As soon as Shelter-In-Place started, I understood: I needed to experience the world as bigger than what was contained inside the walls of my house. So I started sitting outside. The day it occurred to me that I could plunk an empty extra chair 8 feet away from where I sat on the front lawn, I made a sign and taped it to the chair.
The first potential sitters came in a trio; they strolled past and crossed the street, speaking a language I didn’t understand. They made it halfway down the next block, and then the woman turned and slowly walked back until she stood in front of the chair. She circled it, inspecting, touching, bending down, scrutinizing its legs. When she grasped both sides of the backrest, I suddenly realized that she thought I was giving the chair away.
“No!” I cried, waving my arms. “Not free! Sorry! Not free!”
She was not smiling as she walked away.
It only took a couple of days for me to realize that I didn’t really need people to actually sit in the empty chair. I felt better just making it clear to people that they were welcome to stop. A number of people would gesture at the chair and smile as they passed, and a few commented that maybe they’d stop another time.
My obsession with dogs makes it easy to start conversations as people pass by. Whenever I see a dog, it’s a Pavlovian response for the words “Hi, puppy!” or “What a good boy!” to pop out of my mouth, and sometimes that leads to human connection.
When a massive, energetic German shepherd pulled a couple down the sidewalk past my chair, I called out, “Look at that good dog!” The man and the woman looked at me instantly, both rolling their eyes, and the woman answered, shaking her head, “Yeah, well, you’d be surprised.” Then we traded stories of owning troubled dogs.
Another time, a guy walked by with a dog, and he was pushing a baby stroller.
“Oh my gosh, your dog is so beautiful!” I called out. Then I realized what a normal person would have said, so I added: “I’m sure your baby is beautiful, too, but I just couldn’t see.”
So—I love dogs.
I had noticed Oso before I knew what his name was. When teaching from home during the spring, I’d usually sit at the table in the front-corner room of our house, the room that is mostly floor-to-ceiling windows. While exhorting eight-year-olds to mute themselves, to pay attention to the geometry lesson, or to follow the directions for posting work in Google Classroom, I would strain to sound patient as I gazed at the world outside the windows. Late some mornings, after the disoriented skunk would scurry from under my car to the car across the street, I’d see them coming, a teenage boy holding a large puffball of a puppy.
The boy was thin, and the dog looked heavy. It had the huge telltale feet of a puppy that is growing into a massive animal. Why was he carrying the dog? Was the dog sick or injured? How does such a young pup get sick or injured?
Finally, the boy came by one early evening when I was sitting outside. He was wearing a mask, and already had his hand up to wave to me before I could wave at him. I spoke first.
“I’ve seen your dog before! How come you carry him sometimes?”
The skinny boy laughed.
“He’s LAZY. He’s such a lazy dog! A lot of times, he won’t walk. He just lays down until I carry him.”
My eyes turned to the fuzzy furball. As if on cue, he staggered across the grass, flopped onto his belly, and lay there, still.
As the boy pulled in vain on the leash, he told me his name was José, and that his dog’s name was Oso.
“You know why I call him Oso?” he asked.
“It means ‘Bear,’ I know,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s because he looks like a bear, and because he’s lazy like a bear.” We laughed together as the dog wriggled on the grass, inching his way into the shade.
José told me that when he goes for a run and lets Oso off leash, the dog will run full speed alongside him, not the mark of a lazy dog.
“When he gets bigger, I want to have him on the leash when I am on the skateboard. Maybe he will pull me. But I know I can’t do that now. He’s too little, and it’s not good for him. He is not developed.”
He sounded pretty dog-knowledgeable and responsible for a kid. “How old are you?” I asked.
José told me he was fifteen, and dropped down to the grass to continue our talk.
I asked him if Spanish had been his first language, and when he affirmed that it was, I complimented his English.
“Oh, no, it’s not so good. But I am learning,” he said. “I came here when I was twelve.”
“What? You’ve only been speaking English for three years?”
“Yes. My cousin knows a lot, and he teaches me.”
“Does your cousin’s family live with you?”
He shook his head. “Actually, I live with them. My parents did not come. They are still in Mexico. With my little sister and my brother.”
There was a thud in my stomach. I wished I could reach out and hug this kid who lived so far from his parents.
From behind his mask, he talked more about Oso, and about his cousin’s other dog, Molly.
“Oso, he is so smart, but Molly, she is so good. He tries to boss her, but she doesn’t let him.” He giggled like a much younger child, and again, I felt the urge to hug him, a sad stand-in for the parents and grandparents who lived so far away, unable to reach him. But I couldn’t even do that.
After a while, he stood up, and began pulling at Oso’s leash again, the dog flattening himself stubbornly against the ground. Shaking his head and looking at me with laughing eyes, José reached down and heaved the large pup to his chest.
“You lazy dog,” he said. “Okay, I have to take him to the park before it’s too late.”
We waved good-bye, and I urged him to come back to chat again sometime. He promised he would, and as he started walking away, he set the chubby pup down and praised him for walking.
Adorable puppies always cause a little ache in my chest, and this one was no exception. But the bigger ache was for the brave young boy who walked by Oso’s side.