Many of us can recount a lonely time in our lives when we were told that the best way to integrate into a new community is by having children or a dog. A sure-fire way to meet a big cross section of any given population is most definitely to walk into a public school while taking a child by the hand, or setting foot in a park with a dog at the end of a leash. You’re bound to strike up many conversations, and inevitably, find a friend in the process.
Having been already well ensconced in the public school system here in Montclair, I was delighted to find a new corner of the community by introducing our Pooch to her own canine Montclair, most notably, the pack that strolled the paved path of Edgemont Memorial Park each weekday morning. After dropping my children off at the Park’s neighboring Edgemont Montessori School, I would then treat Pooch to her 30 minutes of fresh air, exercise and, as it turned out, socialization. It was about five years ago that Pooch made her debut on the dog walk, and received a warm welcome from a man who owned a slope-backed German Shepherd mix named Boomer. He simply leaned down to our trembling puppy and exclaimed, “What a extraordinary animal you are!” and turned to introduce himself with a handshake and a smile.
My children, these five years later, still call our first Edgemont Dog Contact “Uncle Boomer,” appropriately. Uncle Boomer is the actor in our crowd, who at the time of our first meeting was wearing round horn-rimmed glasses, a ripped trench coat, a pair of pajama pants, a worn out pair of Vans I later learned belonged to his high school-aged son, and a cup of coffee. (In all honesty, a cup of coffee can be construed a fashion accessory to our morning crowd). I immediately liked him, and laughed at his self-depreciating jokes told in a thick Brooklyn accent, practically to the point of incontinence.
Aside from Boomer, there is Charlie, Kat, Sirius, Katy, Ferris, Monty, Buster, Lily, Ozzy, Bandit and many others who come and go as is convenient. Their respective masters are from every walk of professional life: many writers (naturally, this is Montclair, after all), an actor, a psychologist, a college professor, an insurance salesperson, a contractor, an artist, stay-at-home parents, a lawyer. They are from all corners of the United States, and some beyond: New England, New Jersey, Manhattan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, California, the Dominican Republic; but all share a common love for the Dog, the unconditional friend of our lives who has given us all great joy. For me personally, that joy has included being introduced to a broad cross section of people who perhaps would have remained strangers to Pooch and me, hadn’t the butt sniff of exchanged pheromones taken place between one canine charge and another.
I gradually learned the names of all the dogs, and their owners. I listened intently and gradually contributed to our lap lingo and learned enough to inspire hundreds of essays. One of us, for example, is the child of a veterinarian, who housed a regular menagerie of animals in his bathtub growing up: orphaned or injured chickens, rabbits, snakes and even an owlet, to name a few. He is also, not surprisingly, quite the ornithologist. Thanks to him, I can tell the difference between a snowy egret and a great blue heron, and I can identify a black capped chickadee from a nuthatch, only four of the many types of birds we have spotted at Edgemont. He can also tell quite the adoption story: how his dog Kat literally chose him rather than the other way around. The once-thought broken dog turned out to be quite the canine catch, no matter what the foster parents said: “He’s a retriever, for God’s sake, and he won’t even play fetch.” When thrown a ball by my ornithologist friend, Kat retrieved and promptly left for her new forever home.
Yes, folks, we dog owners talk about our dog adoption stories much like a mother recounts her birth stories, although many of the women in our crowd told all of those maternity ward stories too. I can recount how many of these beautiful babies (now walking contributors to society) debuted in this world, and most all have a birth story that reflect their personalities. But I think my favorite birth story belongs to Ozzy’s owner: his own. During one of our pot luck suppers, he told an enraptured group over platefuls of Monty’s owner’s delicious Italian ragout, about how he found his birth mother after 40 years of wondering about her. He explained in his gorgeous, straight-forward voice how he fretted when during his terrifying first phone call, she told him that she couldn’t talk as she was in the middle of entertaining a crowd. He was engulfed in panic when he heard the second phone call trilling at the agreed upon time, while sprinting up the stairs of his walk-up apartment building, fumbling for the keys in his pocket. (He made it in time!) He calmly described ultimately finding his Home after an hours-long phone conversation that he did manage to pick up, finally, albeit breathlessly.
This group, in many ways, adopted me too. Without extended family of my own close by, I was blessed by their daily comfort as a woman going through a pregnancy “of advanced maternal age”. Every doctor’s appointment I had seemed to uncover another devastating possibility of compromise to the wellness of my unborn child, but my dog walkers constantly helped me keep those malpractice-fearing opinions at bay. They came together in a collective conscious of nothing but good thoughts for me and my child, who to the amazement of my doctors, arrived healthy and perfect in June of 2010. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that their good thoughts about my healthy child made the difference in her safe delivery.
We have also debated countless issues of politics and current events. We all looked to Sirius’ owner, a political science and economics professor, who very ably and patiently explained to us why, on that terrifying fall morning in 2008, a several billion dollar bail out was necessary to save our country from a second Great Depression. As we bemoaned the high taxes in Montclair as well as the plummeting values of our homes, we joked that since none of us could ever afford to leave, we’d be walking around the Edgemont Path for the next several decades, growing old with one another.
And regardless of our individual politics, when our first African American president was elected, we celebrated, one of us simply said “There is NOTHING one can say to spoil this glorious moment for me!” A native of Newark and a prized author, we all enjoyed her reveling, and celebrated by, what else? A walk in the park on a cold November morning.
While our dogs shared a feast of their own chosen delicacy (goose poop) and frolicked in the fields of Edgemont, their owners would chat about everything from what was on the television the night before, to what they planned on doing for their next scheduled vacation, to reveling in personal and professional successes. We have chuckled over stories of lost loves, how Newark changed after the race riots (from someone who lived there). We planned pot luck suppers and ate them heartily, shared cocktails at Christmas parties and coffee breakfasts on the occasional Friday morning. But most importantly, we laughed. Heartily.
Uncle Boomer introduced me to my dog people, the crowd that was to become a part of my daily life. The miles we slogged around the park in all kinds of weather started out with casual conversation, but inevitably deepened. By now, we are pretty well familiar with each other’s family histories, how we have met our spouses, the developmental aches and pains of our children. We have hugged one another and offered a silent ear and a prayer when we have lost a family pet, or more agonizing, a parent or sibling. These are the delightful, supportive, brilliant people with whom I start every weekday. They have become a part of my chosen family who I am lucky to call my own. Just as Pooch has brought joy to my life by being an unconditional, loyal friend to my children and me, she has introduced an entirely new community to me, and I found them –quite naturally — at the end of a leash.