Friday, August 6, 2010

And Your Little Dog Too


We visit our friend Alan at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi. I don’t turn into a complete blithering fool during the visitor admission process anymore but in my grogginess at our 5:00 a.m. departure, I let Spuds wear a white t-shirt. The officer is very nice about it and we are able to quickly arrange the temporary loan of a black shirt from the Friends Outside program which has a small bungalow next to the visiting center and keeps a large store of loaner garments for those, who like us, can’t keep track of the minutiae of the dress code. Otherwise the routine is familiar now.

Fill out form. Wait. Called to counter. Turn pockets inside out. Put earrings, wedding ring, i.d, bag of quarters, and shoes in box. Flop sports braed through metal detector and collect visitor pass. Replace shoes and jewelry and present permit to guard. Hand stamped with ultraviolet ink. Wait for bus. Ride old bus. Wend from Level 4 to Level 1 to Level 2. Disembark. Hold driver’s license and visitor permit up to camera. Gate, triggered by guard in gun tower, opens. Pass into chain link holding pen. Gate closes. Second gate opens onto path to visiting room. Pass i.d. through the barred entrance to the visiting room guard. Wait in the lobby until summoned. Guard scrutinizes driver’s license and keeps it until visitor exits. Inmate attendant shows visitor to low table. Designates where inmate is to sit. Inmate arrives. One brief kiss and hug only. Then, only handholding.

Alan has been hospitalized recently for a double whooper of meningitis and valley fever. These illnesses occur more frequently in prisons because most are crowded to double their capacity and often more than 150 men sleep in a single dorm. We are happy that our friend, while having lost a lot of weight, appears on the mend.

As always, we worship at the altar of vending machines. Sometimes there are salads and yogurt and fresh entrees but these items are more likely to be available on Saturday than on Sunday. Twice during each visit the vending machines are refilled. During this time inmates and visitors must stay outside the perimeter of the machines. When the machines are filled and closed up again anxiety runs high as people jockey for position. Despite my urging him to be more aggressive, Spuds ends up at the end of the line and all we can get for Alan is a frozen burrito which the funky microwave heats to molteness. The burrito is really squishy and the paper towel dispenser near the microwave is empty. I determine to track some down. I experience a fraught awareness that I am flitting around trying to find a napkin at a prison. Then I buy about a dozen different varieties of chips and candies, ostensibly for Alan, but we end up eating most of the crap ourselves.

Although 15 year old Spuds will be twenty-two when Alan is released, given the paucity of assistance available for ex-felons and to maintain his mental health, Alan explores his options. I suggest he find a synagogue that will commit to welcome and support him when he is released. I locate a synagogue in his home town and write the rabbi a letter of introduction, suggesting that reaching out to Alan might be a good mitzvah program for the congregation. Alan writes a beautiful letter himself but tells me he doesn’t expect an answer. It is unbelievable to me that any religious community would receive such an eloquent letter, particularly one preceded by my introduction, and not respond. Alan is too polite to say, “I told you so,” but he could have.

I send Alan pictures of the puppy Oprah every few weeks. He tells us about one of his dogs who ground down her teeth by relentlessly chewing on rocks. It’s been years since Alan had a dog to love but he subscribes to Dog World, and like me, can recognize a lot of different breeds. Oprah is listless and has vomited a bit before we take off for our visit and we leave the 17 year old home to mind her. We return to find her unimproved. She vomits again the next morning and I take her to the vet.

Based on Oprah’s consumption of remotes, shoes, walls and furniture I think it’s garbage gut but an x-ray reveals no obstruction. The doctor diagnoses Parvovirus although I think it’s more likely a blockage that doesn’t appear on the x-ray. My dog Bowser, who like Oprah, was adopted from the Lacy Street Shelter, contracted parvo as a puppy. I remember visiting her at the Romanian vet’s clinic, hooked up to an IV in a metal cage. This was one of two times I remember seeing my father cry. The other was when we had to have our Airedale, Andrew, put down. I need to bring the other two dogs in right away for parvo vaccinations but remembering Bowser caged and on IVs, I do not ask to see Oprah.

We called the Romanian veterinarian who treated Bowser “Dr. Ceausescu.” His office was adorned with large blown up photos of himself performing surgery on a variety of different pets. Grinning into the camera, “See, this is me making an incision and yanking something out of dog’s insides.” When he neutered my little Bingo he found it hilarious that one of the dog’s testicles was extremely small and he brought it out on a paper towel to show me.

