San Diego seems to be in love with dogs. We have dog parks for big dogs and dog parks for small dogs. Dog owners, complete strangers to each other, stand on street corners in North Park with their pets and discuss the details of life with a shar pei or bichon frise while said animals enthusiastically explore each others nether portions. One acquaintance in Bankers Hill launched into a discourse on her mastiff’s lineage when I innocently asked, “Tell me something about your dog!” Perhaps I am only imagining that the very long account stretched back to the signing of the Magna Carta.
Here on my street in City Heights we only have two kinds of dogs- big dogs and little yippi dogs. And then there are the Chihuahuas which are more attitude than dog. They act as if they are really big dogs trapped by some cruel cosmic joke in the wrong size fur package. The little yippi dogs come in two styles– white fluffy and wiener. The fact that the little guys have won the popularity contest here is a subtle yet significant shift from the past.
“Rich! Come here quick!” I hissed to My Beloved through the screen door. He leapt from the couch and peered out at me through the screen. “What exactly should I be looking at?” “Across the street–look at that guy!” The guy I was pointing to had moved into the condo’s across the street. There was nothing in particular about him that would make him stand out from anyone else. He was young, medium height and looked like he worked out. His arms were tattooed and he wore a dark knitted cap pulled down over his ears.
But my neighbor was holding a retractable leash in his hand that connected to two little white fluffy dogs who were energetically digging around in the dead grass area of the parkway. “Rich–did you hear that?” The guy was standing patiently on the sidewalk and in a wheedling voice said “Come on. Go pee pee for daddy.” I almost collapsed on the porch in shock snorting coffee out my nose. Go pee pee for daddy? Seriously?
It isn’t as if there weren’t always dogs here. When we moved into the area twenty five years ago pit bulls were the dog of choice on our street. It is indisputable that the residents in the area owned guns then, but nothing said “don’t fuck with me” like a pit bull speeding across the yard, teeth bared, hurling itself against the fence that separated it and some unsuspecting pedestrian passing by. One neighbor had three grown pit bulls in the front yard. They never became accustomed to me nor I to them throughout the years that I passed by them at virtually the same time every day.
Farther down the street another family also kept multiple pit bulls. A couple of times a year I would see a hand written sign on cardboard advertising pit bull puppies for sale. It was the pit bulls in the street, on the sidewalks, however, which left a lasting impression. A pit bull would suddenly appear, pulling a young man behind it by the rope or chain attached to the animal’s collar. The only control the owner exerted over the creature was a sharp cruel yank on the leash that would suddenly snap the animal’s head back and stop it in place.
I would concede the sidewalk, the whole block to this particular combination of man and dog. That of course was the desired effect. Twenty five years ago, all of us here were involved in the act of establishing our turf out of a sense of sheer self preservation. One’s success was predicated upon the resources at hand and the degree to which one’s efforts could be legitimized. An aggressive, untrained pit bull could assert dominion over a whole street–for a while at least, but their owners were never able to consolidate their sphere of influence. The time of the pit bull succumbed to the power of the thirty year mortgage.
My sense is that the pit bulls on the street were never seen or treated as pets. They were fierce alarm systems to protect property, they signaled dominance, but I cannot imagine their owners ever burying their faces in the neck one of these animals or petting their heads out of sheer love and joy. Neighbors on the street did keep smaller dogs as pets–and alarm systems, but they lived without exception in the confines of a fenced yard.
And then there was an exception. We had neighbors across the street who kept to themselves and had a teenage son whose behavior was not “right. ” It was as if all of his connections to people and the world had been severed. He sat in the garage, unmoving, for hours on end listening to music. Then one morning he passed by the house with a little white fluffy dog on a leash. He would repeat this every morning, rain or shine, and over a period of months I saw some slight changes in how he moved. His shoulders seemed looser, and he would look a little to the left or right, although he never responded to my “good morning.”
And then I didn’t see the boy for a few days. A hand written sign was tacked to a pole on the corner. “MISSING! SMALL WHITE DOG! This is our son’s service dog! Please return! REWARD!” That message ripped my heart out. I mourned for that child who had found a connection to the world. And I mourned for that small creature, with its bright eyes and sure steps that was leading its master out of the darkness. The family moved from the house a short while later.
It has only been the last three years or so that I noticed people on the street routinely walking their dogs. Almost all the dogs are small and almost all are on a retractable leash. The people walking the dogs come in all colors, shapes, sizes and ages. There are little kids with their dogs, abuelas with dogs, a mountain of a man walking a tiny tiny little white fluffy dog. One neighbor walks her dog from a motorized wheel chair.
This new phenomenon was partly a result of the conversion of the sixteen unit apartment house across the streets into condos. The apartments had been home for years to Mexican families and pets were prohibited. These families were all displaced when the condo conversion occurred. The condos allow pets and probably half of the new residents own at least one dog. Owning and walking a dog became a new norm that seemed to catch on quickly.
The sidewalks are no longer contested areas for ultimate domination, but rather a public space that is shared and enjoyed by creatures great and small.