Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mrs. Fitzgerald Part Two: Taking the Girls to Arby's

This story is part two in a series. Read Part One here.

Mrs. Fitzgerald loved catalog shopping.

She must have received 100 different catalogs, everything from ladies' clothes to whimsical pet gifts to fancy candies. I could see the mail man groaning as he approached her house each day with a mountain of parcels and even more catalogs. Every day was like Christmas as she opened each box and inspected its contents, then just as often decided she didn't like the items or they were the wrong size, and sent them back.

“My niece Mary will love this,” she said to me, holding up a pretty stationary set with parchment-looking paper and old fashioned pen.

“Is it her birthday?” I asked, admiring the items.

“No, this is for Christmas.”

It was March, never too soon to start shopping for Christmas. By the time the actual day arrived, she’d have an enormous stockpile of gifts and a ledger with a long list of who received what that would baffle an accountant. After walking the dogs, I helped her stash away the items in a cabinet then made for the door.

“You hungry?” she asked as my hand touched the door knob. Of course I was hungry, so I nodded. She smiled. “Let’s take the girls down to Arby’s.” At the word “Arby’s,” the dogs faces lit up and they started getting excited. Maggie bounced up and down like a spring and Kelly rubbed against Mrs. Fitzgerald’s legs like a cat. “I’ll just get my purse,” she said. 15 minutes later she had a purse, matching shoes and hat, and the huge old green Buick was pulled out of its place in the garage. As it turned out, Arby’s was one of her favorite places to go, and the dogs were always taken along for the ride and given a half sandwich each. I sat in the passenger seat and had to laugh as they went back and forth, back and forth, in the back seat. They’d look out one window, then urgently have to look out the other window, and this went on for the duration of the ride. We were driving none too swiftly, so more than once an angry young person in a sporty car would ride our tail, honk, then finally pass.


“I’ll have two barbecue sandwiches and a large fries.”

The man working behind the Arby’s counter gave Mrs. Fitzgerald a blank look and pointed to something in front of the cash register. Thinking he hadn’t heard her, she repeated her order much louder, "I say I'll have two barbecue sandwiches and a large fried!" but she got the same response. “What’s wrong with this dummy?” she said, just as loudly, to me. I looked down and realized that, since the last time she’d been here, the restaurant had installed a touch-screen ordering system. It appeared that you had to push the pictures of the items you wanted, and the guy behind the counter was just there to take your money.

“Here,” I said, “You push what you want to order on this screen.” I pointed to the image of the barbecue sandwich.

Her face was all confusion, and annoyance. “But I told him what I wanted. What’s the problem?” she asked me. Seeing the line of grumbling people growing behind us, I quickly selected our items on the touch-screen menu and told her the total amount due. She handed the attendant the cash and wondered how I knew the price. I showed her on the screen and she shook her head. As we walked out of the restaurant with our bag of goodies, a few customers looked askance as she said, “I swear, the quality of people working in these places today!”

To read Part Three of this story CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dog Catching

Pet sitters, whether they know it or not, are defacto dog catchers. Our experience enables us to safely catch loose dogs, and our already trashed cars and pickups are ideal for their transport. After a few years I lost track of how many dogs I'd safely delivered. Some had ID tags with addresses; in these cases I simply brought them home. Some had only phone numbers, which I called then often waited for the owners to pick them up. If they had a collar only, or nothing at all, I took them to the humane society where they would be scanned for a microchip ID. Sometimes the dogs just came to me, like the time I opened the door of my car right outside my San Mateo apartment, stepped away for a moment, then got in to find a Rottweiler sitting in the passenger seat.

In one of the most amusing cases, I assisted the police in rounding up two dogs. I was driving down Ralston Avenue in Belmont sipping my morning coffee when I spotted four officers running in four different directions, holding leashes. Two large dogs, an Akita and a black Lab, were running in traffic and doing a good job of avoiding the officers. Noting the general direction in which they were traveling, I drove past them and pulled over. I got out of my truck, opened the back -- in my experience many dogs would simply jump in -- and grabbed two leashes. The Akita was the first to arrive; with lolling tongue, the big brindle ran right up to me and it was easy to put on the leash. The Lab wasn't entirely sure of me, but he saw that I had his buddy, so he submitted to the leash. I waited a few minutes for the tired officers to catch up, then handed them the dogs when they did. I got kind of annoyed while they talked amongst themselves and ignored me, so I said, "Can I have my leashes back?"

"Oh, these are not your dogs?" they replied.

"No," I said, "It just looked like you guys needed a little help!"

I seldom got any thanks, in fact many people said not a word as they reclaimed their dogs who had narrowly escaped death in traffic. Some people, embarrassed perhaps, would say that their dog was stupid for always getting out, the dumb mutt. There was one owner, however, who gave me a thanks I won't forget.

The Changs didn't have a dog, so I was quite surprised to hear growling as I approached the door of their Woodside home. I was scheduled to take care of their two indoor cats, and I began to wonder if they'd acquired a dog and not told me (this did sometimes happen). I paused for a moment to take out my cell phone and check voicemail ... no new messages. Another step forward, and the growling resumed. I looked around, confused, and spotted a very frightened-looking yellow dog about the size of a coyote cowering behind a large decorative pot. Ah, another lost soul. I wasn't about to get too close, but neither could I leave the poor creature out to starve or to be hit by a car on Sand Hill Road, where speeds often exceeded 60mph. I remembered the days when Rusty would help me round up lost dogs; I'd let him out of the truck, he'd go and make friends with the strange dog, then jump back in the truck, usually followed by his new friend. I wondered if my grumpy three-legged mutt Cassie, who happened to be riding along with me that day, would be willing to do the same. I let her out of the truck and she didn’t disappoint; coaxing the lost dog out from behind the pot and sniffing her curiously; she kept her distracted long enough for me to slip a large noose around her neck. Realizing that she was trapped, the yellow dog struggled for a second, then gave up. I spoke softly to her and walked to my truck, encouraging her to jump in, which she did. She was less nervous now, and I was able to locate ID tags on the furry neck. I dialed one of the numbers, and a woman answered. "Hi," I said, "Are you missing a dog?"

