A Guide Dog’s Tale

 

 

–”I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me crying.”

–Charles Chaplin

 

 

 

One night when it was raining hard in New York my literary agent Irene Skolnick suggested my wife Connie and I join her at an Italian bistro in the East Village so we harnessed up guide dog Vidal and went on down.

 

I’d say waterworks are the same in every city but its not true–each place responds to rain according to its social and architectural inheritance, something you learn when traveling widely with a service dog.

 

Houston for example has no drainage system. Texans, opposed to governance, do without clearing water from their streets. The pavement floods, especially under bridges. Best of all, poisonous snakes float among stalled cars.

 

But New York is entirely seized by rain. Fights break out over taxis, pedestrians struggle in knee high puddles. People stab each other with cheap umbrellas. All these things occur against a backdrop of lights and pastels in mist.

 

We arrived at the bistro in reasonable shape–we’d gotten a cab and were a quarter-dry, dry enough to make an entrance. Labrador Vidal was presentable. We were feeling good. We were about to partake of a good meal on a rainy night and share some laughs. In my experience restaurants are doubly pleasurable in storms. There’s something inspiriting about dining in bad weather. We approached the door. The door was open. In we went.

 

The maitre de–who was also the owner–met us straight away and insisted we turn straight around and leave. He didn’t want the dog in his dining room, a matter that’s familiar enough to all service dog owners, for we frequently encounter resisting doormen, waiters, cab drivers and mall cops. As a tribe we’re good at defusing the misunderstandings. A guide dog is allowed everywhere the public goes. It is rather simple. When it isn’t simple however it becomes a leaden exchange.

 

I was once flying to Chicago to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show when American Airlines canceled my flight. They decided to put all the passengers on a bus and take us to LaGuardia in Queens. As I approached the bus the driver shouted he wasn’t taking my dog. I said he might want to reconsider this as the Americans with Disabilities Act and New York State law both entitled us to ride on any public transportation. He grew hostile. “I don’t care about the fucking ADA!” he shouted. “I don’t care about it!”

 

It’s really true–sometimes you meet hot, implacable people because you have a guide dog. It doesn’t happen often. But it does occur. The men or women who oppose you (for I’ve had women opponents as well) are the kinds of folks who swell up, like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. And they turn red immediately. They’re not like border guards or indolent cops–they’re more instantaneous in their craziness, like people who’ve swallowed hot gobs of meat and start sputtering and coughing. There’s a psychopathology to the thing, and when you’re “in it” the rules of customary debate are out the window.

 

The bus driver didn’t want me on the American Airlines charter to LaGuardia and when I summoned a policeman he didn’t want to hear from the cop and while the two of them argued I simply boarded the bus and sat. (This is an old civil rights trick. You make it hard for them to remove you.) The driver gave up eventually and climbed aboard and drove fifteen stranded passengers and one guide dog to LaGuardia. The affair ended without apologies or explanation. The driver had a pronounced limp. It was clear he’d had a tough life. Who can say what my presence triggered inside him? Who can say indeed. Where disability is concerned a trans-symbolic exchange of unhappiness is fairly frequent. As my friend Bill Peace says, “They don’t like seeing cripples.” There’s some truth to this. Then there the people who don’t like dogs–are petrified of dogs. And because guide dogs are professional animals they think, “Hell maybe a guide dog will attack? Jesus. Better keep the blind man and his dog out of my cab! Quick! Drive away! Shit, he’s blind he won’t even know!”

 

You stand for something, you and your dog, but its not always clear what it is. There’s a lot of crazy. You don’t need a dog to know this. Just try walking someplace when you’re pregnant. Instantly enthusiastic strangers want to tell your fortune. Who knows what you signify, but you give off meanings in the corner bodega and there’s not a damn thing you can do but keep moving.

 

Sometimes when service dog ugliness happens you really can keep moving, like the time I was followed eight blocks on Amsterdam by a woman from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who shouted as she stumbled behind us, “You’re a slave master! Big Daddy with his prisoner dog! Slave driver!”

 

We outdistanced her. Guide dog people move fast. As the blues master Leadbelly would say, we were “gone like a turkey through the corn” but I heard PETA woman long after I’d ditched her. Lunacy repeats like Muzak. Big Daddy and Prisoner Dog. I thought how we might be kind of Vaudeville act. Too bad Vaudeville died. We probably wouldn’t make it on MTV.

 

I’ve experienced lots of crazy in New York with my dog. One afternoon I sat beside a dog park just to listen. Right away a woman asked if I wanted to let my dog run. I said no. “We’re just stopping for a second,” I said.

