Mad Man. In the 1980s when we lived on New York City’s West End Avenue, the blocks just west of us had a high concentration of SROs – single room occupancy residential buildings which housed indigent people at government expense. Many of the tenants were mental patients prematurely dumped from institutions to save money. They, and assorted drunks and addicts, often hung out on the stoops of the buildings, a gantlet of unpredictability that we had to run every time we went to Riverside Park.
Once, walking outside with our big golden retriever, Miles, I was amazed when he pulled me across the avenue and down West 95th Street toward the park. Pain from severe arthritis made him usually reluctant to walk, but on that day he seemed eager, and I didn’t want to do anything to stop him.
Halfway down the block of rundown buildings with people loitering outside, a man stood on the sidewalk, disheveled and ranting loudly, cursing and waving his arms. I tried to cross the street, but my 90-pound dog had other plans, pulling me along purposefully toward the scary man. When he got close to him, Miles laid his ears back and wagged his entire back end.
I was terrified that the man would vent his fury on Miles, but instead a change came over him. His tone quieted and softened, as he growled to his unseen audience, “Damn dog doesn’t know any better. Look how he comes right up to me. He’s not scared of me. That’s a dog for you.” And he reached down and, with a grimy hand, half-patted, half-pushed a reluctant Miles on his way, repeating in a gentler voice, “Better go on now. That’s a good dog.” He never so much as looked at me.
Miles turned back for home then. I glanced around to see the man shuffling into a building, quiet now. The encounter with a friendly dog seemed to have stilled his inner demons, maybe making him feel, for that moment, like a worthwhile and attractive person, maybe recalling to him his essential humanity.
Invisible Spacesuit. I have just finished reading a wonderful book about another marginal, outcast man and the transforming power of a dog’s affection. Called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s a first novel by an Irish writer named Sara Baume, and it’s one of the best dog stories I’ve ever read, right up there with The Call of the Wild.
Its hero, Ray, is a 57-year-old man – “too old to start over, too young to give up,” but in a sense he has given up, or, more accurately, he never felt capable, or worthy, of trying for a better life. Raised in a small Irish coastal village by a single father, Ray was never told who his mother was or what happened to her. He was kept a virtual prisoner – in body and in spirit — by his father; he never went to school, made a friend, “held a woman’s hand,” held a job, or even left the house much. His father showed not the faintest glimmer of affection toward him, or ever disclosed anything of his inner life to his son.
Now his father is dead and Ray has been forced to regularly venture out into the village to apply for government assistance and obtain supplies. He feels that “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside….when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit.”
At the book’s opening Ray sees a flyer in a store window from the local animal shelter. It shows a blurry picture of a dog with a scarred, crooked face: one eye missing, a portion of his lip gone. Drawn somehow to the picture, Ray goes to the shelter and adopts the dog, whose injuries, he is told, have come from his former career rooting badgers out of their lairs for hunters.
Ray names his dog One Eye, and they become inseparable, taking walks, sharing meals, having conversations – or rather, Ray talks, and One Eye listens, the first creature to ever show any interest in what Ray has to say. For the first time Ray loves another being, and in return receives his dog’s devotion.
On the run. Disaster looms when One Eye, who still has in him the wildness of his badger hunting days, attacks another dog, and an animal control officer soon afterward comes to Ray’s house to take the offender away. Ray makes some excuse that the dog is with a neighbor – and when the officer leaves, in desperation Ray takes One Eye in the car for a meandering journey that carries them from summer into winter, or, in the language of the title, “simmer” into “wither.”
Over the course of the trip Ray tells One Eye his life story and, at last, painfully confides a terrible secret he carries, a crushing burden of guilt and dread. One Eye loves him no less for this revelation, of course. As for the reader, when we learn the details, despite our horror we understand completely why this fearful and damaged man was driven to do what he did. We still trust, as his dog does, in Ray’s essential goodness.
It’s a tough read at times – and yet there is redemption. “I wish,” Ray says to One Eye, “I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.” In a way, he gets his wish.
This book shows how dogs don’t judge on the basis of appearance or conformity with socially-approved norms. They give their devotion without conditions. I finished it thinking that, if humans could see one another the way dogs do, people like Ray and, perhaps, the scary man of West 95th Street could live free from fear, and know that in someone else’s eyes — or, one eye — they are wondrous and deserving of love.