She gasped, then said, "Yes, it's my son's dog! Please give me your number, I'll have him call you right away."

I gave her my cell number, and minutes later I was on the line with an excited young man who said he would come right out. A small truck was soon coming up the long driveway, and the man jumped out of it as soon as he stopped. "Is this your dog?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "that's my ... that's my ..." then at this moment he flung his arms around the yellow neck and burst into tears. His face turned all red and he sobbed as the dog's tail wagged. When he was able to breathe again, he thanked me over and over, saying that the dog, Ginny, had become spooked and gone missing during a hike in the woods over the weekend. Since it was now Wednesday, that meant that Ginny had been missing for three days, and they were beginning to think she was dead. "She's shy," he explained, "No one else can handle her except me and my family. We knew she wouldn't approach anyone. I don't know how you got her. Thank you." I watched with a smile and patted Cassie's head as the truck drove away, a wagging yellow tail just visible through the back window.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mrs.Fitzgerald Part One: Just Whistle

The summer sun beat down on me as I drove up the winding road to my new client's home. It was in a wealthy part of Menlo Park, and I marveled at the beauty: the streets were lined with different trees, some with colored leaves and others with flowers. The scene was dominated by oaks which seemed to have sprouted up in every front and back yard many years ago. The yards that hadn't been recently raked were showered with acorns. I drove with one hand on the wheel, the other holding a bagel. I was so often busy hustling from one visit to the other that many meals were eaten in the car, and this lunch was no exception. Popping the last bit in my mouth and washing it down with Snapple, I turned onto the client's street and parked in front of the house.

“This must be a really old lady,” I thought to myself as I gathered up my paperwork. She had an old-lady sounding voice on the phone, and she introduced herself as Mrs. John Fitzgerald (No one born on this side of 1930 goes by their husband's name). My suspicions were borne out when the door opened and there stood a slender elderly lady. Her hair was as red as mine, dyed but clearly done by a professional. Her eyes had a witty Irish sparkle and they disappeared when she smiled, just like mine. She was wearing a printed house dress and a bathrobe, but somehow she radiated elegance even in that outfit. I stared at her face perhaps a moment too long, as I saw the scar from what I later learned was one of several disfiguring cancer surgeries. Standing next to her was her husband, similarly attired and smiling. It was past noon and I felt a sudden envy for retired people.

“Hi, come in,” she said. I stepped into the house and was immediately accosted by two Springer Spaniels with their tail stumps wagging. I crouched down to meet them and they pushed their heads under my hands. “This is Maggie and this is Kelly,” she said, touching the head of each dog. Despite the fact that they were sisters, they looked nothing alike; Maggie was short and stout while Kelly was tall and long. Maggie was active and bouncy while Kelly seemed more sweet and wanted to lean on me. I pet them both and smelled their breath and let them lick me.

Mrs. Fitzgerald, as she preferred to be addressed, showed me around the house. She walked slowly and with a shuffle, and I followed behind her like a puppy, marveling at the amount of furniture, art, clothes, and other stuff in the house. There was a statue of a giraffe next to a Southwest-looking colorful coyote. There were couches and chairs of all shapes and sizes, glass cabinets jam-packed with knickknacks, a giant fish bowl full of match books from different restaurants. There was a painting of cows in a field next to what looked like a photo of African trees.
“These people must have lived here for 40 years!” I thought, and as it turns out I was just about right. I wondered when we got to the yard and I saw that the gate was not only wide open, it was tied open.

“Do you leave this open?” I asked.

“We always leave the gate open,” she replied. “After the fire, I got to worrying that the dogs would be trapped.”

“What if they run off?” I asked, still not too sure about this. I never got around to asking about the fire.

“They won't go far,” she assured me, “But if they do...”she started back into the house, which took a while. I followed slowly behind, and narrowed my eyes as she fished around in a drawer and came up with a red and white plastic whistle. She slowly raised it to her lips and blew, and a shrill sound came out. Both dogs came running and jumped around her feet. “You keep this one,” she said, pushing the saliva-covered whistle into my hands before I could protest. “We'll see you on Tuesday then!” she announced, and all I could do was nod as I made my way out the door.

After a month of walking Kelly and Maggie, I was into the groove. They were nice dogs who always gave me a hero's welcome when I arrived, and they were very well behaved on the walk.

“Got a minute?” Mrs. Fitzgerald asked as I stepped into the house and unclipped the leashes from Maggie and Kelly's collars. The dogs, satisfied after their walk, immediately rolled around on the carpet, grunting and groaning, then followed me and Mrs. Fitzgerald into the back bedroom. She slowly opened a sliding closet door to reveal an astounding amount of clothing and boxes. She pointed to the upper shelf in the closet and said, “I think they're in there.” Not asking what was in there, I stood on my tiptoes and got a grip on a white shirt box.

“This one?” I asked. She didn't answer, so I pulled the box down and handed it to her. She opened it to reveal several colorful scarves, then shook her head.

“Maybe it's that other one - there,” she said, pointing again. I pulled down a very similar box and it fell to the floor, popping open and spilling its contents. “That's it, thank you.” I picked it up and handed it – or them – to her. In the box were several ancient brown extension cords. They were frayed and only had two prongs on the end.

I frowned and said, “These are no good.”

She frowned back at me and lifted one eyebrow. “Last time I used them they worked fine.”

“But,” I tried to explain, “They don't make them like this any more,” pointing to the two prongs, “They aren't safe.”

