Nearly every day, I take our dog Ramona to the dog park at Veterans Park, often arriving with my car’s windshield wipers turned on, radio volume at maximum (or minimum) and hazard lights flashing, as she paws at the dashboard in an attempt to spur us on faster.
There, while she socializes with her canine buddies, I meet with an ever-varying group of people nearly as diverse as the number of different dog breeds. If an observer inquired about our jobs, backgrounds, ages and ethnicities, he’d be hard-pressed to find a common thread, other than the fact that we, like approximately 37 percent of the U.S. population, are dog owners.
I’ve learned a lot at the dog park, and not just to keep moving (so as not to be peed on), or to always watch where I step while doing so. I’ve met and talked to all kinds of people: retirees and students, cops and ex-cons, professionals and addicts-in-recovery (and some who were both). I’ve talked politics, religion and other normally taboo subjects, and put faces to issues that once seemed distant, like drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve met people whose genders I couldn’t begin to describe, and seen that once you know someone on a first-name basis, that stuff isn’t important anymore.
My time at the dog park has helped me to better understand and appreciate my dog, but more importantly, it’s granted me a wider sense of perspective and a better understanding of humans. People—myself included—naturally tend to socialize with people who are like them. But the dog park draws all types, and dogs draw no distinctions.
The first winter I brought Ramona to the park featured plenty of sub-freezing mornings, and often our only company was one other owner with his two dogs. At first, I didn’t seem to have much in common with him, but we commiserated about the weather to break the figurative ice, joking about being the only two idiots standing out in the cold. Over the next few months, we talked about world events, family, cars, comedy, music and just about anything else that came to mind. Some days, I probably talked to him more than my own family.
He was a smart and funny guy, but he had a prickly side, and he often told me about arguments he’d had with other people. Then one day, I found myself in an argument with him. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but as a result, we didn’t talk for half a year. Then, one day on a trail in Veterans Park, our dogs saw each other, pulled us near, and we started talking again as if nothing had ever happened.
When he died suddenly last month, it seemed fitting to place a memorial plaque at the base of a tree in Veterans Park; considering how much time he spent in the park, the place wouldn’t feel right without some permanent presence. Many people offered to chip in and help pay for the plaque, all of whom, like me, knew him only from our interactions at the park.
Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of death, and sometimes it’s just plain senseless. But looking for meaning in the experience, or at least some edification for my own muddled, ever-developing worldview, there are a few things that stand out for me:
People are generally good if you give them a chance (people who own dogs, anyway). Try not to carry a grudge. And anyone is interesting for 15 minutes (some people much, much more).
I look forward to passing that memorial marker—maybe on a hike one sub-freezing day, when there are no other dog owners nutty enough to brave the cold. I’ll be reminded not just of a person who, despite the odds against our even meeting, became a friend—but also of a multitude of lessons learned at the dog park.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His story “The High Price of Personal Hygiene” can be read at decasp.com. His graphic novels ARK and Robin Hood, and his books Glossolalia and Spamming the Spammers are available on Amazon.