Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Jig Is Up at the Dog Park

Dog Park by Michael Johnson

(The image of "Dog Park" is available on notecards, t-shirts and other gift items.
The proceeds go to the Land of PureGold Foundation, Inc. to raise money for cancer research in dogs.

I have lived in New York for years and I still have no idea who my neighbors are... and vice-versa. (One day last year I came home at the same time as my neighbor-- a woman I know only as Asian Businesswoman-- who asked me when I'd moved into the building and when I said "Eight years ago" she nodded curtly, went into her apartment and closed the door.) I am A-okay with that. New York is a lot of work, socially speaking. There are way too many people living here and sometimes it feels like they are all on the same subway car. Also, because of my work, my life is filled with intense interactions about racial and ethnic identity, art, politics, and culture etc. so when I come home I need some space around me to relax. It sounds self-indulgent, and maybe it is, but I often have nothing left for hi-bye-can-you-believe-this-weather with random people. And it has always seemed perfectly mutual.

But then I got a dog.

Now smiling strangers approach me with alarming regularity: I may as well live in Mayberry. For the dog, who assumes that everyone loves him and accepts compliments on his beauty as a matter of course, this is perfectly natural, but I find it disconcerting... Unless I am at the dog park, standing around with the other schmucks who love their dogs too much. At the dog park I will happily engage in mindless small talk about the respective merits of various brands of expensive, premium dog food. At the dog park I am the Noel Coward of boring, dog-related conversations. Of course, it doesn't hurt that my dog is such a joker. He races around acting the fool, trying to get the other dogs to chase him, stealing mittens out of pockets and shoving his snout into the behinds of women I do not know, prompting laughter and apologies.

Dog parks have their own social ecology; relationships are defined by whose dog plays with whose, who remembers to bring water, who pretends not to see when their dog poops at the other end of the park so they can stay seated under the tree, etc. etc. We see each other around the same time every day, watch each others dogs and share responsibility for keeping them safe. So despite my best efforts at amused detachment, I have kind of gotten to know these people.

Kind of.

I don't actually know their names. I think of them as Russian Girl And Her Boyfriend, Guy With A Baseball Cap, Old Guy and Other Old Guy etc. This half-knowing is pleasant. We don't talk about anything important. We tell funny stories, give and take dog advice and take turns watching the dogs run around in a circle. It's nice.

So the other day in the park, as my dog was racing around I wandered over to Middle Aged Hippie With An Androgynous Biracial Child who was chatting with Old Guy about... Middle Eastern politics. Ruh-roh. Old Guy was saying something along the lines of "... those people can't be trusted" (who could he be talking about? ) and Middle Aged Hippie protested, "But...uh, what about the Lebanese, for example?"

And before I could stop myself--or maybe to stop them, I'm not sure-- I piped up and said "I am, actually. Lebanese."

They both looked at me. "Well, " I thought, "The jig is up." When I was a kid I was very jealous of people with darker skin and more initially obvious ethnic differences, because even if it is bad news, they always know where they stand with people right away. With me, especially in neutral-seeming situations like this, there is always a point where my "other-ness" becomes apparent and I can never predict how it'll go.

Middle Aged Hippie asked immediately , "Are you a Muslim or a Christian?"

Here we go.

"I'm Christian. A Maronite Catholic." He nodded as if I'd given the right answer, while Old Guy narrowed his eyes at me and said nothing. I could feel a door closing in him. Before it could get any more awkward Russian Girl strolled up and said, smiling, "Lebanese? My boyfriend is Lebanese."

(I made the mental adjustment; Russian Girl and Her Lebanese Boyfriend)

"Yeah," I said, "We're everywhere."

And then our dogs ran up in a tangle of tongues and legs and our attention shifted to them. I made an effort to smile and drifted away from their conversation, stung. It sounds ridiculous to say but the dog park had seemed almost Utopian, all different breeds running around, having a good time together. And their people, all gathered for the same purpose and united in our love for our pets, seemed like a reflection of this. But I was wrong. The world isn't outside the dog park, the dog park is in the world. And, stupidly, I felt the loss of it.


  1. crazy... everyone just knows me as "that deaf brown punk chick."

    I've always thought because NYC is soooooo diverse, people would be more open-minded. but as I get older and I become more aware of the world, that's not the case.

    it seems NYC has racist, ignorant douche-bags just like in the midwest, where I live.

  2. @Sabina
    I was surprised when I moved to New York how open people are about their various prejudices here. There are so many different groups and subcultures all living in close quarters here, smelling each others cooking and overhearing each others music, that some tension is inevitable. But orientalism and Islamophobia have a special place here post-9/11. You can feel it even in a neighborhood like mine that has a large Arab and Muslim population.

  3. Sorry to hear this, Joe. And I thought a NYC dog park would be the utopia of non judgement. Small minds still exsit, to my dismay as well, even in big cities. I really like my 'hood in Los Angeles, I can say that with conviction. Other areas though remind me of the small town where i came from, which is not all bad - just not what I had in mind moving here. Small town meaning assumptions are made based on your outward appearance and, in my case, sense of humor or lack thereof.

    BTW, I did see your photo at LACE. It was boldly displayed outside the entrance to the exhibit. Do you have a beard now?

    Just a sidenote - I used to walk my sister's italian greyhounds at Puppy Park near Rittenhouse Square. I never talked to anyone...just the occasional, "hi, how ya doin'" and "what breed is that?".

  4. This was really great. Thank you for writing it.

  5. Wow. There's a lot here. Sophisticated analysis aside for a moment, I am sorry you had to deal with this. I know that when I co-parented a Labradoodle the thing I encountered most was censure over how I "spoke" to him. I'm not even kidding. I spoke commands firmly and clearly, never screamed, never yanked the harness, never even so much as snout-tapped for discipline. But the pooch in question did not respond to commands unless they were issued sternly. So, you know, I was that mean Black lady. Really. One of my (White female) neighbors stopped me once and admonished me for being mean to the dog - to the point of contacting the authorities. SIGH. Pooches are great. People? THEY suck.

  6. I have often made the mistake of thinking people at the dog park are better than they are because they have dogs and dogs are good so people who have dogs must also be good.

    Naive, I know. And stupid. Or is it?

    The thing is, dog lovers are kinda special. These are people who will open their hearts and spend years caring for animals who wouldn't have a prayer of surviving on their own. These are people that swear there's no such thing as a "bad" breed, and every dog deserves love.

    People, however, aren't always so lucky. Their "breeds" mark them as someone who's "okay" or someone to be avoided. Ironic, and highly fucked up. Some assholes should just be put to sleep. Okay, too far. Maybe.