One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother’s German shepherd, Beba, coming out from under the bed on which my uncle was taking a nap to bite the hand of my older brother, Sebastian, who had burst into the room just ahead of me, yelling and waving a light-blue plastic toy pistol. I can call up the solid bone-and-meat crunch of the bite; then the dog’s sad, serious face looming suddenly in front of mine; then the rush of the long body going past me, out the door, and down the stairs, leaving me unbitten and strangely incomplete. When my brother got back from the hospital, his hand wrapped and his arm in a sling, he stood at the top of my grandmother’s stoop, looking out at the yard and the street beyond, contemplating the day’s revelations. I ran through the house to the storm door and shoved it open, driving its sharp lower edge deep enough into his heel to send him back to the hospital for more stitches.
I remember the second crunch of the metal going into his foot, and I remember thinking, to my own horror, that hurting Sebastian with the door completed an opaquely logical sequence, somehow making up for my not having been hurt by the dog. My father and my uncle fell out in later years for reasons that had nothing to do with this incident, but in my mind that trouble, too, somehow flowed in through an opening created by the dog. My grandmother lived in Queens, New York, but my early memory of Beba’s attack on my brother sets the theme—dogs as totems of strong feeling and openers of portals to advanced trouble—on which the dogs of my neighborhood in Chicago, South Shore, played variations for years to come.
The nameless dog in a corner yard on 72nd Street a couple of blocks from my house on Oglesby Avenue would lie in wait and then hurl itself in a rage against the high chain-link fence that enclosed it. I passed that corner on my way to the supermarket and the South Shore branch of the public library. No matter how mightily I swore to be forever on guard when passing the dog’s yard, I always forgot, sooner or later, and slipped into the natural distracted state of childhood, so that the next slavering rush, the crash of the body against the fence and the furious wet barking wrinkle-lipped muzzle seeking a way through to me, came as a terrible surprise that stopped my heart and loosened my bowels.
In the backyard next door to my own on Oglesby was a crimson-eyed albino dog named Bigot. When Bigot barked and growled at me and jumped stiff-legged at the chain-link fence that divided her yard from ours, the lady of the house—she was Canadian and white, her husband was American and black—would come out on the back steps, trailing cigarette smoke, and say “Bigot” in a low, flat voice that calmed the dog for a while. Bigot chased with cartoon-villain futility after a rabbit that lived in a thick tangle of bushes in the back of her yard, where a wood-slat fence separated yard from alley. This rabbit was a veteran of urban life, a big mottled bruiser I saw only in pavement-colored blurs as it darted to and from sanctuary with the dog in pursuit. I have manufactured a fancifully detailed memory of the rabbit, though, as if it had stood, swell-chested, for a portrait: one-eyed, broken-eared, haunches pocked with BB shot, flanks scored by long transverse scars.
My brothers, Sebastian and Sal, and I played with two boys from the family next door that owned Bigot. The younger of them, Alfred, who was exactly my age, wore beige corduroy flare pants and executed scrapingly punctilious hook slides on the pavement when we played Running Bases on the sidewalk in front of our houses. I once got into a fight with him over a disputed call. In my stroboscopic memory of it I advance confidently on him, his face takes on a look of intense concentration, and then a fist suddenly fills my vision and a terrific shock surges through my head and down into my body; I get up off the ground and go at him again, a little more warily this time; his face takes on that look again as he tips back away from me, shifting his balance, and then a giant shod foot swoopingly eclipses my vision for a flash of a moment before plunging down into my chest, from which an even more terrific shock spreads throughout my body; I get up off the ground and try him once more, even more carefully, but also with a certain satisfaction, believing that there must be merit in fighting a boy who can deliver a real kung fu kick from a standing start. We shook hands afterward, and that seemed to square it. Alfred and his brother had a kind of formality, a touchy properness. Shaken on, the fight became an affair of honor. Alfred went to Tuskegee, and died at thirty-one: he was working weekends as a bouncer at a bar in Minneapolis, he tried to break up a dispute, and somebody shot him.
