The doggy playgroup that gathers on weekday mornings in Fort Greene Park is not the healthiest scene to spy on if you are single, dogless, and lonely. On a Tuesday morning a few weeks ago, while suffering from the aforementioned ailments, I was sitting up the hill from the playgroup of happy, healthy, well-adjusted people and their gleeful dogs, scanning the scene for potential boyfriends—dog-owning boyfriends, specifically. But I was feeling shy and didn’t have any treats to lure errant animals in my direction; so instead I remained at my vantage point and browsed the day’s stock: This one has a nice head of hair, but his terrier is yappy; that one has a nice smile, but his boxer keeps humping the other dogs; this one looks unmarried, but he has a weimeraner and I hate weimeraners. I guess I’ll just have to sit here and keep looking.
A few blocks away my apartment was sitting fully unpacked, doing a fine imitation of a home. But two days of heavy lifting and amateur stabs at interior design had left me looking only for some other box to unpack; I went to the park that morning to shop for the two things my new apartment was missing.
I have just moved to New York and, anticipating a hellish commute from Brooklyn to graduate school on the Upper West Side (and the occasional need to spend the night at a stranger’s house), I left Crystal, my adored pit bull, with my folks in Virginia. Now, I’ve begun to think that leaving Crystal behind had been a huge mistake. There I was, with no one to call out to, no one to put on a leash, no one to feed, no one to go home to. While I knew that cooping Crystal up most days in less than 500 square feet was unfair when a yard and loving grandparents were happy to entertain her in Virginia, I kept thinking about that ubiquitously anthologized poem “Not Waving But Drowning”: “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I have never been able to swim far without some sort of floatation device to buoy me along.
I heard my mother gasp. “Oh, please don’t get a pit bull! Please!”
I’ll admit that adopting Crystal is among the least thought-out decisions I have ever made. Four years earlier, after months of are-we-or-aren’t-we, my boyfriend had finally cut me loose and, after a free fall, I landed comatose in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. I was so depressed that all I could do was lie in bed watching Animal Precinct marathons, and my rebound guys were animal cops on the beat in Houston, Miami, and Detroit fighting the good fight against hoarders, puppy mills, and fighting rings. If anyone has ever watched this show, you’ll know that about 70 percent of the stories involve pit bulls of one sort or another. More than any other kind of animal, pit bulls—at least according to the producers of Animal Precinct—are the victims of some of humanity’s worst habits. The show gets its ratings from pits that have been tied to junkyard tires, starved, had the shit beaten out of them, and been fed gunpowder to rot their brains. “This is all so terrible,” I would sigh, tears welling up in my eyes. After three months of squinting dimly at the TV screen, I decided to adopt a pit bull.
“Don’t you dare adopt a dog,” my father said when I announced my intentions over the phone. “I’ll be damned if I’m stuck taking care of the thing.”
I heard my mother gasp. “Oh, please don’t get a pit bull! Please!”
“Everyone in their twenties should have a dog,” my older sister said. “It keeps you grounded.”
My sister’s matter-of-fact enthusiasm about my adoption announcement meant one terrifying thing to me: She understood what I was going through. It was a moment I had been dreading ever since I had watched in horror as she lay on the floor of her Boston apartment in the fetal position sobbing about what she was going to do with her life. I was happy in college at the time; she was miserable in graduate school. She hated being single, hated Massachusetts winters, hated the people, the high rents, the heating bill, the commute, the real world. But the one thing she loved was her dog. Her life organized itself around his play dates; her friends owned his friends.
As I watched what the potent recipe of depression and dog dependency did to my sister’s social life, I had vowed I would never let that happen to me. Never would my social plans and drinking dates be subject to the time clock of four-footed bathroom breaks. Never would the cute thing my dog did that day qualify as a stimulating topic of conversation. Never would I let a stranger watch my dog kiss me on the mouth and give that stranger reason to think, “That girl wants a baby.” But after three months of Animal Precinct, vows meant nothing: That stranger was already out there waiting for me to start acting like a fool.
The old Charlottesville SPCA had an aura of dampness even when it hadn’t rained in weeks; its concrete floors, walls, and ceilings, chain-link cages, buzzing florescent lighting, and no windows compounded the stench of wet fur and kibbles. The dogs themselves tended to be hounds no longer up to the task of cruising the countryside for possums, or pit bulls who had landed at the shelter for the same reasons they land at shelters on Animal Precinct. As I walked the corridor of cages, the dogs had different ways of playing their hands. Some would leap up howling; some would tuck their heads further beneath their hind legs; others would stand stoically at the fronts of their cages barking as if to a beat; a few would stand politely and quietly, waiting for a finger to poke through the chain link; some wagged silently, uncontrollably.
I was crouched by a hound when the friend I’d dragged with me said, “Come look at this one.”
I followed her to a yellow ID ticket that read: Female, pit bull, unspayed, 10 months old. Name: Crystal.
“What a horrible name,” I thought.
I knelt down. “Crystal! Crystal! Come here, Crystal!”
Her head was too big. Her body was too long. Her legs were too short. She had a rash on her belly and her tail looked like it belonged to a rat. Her coat was a muddy black and brown brindle that looked unsolvably filthy. But her eyes said exactly what I wanted them to say: “I know! I just broke up with my boyfriend, too!”
I visited Crystal a few more times before taking her home. During these preliminary play dates, I learned that Crystal did not know how to walk on a leash, was not afraid of running headlong into fences, and liked to chew on my shoes while they were still on my feet. I also discovered that she was scared of her own shadow, didn’t know how to play with dog toys, and would roll over onto her back if tackled by five children under the age of six. When I finally signed the papers and handed over the money, Crystal wouldn’t get near my car. I had to pick her up as she trembled uncontrollably, and place her in my passenger seat.