When we were last in Felton, Chris and Bob’s Lobo was real wobbly and although oddly his synapses would snap back to normal for a daily run, Chris was pretty much carrying him around. I said goodbye to the sweet noble boy and I told him I was glad he’d had such a good life. He looked back at me with his usual confounded expression but he knew I was being affectionate at least and he licked my hand. Since his dad puked at the entrance to the parking structure of Disneyland, and we had to return home in a car stinking of barf through heavy traffic during a heat wave, we always say that Spuds holds the world’s record for bad birthdays. I am sorry to say that Spuds has been displaced as Lobo passed away on Chris’s birthday. We was a wonderful dog. We will visit Felton later in the month. It will be sad not to see him.

I told the kids that it is most likely that Oprah will not be returning home. We have a limit with regard to pet medical bills which we have stretched in the case of Oprah but there is a limit to the limit that’s been adjusted up a couple of times in the course of a week. Based on some test results we’ll learn in a few days, we will probably have to have her put down. If the test is negative for parvovirus it indicates an obstruction only detectable via $500.00 ultrasound and treatable only by surgery for which the vet’s cost estimate is an “arm and a leg.” I receive a mass email through the neighborhood newsgroup that a member is seeking contributions to raise $4000 for a dog’s hip surgery. Newspaper articles attesting to the dog’s bravery are attached. But even after nearly twenty years of marriage to a man who shares in common with me not much more than a love of dogs, given what $4000 could accomplish towards relieving human suffering, I have some trouble with this.

I have always found something slightly snide and judgmental about interviewing techniques Alexandra Pelosi uses in her documentaries. Her disapproval of her subjects is more measured in The Homeless Children of Orange County. The film chronicles the lives of children who live in weekly motels, cars and parks within sight of what Pelosi refers to a couple times too many, as the Happiest Place on Earth. Poignantly, one of the moms trapped at the motel works in parking services for the Magic Kingdom but her slightly above minimum wage is not enough to rent an apartment. Pelosi even bites her tongue when interviewing a mother crowded into a tiny room with three kids and four Chihuahuas.

The possessions of a dispossessed family are thrown away by the motel management. The kids scavenge through the dumpster to grab toys and clothing. They take meals at soup kitchens and pick up clothes from local charities. Pelosi asks a number of the kids what they are looking forward to and most answer “nothing.” Some of the families are primarily victims of a lousy economy but others are trapped in a cycle of bad choices going back generations. I would not be the one to tell seventeen year old girls or women whose financial prospects don’t seem very bright not to have babies. But I wish we could nurture kids along so they are better prepared and more realistic about taking on the commitment of parenthood. I might be able to get some steam up about people having pets they can’t afford to take care of, although I find myself sort of in the same boat, plus it would be hard to deprive anyone the love of a dog.

The kids in the film attend the Hope School which serves homeless children throughout the county. Sadly, the film is footnoted with news of the recent layoff of a teacher due to budget cuts. The kids are picked up daily and don’t change schools as they move from park to shelter to motel. They’re fed breakfast, lunch and on Fridays given a backpack full of food to take home. Because all the food is donated, most of it is packaged and processed and full of salt and fat. I suppose they don’t waste much time at Hope School with the nutrition section of the health book. This is the trade off for this slice of stability and continuity. One of the teachers says she is aware that many of her charges will end up teen moms or behind bars but she believes that some will accomplish something more substantial than a minimum wage job and a room in a cheap motel.

I worked for a year in a middle school in Compton in the late 70s. I began as a day-to-day sub in September and am the department chair by June. The year I began teaching California mandated that all teachers pass the C-Best Test or be terminated. When I took the test the questions were all at about a 5th grade level. Teachers had three opportunities to pass the test or be terminated. On a Friday the results of the third chance examination were released. I arrived at school the following Monday to discover that the school, already short about a dozen teachers, had lost over 2/3 of the teaching staff.

This was my first teaching job and it would have been a challenge even for an experienced teacher. Instinct told me early on to eschew the curriculum and I just tried to teach the kids stuff they could use. I’d drive down on Saturdays and pick up a carful and take them to movies and restaurants and museums. I think most of them were at least three years behind grade level. I wonder what’s become of them. My memories of them are hazy. I wonder if any of them remember me.

