Growing up we never had a dog. Well let me correct that; I think Don remembers having a dog, but it passed away before I was born and for some reason, we never got another one. Didn’t have a cat either and it wasn’t until Aunt Ruthie gave me a parakeet for Christmas one year that I had any kind of pet at all. We had a surrogate dog I guess you could say in that cousin Chris had a dog named Scamper, a mixed breed with the sweetest disposition. I loved when we visited and I was allowed to feed her.
Over the years, once the seal had been broken so-to-speak with the gift of the parakeet, I was allowed to have a long list of creatures share our room; fish, turtles, hamsters, birds, guinea pigs, snakes, you name it. All of course to the discomfort and sometimes ignorance of Dad. It wasn’t that he didn’t like animals but I guess growing up as he did, he never was really around them, so always kept them at arms length. I think there were times when he didn’t even know what was being kept in my room; Mom was a trusted accomplice in this centrifuge wanting me to experience taking care of a pet, and not wanting Dad to freak out when he found out there was what he would consider a rodent living under his roof.
And come to think of it, there may have been a connection there as to how he viewed little furry creatures with long tails. He often told of his childhood living in a tenement on the lower east side of Manhattan when he was growing up. There was a great tradition in New York for the newest immigrants to the city to be beat up on by the last wave of immigrants that got there before them. The Irish were there before the Italians so they beat up on them; the Jews came after that, and both the Italians and Irish beat up on them. Then the Hispanic population grew and well…you get the idea. But the interesting or ironic thing was that everybody was living in the same poverty and squalor, the same horrid tenements with no heat or running water; you would think they would bond together but I guess it’s just natural for humans to have to feel superior to another race or group of people. It’s not right, nor moral, nor Christian, but there it was.
Anyway he grew up in the same set of blocks that every other immigrant did, and no one was immune to the real kings of New York…the rats and roaches. Even in my lifetime I remember as a kid, opening up a closet to get a glass for some milk in the evening when the kitchen lights had long been turned off, and I was greeted by thousands of roaches who had come to rule the night, like they did every night, scavenging for scraps of food. As soon as the light was turned on they would scatter insanely, a wave of brown antennas and legs covering everything for a moment, and then not a trace of them; back to their hiding spots. But thankfully we never had the rat problem . Dad however, growing up did. He often told a story about a particularly large and threatening rat that infiltrated their building and roamed at will. He evidently took care of the problem and I don’t like to think of how that story ended (not well for the rat). Ever since then he was never too fond of small furry critters; they all were rats to him. He loved the birds, and the fish, and even admired the turtles, but when he looked at a guinea pig, or a hamster, he saw a rat; simple as that.
I remember one night when I had brought home a guinea pig, a pretty good sized one at that. I always was able to appeal to Mom’s nurturing nature by telling her the story of how one of my friends was forced to get rid of the…insert animal name here…. by his mean cruel parents, and I being a good Christian boy who was brought up right by caring and compassionate parents just couldn’t let him throw it into the street; surely we could give it a home. And we did; every time. So I brought home this rather large guinea pig that indeed I did get from a friend who didn’t want it anymore and kept it in the cage that also came with him in my bedroom. What I (and my Dad) didn’t know was that at night, at least this particular guinea pig, would whoop or whistle or make some sound that was like a combination of both. It woke me up but I immediately knew where the strange noise was coming from. Dad however, not knowing that the little guy was even in the house, just starting hearing strange whistling at three in the morning. He quickly realized it was coming from our room, and of course assuming some strange alien creature was threatening his boys came running in his shorts, brandishing a blackjack he still had from his rough days on Delancy Street. “What the hell…” he shouted ready to do battle. Mom was behind him frantically trying to calm him down; she didn’t know about the whistling either but she, being somewhat more sane, didn’t automatically assume alien invasion. I of course jumped up and covered the guinea pig cage with my body, ready to die for my little friend. But as you can guess…crisis averted- though I did have to find another home for my pal as we all agreed that the night whistling was a bit much. And I did find a good home for him, so felt at least ok about that, though I missed him a lot.
But like I said he loved my little parakeet Prince, and would go up to her cage and whistle a song to her – Dad was a expert whistler – and Prince would respond by chattering up a storm. And that made Dad smile.
I still have never had a dog, though I still hold out hope. I have had many many beautiful cats that have given me great joy over the years right up to now and a couple of them will probably be here after I am gone.
One last thought: When Dad was on the verge of leaving this world, he was in a nursing home in the Village. I would visit a couple a times a month, taking the train in from Philly. I would just sit with him as he asked me repeatedly where I had parked the car. And after a few times I just said two blocks away, and he would remind me to feed the meter. In the social room of the home, when everyone was gathered to visit with family or watch television, there would be someone who would visit with a dog, a Lab I think. It was part of a city program that correctly thought a dog could be an amazingly potent and comforting companion for those in their final days. At first as the handler came around to introduce the dog, Dad would say “Nice Doggie…go away now” and pet the air three inches above the dog’s head. But towards the end, on one of my final visits there, when he had only days left, he surprised me one day as the handler brought the dog around; Dad reached out and caressed the dog’s head as it licked his hand. Turning to me, as I sat astounded, he said he wanted me to meet his new best friend.
And through my tears, I smiled.