At this moment, the front door opened and in walked Mr. Fitzgerald with a sheepish look on his face and two filled paper grocery sacks in his arms. “He's not on my good list,” she said with a grin. “Drove all the way to the store without the grocery list. Had to come all the way back to get it.” Realizing I was getting nowhere on the extension cord subject, I headed for the door, but she stopped me with a soft, “Wait just a minute.” She shuffled into the kitchen and I heard the bags rustling, so I assumed she was inspecting the grocery purchases. I heard the refrigerator open and close, and she came walking back into the living room holding a box.

“Oh no,” I thought, “More old food.” Like many people of her generation, despite the fact that she was obviously wealthy, she never threw anything away. Each week she had something for me: cookies, crackers, chocolates, all way past expiration. I didn't want to be rude, so I always thanked her and took them, then threw them away in the trash can down the street by the little park. “Oh, thank you!” I said as she handed me a half-empty box of expired chocolate donettes.

Starting up my truck and driving down the street, I realized I'd spent an extra half hour at the Fitzgeralds', as was becoming usual. My mind was wandering as I drove and I missed the trash can and got on the freeway. My stomach growled and I knew I wouldn't have time to stop for lunch. “Oh well,” I thought, “These things last forever,” as I popped a donette into my mouth.

To read part two of this story CLICK HERE.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A New Job, Part Three

This story is part three in a series. Read PART ONE and PART TWO here.

I held the phone bill closer to my face and read it again, in disbelief. $300? How on earth did we do that?

Two months after accepting the pet sitting job in San Francisco, I moved in with my boss, Krystal. Despite my reservations about her quirky personality, I jumped at the opportunity to live in a neat old house that was pet-friendly and conveniently located for both work and entertainment; besides, she said she was planning on leaving soon and moving in to a loft where she could have a nice office and living quarters together. She believed that her boyfriend Allesandro, who was likely to ask her to marry him any day, would be joining her. From my point of view, Allesandro only invited her over to his apartment for sex, then had her leave. He never came to her/our place, and never took her out for dinner or anything else. Today we’d call this kind of relationship a booty call – I don’t know what the term was in the 90’s. How, then, was she so certain that marriage was on the horizon? The Psychic Hotline.

976 phone numbers had a brief but profitable history in the pre-internet 80’s and 90’s. Offering everything from phone sex to financial advice, they were heavily advertised on TV and in the newspaper and caused people to run up some astounding phone bills. Charging as much as $3 a minute, operators of these 976 numbers did their best to keep callers on the line as long as possible and to encourage them to call back frequently. So it was that Krystal called the Psychic Hotline almost every day. Since the walls of our bedrooms were paper-thin, I could hear every word she said on the phone; if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d recount the entire conversation as soon as she saw me. She really believed that these people were real psychics and worse, that they were her friends. I realized after a while that they were skilled conversationalists and counselors of sorts, making statements that could apply to anyone like, “I sense that you have an unresolved issue with your family,” then listening and responding carefully as the caller gushed information.

“$300?” I said to Krystal when she got home. “Seriously, give me twenty bucks and I’ll tell you the same things.”

She gave me a look that went from blank to hurt. “They’re really psychic,” she said, “They know a lot about me and what they say really happens.”

“Well, it was going to happen anyway, so how does it help you, knowing these things?” But it was no use. She’d argue tooth and nail on the validity of the psychics, and there was no swaying her. I felt bad for her wasting her money like that, and I also felt concern for the fact that my paycheck and the phone bill were being funded by the same account. Luckily, we had enough business to cover it all.

The following week, I came home from a morning of pet sitting visits and, as I put on a pot of coffee, I noticed a big box full of stuff in the kitchen. I saw what appeared to be leather gloves sticking out of the top of the box, and as I waited for the coffee to brew I peeked further in. At this moment, Krystal came down from her bedroom and walked into the kitchen. “Did you see our new earthquake supplies?” she asked with an excited look on her face.
“Is that what they are?” I replied.

“Yeah, look,” she said, pulling the box to the middle of the floor and extracting the contents. Her two little terriers had followed her into the kitchen, and they were watching with interest. As she took each plastic-wrapped item and placed it on the floor, they sniffed it. “These,” she said, holding up the leather gloves, “Are for picking up broken glass, and this,” picking up a small plastic box, “will detect leaking gas.”

I thought to myself that if my home was littered with broken glass and leaking gas, I’d probably just leave, but I said nothing. “How much was that?” I asked.

“Only $250, but the batteries for the flashlights were extra.”

Good lord, I thought, $250 for a bunch of junk we don’t need. But that wasn’t all. She went on to explain that she hadn’t actually paid for our earthquake preparedness kit, she had charged it on her new credit card which was now up to the limit.

“Want coffee?” I asked as I poured myself a cup and sat down at the little wooden table in the corner of the small kitchen. The smell of coffee permeated the room. I poured my usual obscene amount of sugar and small amount of creamer into the cup, then looked up to see her crinkling her nose in disgust.

“Coffee isn’t good for you, you know. It really doesn’t give you energy.” She went on to give me a lecture about healthy eating and drinking habits – which she, by the way, didn’t practice – and to talk at length about the homeopathic remedies she took and gave to her dogs. “I’m so sensitive I can’t even eat ginger. In fact, a client gave me a box of ginger snaps, do you want them?”

I took the box, pulled out a cookie, and ate it. It went well with the coffee, so I had another. I looked out the window at the mountains of lumber, scrap metal and other junk piled up next to an outbuilding that looked like a cross between a tool shed and the Winchester Mystery House. I wondered about all that stuff.

“So I started going to the acupuncturist.” Mind wandering, I don’t know how we got from ginger snaps to acupuncture. “But,” she continued, “I’m too sensitive for the needles, so he just tapes magnets to my hands.”

“Magnets?” I almost spit up my coffee.

