desired happened almost immediately: I was forced to slow down my life in order to make him feel more comfortable in his. I consulted with a trainer on how to make him feel safe. I worked with Sid as we walked, helping to create good boundaries for him. I introduced him to new dogs so he could improve his social skills. It took a year, but he finally stopped trying to take down all the strangers in the world. And he became more firmly my dog in the process.

But it turned out even after all that work, neither of us were going to be happy staying in New York. For years, in the winters we’d drive down to New Orleans for a few months break from the big city, and it was as if I had a new dog there. Smaller buildings, quieter streets, big yards, greenery for him to sniff wherever we went. This is a slow-moving dog-friendly town: When you’re not in a hurry and the streets aren’t crowded, it’s a lot easier to stop and say hello to a dog. I’m not saying I moved to an entirely new city just to make my dog happier because that would be outrageous!  What kind of weirdo would change their life just for a dog? But I admit it was part of it. If he was happier, then I would be too.

Sid loves Mardi Gras

We’ve lived in the same neighborhood for four years now, and in that time, he has identified all his favorite stops. He’s got a real hustle going. Our neighbor, Joan, shakes a box of milk bones at him from her front stoop when she seems him coming; this time when he leaps at someone on the street, it’s for a treat. “You need to write about that dog,” she tells me every single time we meet. Next we hit the cafes that also offer dog treats, and where people sit out front with their morning coffees and offer him pets on the head as we pass. He can’t get enough of it. He’s a little prince, sauntering through the streets, receiving his morning greetings from his subjects. We walk together seamlessly. A pup and his person.

Until two months ago, when things shut down here, and around the world. There are no rounds to be made right now. He still drags me in the direction of the cafes, their gates shuttered for the moment. Sometimes we’ll run into a neighbor he knows, and I’ll release his leash so he can run toward them for a pet while I stand at a distance.

At night he sits outside my bedroom door, while I sit in the living room, waiting patiently for me to see him, a reminder that I should go to bed, instead of staying up late, on my computer, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling – this time looking for just a little good news amidst the bad. In the morning he wakes me up and makes me feed and walk him when there days I don’t know if I can quite face it. He doesn’t let me sit too long in feeling gloomy or glum. A little walk will do you some good, he seems to be saying. Get up. Live. And I do.

We all take turns looking out for each other in this life. Right now, it’s his turn. “All right, bud,” I say, and we embrace the day again.

You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice.