The city of San Francisco has many charms, and one of the most idiosyncratic of these is the ubiquity of dogs. One of my earliest impressions of the city is walking down the sidewalk of a Saturday and seeing dogs waiting patiently outside the shops, some tied to parking meters or trees, others completely unfettered. It is a charming sight. San Francisco is, without a doubt, a dog city.
This is the story of how you became a dog person.
Some people are dog people; some are cat people. You though born in San Francisco, started out a cat person, much to the dismay of your father and me.
I’m a dog person. If I pass you on the street, I’ll make eye contact with your dog before (or possibly instead of) making eye contact with you. If you are a dog person too, you’ll smile at the way I smile at your dog. I’ve always felt a connection to dogs that is as strong as my disconnect from cats.
I don’t dislike cats solely because their owners let them freely stalk the night time streets like gunslingers, taking out 4 billion songbirds a year from our collective neighborhood trees, but it’s definitely a contributing factor.
(but seriously what’s up with letting these pygmy lions wander freely about murdering birds? Imagine if dogs killed songbirds for sport, how outraged everyone would be. We’d never allow them to freely roam the night streets to do so! So why are we OK with cats doing it, again?)
At five, your favorite game was “Kitty” which consisted of me pretending to be a cat that you rescued from the SPCA and brought home to live in your room. You wore a tiara during the selection and adoption process, and for my leash, co-opted a feather boa that your dad bought for me on our infamous New Orleans date (our third).
I would be required to crawl around after you on all fours and when this got old for me (which it quickly did) I would simply herd you and the unfolding story of Kitty Finds a Home from the kitchen with its painful ceramic tiles to the hallway with its thick pile Turkish runner that was so much easier on my 40-something knees.
Your love of cats persisted and it’s a testimony to your cuteness that we indulged this whim; we bought you t-shirts with sparkly kitten faces on them, and socks with kitten skulls and crossbones. We even took you to the Moscow Cat Circus, a grandly named traveling folly that turned out to be a few non-English speaking Russians and Ukrainians who looked as if they would smell of mothballs and vodka, dressed as derelict clowns and doing odd tricks with their cats.
It was a shabby affair but you were thrilled: at six, you had no regard for production values. A cat balancing on a man’s head while he rode a unicycle was plenty entertaining for you. For the occasion, we wore matching cat ears and cat tails and eye liner whiskers on our cheeks.
We even ‘adopted’ a neighborhood cat, a skittish gray and white girl with long luxurious fur that we named Luna (after Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood) that would come meowing to my basement office window in the after midnight hours, and deign to let me pet her now and then.
But over time, as you heard your dad and I talk of different breeds, of good dogs we had known (and our barely concealed disdain for cats), you were persuaded to the dog side, and by the time you were eight, you had begun to pester us for a puppy.
We all wanted a dog, but your dad was adamant – not ’til the time was right. Not ’til we were traveling less, not ’til we were sure we’d be around to train him to be the good dog we just knew he would be. Most of all, we told you, not ’til you, yourself, were ready for the responsibility. Dogs have to be walked, fed, played with, and trained. They needed the the same care and attention any family member did, and were dependent on us not to forget.
You, former casual murderer of pet mice (I squished it, your five-year-old self explained calmly, snapping your hand shut to demonstrate), took all of this in with great seriousness, and soon the sounds of Cesar the Dog Whisperer could be heard coming from your room, where each day after your homework was complete you’d retreat with an iPad to learn how to make our future dog sit, stay, never eat leather or furniture, and go to the bathroom outside and not on dad’s priceless rugs.
You’d emerge from your Cesar marathons with a list of do’s and don’ts that we’d discuss. Cesar was firm about matching the breed to the need, and we dutifully considered and rejected Vizsla’s (too nervous and wiry), labradoodles (too expensive), toy breeds (too small), golden retriever (too hairy) and border collies (too energetic).
You and I evinced a mad love for pugs, but your dad wanted an athletic dog, and after picturing a pug waddling after us on one of our two-mile runs, we reluctantly agreed (for now). We finally settled on a labrador – either white (our choice) or chocolate (your dad’s preference).
After about 100 episodes of Cesar you felt ready, and you jumped up and down with excitement when your dad announced, OK, Let’s find our dog. For weeks we scoured the internet for a litter that would be available for adoption during your summer break.
We found Mr. Blue, a white lab pup that you and I instantly fell in love with, despite your dad’s determination that we would not buy the first dog that we looked at. You hovered over your dad’s shoulder as he tried to contact the breeder, crushed when he could not reach anyone. Your dad found a backup pup, this one chocolate-brown and improbably blue-eyed, and with the kind of wise old puppy face that only a future big dog has.
Is that snow? you asked, pointing to the white fluffy stuff surrounding the pup. Your dad squinted at the picture. Nope, he said. It’s garbage. Oh, no wonder he looks so sad, you said. Sometimes I think everything was really decided right then.
The next morning your dad and I drove out to look at the pup who was not, after all, blue-eyed – his light amber eyes had simply reflected the blue-painted wall behind him. He was, however, surrounded by garbage; the breeder lived next to a dump, and abandoned cars were everywhere.
Our guy was the only chocolate in a litter of black puppies, all of them cheerfully dangling from the arms of a pack of children that matched the dogs for energy and chaos. After an initial greeting, he scooted under the shade of a parked car and calmly surveyed his trashy domain.
When your dad reached in to pull him out, he was so relaxed his back legs trailed behind him, leaving long parallel lines in the dirt. Your dad held him by his little armpits, and stared into his face, and he stared serenely back, never wiggling or whimpering.
The moment stretched out, and in all that kid-and-dog hubub it was as if the two of them with their similarly calm demeanors had created a little bubble of silence, man and dog, communing with their light eyes, blue and yellow.
And that, really, was it. The choice was made. Your dad paid the owner, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen. As we made the transaction, a stream of family members came pouring out of the little house in celebration, so many that it reminded me of the clown car at the circus. Everyone was celebratory, even the puppy parents bumped around our knees, wagging and laughing in that way dogs have.
As we walked to the car and got in I thought our new puppy might struggle to get down from your dad’s arms, or at least whimper for his mother, but he did not look back at the garbage-strewn yard behind us, chaotic with children and his litter mates. His little amber gaze moved placidly from your dad’s face to mine, and he radiated a calm confidence that seemed to say, everything’s fine and right in his world, everything’s good.
So that when your dad asked me What shall we name him, it was obvious, maybe even ordained. Jake, I told him. Look at him – he’s jake with everything. In a way, he’s already Jake.
And so he became, riding in your dad’s lap tucked beneath the steering wheel like a contented little prince, and a few minutes later we were pulling up to the house where you were waiting on the sidewalk with your best friend (a position Jake was soon to occupy), jumping from foot to foot in anticipation.
What’s his name was your first question, and we told you, and we stood watching him gambol about the sidewalk with his eight week old legs and his hilarious eighty year old face and we all agreed the name fit him like a chocolate glove.
A white blaze on his chest was found to be shaped like a heart, askew on what would one day become a marvelously broad and powerful chest, big enough to hold the whole of all of our hearts which were now also decidedly askew (something that was also maybe ordained, and that we were also totally jake with).
In the next few years his growth spurt matched yours, and you matured together to the cusp of adulthood, it became a common site, you skipping off on legs grown impossibly long, Jake bounding after you on sidewalks, paths, through woods and lake and ocean.
It would only be a short while before Jake learned all of our names, and could come and ‘get’ us on command, rousing us from bed with a pink nose that was as born to root birds from cover as it was people from covers.
But that was all in our future, something as unreal to you as it no doubt was to Jake, both of you fully present in the moment, in your respective childhoods. In the now, it was a beautiful sunny day in June and the previously sleepy street rang with joyful sound of young girls calling in voices that pealed like bells, Jake! Jake! til he must have thought in his delight at this new part of the world, in his old-puppy sagacity, that everything was, indeed, Jake.
And that’s how you became a dog person.
p.s. Luna was not jake with Jake, and after the first shocked inspection of Jake’s amiable face, darted off into the night, perhaps to her real owners