“He tapes them to my hands, and my hands just shake. See, they’re still shaking now.” She held out her skinny hands and indeed, they were quivering.

I listened to her prattle on as she did, sometimes for hours, and felt bad. She really worked hard, between the pet sitting visits she did herself and the managing of the business and her several employees. She was lonely and didn’t seem to have any friends, she didn’t eat or sleep well, she wore the same old clothes every day, and she spent all her money on psychics and alternative medicines in an attempt to cure her neuroses. Lost in my internal dialogue, I hardly noticed some noise outside the kitchen window, but I couldn’t help but see a man walking right by.

“Who’s that?” I asked Krystal.

“Oh,” she said, “That’s Howard.”

“Howard?” A neighbor? Another boyfriend?

Now, in crowded and costly San Francisco it’s not uncommon for homes to be chopped up and subdivided until landlords have 10 people living where there should be three; however, I was still surprised – and amused, I’ll admit – when Krystal said, “There is a very nice, very quiet gay couple living in the back yard.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Pet Sitter Mobile

At age 21, I bought a motorcycle, a Yamaha Virago -- meaning warrior woman-- dark red with chrome. On that bike with my black helmet and black suede leather jacket with the fringe, I thought I was the coolest amazon in town. Pet sitting on a motorcycle turned out to be great during the summer months, all that sun and fresh air and only $3 to fill up the gas tank, but when the rainy season started it was a real drag. I tried every type of rain gear, but nothing could keep me from getting soaked to the skin, and spending a day on your feet in wet shoes and underwear is quite unpleasant. The day finally came for me to buy a car.

Since I had only had my business less than a year, my budget was rather limited: I had no more than $1000 to purchase my new wheels, so I went to my local convenience store and picked up the Auto Trader magazine, a good pre-internet source for used vehicles. Each ad included a description of the vehicle with a photo and the seller’s phone number. Of course, one had to know how to translate these ads:”like new” meant not too many dents, “never raced” meant it probably was, especially if it was a Camero with a huge engine, and “cherry” meant it was washed recently. All ads contained the ubiquitous phrase, “runs good,” including, amazingly, some for cars without engines! I sat down with a cup of coffee and a pen and circled the most likely vehicles for me, then I began to make phone calls. The conversations went something like this:

Me: “Hi, I’m interested in your 1980 Honda.”
Woman’s voice: “Oh, it’s my husband’s car.”
“Okay, may I speak with your husband?”
“No, he doesn’t speak English.”
“Okay, how about I ask you questions and you ask your husband?”
After a long pause she agreed.

My first question, a common one, “How many miles does it have on the odometer?” I sat with pen poised over my notebook with the list of car-purchasing questions.

I heard her place the phone down on the table, then a muffled exchange in Spanish. She picked the phone up after some time and said, “My husband says, it doesn’t matter how many miles it has!”

My next call was no more successful. A man with a strong New York accent sang the praises of his 1982 Toyota Corolla for ten minutes, then said, “It just has oooone little problem.”
“Oh really, and what’s that?”
“Well, it doesn’t have third gear, but it runs just fine, you just shift like this: first, second, fourth!”

After the telephone screening, there was the actual viewing of the vehicles, which was no less amusing. Having been raised by my Dad, I was more car savvy than the average girl, but I was still leery of going to strangers’ homes alone, so he joined me for the shopping. So it was that we pulled up to the home of Chip, who was selling a 1980 Toyota Celica. Chip lived in, let’s just say, the “inexpensive” part of town; I immediately noticed that, along with a great deal of rubbish, there were several Toyotas in front of his home in varying states of repair. The hood was up on one of them and he was deeply buried in the engine compartment; my eyes traveled to his pants, which were slipping down and, oh god, there it was, the crack of his butt greatly exposed. I got out of Dad’s car and was accosted by the smell of dirty motor oil and Gunk engine cleaner spray. The smell got worse as we climbed into the Celica with Chip, who for some strange reason insisted on driving it himself, rather than letting one of us drive. Oil and Gunk were joined by B.O. and the smell of filthy upholstery and sun-damaged vinyl. He popped the clutch and flew down the street, hanging corners and grinding through the gears like a madman, talking all the way.

“Yeah, I did all the repairs on this car myself,” he said, to no great surprise. “I replaced the brakes and the clutch.” As if on cue, the clutch slipped just as he said that. “Yeah,” he went on, patting the cracked and warped dash board, “It runs good, but the insides ain’t so cherry!”

Finally my search yielded a treasure, a dark blue 1980 Honda Civic hatchback, great for transporting dogs, cheap on gas, and, as I soon discovered, small enough to park anywhere. I paid the seller $900 cash and drove away feeling like a wealthy lady in a Rolls Royce; that feeling was soon tempered, however, by my discovery of the vehicle’s “idiosyncrasies.” For one thing, the seat was not bolted down. It was somehow attached on the left side, so no problem making a right turn, but a left turn caused me and the seat to tilt at an alarming angle. There was no back seat, which was unsightly but worked out fine for dog transport. There were also some slight electrical problems, like when I put on the turn signal, the horn beeped, and when I pressed the horn, the turn signals flashed. When the rainy season started, I discovered that the sun roof, installed by the previous (teenage boy) owner, was not sealed properly and water leaked all over the place. I drove around wondering what was worse, sitting on a dry motorcycle seat and getting rained on or sitting on a wet, moldy smelling car seat? I developed a method of folding newspaper and wedging it between the visor and the leaky window. The newspaper turned out to be just as useful for absorbing rain water as puppy pee, and as long as I changed it every couple of days I stayed dry.

By the time I got rid of the Honda, it had 250,000 miles on the odometer; like the ad claimed, this vehicle “ran good” and, despite its shortcomings, was reliable transportation for two years, until I could afford to buy what I always wanted, a truck ... but that’s another story.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Puffer Fish

I never knew that fish had much in the way of personality.

