Toulouse is a very short dog with very tall designs on most other dogs with fur and a pulse. Charlie functions quite well after his accident, and could join the circus based on his ability to dig holes with one front leg. Bailey has a habit of skipping the niceties and sticking her nose straight into the information zones of any people that her people are hanging out with. Riley walks with Jimmy, or the other way around, like a pair of cops in a St. Paddy’s Day parade. Pearl and Buck leave scorch marks across the tops of the gopher holes, as they pursue thrown balls to the exclusion of all other life functions. Django and Memphis circle these same varmint bunkers, the younger dog bounding as if to show off his shock absorbing qualities while the senior citizen ambles along in a pretty decent impression of Columbo. “There are gophers down that hole, old man,” I can almost hear Django saying to his housemate. “Let’s run over there and catch us one!” And of course, the old dog’s grizzled reply: “Let’s walk over there, son, and catch ‘em all.”
The neighborhood comes to this park, where each of our back yards is extended to ten, 20, 50 times its actual size. It’s a short walk for some of us, a brief drive for others, but for all those who bring their dogs to this anonymous oasis, it’s a daily destination that ranks just behind our children’s schools and just ahead of our workplaces. Our citizenship here is granted by the sociability we bring. People greet each other with varying degrees of familiarity, inquiring on an ascending scale about the weather, the vet bill, the Little Leaguer, the fancy dinner with the future in-laws, or the storms in our souls. The dogs conduct their daily background checks, with an attention to detail that is the envy of homeland security. There is a way to be here. The regulars all clean up diligently after not only their dogs, but other pets whose owners have been caught up in conversation or indifference. Most of us carry more plastic bags than we need, so that on any given visit we’re not just paying off interest but also knocking down the principal, so to speak.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood banded together over its dogs and organized a yard sale that raised some eight thousand dollars for the relief effort. But those were special circumstances. Every day, the park is our commons, and here information is passed along, stories are told and embellished, babies are admired and dogs patted and fussed over like the heirs of some obscure but significant fortune. This is the most valuable aspect of our little world. We walk. We talk. We rinse our heads. We dry our wits. We have figured it all out several times over, every last bit of it, the divine mystery and irrepressible comedy of existence. It’s what elevates us from the dogs we are walking.
Some days, we count this appearance at the park as the most fulfilling event in lives pulled vigorously in too many directions. On the human side, there may be little to cheer or be uplifted about. That’s when the sight and sound of canine comrades barking in exultation as they arrive and swap odors is balm for the soul. It’s so simple. For the dogs, the five-thousand-and-first replay of the thing they do so well is better than all of the other ones combined, because it’s happening right now. And that’s an insight that elevates these dogs from the people they are walking.