There are few moments I feel more at home than walking dogs in Tilden Park on the fire trail. Normally rushed and clipped interactions become leisurely and intimate. And how could they not? Is there anything more intimate than being in a pack? And is there anything more pack-like than canids? Whether it’s the Vinegar dogs of South America or rescue mutts in Tilden, watching pack interactions — dog and human — is as good as the view.
There is simply no room for pretension around dogs, especially during moments that can only be described as “Synchronized Pooping”, followed by a reenactment of The Gleaners, only with blue New York Times bags instead of scythes.
I love learning the names of everyone’s dog. Especially the duos. Maybe this is because one of my earliest memories is of L.B.J.’s two beagles, “Him” and “Her.” In Tilden I’ve met “Sweet Pea and Earl,” “Debit and Credit,” “Mickey and J.J.” One day there was even a “Demosthenes and Antipater,” which the owners amended with “you can Wiki it!” in response to my puzzled look as they ran by.
In Tilden Park, everyone gets to be off-leash.
And the maraschino cherry on this sundae is that I have a dog that is convinced that he, Cesar, and not Tom Bates, is the actual Mayor of Berkeley. He is driven to impart a sense of welcome and friendship upon any being in his path. This adds to the fun because I am, actually, from a place that once had on its license plates, “Texas: The Friendly State!” (Molly Ivins once proposed, “Texas: Land of Wretched Excess”). And walking my dog in Tilden Park gives me a way to be friendly without feeling like I have a toothpick stuck in my mouth. It’s a reliably great time — until it all goes horribly, horribly awry.
And I find my yar and picaresque little vassal bounding to greet an animal that looks like Cujo on meth. A screamingly vicious and bad dog. Not just a tough character, but a dystopic canine Hannibal Lector pit/bulldog mix with two choke chains around its neck — that end in a leash held by one of these very nice older Berkeley women who look like they either started the Women’s Studies Department in 1972 or moved out from Boston with their boyfriend on a lark in 1968 and still live in the same co-op. There is East Coast decorum here, a desire to converse in a spirited, friendly and decidedly pleasant way. No doubt an E.B. White devotee.
Yet her dog is truly “mean as a wolverine,” and is actually sucking in its breath through its teeth in a hissing show of aggression just like a saw a caged “pet” badger do one time. It is a nightmare.
And I lied earlier. My dog is not really “yar” as in “quick and easy to handle” like a beautiful little sailboat. He is quick. And he is as sturdy as a little boat. But he is completely disobedient. (Yes, I know, Sirius Puppy Training).
There will be blood. Cesar is frisking closer and the Angela Lansbury look-alike is trying to shout sweetly above the chaos of her lunging hellhound, “You might want to keep your dog away… my dog has a ‘Greeting Disorder”.
A “Greeting Disorder”. As in, her dog doesn’t want to sniff butts, he wants to rip out entrails. A “Greeting Disorder”.
“When he’s at home my other dog models the correct behavior for him, but when he’s… alone… his… ‘Greeting… Disorder’…. really… manifests… itself.” Cujo’s non-stop lunges make her last words sound like she’s shouting from atop a vibrator bed gone wild.
And then a sound emerges from me, a “HEAH NOW!” Like something L.B.J. would say to “Him” and “Her,” from the time when men would really pick up their hunting dogs by their ears. It came from somewhere deep in my most masculine place (as a Jungian might say). A guttural, brutish vocalization of total and unequivocal dominance. It would have stopped a silverback gorilla. It’s how I heard my Dad handle his seven Brittany spaniels again and again. And it made Doggie Hannibal Lector, Cesar, and nice but obviously insane lady freeze. I was predator, they were prey, and I called the shots for that nanosecond.
My grab is successful and I’m headed down the hill with the oblivious Cesar, the happy quack, heart thudding while I take it in: South Bay, Oakland shipyards, San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Farallon Islands, Mount Tam, Coast Range, Carquinez Straights.
But the view provides no joy.
Later I talk with a friend about the encounter. The worst of it is how much it has taken the ‘safe place’ feeling away from the gloriousness of Tilden park dog walking and socializing. She explains her theory that, unlike 101 Dalmatians, most owners don’t mirror their dogs, but are the exact opposite, kind of alter egos. And then she adds something that really taxed my Texan-Berkeley translation device: “Don’t worry. Just go back up. You’ll forget about this and Tilden will remain a great outlet for homosocial – I don’t mean homosexual, but homosocial — gathering for you, and you’ll be able to enter into its ultimate reality again.”
And you know she was right. I went up there this morning and felt as happy as a little dog with two tails.
Kelly Cash, who lives in Berkeley, is a writer who prepares ethically harvested foods for her companion animals, including husband and children, while working to save open spaces, one million acres at a time. This is the fourth in her series of “Lone Star” columns.
She collects “Berkeley Moments,” so if you have one, send it to email@example.com.