Almost immediately, I felt like I had adopted a retarded kid. Walking her down the street, people would stare and arc away from us as if we were the couple dancing a little too crazy at the club; mothers would see me coming and grab the hands of their toddlers, just waiting for Crystal to lunge at the child and tear it to bits with her salivating jaws; shop owners complained when I tied her up outside; teenagers with tough guy attitudes would sidle up to me and go, “Yo, is that pit bull?” When I would nod, and they would shove their friend standing at a distance and say, “I told you so, man! How much you want for that dog? $100? I got $100.”
“She’s not for sale,” I’d say, shortening Crystal’s leash and drawing her to me like those mothers with their toddlers. The images in my own head were Animal Precinct-inspired scenes of Crystal cowering in a corner while some pit with gunpowder in its brain ripped open her belly.
I introduced Crystal to a friend, who refused to go outside to pet her. Instead, she peered at Crystal through a window and said, “She’s cute. How’s she doing?”
Contrary to what has been propagated in the media, pit bulls have the same nervous system and feel pain just the same as any other breed of dog.
I thought for a moment. While none of the violent mauling fantasies friends and strangers associated with Crystal’s distinctive physical stamps seemed likely to unfold, my dog did appear to have an overactive set of jaws. By then I’d had Crystal for two weeks and she had already shredded countless books, eaten a cell phone, chewed the corner off a bathroom door, peed on my bed three times, and broken the crate I bought her—twice. But I stayed positive: At least Crystal got me out of bed in the morning.
“She’s doing great!” I said. “It’s taking some adjustment, but she’s settling in. You know, the dog in the ‘Little Rascals’ was a pit bull.” I pointed this fact out to everyone who met Crystal. I sought out newspaper articles about pit bull attacks and geographical bans, magazine articles deconstructing the bans, references in pop culture, American Kennel Club basics, and discussion forums.
This is Pit Bull 101: The term “pit bull” is a generic term that refers to a number of different breeds, such as the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, or the English Bull Terrier, descended from the bulldogs and terriers of Victorian England. Roughly one third, or 118, of the dog-bite related fatalities in the United States between 1979 and 1998 were caused by pit bulls. There is no such thing as the “locking jaw” mechanism. In Colorado Dog Fanciers, Inc. v. City and County of Denver, dog owners objected to an ordinance that placed the burden of proof on the dog owners to prove whether their animals were or were not among the breeds banned by the city. Michael J. Fox and Jon Stewart own pit bulls. Pit bulls are banned or their ownership is restricted in Ontario, France, the United Kingdom, Miami-Dade County, Denver, and Prince George’s County, Md., among other places. When given a scientific temperament test (measuring their “stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people”), pit bulls ranked ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and most dachshunds. Contrary to what has been propagated in the media, pit bulls have the same nervous system and feel pain just the same as any other breed of dog.
What is often said of marriages was true for us: Our first year was the hardest. The bed-wetting was constant and the destruction was getting expensive: shelves of books, two of my own cell phones, my sister’s cell phone and digital camera, a friend’s cell phone, countless remote controls, an acquaintance’s knitting project.
The phone calls to my sister were like calls to the Incontinence Crisis Hotline.
“She’s done it again. I can’t take it anymore. It’s too late for me to wash my sheets tonight. What am I going to do? Where am I going to sleep? I can’t keep her, I just can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, time and again.
But when I would wake up the next morning, having been up too late washing my sheets and scrubbing my mattress, I would look at Crystal with her head on the pillow next to me and I’d forgive everything. I’d pat her, tell her she was a good dog, ask if she wanted to go for a walk, kiss her, chide her for being so lazy, resort to tough love and make her get up.
When people heard about Crystal’s bad behavior I would downplay it. “Bedwetting? Oh, it was just a little spot and it was totally my fault.” “A decapitated cell phone? I’ve taken care of it. No problem. It just needed a new battery.” “But Crystal! You are a naughty dog, bunny! Don’t do that again, please!”
I don’t know when exactly, but at some point I became deeply invested in making our relationship work. The more nurturing, chiding, teaching, patience, love, and defense Crystal required, the more I wanted to give her. I bought a Crystal-proof crate. I put electronics out of reach. I shut all doors securely. Not once did I have to check a growl or hint of aggression. Most importantly, I did not have to lie in a fetal position wondering what I was going to do with my life because I already knew: I was going to take Crystal for a walk. Then, I was going to feed her and pet her and talk to her. That, I think, won over not just me, but everyone around me, too.
I have no idea how long I sat in the park that day in Brooklyn, but it was long enough for the stream of commuters cutting through on their way to the subway to slow to a trickle and for the doggie playgroup to dwindle to three stragglers and their owners. No one had walked over the expanse of grass and asked for my number, nor were they going to. Walking home, I made a funny face at each dog I passed on the way—the kind of face normal people make at babies: a human’s best impression of cartoon eyes, an open mouth, sometimes with the tongue out.
When I got home I called my mother. “How’s my dog?” I asked.
“She’s fine. She’s sitting right here,” my mother replied. “Do you want me to put the phone up to her ear?”
Now, this is a mortifying question to have to answer because a) talking to one’s dog on the phone is one of the more idiotic things a person can do, and yet b) of course, I want to talk to my dog on the phone.
“Yes, put the put the phone to her ear,” I said.
“Okay, here she is.”
“Crystal, Crystal! Hi Crissy! I miss you, bunny! Do you recognize my voice?”
“What did you say?” My mother was back on the line.
“Nothing. I just said ‘hi’ and asked her if she recognized my voice.”
“Well, we’ll have to do this again sometime!” my mother said as if we’d just eaten at a tasty new restaurant. “She certainly perked up!”
“Yeah,” I said, still hungry.