 

“Well you ought to let her run, poor thing, she gives up her life for you.” she said.

 

“Yes,” I said, “we live in a Boolean equation, where my life is X and hers is X minus 2.”

 

“What does that mean?” said the woman.

 

“It means,” I said, “our lives are running down in equal measure. Why hell, we’ll probably die at the same time. We’re all giving up our lives in algebraic co-efficients.”

 

“You’re pulling my leg,” said the woman.

 

I shrugged. I asked her what her dog’s name was.

 

“His name is Jasper,” she said.

 

“Let me guess,” I said, “he’s a Dalmatian.”

 

“How’d you know?” she asked.

 

“Because Jasper is generally spotty.” I said.

 

“Tell me,” I asked, “what does Jasper do for you?”

 

“He doesn’t have to do anything,” she said. “He’s free to be a real dog.”

 

“I see,” I said. “So a working dog like mine isn’t real in your view?”

 

“That’s right,” she said, “your dog is suffering.”

 

Then pandemonium broke out. Jasper evidently swiped a nanny’s iPhone and was running in circles and people shouted as he chewed it. The dog eluded middle aged men in suits and loafers. Jasper was unfettered and alive and he was also the incitement for a fight–the nanny and Mrs. Jasper got straight into it–who was going to pay for the phone? Not Mrs. Jasper. Her dog was a free spirit. Nanny, you see, should have kept the phone in her purse. Nanny disputed this but made the mistake–the big mistake of characterizing Jasper’s “freedom” as “uncontrolled” –a charge Mrs. Jasper equated with apostasy, for Jasper, like all pet dogs, stands for “the Id” and you’re a pretty sorry specimen if you don’t get it. Don’t your super-ego to the dog run. Its the wild west. Etcetera. I got out of there.

 

We walked east to Fifth Avenue. Wasn’t it Auden who said the roses really want to grow? “Dogs,” I thought, “really want to work.” And working dogs get plenty of play time and they get to go everywhere–none of that dolorous waiting in dark apartments for hours on end that marks Jasper’s life. No wonder the poor sonofabitch steals iPhones–he’s pure Id–he’d eat the daylight if he could. “That’s the thing about Mrs. Jasper,” I thought, “she exemplifies the cosseted, ingrown anthropomorphism of New York City’s dog owners, a thing beyond “love me, love my dog” for the impulse, the projection of straightened life onto animals is darker, tangled up in capitalist misery and so your silly dog gets to be a wolf. Or just an ambient stuffed toy.”

 

You see the ambient stuffed toy people all the time. They tend to talk a lot. The dog owners of New York are verbally expulsive, proving Kierkegaard’s assertion that “people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” For instance the woman on Seventh Avenue who was dragging her Pomeranian. “You’ve had enough,” she said. “You’ve had enough and enough is enough!”

 

I asked the woman what she meant. I said: “Excuse me, but is there something on the ground that your dog was eating?”

 

“What?” she said.

 

“Eating,” I said. “Was your dog eating something?”

 

“Oh no,” she said, “We’ve had enough of staring at nothing! This stupid Pomeranian just stares at nothing. I’ve had enough of nothing!”

 

I nodded. We were having Seventh Avenue metaphysics. I thought if I had world enough and time I could tell the woman what dogs see, tell her the Pomeranian is a Cubist of color and movement with a wider visual field than humans and that its entirely possible the street is dazzling the dog who has hit the brakes out of instinct. But I was a coward, fearing a conversation that would become a bolus, a lump of bread you can never swallow. She went away, dragging her rust colored and vaguely frightened dog and I felt remorse as if I could have saved the poor creature with instructions for her owner–”Take it from a blind guy, you can’t stare at nothing.” “Your dog is having an allergic reaction to motion. Talk to her, a little cajoling and reassurance would be good for both of you, yes?” “Personally, I get by on cajoling and reassurance Lady.” This is no joke.

 

Successful guide dog work depends on cajoling. Or if not quite cajoling, elaborate praise. You’re taught to say “Good dog!” with musical sincerity and to say it throughout the working day. You say it when your dog stops at a curb. When she stops at the stairs. Or when she passes around a dropped bicycle or ignores a fallen pizza slice. “Good Dog!” You say it as if you’re learning Swedish–putting some musicality into it. Working dogs love praise. And you give praise all day. Perhaps a hundred times during a 24 hour period. She absorbs the rolling nightmare of trains and skateboarders and staggering drunks and buses running red lights and you sing to her “Good Girl!” In turn this reassurance flows backwards, fills you. You’re a competent blind guy sailing through crowded streets or down the tunnels of Grand Central Station. This competency has everything to do with letting your dog be a dog; “follow your dog” they say at the guide dog school–she knows what she’s seeing, knows what to do. Your job is to know where you want to go. Hers is to get your there. We get by on mutual instruction and tandem praise. When my dog is good I’m good. And vice versa.

