A Boy, His Dog, And Everything Else

I'm going to describe to you an incident I witnessed a few minutes ago.

My girlfriend and I (girlfriend doesn't quite describe our relationship, I don't think, but we're not married, and partner is more than a little too clinical to describe it as well, so I'm stuck with girlfriend as the label to identify a relationship that is quite a bit more than that) had been to buy a new bed for one of our dogs. He had a leg amputated a few months ago after a break revealed the first occurrence of bone cancer. He hasn't been as ambulatory since, and wore the padding out of the bed he's had the last few years. The latest x-ray came back with a positive result, showing that the cancer we're told will inevitably spread to his lungs has yet to show up there.

We had just stopped by a flower shop on one of the busier roads in the near West End of Richmond (Patterson, for those of you familiar with the area). Before going in, I ventured across the street to grab a pack of cigarettes from the 7-11. As I was walking up, I saw a kid sitting on the curb just outside. He was in his mid-twenties, and skinny enough to suggest he may not necessarily be malnourished, but he's missed a few more meals than is probably best for his health. Getting closer, I realized he was talking to his dog, a small white Shepherd mix that looked underweight in the same way. The kid was wearing the uniform of the kind of anarchist gutter punk I've come across in my travels. You may know exactly what I'm talking about by that description or you may not, but if you've spent any time in an urban area of any size or it's accessible surroundings, you would recognize the uniform if you saw it. He was leaning on a sleeping bag, and had next to him a guitar and a mandolin, and was speaking to the dog in emphatic tones about the fact that he was going to venture inside the store in a moment. The way he spoke to the dog suggested to me either that he was mildly mentally disabled, intoxicated by one substance or another, possibly both or he'd possibly managed to fry a good bit of his brain through the habitual abuse of one or (likely) more of a variety of substances. It was curious, but nothing I haven't seen before.

I went in, bought my cigarettes, and headed out. Passing by, I overheard him explaining to the dog that it was her job (Lucy) to protect his stuff. If anyone tried to take anything, she should bite them, kill them for all he cared. A little over the top, to be sure, but I can certainly be guilty of a degree of hyperbole in the same way. Still, the way he was talking to the dog was unusual, and it was enough for me to wonder whether or not someone in his condition would be able to take care of a dog. He was talking to the dog very directly as if it actually understood him. If he was under the weight of a mental disability, it may preclude him from completely understanding, interpreting or foreseeing the needs of a dog, and if he was under the weight of a severe enough substance abuse problem to land him on the streets, with nothing more than a sleeping bag for shelter, could he really be expected to take care of a life other than his own with any more care than he already had his own? I thought there was a good chance the answer was no, in either case. At the same time, the options left open to anyone in these situations at a point like that are not good, to say the absolute least. Dog people, like myself, usually speak to their dogs. They do so less in the belief that the dog may somehow understand what they're saying than out of the knowledge that the dog doesn't understand what they're saying, but that the tone of their voice and the body language are what the dog is attuned to, and that it doesn't matter what they're saying, but that it's important to the dog that you're giving them attention enough to speak to them and to attend to them in a loving and compassionate way. Other than food and security, it is literally what the dog lives for and has evolved to want. It's not much to ask considering that the dog is essentially the result of longest running eugenics experiment in the history of the world. We have modeled and bred them to be what we have wanted, according to our lifestyles or our aesthetic desires in concert with whatever happened to be in fashion at a given point in our history. There is, at this point, a good pile of evidence to suggest no other animal has evolved in concert with mankind as the dog has, and that human civilizations may look very different than they do today if dogs hadn't been around to do things like help us herd (which helped to give us the opportunity to actually settle down long enough to begin to develop civilizations), provide warning and notice of danger (be it invading tribes or large predators), and help protect us from those dangers. A pack of dogs is going to give a large bear more to think about than even a number of arrows would have. "Man's best friend," though emotionally satisfying, doesn't begin to describe what dogs actually are in relation to human beings.

I left it at that, and crossed the street to meet my fair lady at the flower shop. I met her inside and was quickly informed that the quality of their flowers wasn't high enough to justify the price they were asking. Knowing less than nothing about flowers, I leave these things completely to her discretion. We'd have to get pansy's to beautify our yard somewhere else.

As we were headed toward the car, there was yelling across the street. Of course, a disruption like that causes anyone to try and find it's origin, so I looked up quickly. The kid was yelling as the dog was headed through the convenience store/gas station parking lot, the bag of his belongings, the guitar, the mandolin and the sleeping bag all in tow, attached to the dogs leash. One look certified that the dog was running because of what was following it. I've seen it before where an animal gets spooked and jumps for some reason, and because they are attached to something that moves behind them, they get even more spooked, and head off in a terrified fright. This dog was being chased by a noisy thing that it couldn't get away from, and because of the cargo's weight, was slowing her down, scaring her even more. I realized in horror that she was headed directly for the road. It's a busy road, and on a Saturday afternoon, there are dozens of  SUV's and cars speeding toward some destination. Being a resident of Richmond for quite some time now, I also know that they are full of people who are only paying the minimal amount of attention to the fact that they are in control of nearly a ton (sometimes more) of metal and plastic as they fiddle with their cell phones, talk to their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, children, and so on. Richmond has some of the worst drivers I've ever encountered, and I've lived in a number of different places. All of this is occurring to me as I'm watching the dog head as fast as it can carry it's cargo, toward the street. I was suddenly filled with a panic and rage that is usually reserved for threats to my own life. I was panicking because I thought I was about to see that dog get hit by a car, and I was enraged that it was sheer thoughtlessness that was going to cause it.