As a kid I’d had my share of goldfish, the kind won at carnivals by tossing ping pong balls into bowls. Despite my attentive care, they seldom lived longer than a year in their little plastic bowl in my bedroom. In high school, I somehow got involved in a guppy-breeding project for science class. Myself and several other students brought home various guppies, males and females, and did reports on what we observed. What I observed was that guppies are pretty, they are very prolific, and they like to eat their babies. In my 20’s, I got into aquariums and, for a couple years, had a fresh-water setup. These critters were even more delicate than the gold fish and the guppies, and I had a heck of a time keeping them alive; it seemed like the more they cost, the more likely they were to be short-lived. I finally managed to have a stable population for a while, until I decided that it would be fun to add a little crab to the mix. It was fun until the fish started disappearing, and when I cleaned the tank I noticed a pile of fish skeletons under the rock where the crab liked to hang out. Still determined to make it work, I hired an aquarium maintenance guy, Dan, to advise me and to help me clean the tank and make sure it was running properly. He was very knowledgeable and a big help, but unfortunately he came with a jealous wife who had to accompany him on his rounds. She’d sit on my bed, not saying a word, staring at me and at him as he worked on the tank. When he wasn’t shoulder-deep in the tank, she was hanging off his arm, perhaps protecting him from a sudden attack by me. It was awkward to say the least. After that, I decided that keeping fish was just way more work and expense than it was worth for the enjoyment, or lack of, I got from them.

Susie and Jilly, however, made me think differently. Susie and Jilly were puffer fish, club-shaped brown and white creatures with large expressive eyes and absurdly small fins. When comfortable, they had a smooth appearance, but when alarmed they would “puff” and their bodies would resemble a spiky balloon. There is poison in their skin, so any predator trying to eat them will be stabbed by the spikes and injected with poison. In Japan, the larger puffers are eaten as a delicacy, and several people die each year from improper preparation.

It was hard to imagine these cute, clumsy things being deadly poisonous. They bobbed around in the water like some kind of children’s toys, opening and closing their mouths and looking around with their big eyes. They seemed to be quite aware of the environment outside the tank, unlike the banal, blank-expressioned fish I was used to.

“Here is their food,” said Kate, the fishes’ owner, opening the freezer. She pointed to several different bags of frozen fish-goodies. “Don’t give them too much!” she cautioned. “They love their food.”

There was another tank containing a lion fish, Leo, another spiny poisonous critter. This one was beautiful and regal with a great plume of fins and tail, floating about in an aloof manner, nice to look at but not interactive like the puffers.

“Be sure not to touch them,” Kate cautioned. “They are poisonous. They’re not aggressive, but if you startle them you might get stung.” I assured her that I had no intentions of putting my hands anywhere near these little people.

On my first day caring for the fish, everything went smoothly. I walked into the home office room where the tanks were set up and took a look at everyone. Pumps, lights, and heaters were all plugged in and on timers, so all I had to do was make sure everything was doing what it was supposed to. All seemed well, so I proceeded to the little freezer with the food inside. Leo was floating regally, seemingly unaware of my presence, but Susie and Jilly appeared to be watching my every move. When I opened the freezer their tiny fins moved very fast and they opened and closed their mouths.

“Here you go, girls!” I said, dropping the goodies into the tank. The girls devoured the frozen brine-shrimp-and-who-knows-what-else in seconds. I gave Leo his portion and he attacked it, pulling off portions and consuming them. Lion, indeed.

Two days later, I walked into the office room and did my usual check. When I turned my back on the puffers’ tank, I thought I felt something wet on the back of my neck. “What the?” I said to myself, looking up at the ceiling for a leak. I saw nothing unusual, so I reached again for the freezer door. Splash! This time it hit me in the face. What on earth was happening? I was standing several feet from the tank, so water couldn’t just be dripping out onto me. Susie and Jilly were wiggling near the surface of the water looking excited. Could it be? I reached for the door again, but kept my eyes on the tank. I’ll be damned if they didn’t fill their mouths with water and expertly spit it at me!

A week into the job, I arrived to see things looking different. There had been a massive storm the previous night, taking down trees and fences all over San Mateo County. I’d already started my day chasing a client’s Beagle across a golf course who had escaped because of a downed fence. Many homes in the area had lost power, probably this one too.

Leo looked lethargic, and the girls were staying near the surface of their water, mouths open. I wasn’t hearing all the usual noises. I suppressed panic as I realized that the machinery pumping air into the water was probably not working! I grabbed the phone to call an aquarium store, and thankfully got someone on the line. I waited tensely, talking to the fish as if they could understand me. “Come on, girls,” I said, touching the glass front of the tank, “Hang in there. Help is on the way!” They looked at me and moved their fins weakly. After what seemed like an eternity, the aquarium service person showed up.

“How long has it been like this?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I got here an hour ago, and I haven’t been here since yesterday. The power must have gone out last night because of the storm. It must have reset everything.”

“Hmm,” he frowned and got to work. After a while, he was able to get everything back working the right way.

“Will they be okay?” I asked, eyeing my two sad-looking club-shaped friends.

“If they didn’t go too long without oxygen.”

The next day I came to see the fish first thing in the morning. I was delighted to see everyone looking active and normal. Susie and Jilly were spitting at me even before I walked near the freezer. Checking Leo’s tank, I noticed with dismay that one of the heating tubes, attached to the inside with suction cups, had been knocked loose, presumably by the actions of the aquarium service person. “Damn it,” I said, looking at the large poisonous fish cruising around next to the floating tube. I waited till he was at the opposite end of the tank, then carefully lowered my hand into the water and attempted to grab the tube. This proved more difficult than I thought, as it was slippery and the surface of the water distorted my vision. After several attempts, I still didn’t have a hold of it. Slowly, like a tank, Leo turned and headed back towards my hand. Did he look “alarmed” or was it my imagination? I removed my hand from the water, and waited. Thinking of how it would feel to be stabbed by those poisonous spines, I slowly and carefully replaced the heater where it belonged. Crisis averted, again.