When my family moved a mile west from our bungalow block on Oglesby to Euclid Avenue in the Highlands, South Shore’s big-house district, the dogs next door were Lady and Clem. Steely rather than angry, they shook squirrels to death with matter-of-fact professionalism, stretching their victims’ necks to grotesque lengths and leaving the bodies wherever they fell. Coming upon one of the X-eyed, slack-tongued corpses in the grass gave me the same jolt of weakness that had shot through my vitals whenever the nameless dog in the corner yard at 72nd and Oglesby caught me daydreaming. I thought of Lady and Clem as country dogs, possessed of hunting habits and death-lore foreign to the city. I thought of their owners as country, too. They had split-rail fences around their house, owned an irate goose named Pong who lived in the garage, and buried their dead animals in their backyard. Not shying from dead things was of a piece with knowing how to fix machines. Their white van was often up on blocks in their driveway. The parents were Irish Catholics from elsewhere, places where they understood weather and animals; the six adopted kids, three boys and three girls, all at least part American Indian, were from a different elsewhere.
My parents were city people but they were from elsewhere, too. Foreigners, they moved to South Shore when other white people were getting out as fast as they could. As children, they’d both taken shelter while bombers worked over their hometowns; New World social turmoil and a spike in street crime didn’t seem like that big a deal to them. My parents, land-hungry immigrants with sons to raise, full-time jobs, and graduate degrees to pursue, saw houses for sale at irresistible bargain prices within a reasonable bus ride of a good school. Some of our black neighbors in the Highlands had a lot more money than we did, among them the families of Jesse Jackson, Walt Frazier, and Ramsay Lewis. But the trouble-seeking kids who came into the Highlands looking for somebody to mess with didn’t discriminate. They just saw kids who lived in big houses and owned bikes worth stealing.
A couple of doors down on Euclid was Prince, a big shaggy German shepherd. Prince was sullen, even morose, and never barked or even growled, but it was widely understood among the kids on the block that Prince would kill you dead if he thought you were messing with his owners or their property. We all gave him wide berth. Chris, the boy whose family owned Prince, had an air rifle that he tenderly burnished and oiled and kept in perfect working condition. On the rare occasions when he brought it outside he would impose all sorts of conditions before letting the other kids on the block hold it for even a second. If one of us left a fingerprint on the gleaming blue barrel, he would snatch it away, breathe open-mouthed on the offended spot, and polish it up with a shirttail.
Once—I remember it as a slate-gray fall afternoon—a couple of strangers came along up the block, walking the trouble-seeking walk: mock-limping mock-aimlessly, looking everywhere and nowhere. They crossed the street to approach Chris, who was standing a little apart from us, holding his air rifle. The strangers were our age, or a little older. One of them said, “Hey, man, let me see your gun.” Chris astonished me by saying nothing more than “Be careful with it” and handing it over. The stranger sighted down the barrel at the ground, turning it this way and that, inspecting it, and said, “Your mama’s white, right? And your daddy’s black?” Chris nodded. The stranger said, “So, what are you? Plaid? You plaid. I’m just playing.” Laughing, he jammed the barrel into the muddy patch of curbside grass at his feet, twisting it hard to work it deeper into the ground. No longer laughing, he brought it back up, worked the pump action a few times to charge it, pointed it at Chris’s midsection, and pulled the trigger. A moist plug of grass and mud fell out of the barrel. There was a pause. Chris took the gun back from him with an oddly polite gesture, proprietary but diffident. The strangers walked away down the block.
Strangers were always coming along up the block. In memory it’s always afternoon or evening when they come, their shadows long and disjointed behind them, crossing the street on the diagonal, saying their lines: Can I get a ride on your bike? You got a transfer? Let me hold a dollar. Sometimes the talk led to action. I can still see the pattern of horses’ heads on the pajama top worn by a boy who broke a length of broom handle over my head, and I can still call up the papoose bulk and skin-smell of my baseball glove as I curled up around it and held on while he tugged at it for a long futile moment and then suddenly was gone, driven off by Sebastian and Chris and other kids on the block. But usually it was just talk. Once, the strangers were a grown man and woman. I had just come outside to call my brothers in for dinner, and the man came up to me and said, “Say it again.” His voice had an odd catch in it, a hint of a sob that promised passionate meanness. I looked at him without speaking, my usual policy when faced with superior force. He said, “Say, ‘Come on and get your supper.’ Say it.” He stood over me, waiting. He wasn’t exactly weaving, but he gave off an impression of unsteadiness. I remember that my brothers drew closer, one on either side of me, but we were probably unsure of what we could do, even all three together, against a grown man. The woman said, “Just say what you said. He wants to hear it.” After a while I said, in a monotone, “Time for dinner.” He stood over us for another moment and then they went away.