Luckily, the dog took a step off the sidewalk and hooked a left, running along the curb and then back up onto the sidewalk, with the yelling gutter punk now trailing her. Had her leash and it's attachments not swung around a sign and stopped her, that dog would have kept on running for a good long time. El Punko caught up to her, untangled her, and walked back over to the 7-11, this time trying to secure her leash to the trash can. I watched all of this, waiting to see if the leash was actually going to stay on the trash can or if the lid he'd looped it around would stay on or if the dog was about to be running headlong toward the street again.

Leaning on the car, it struck me that I'd been correct that this kid was in no way capable of taking care of the dog. Whatever the reason, he'd just proven it by attempting to secure the leash to a number of items which are by their very design, portable and not secured to a single location. I started thinking that I should probably do something. What though? Should I go over and attempt to take the dog from him? First, in the state he was in, that was not going to go over very well, especially after the excitement of the dogs unexpected excursion. I've just gotten too old to be fighting with unbalanced homeless people and explaining to a police officer how I ended up in a fight with a homeless person in one of the posh sections of the greater Richmond area. Second, what the hell was I going to do with the dog? We've already got two at home, one of which can be a little bit shifty where other dogs are concerned. The other one, even though he's getting around very well for a three legged dog, is still a three legged dog that it seems is going to need a lot of our care and attention in the not so distant future. The other option would be to call the police. This is possibly a worse option. A person in his state of mind, especially after the excitement of Lucy's little excursion, is not going to respond well to the arrival of the police. The chances are better than very good that he ends up behind bars, probably after few painful though not life threatening injuries incurred while resisting arrest (actually or rhetorically). He might be disabled, a drug addict or just an asshole, but those aren't very good reasons to end up in jail. I've never seen a situation like this where the involvement of the police hasn't made the situation worse than it was to begin with.

If he's mentally disabled, chances are good he's going to spend at least a few hours in the clink, and after they figure it out, he's going to end up under the care of social services. I've dealt with social services on a few occasions. There are a lot of good people involved in that system, who want to see what's best done for the people who end up there in need of their help, but the system in which they are working is fundamentally broken and less often takes into account what any particular individual needs so much as it does the blanket mandates a given state has handed down. That's not even taking into account the fact that funding has always been abysmal, and has only gotten worse in recent years. And... if he is mentally disabled and on the street, there's already been a failure of some kind. Either his family didn't have the necessary understanding to give him the best opportunities at living or they didn't have the resources, and this is where he's ended up. If he's already been involved in social services (which has a very high probability), he's still there, on that curb, underfed, with a sleeping bag for his only form of shelter and a dog he can't take care of.

If he's a drug addict, and intoxicated or has damaged his brain to the degree that he sounded the way he did, that doesn't mean he belongs in jail either. The inevitable confrontation with a guy who is trying to explain to him that he obviously can't take care of his only companion or the arrival of police (who in Richmond's West End don't take kindly to homeless punks causing disruptions) and the inevitable confrontation with them would be what led him to end up in jail, but they wouldn't be the actual reason he was in jail. He'd be in jail because he was a drug addict, which is what put him on that curb, trying to tie his dog. Chances are also good that being in jail wouldn't change that either. In the condition he was in, jail would just make him meat, someone for actual criminals to abuse and take advantage of. It also doesn't tend to have a very good rate of rehabilitation for drug addicts, and adding a criminal record to whatever problems he already has certainly isn't going to make getting his ass off of the street any easier.

All of this was occurring to me as he was tying his dog to the trash can, and the panic had passed when the dog turned out of the street, but the anger was just rising. I wasn't angry at him anymore though. He's just some guy, disabled by either a mental handicap or the mind bending, long term effects of drugs and alcohol. I was angry that there weren't any good options, that the right thing was to get that dog in the hands of someone who could actually take care of it, and get him the care he needed, but there weren't any actual good options for either. The only option was essentially to leave it all as it was, when what that really means is that at some point in the future, there is going to be some kind of intervention. It might not necessarily have anything to do with the dog, but at some point, someone in that condition is going to do something, whether he means to or not, and it's going to draw the attention of the "authorities" of whatever variety they happen to be. If I were able to bet that the intervention of those "authorities" was in response to something much more problematic than not being able to take care of his dog very well,  I would, because I'd win. It'll be the deterioration of his health or a criminal act, which then makes him fit much more neatly into the narratives we continue to tel about these things, and he'll be reaping the consequences related to it. He'll be the result of conservative budget cuts that gut human health services or he'll be another criminal who is detrimental to society or who has to "pay" for their crime, by doing nothing that could in any way be considered productive or useful, in a cell, with actual predators surrounding him. Either way, he'll fit the narratives better than he would now.