On my last day, I said goodbye to my new friends and marveled at my new appreciation of the personalities of fish. Figuring the girls saw me as a friend and food-provider, I couldn’t resist sticking just the tip of my finger into their water and letting them nibble on it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A New Job, Part Two

This story is Part Two in a series. If you haven't yet read Part One, CLICK HERE.

Clutching my backpack with both hands, I walked up the stairs to my first pet sitting client’s home. There were three flats in the building, and hers was the middle. I knocked on the door and it was quickly opened.

“Hi, I’m the pet sitter.”

“Come in,” she smiled, and stepped aside to reveal an adorable pit bull puppy. He was fawn colored with a black face and big dark eyes. At the moment, he sat in the middle of the floor concentrating on a red rubber chew toy.

I went right to him, sat on the floor, and pet his cute face. Abandoning the toy, he climbed into my lap and licked my face.

His owner looked worried. “You have done this before?”

“Yes, of course.” Not exactly, but it wasn’t as if I didn’t know how to care for a puppy. Mugsy, as he was called, was Nancy’s first dog. She had just bought this flat and was excited to finally be able to keep a pet. She wanted to do everything right, from diet to training to house breaking. She had called Krystal, my boss, to set up visits twice a day while she was at work. Since Mugsy was so young and not fully vaccinated, all I had to do was let him in the back yard and play with him. Seriously, I thought, I am going to be paid for this? I got all the pertinent info: visit times, routine, where everything is kept, and I had her sign the service agreement. It’s official now, I thought, I’m a professional pet sitter. I shouldered by backpack with paperwork, day planner, and other necessities inside, and headed out the door to meet my next new client.

My next new charge was bigger, and longer, and thinner. Dolly the Greyhound was a track rescue, a lean dark brindle with a great toothy smile and a tail so long and active it was often bleeding at the tip. Greyhound racing, still legal in 15 states (not including California), produces thousands of unwanted dogs every year. By the age of five years -- or sooner if they don’t place well enough in the races -- dogs are retired, and before the creation of rescue and adoption groups, “retirement” only meant one thing … death. Thanks to these tireless nonprofit groups, many of these dogs are instead placed in loving homes where they soon adapt to life as a pet.

I don’t believe I ever touched a Greyhound before Dolly. I’d seen them in pictures -- the pointed faces, the huge thighs, the whippy tails -- but meeting one in person was, well, a whole different animal. Since then I have known and loved many of these special dogs, and they never fail to delight me with their positive energy. Dolly was typical with her wide adoring eyes, big smile, and happy-dancing feet. I was in love at once. I pet her super-short fur as I listened to her owner, Jim,talk about her. Jim and his wife Hazel were not new to dogs, but they were new to Greyhounds, so they were eager to learn. Dolly had some goofy habits they couldn’t figure out, like an inability to walk up and down stairs, and a thing for music.

“Music?” I asked.

“Yes, we heard that at the track they leave a radio on all the time, so we do that at home and it seems to calm her. She likes classical.”

At the mention of her favorite music, Dolly’s head popped up and she gave her owner a loving look with her great dark eyes.

“I’ll be sure to leave the music on,” I said with a smile.


“Mugsy, I’m here!” Two weeks had passed since my first day as a professional pet sitter. I was loving my new job and actually eager to start work each morning. I opened the door of the flat to see a great pup who was, as always, larger than yesterday. He came bounding down the stairs and stood expectantly at my feet. He was quite friendly, but also independent, and didn’t whine or make a fuss. I opened the back door and together we walked down the stairs to the yard. While he took care of business, I sat on a bench and unwrapped the breakfast I’d purchased down the street at the bagel shop. Sipping my apple juice, I watched him cavort and felt that all was well in the world. He bounded around, playing with leaves that floated around the back yard in a breeze. After 30 minutes, I gave him a cookie and locked him back in the house. Noticing the shredded (expensive looking) dog bed, I thought to suggest crate training to Mugsy’s owner. Leaving a pup alone anywhere, let alone a nice flat with new furnishings, was not the best idea. I headed out and off to my next visit.

I didn’t have to call out for Dolly – she knew the sound of my vehicle and was waiting always by the door. I could hear her tail whacking against the wall as I fumbled with the lock and pushed my way in. The house looked like it used to be a store, and the front door, or doors, were swinging glass. There was a living room, bathroom, and kitchen on the ground level and the bedroom, which was formerly an attic, was on the second level and could be accessed via a ladder. The leggy dog wasn’t able to climb the ladder; nor, in fact, was she able to climb down the stairs into the back yard. Her owners, unable to get her to take a step, had to carry her. I slipped the wide martingale collar used for walks around her neck, clipped on the leash, and headed out the door. She was a dream to walk, sweet and attentive, seldom pulling on the leash except for when she saw a small animal running. Her owners had warned me – and I had since read in a book about Greyhounds – of their ability to “run without heed.” Because of this, it was never recommended to take them off-leash except for in a very secure area. Apparently, this “ability” comes in handy when hunting or running on the track, but it can make for a challenging pet. Dolly’s neighborhood was hilly, so we had a good 30 minute exercise by the time we were done. I removed the walking collar, gave her a cookie, and went on my way.