Stray dogs came down Euclid Avenue in packs on trash night. In memory, in dreams, they come in a sidelong trot, mouths slightly agape, tongues slyly peeking from between their white teeth, noses in the wind, hard bright eyes missing nothing. I carried my own length of broom handle and kept a watch for them as I rolled the big plastic bins out of the garage and down the driveway to the curb, then, my duty done, hurried back up the driveway in the dark to the back door and the safety of the kitchen. The stray dogs lived in the wilder stretches of Jackson Park, we were told, but I thought of them as coming more generally from beyond the borders of the neighborhood, from elsewhere: from the desolate park, or across the Illinois Central tracks from the neighborhoods to the south of us, or they came from the west, perhaps from far to the west, way out across Stony Island Avenue, where, I had heard, there were neighborhoods with tribes of white people in them who were so pissed off about what had happened to their home countries back in Eastern Europe that it wouldn’t do me any good to be white if I wandered onto their block by mistake.
When I was in middle school a friend’s family on the next block hired me to walk their broad-beamed, hip-sprung, long-haired Golden Retriever, Barney, when they went on vacation. Barney smelled like pipe smoke and dog food and backed through doorways, having had a door slammed on his nose when he was a puppy. He faced down other dogs by barking loudly and slowly, an old man repeating his point until his adversary gave up. He let me put the collar and leash on him and in a spirit of detente we would go up Euclid a block and a half to the edge of the park, but when we got there we often disagreed on the direction and length of the rest of the walk. His owners indulged him in longer walks than other dogs got, and he wanted to follow his usual route, which I didn’t know; I wanted to fulfill the letter of my agreement with his owners as minimally as possible and get in out of the cold. Barney was stronger than I was, and if I pulled too hard on the leash he could remove the collar with a practiced dip of the head and swipe of his paw, so we were prone to stalemates.
On the last day of his owners’ vacation, as a cold afternoon gave way to an even colder evening, Barney and I stalled with particular finality at the edge of the park. He yearned toward the chain-link fence and the tree line beyond; I refused to take him. Finally, I tied the leash to the green-painted slats of a bench and sat down. Barney sat on the sidewalk next to the bench and looked at me, his eyebrows twitching irregularly. He barked for a while, steadily, patiently, but I ignored him. It grew darker. I had ample time to reflect on dogs and people wanting what they want: those who have less want more; those who have more want to keep it. It seemed like something to bear in mind. The cold spread upward through my body from the bench under my thighs and the sidewalk under my shoes. I untied the leash and tried to take him home, but he wouldn’t come. I retied the leash to the bench and sat down again. The cars passing on 67th Street had their lights on; their tires hissed on the cold, dry pavement. It was evening now, night falling fast. A great mass of darkness bulked in the park behind us, swelling to the verge of the glow cast by the streetlights along 67th. The few pedestrians who passed by, walking fast and high-shouldered, plainly wondered why I was sitting there, exposed, on the edge of South Shore at such an hour. I wanted to just go home and leave Barney where he was, if he wouldn’t come, but I was responsible for him. He was, at least temporarily, my dog. It was getting late, though, and somewhere out there the strays, trotting sidelong, were already on the move.
Carlo Rotella is the author of Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt; October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature; and Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, the last also published by the University of Chicago Press. He writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, and Boston Globe, and he is a commentator for WGBH FM in Boston.
Reprinted with permission from Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories, by Carlo Rotella, published by the University of Chicago Press.
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