Mostly because I'm in my second year of community college, I've spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what kind of life I want. It's really a result of the fact that I have to figure out what I want to get a degree in, which more or less has some consequence in relation to what kind of career I want, which in turn has effects on what kind of life I can have. The only thing I know for certain at this point is that I want to have a good life. For me, personally, that doesn't necessarily mean the most comfortable or easy life. I've actually been happiest at points when life was not as comfortable or easy as it is currently, but was challenging in certain ways. I work hard now, meaning that I show up, actually try to do whatever it is I'm supposed to as best I possibly can, whether it be my job or school work, and I do my best to treat people with respect. I do my best to be a good boyfriend/partner/whatever you want to call it.  It actually is easy in comparison to the way I lived into my mid-twenties. I don't feel very much like it's a good life though. A good life for me really means living an ethical life, and that's actually what makes the life I have now hard. This incident today is really just a crystallization of it, an example most likely to produce some degree of understanding when I explain it to someone else. How exactly do I do the right thing in a situation like the one I saw today? There are no good answers really. The options that I have available to me aren't good at all really. They produce no solution to the actual problem I was witnessing, whether the kid was disabled, a drug addict or just an asshole. They produce mechanisms that address the outburst, the incident that draws the attention of society at large, but not the problem. The "problem" to most of us, even for those that might have some degree of compassion for someone like this kid, is the intrusion an incident like this makes on their otherwise easy lives. I'm not different in that respect, but I'm probably more likely to understand the full spectrum of repercussions to the options I had.

It's seems that for the majority of people these day the options available as choices are between what's bad, what's worse, and the inactivity of no choice. Do you just give up on the mortgage that you were paying with no problem before the economy tanked, and accept the destruction of your financial life following foreclosure because it's eating up a percentage of your resources that makes you ask questions like, "Does my daughter really need a claronet and music lessons and all the benefits that come with some musical education (higher math scores, which our children are rapidly falling behind in, are just the beginning) or do we need to not eat Ramen noodles for the next month more?" Do you you go to college, which at this point more or less means at least a master's degree for it to actually give you any career benefits, and take on the monumental debt you'll incur in the process, all in hopes that the economy straightens out by the time your done or do you decide to try to somehow make your way without it or possibly attempt to start your own business in the worst economy in sixty years? Do you work those extra twenty hours a week so that you're not on the firing line when the lay offs start or do you get a second job to make some extra money or do you just have faith that everything's going to turn out alright and spend that time with your kids because they need you to be a parent?

Those questions, and the hundreds of others people have to ask themselves every single day are much like the questions I faced this afternoon, none of them presents a solution that addresses the actual problem. They are all just measures that might relieve the most immediate discomfort, while possibly exacerbating the actual problem.

Take care of yourself, we're told. Be responsible, we're told. Be a good neighbor, we're told. Be a good parent, we're told. Be a good employee, we're told. Work hard and you'll get ahead, we're told. And yet, more and more, the options available to us in the pursuit of being those things don't add up to actually achieving them. More and more, we're left with a choice between, bad, worse and do nothing. It's something we often experience personally, alone, in the isolation of ourselves, and something we are rarely able to articulate in the moment we're actually living it. The thing is, right now, most of us are living it. Most of us are facing bad, worse or do nothing, at best. At worst, we're facing diminishing options, essentially seeing them dwindled down to worse or nothing. We wait and we hope that it's going to get better. We wait and we hope for someone to come along who will be able to be a catalyst for something better. We wait and we hope, which for all practical purposes is doing nothing, rhetorically and in terms of the result it produces. It does nothing, but relieve the temporary discomfort of having to face decisions whose options are terrible.

And where do we look for that catalyst? Do we look to our religions, increasingly engaged in openly hostile campaigns of hate against American citizens of almost every variety depending on their particular religious stripe? Do we look to our political institutions, which have produced a political duality, a literal choice between worse and worst? Do we look to Republicans and the political right whose rhetoric has produced a generation of devotees who are absolutely blind to the fact that opportunity has never been equal in this country and that for those whom that opportunity has not been equal, working hard never got them ahead and who would sell you, me and the rest of us into slavery if they could? Do we look to Democrats and the political left, whose rhetoric has produced the kind of wide eyed idealism that leads to reality challenged "love" worshipers who can't bring themselves to contemplate that love does not solve all things and the kind of anarchist gutter punks who would rather be homeless, begging for change, often with a dog because it begs more sympathy, than to actually get a job and have to go to work? Do we look to our media, who've become less interested in providing information or education than in making sure we're placated by whatever today's car crash spectacle is, be it Michael Jackson life, his death, his funeral or the fungus on the anus of American culture that is the likes of Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of Fuckingbitchville? Do we look to the free market, which has essentially plunged us all into this hole in the first place?

For whom is this the good life?


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