A month later, I was cruising through my pet sitting days with ease. I’d met a few other new clients and was beginning to do some vacation care for cats and dogs. Mugsy and Dolly continued to be my favorite daily companions, however, and I always looked forward to their visits. Life was good and nothing could possibly go wrong. Opening the door to Mugsy’s on this windy Spring day, I was surprised when he didn’t appear. “Hello?” I shouted in the door, thinking maybe the client was at home. In those pre-cell phone days, immediate communication was not yet a reality, leading to some mix-ups and embarrassing moments. No one answered, so I entered the house and looked around. Finally, Mugsy, who was now four months old and getting quite tall, came walking out of the bedroom. He looked sleepy, and clumsy. “What have you been up to?” I said, petting his head. It didn’t take long to find out: in the bathroom, the medicine cabinet was wide open and all kinds of medication boxes and jars were on the floor. Pain killers, cough syrup, decongestants … all had tooth marks on them and parts of the packaging were missing. “Oh no!” I said as I looked back at Mugsy, who smiled up at me with glassy eyes. I ran down to the car and got his owner’s contact info. Thinking he was going to drop dead any minute, I called her at work and, fortunately, got her right away. At first, she didn’t seem too alarmed. In the future, I would experience this again and again as I called clients to tell them of disasters which had occurred with their pets. As grace under pressure is one of my strong suits, I wonder if my apparent calmness leads people to believe that it isn’t all that bad; perhaps they don’t get the sense of urgency if the caller isn’t shouting and crying? After some convincing, thank god, Nancy agreed to come home immediately and take him to the vet. It was a nerve-wracking 15 minutes waiting for her, and when she did arrive home she seemed shocked at his drunken appearance.

“What should I do?” she asked.

“Take him straight to the vet,” I said, handing her a stack of shredded papers. Knowing the vet would ask what had been consumed, I had picked up the shreds of the medication boxes with the product names on them: DayQuil, Advil, Pepto Bismol… Putting the pieces in her purse, she took Mugsy and I headed out to Dolly’s.

The first thing I noticed was no whippy tail sound on the wall. Red flag, I thought … where is Dolly? I pushed open the double frosted glass door and peeked in. “Hello?” I called out. My voice echoed through the cavernous house, and no one answered. Locking the door behind me, I went straight to the kitchen where Dolly’s owners often left notes for me. On the wood table was a basket of apples and a phone bill, but no note. Hmm. I searched all over the house and yard, thinking Dolly was stuck somewhere, but I saw no sign of her. I picked up the phone and dialed Jim’s work number. Fortunately, he answered right away.

“Hi Jim,” I said. “I’m here to walk Dolly, but she’s not here. Was I supposed to come today?”

Jim’s voice cracked as he told me what happened. That morning, Hazel had taken Dolly to a big field in the neighborhood where many people ran their dogs. Hazel was very bonded with Dolly at this point, and found her to be very attentive and obedient. Eager to allow Dolly some socialization, she thought it would be okay to allow her off-leash as she would stay with the other dogs and always came when called. Dolly was having a great time running around with the local Labs and Pit Bulls, until a cat darted across a yard … across the street from the field. Like an arrow released from the bow, Dolly shot straight towards the cat, right into the street, her ears deaf to Hazel’s shouts. A Toyota Corolla was coming along at that moment, and the driver had no time to stop as the dog suddenly appeared from behind other parked cars. He hit her and she went airborne, to the horror of everyone watching. The driver stopped and spoke briefly with Hazel, but soon went on his way. Since dogs were not actually allowed off-leash there and he was not speeding, he was not at fault.

“Will she be okay?” I asked, having terrible flashbacks of one of my dogs being hit by a car, having major orthopedic surgery, and never being the same again.

“We don’t know,” Jim replied. “She’s at the vet now.”

My heart sank as I hung up the phone. Tears in my eyes, I drove on to my next visit.


“How’s my Mugsy?” I called out as I entered the flat. A week had passed since the terrible day he'd eaten a cabinet full of medicines. I heard a great metallic clanging as his long tail hit the sides of his shiny new dog crate in the kitchen. “Good dog,” I cooed as I clipped the collar to his leash and took him out for a walk (quickly, as he had to pee immediately and a hesitation would equal a puddle). Now old enough and fully vaccinated, he was good to go for walks off the property. People crossed the street when they saw us coming. Adopted as a “Boxer mix,” Mugsy’s startling growth was making “Mastiff mix” his more likely breed. We enjoyed a stroll around the neighborhood, then I gave him a chewy bone and locked him in his crate. Thank god, his brush with death had left him no worse for the wear, and it had taught his owner an important lesson. She had initially resisted crate training because she thought it was cruel, but after almost losing her puppy and running up a $1000+ vet bill, she decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

By the time I got to Dolly’s, I was tired. I hadn’t slept well the previous night, and the driving was making me drowsy. My spirits were raised, however, when I saw my friend walk happily up to the door and whack her tail on the wall. “Good dog,” I said, stroking her muscular body which was intact except for a few abrasions. Amazingly, the only thing she suffered as a result of the accident was shock. She had no broken bones or other permanent damage. An afternoon at the vet had pulled her out of shock and back into the land of the living, where she would never again be let off-leash in a non-secure area. I closed the swinging glass doors behind me and flopped down on the big comfy couch. It’s a little-known fact that Greyhounds, although one of the fastest land animals, are actually quite lazy. They love to lounge around, and most Greyhound owners will have a large collection of thick, fluffy beds in every room. Dolly hopped up on the couch next to me and put her pointed head in my lap. I stroked her and played with her little ears, getting very comfortable as the warm sun poured on me through the glass doors. The next thing I knew, I heard the front door opening. The couch was directly facing the front door, so there was no escape. Jim had come home early, and caught me sound asleep! Stammering and wiping the drool from my mouth, I grabbed the leash and hurried out for our walk. He just smiled.

To read part three of this story CLICK HERE.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recommended Reading: Territory by Emma Bull

Readers often ask me what my favorite books are, so I'm going to start sharing them here. I enjoy fiction, creative nonfiction (what this blog is all about), memoirs, and sci-fi/fantasy, among others. I'll also post books about writing that aspiring authors may find helpful.

