Down the row is Daisy, who barks like a maniac until she’s let out of her run, whereupon she immediately drops to the pavement and rolls. I walk her to my car, and she falls asleep in the quiet of the backseat for an hour or so while I’m doing other things. Walking dogs, bathing dogs, peering into dark runs to see what new resident is cowering in the shadows; whatever it is, from the moment I arrive until the moment I leave, I do not think about anything else. I don’t care what my hair is doing, I don’t care what my phone says, I don’t care that there’s something more or less unspeakable on my shoe.
Less than five minutes away is my real job, as a teacher at a private college, a bastion of evergreen and ivy and hope. One day a year ago, as I left campus, I followed a sign at the intersection, turning right instead of going straight, and found myself in this world of cracked concrete and chain link, as far from the ivy and reaching oak trees of our campus as any place could be. I wandered the runs outside the shelter with my hands over my ears. How long has he been here? I asked about one of the dogs. Five years, the worker told me. Wait, no, he corrected himself: I’ve been here five years. He was here when I came.
A low-kill shelter has its disadvantages—sometimes death is the kinder alternative—but it would be hard to explain that to Rufo, who was positioning himself lengthwise along the wire, to make as much of himself available for petting as possible. I stuck my fingers through the wire and scratched him for a while and then left. The next day I followed the sign again.
When it’s time to go back to her run, Daisy immediately lies down on the pavement and won’t get up. I fashion a halter and tug her along on her back, which from her wiggling I can tell she likes, though eventually she accepts the truth and gets to her feet, shakes and walks slowly, more slowly than you can imagine, back to the row of kennels. Once, safely out of the horrible cacophony of the shelter and at home in my own bed, I had a dream that instead of getting Daisy out of my car, I got in and drove her into the country and opened the door. In the dream, she climbed down and stood like Luigi, just staring at me, until I let her back in and drove her back to the city and the dark run she inhabits next to Spanky, who is next to Babyface, who is next to one of the several Tysons, who is next to Monty, who is next to Tara, who is next to her twin, Michele, who is next to Lexi. And on and on it goes until all 110 are accounted for.
Because the shelter is crowded to the point of overcrowded, about half of the dogs live in stainless steel cages stacked floor to ceiling in cinder block rooms. Whenever someone walks into one of these rooms, each dog instantly whirls and lunges and makes a terrible barking racket, creating an overwhelming sensation of, well, hell. The first time I went in, I had to turn around and go directly back out. I stood in the cold with an orange leash around my neck and a pocketful of treats, trying not to cry, until another volunteer walked by. He took one look at me, undraped the leash from my neck and asked me which dog I wanted.
“All of them,” I said.
When he returned, there was someone small and black at the end of my leash, with tall ears and a visible rib cage. “One dog at a time,” the volunteer murmured, and went on his way.
I could barely move, so instead of walking, Duchess and I sat on the curb and watched traffic go by. As she relaxed, she leaned against me ever so slightly, a black dog indistinguishable from all the other black dogs in the shelter except that now I knew her.
One dog at a time.
So I used my pocketful of treats to teach her a trick—not how to sit or shake but how to wave hello, like an old friend. Like so many of them, she proved to be ridiculously smart, watching my face intently and repeating the lesson over and over, for the attention and the treats and because she—again, like so many of them—was desperate to please. In 30 minutes she went from generic to specific, a dog able to distinguish herself from the crowd if the opportunity should ever arise.