Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Observations from Outside--the Dupont Dog Park

I grew up in a comically rich menagerie, with pet birds, cats, dogs, rabbits, and other creatures wandering freely throughout my childhood home. Even our parrots were allowed to go as they pleased, resulting in at least one escape that was followed, days later, by a miraculous reunion several miles from our house. When I went off to college, I missed animals terribly, causing me to behave like a madwoman whenever I saw one. I lured one stray cat into my freshman dorm on multiple occasions, before being reprimanded by my roommate and, well, everyone. I approached dog owners and their pets without caution or tact and have been known to position myself alongside a sleeping dog on the ground and, on one occasion, in a dog bed in the lobby of a luxurious Colorado hotel. I was 24: my Dad was not the least bit amused.

This innate love for animals leads me to my neighborhood dog park, a small triangular patch of Astroturf north of Dupont Circle. My relationship to this place is tangential at best, not being a current canine owner. I don’t know the rules of the dog park or of city dog owners, but a rumbling in my gut assures me that I’m definitely intruding. I purse my lips and take a few steps forward, clinging to my cell phone in case I need a reason to bolt. Little balls of color whisk to and fro, causing much delight among the parents. They, so proud and collectively bound, ask one another the usual questions: “What’s his name? How old is he?”

And here I am, standing several inches from the outer gates, a lone observer with no stake in this venue who has begun to feel like Jack the Ripper in a darkened London alleyway. I’m lurking and shuffling, feeling  uncertain of my social position here. Click, click.

I jump, startled.

The heavy black gate opens and slams shut beside me, shuttling in several newcomers who are warmly greeted by the cast of lucky characters to whom this park belongs. I’m acutely aware of my absurdity but can’t bring myself to go in. If this were a therapy session, I would hereby declare (after several long gulps), that I’m a …Pet-a-phile.

I scuttle off to my apartment, to my unfriendly cat and her clearly delineated social rules (ignore me, or I’ll kill you).

Several weeks later, I return with my friend Erin after a casual stroll through my neighborhood, a place that always offers new sights and smells. Orange and tanned leaves crunch beneath my boots. Red brick buildings of varying heights, all reasonably low to the ground, predominate; among them are several more interesting brownstones, some painted in playful pastel shades. Others display elaborate balconies and spires, relics from some ancient time and place.

Erin is a fellow wannabe dog owner, so she joins me on my weekend petaphilia stalk. Like before, we hover with trepidation outside of the park, wondering whether anyone notices us, curious misfits that we are. Eventually we feel emboldened, and decide to enter despite the fact that we do so sans dog. Amazingly, no one seems to notice; as soon as we arrive into the green pastures of canine enthusiasm we realize that owners and pets separate. Dogs distractedly run around in circles, befriending and playing with one another, and owners stand by awkwardly. We can do that! Awkward is my middle name.

The next few minutes proceed smoothly, until I start playing fetch with a scruffy mutt and one very sticky tennis ball, neither of which belongs to me. Owners begin to look at me skeptically, no doubt wondering what’s brought me here. I grab Erin and we exit briskly.

A year has gone by and I am meeting my friend Scott (“Diva”) for coffee. He is dog-sitting for the weekend, which is his Shangri-la. I too am pleased, because I finally have a dog, a real one, to get me into my favorite park like some sought after golden ticket. This golden ticket, a gorgeous golden retriever, is everything a dog should be (the opposite, I might add, of my cat).

She’s joyous about EVERYTHING, social with EVERYONE, and painfully delightful. If I weren’t such a jaded skeptic I might even allow her optimism to rub off on me.

We meet at Starbucks, where I have the pleasure of watching my friend Diva and his canine companion bounce (Diva bounces when he walks) across the busy intersection. He and the dog are at ease with one another: their movements comprise a series of snapshots, any one of which could grace the cover of Land’s End or even J. Crew.

“Diiiiiiiva,” he yells (he calls me Diva, too, even though I’m not one). “You wouldn’t believe our morning. Riley and I headed out of the house to come meet you, and we were met on the street by these two bitchy Bichon Frice twins. They were TERRIFYING.” I wonder: how can a small poof of white terrify a grown man and large dog, much less a mouse?

And then it begins. “Avance!” and “ArrĂȘte.” Diva is commanding the golden retriever in French. I shouldn’t be surprised, this coming from DIVA, but I can’t help but chuckle. “Oh, I can’t wait to have a French-speaking dog,” he declares.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” I warn, but you never know with this one.

Off we go, into the park, where I finally—sigh of relief—feel remotely at home. We soon discover that we’re more than welcome. We have the most attractive, graceful dog in the park, making us proud parents indeed. We show her off (even though she’s not ours), whisper quietly about less attractive dogs and generally feel very pleased with ourselves.

Triumph. Petaphilia no more!

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