Territory is an interesting twist on historical fiction, blending elements of drama, myth, and magic around some very compelling characters. Newspaper typesetter and aspiring author Mildred Benjamin finds her life turned on its ear after meeting traveling horse tamer Jesse Fox. Fox, although white, has been educated in the ways of Chinese language, medicine, and magic by his friend and mentor Dr. Chow Lung. This education gives him a unique insight into the goings-on of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 during the reign of the Earp brothers. What seems like an ordinary power play opens up to reveal a dark heart of sorcery into which Mildred and Jesse find themselves inextricably bound.

I enjoy straight-up fantasy, but I find even more compelling a story in which the reader is never sure if the events are ordinary or magical. Emma bull achieves that effect in Territory, leaving the reader wondering for some time afterwards what "really" happened.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A New Job, Part One

The stress of working at the humane society was taking its toll. Anyone who has worked in this field is familiar with the term “compassion fatigue.” Now a recognized mental illness, compassion fatigue occurs when animal lovers go to work at a place where they believe they can save animals and make a difference … and then end up killing them. “Euthanasia,” as it’s more commonly – and gently – called, is done for a number of reasons: the animals are too young, too old, too sick, or too aggressive to be adoptable. In high-volume shelters, many animals are euthanized simply because all cages are full and there is nowhere to put them. If that isn’t bad enough, shelter staff face abuse from the public in the shelter and at large. Upset customers shout and curse at front desk staff, blaming them for their problems. Members of the public donate to wealthy national animal welfare organizations but refuse to give to their needy local shelter – which they insist on calling the pound -- because “they just kill all the animals.” Animal Control Officers are called “dog catchers” and lampooned in movies. It’s an unglamorous and soul-crushing industry, to be sure.

I’d never heard of compassion fatigue – all I knew was that I was drinking heavily, I couldn’t sleep, and I got stomach cramps every time I thought about going into work. I realized that I couldn’t do it any more, physically or psychologically, so I turned in my resignation. I knew I had a few weeks’ vacation that would be cashed out, so I had a little time to job search.

Miraculously, as soon as I turned in my notice, the symptoms went away. I woke up the next morning refreshed and walked down to the local coffee shop to get a newspaper. This was before the internet days, so I was doing my job searching in the classified ads. I sat outside in the pleasant San Mateo sun sipping my latte and circled anything pet-related: pet supply shop, veterinarian, groomer, and something about in-home pet care in San Francisco. Downing the last bit of coffee with all the sugar on the bottom of the cup, I got up and walked to the payphone (yes, this was also before the cell phone days) and called each potential employer. Some of the positions were already filled, and some were too low-paying or only part-time. For the in-home pet care I got a voicemail, and left a message.

Checking my voicemail the following day, I listened to a long rambling message from a woman about care giving, dog walking, and a bunch of other stuff that made no sense. Dog walking, I wondered. Isn’t that something people do in New York with like 10 dogs on leashes? I’d never seen such a thing around here. Since none of the other jobs had panned out, I went ahead and gave her a call back. After a few rounds of voicemail tag, we managed to set up an interview for the following week.

I shivered as I rolled down the window and drank in the San Francisco fog. I was parked next to Golden Gate Park in the Sunset district, just a stone’s throw away from the beach. Krystal, the owner of the in-home pet care business, didn’t have an office; she operated out of her home. I stepped out of the car, zipped up my jacket, and walked up to the old, small house. I knocked and rang the door bell, but got no response and heard no sound coming from inside. After a few chilly minutes, I got back in the car to wait. I checked my watch and it was 3PM, our scheduled time, but there was no sign of her. Oh well, I thought, she must be running late. I picked up a magazine that was on the floor of the car and started to leaf through it.

About ten minutes later I heard a car honk and I looked up, then did a double take. Crossing the street from the park was a slender lady dressed in pink sweat pants and a too-big man’s undershirt. Her longish hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. She was walking three dogs on retractable leashes, and they were going in three different directions. She had her hands full, and she looked lost. A car was stopped in front of her and the driver looked cross – this must have been the person who honked. Despite the fact that a car was waiting for her on a busy street, she did not hurry to get out of the way; rather, she seemed to be talking to one of the dogs, a fluffy small terrier. I marveled as she conversed with the dog, apparently in an attempt to get the animal to follow her instead of run off after something more interesting. The driver honked again, the terrier decided to follow his mistress, and I wondered who this wacky person was … until I saw her pull out keys and open the door that I was just knocking on. Oh lord, I thought, that’s my potential boss.

Collecting myself, I got out of the car and walked up to the door. It took her several minutes to respond to the knocking, and when she saw me she looked surprised.

“Hi, I’m here for the job interview,” I said.
She blinked, then said, “Oh, oh, come in.”

I stepped into the house and immediately breathed the scent of funky dog. The two terriers, one fluffy and the other wiry, jumped about my feet. The third dog, a large tan female of uncertain origin, sat in the corner and kept her eye on me. I looked around and saw that the whole living room was an office. There were stacks of papers on a large desk, more papers on the accompanying chair, and yet more papers on the floor nearby. There was no other furniture in the room except for a futon couch, which the two terriers parked themselves on, leaving no room for me. I stood by the desk for the “interview,” which basically consisted of Krystal telling me all about the job, and how her last employee had made a variety of mistakes then decided to quit. I’ll admit I was getting some red flags from this lady, but the job sounded very appealing: I was to walk dogs and feed dogs and cats in the clients’ homes. I would start with a few clients, but build up a busier schedule over time. Best of all, I would be working alone and managing my own time. By the end of the conversation I realized she was offering me the job. I mentally calculated my last day at the humane society, then said I could work a couple days later. She gave me some paperwork to take home, fill out, and sign.

I drove away, paperwork on the front seat and a strange sense of excitement in me. Little did I know of the long, rewarding journey on which this new job would take me.

To read Part Two of this story CLICK HERE.