A hot afternoon. The sun bakes the pavement. Kids walk back and forth before the house as they shuttle from home to the pool and back. The dogs are quiet, laying in back yards in the shade. My own pups are taking it easy in the air conditioning.
I look forward to the day’s walk. Tonight, after 6 or 7 when the pavement and sidewalks cool down from the heat of the day, I will embark with my friend Jerry and the two dogs on a three-mile march through the Northend of the Westside. We will wind our way around the school yard and across the pedestrian bridge that takes us over the Interstate. We’ll trip through Mulkey Park, cross another bridge, and walk into the canyons of downtown.
I have been walking these two dogs steadily, two or three miles or more every day for five years. Before then, we had three dogs that I walked the same distance. I suppose I have been walking dogs every day for at least the last fifteen years.
Most of the time, it’s just me and the dogs. But I often call on my friends to accompany me. The dog walk is really the only time I talk on the phone. I am free from interruptions and noise. Since 99 percent of my phone use concerns three friends, I have been able over the years to keep up with them and even plumb new areas of our relationships.
Occasionally, my friend Jerry comes over to walk the dogs with me. The company is nice. A lot of conversation can occur in an hour. Jerry and I have been friends a long time and have gone through some difficult times. As a journalist, he’s up on current events. We talk about writing, politics, religion, culture, history. It’s all there.
I get into a rhythm and cadence when I walk that I must adapt to another person. Jerry likes to cut the corners off the city blocks. I stay on the sidewalk. I know exactly how many miles and their increments any of my routes take. Cutting corners cuts the distance. I don’t like that much. But Jerry and I have an understanding. He can cut corners all he wants. He will just have to wait for me.
Jerry walks differently than I do. I keep a steady stride, and so does Jerry, only our strides don’t match. Being a good walker means getting along with compatriots and their styles. Jerry doesn’t think much about it. He doesn’t have to. I walk in a way that grooves with him.
Jerry takes the leash of one of the two dogs, usually the thickly muscled and handsome Sadie, a dog of indeterminate heritage. The only thing that’s sure about her breed is that she’s a dog and likes to rub her back in things that generally smell of feces or decaying flesh. Sadie’s good for him, as he walks with a rougher hand than I do. When the dog won’t behave, Jerry uses his thick arms and barrel chest to wrest her from her quarry, be in a bagel or a squirrel.
Molly, a short, squatty hound that looks something between a basset and a dachshund, needs a gentler touch. She’s about half the size of Sadie and much more amenable to being guided. She is, however, like a little tractor and when she wants her way, I know about it.
Walking with someone else is usually a delight and a conversation makes the hour pass quickly. I sometimes get my son Nick to go with me, an experience that’s less than relaxing. He hates it for the most part. Once we get started and underway, his attitude and demeanor changes. He cheers up, becomes lighter. He has a decent sense of humor that he implements to good effect. But he’s all over the map, jumping here and running there, zigzagging all over the place. Despite this, it’s good to spend time with the boy, hear what he thinks life holds for him, and see the world through 15-year-old eyes.
At least once a week, my friend Jose comes to walk with me. Definitely not an animal person, he leaves the leashes to me. A poet by nature and profession, he introduces me to ways of thinking and doing that I tend to lose contact with when I am by myself all the time, and I am by myself almost all day, every day. He too loves to talk about politics, religion, culture, and history. We get into creativity and the origins of poetic thought. We talk about our projects, how they are going, and what I can do to make writing work better (that is, make more money) for me.
Unlike Jerry, Jose doesn’t cut corners. We walk slower than when it’s Jerry or Nick and me. Jose and I have known each other for over 35 years. We crossed paths or dodged in and out of each other’s lives for decades. The last several years have seen us become more and more a part of each other’s being. We see each other more often. We go to poetry and prose readings, and art openings together. Through him, I have met a wealth of people, especially over the last year.
I’m grateful for dog walks with friends. While I might listen to music (I’m in a reggae/rocksteady/ska phase right now) and walk alone without conversation or music, I find the phone and friends make the work—and it is work—of walking dogs so much easier.
Like anything, if the dog walk was always the same, it would kill me. I change routes. I talk to people when I don’t want to walk the dogs alone. I try to get Jerry and Jose to walk with me at least once a week. Changing it up. That’s the secret.
The dog walk has become over time my main form of physical exercise. The head shrinker and internist I see often ask me what I’m doing for my health. I say, well, I walk the dogs. The internist is suspect. He hears “walking the dogs” and thinks of a little stroll. But the only strolling I do is with Jose. When I walk by myself or with Jerry or Nick, the dog walk is a forced march. We don’t fool around. We move at 3.5 mile an hour, if not better.
If I add it up, I spend about 4.5 to 7 hours a week underway with the animals. It’s good for me, and it’s damn good for them. Alone or with others, the love me because I get them outside the confines of the house and yard. They have less to bark about when they have some exercise.
So what’s good for them is damn good for me. I hope Nick, Jerry, and Jose get something out of it as well.