I do remember one kid, Dusean, who had a particularly lousy home situation and was shuttled back and forth from grandmother to mother, neither of whom wanted him very much. I spent a lot of time with him. Dusean calls me at the office once in a while when he’s loaded. Whoever answers says,”There’s some drunk asking for you,” and is surprised when I take the call. I don’t explain who it is. I am embarrassed that this one vestige of that impossible year is such a sad one.

I sent Alan the name and address of a new Chavurah in his home town. Maybe if he writes to them, they will answer. Maybe some of the Hope School kids will catch some other good breaks and connect with teachers who can start them on the path to a better life. I caught a number of good breaks myself teacherwise. Perhaps Dusean will sober up and pull himself together but even if not, that we remember each other after more than thirty years is significant for us both.

I can spend hours enumerating how ineffectual our systems of corrections and public education are from foundation on up. I see little in either institution that shouldn’t be scrapped but we can’t simply tear down all the schools and prisons and start over. But there are prison guards who treat inmates like human beings and teachers who mine diamonds from among the most destitute.

Our poodle Fido died of cancer a few months ago and little Oprah distracted us from our grief. We took more pictures of her than we’ve taken in years. I hope my instincts are wrong and she recovers. I feel guilty for not supervising her and trying to diminish her compulsion to chew incessantly and I dread the results of the test. Our intention was to make a good life for her. Perhaps it is a punishment for my fraudulence that so many of my loving gestures are so ill-fated.

I guess in some ways, from early on my mother’s needs and mine were at cross purposes. I resented the affection she lavished on Sonny, a tiny toy poodle who drank milk when the phone rang and is the first pet I remember. I must have been tormenting him in some way and he bit me quite hard. I began to cry and my mother yelled at me for making him nervous. I remember a stunning sense of betrayal but also the first inkling that if treated lovingly, dogs are more reliable than people. I think my kennelborn beloved may have figured out the dog thing himself early on. Maybe it was this safe and unconditional love that gave us the courage to take a gamble on some human intimacy. We’ve lost a number of beloved canine companions but never a puppy. The imminent loss seems so senseless. I am left with a camera full of photos. I came home from work every day excited to be greeted by her licking me and prancing about. I consider that maybe we shouldn't have adopted her at all but remember that love is not the means to the end, it’s the means to the means. In time the pictures of Oprah will be a treasure.

Shabbat Shalom

4 comments:

Fionnchú said...

I'm nearly as worn down as you. I thank you for bearing the brunt of this. I get so rattled by finances and this sets me on edge, these sudden shifts. Unlike our parents, we have no intensive care vigils, no flowers, no insurance, no calls at midnight of dire admittances, but with Oprah as with Fido and Bowser and Andrew, it's painful to see this happen to those who look up at us for love and care and treats.

We cannot explain to those who care maybe more for pets than prisoners, animals than children, vets than the homeless, why this bond between us and those we romp with and take pictures off and gush over exists. But perhaps we all get to play God now and then as commanded or allowed in Genesis, to have dominion over the creatures. I am not sure if our species has done a very good job, especially after "Eating Animals" that was my bedside reading last month, but I hope Oprah and her clan know we tried, and that her fate like ours rests in other hands.

Meanwhile with pets as with people, we wait. I appreciate you being here. Nobody's home now, not even Taffy and Rover who must get their shots, and Mary and Gary make far less commotion. xxx me

Barbara said...

re: yr letter on Alan's behalf. I've learned to have minimal expectations from Jewish institutions. Some are wonderful - our synagogue community (Mishkon) goes out to Chico and has Shabbat with the inmates. It takes a lot of work with , pre-clearances and travel.

You r a sweetheart to help reachout
You know how syngogues are with committees, many people with good intention with too little time. I'd pursue it with a phone call -
Shabbat Shalom. B

Chris Berry said...

So sad to hear of Oprah's (and your) travails...Only having had to deal with older dogs problems, I imagine it is much harder in your situation. Our well wishes go out to you as always.

Jamie Madrid said...

As always, when I scrape up enough time to sit and read what you have written, I am reminded of why I have kept in touch through all the years. No person is perfect, but I do believe there are those who aspire. Your kind heart shows in all you do and write and I am so very glad you and I met in your little office on Santa Monica Blvd. when I was "wet behind the ears with barely a pot to piss in", as my dad often said. You leave an impression and I am certain there are many who remember, if not your name or face, your manner. Thanks for you!
with fondness always xox jamie