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.