 

In Central Park we met a German Shepherd dragging its owner to a dog run. Because I could see just a bit I saw the man was too thin for his dog–he was in danger of getting hurt. The guy was skating, the Shepherd surging like a locomotive–it even panted like a locomotive and the man cried: “Dolly, Dolly! You’re gonna break my sandwich!” The sandwich was the least of the man’s problems. He raced by, crying against fortune, his sandwich, the volition of Miss Dolly, his shoes slapping pavement.

 

These are the leisure dog people. Baby talking, projecting soft instincts, unable to understand dogs want to be equals in a team. And when it rains they hate their animals. There’s no utility with dogs in bad weather. All the misery of the city is magnified as I’ve said. The streets are deplorable and people are half-panicked. Steinbeck said: “One can find so many pains when the rain is falling.” In storms New York’s dog people are aching, vituperative, stomping the avenues with malice. I’ve often wondered about Mrs. Jasper in the rain–does she see her Dalmatian as a free spirit or does she shout at him to hurry his business between parked cars on East 57th? I’ve heard them, amateur dog people. “C’mon you (expletive deleted), get going!” Me? I’m grateful to have a set of eyes and a supportive intelligence at my side. Pray for rain, you deal with mud. I own many rain coats. In turn I’ve heard the leisure dog classes cussing blue streaks all over Manhattan.

 

We are a team my dog and I. We trust each other. My life has been spared in every kind of weather by a dog who won’t let me step into harm. I know where we want to go but my dog knows how to accomplish the trip–avoiding waist deep puddles–watching for spiky, bobbing umbrellas–backing me up from bicyclists running traffic lights– enduring the discomforts in equal measure. This is the thing–with a guide dog you notice how un-bonded the city’s dog owners really are. When a dog isn’t fun, when it isn’t a projection of loopy animus in a dog run, then its a vexation, like owning a piano in the woods. Once upon a time it seemed like a good idea.

 

 

**

 

When the owner of the bistro confronted me he was more than simply uncomprehending, he had an inflated hostility about my guide. I think the rain had gotten into him somehow–he felt entitled to be cruel.

 

I was in the proscenium of a restaurant with a Labrador retriever. I should say we were dressed in business attire. I had a Burberry. Irene and Connie were similarly decked. We were grownups arriving from a storm.

 

The bistro-man hated me and shouted, telling me where I could go.This was a small business and so diners were forced to watch the drama. Rain struck the roof with a dull drumming. The customers had wine. They had crostini and truffles. They had Ribollita. They felt pretty good. Now they had a show.

 

“You can sit outside,” he said, gesturing with a towel twisted into a whip. “We’ll put up the umbrella!”

 

“No one is going to sit outside,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “we’ll have the police explain it to you.”

 

“F—k the police,” he said.

 

“Here’s the thing,” I said, “if the cops come and explain the restaurant and a guide dog thing, and you still don’t let me sit down, I’ll file federal charges against you. The fine is $50,000 for violating my civil rights.”

 

The rain was coming down harder. It was easy to feel how the city’s appetites and grievances were magnified by the storm. If a man hates dogs in sunshine he’ll hate them all the more in rain. I swayed in the heat of a small eatery. Steam escaped from the kitchen pickup window. Waiters rushed past.

 

My maître de, major domo, sole proprietor, was pointing his finger in my face.

 

“You sit outside! Sit outside!”

 

Everyone in the restaurant was quiet then–no clatter, no clink. No one spoke. It wasn’t a big place. Rain pounded the roof. I thought of the owner-domo (who, according to the New York Times) was a recent arrival from Sicily. I suspected he knew nothing of guide dogs–cane guida–knew only the confounding Manhattan dog people with their baby talk and bubbly anthropomorphic chit-chat. I reckoned no one ever said there’d be guide dogs in his joint. How could he know? And the city was seized by rain. Everyone was sweaty or soaked through; each man or woman felt oddly larger or smaller than a customary self. That’s the thing about rain in New York. In the flush of silence I said to him, softly, “why don’t you give us a bottle of wine?” He pointed us to a table. The diners picked up their forks. We were all going to eat in the rain.