I noticed your dog first. Of course. Had we been introduced, I’d likely have remembered your dog’s name and not yours. I’m just more in tune with dogs, I guess.
She’s a beautiful brown short haired shepherd mix but I couldn’t see her eyes. She had wrapped her body so lovingly, so protectively, around your thighs that it made my breath catch. You were completely swallowed up by what looked like a sleeping bag, head and body covered by the dark green bag, lying in the fetal position. Instead of just curling up in the crook of your body, she draped herself over you with one paw hugging your top thigh as though to keep you warm and safe at the same time. Her head was nestled into the sleeping bag, near your heart. There was a bicycle lying on its side next to you two making it look almost like you had both stopped to rest after a long bike ride.
I had slowed for the cars stopped at the light in front of me just past the intersection of 15th and A street. Glancing out the window at the spot under the overpass, I saw you and your pup in your sweet embrace and immediately had the thought that if I could take a picture, that photo would go viral. It was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. The cars in front of me started to move and I turned away from you, continuing on to the freeway.
I couldn’t shake the memory of you two as I drove to my appointment. Your dog had vouched for you in a way that broke barriers. I immediately cared about her and because she obviously loved you, I found myself wanting more for you than sleeping under an overpass with your dog.
Normally when I see a homeless person with a dog, I struggle with judgement. Instead of compassion, I feel anger that the person would put their dog at risk and that the pup would have to suffer the consequences of such a harsh lifestyle and dubious choices. This time, I found myself wondering instead what I would do if we were homeless. Would I willingly give up my pup Wilma, or would I cling to the last reminder of a safer, more comfortable family life? Would I choose to keep her with me in spite of having to live outdoors, believing that I could love and care for her the best?
The answers to those questions were too difficult to even contemplate so I quickly let them go. I started wondering how I could help the dog and her man living under the overpass? I decided to stop at the store and pick up food for both of them on my way home.
By the time I got back to the neighborhood, you were gone. There was no sign that you had ever been there: no trash, no dirty sleeping bag, no food wrappers, no bicycle. I couldn’t decide if I was relieved or disappointed. Your complete vanishing act allowed me to maintain my fantasy that you had stopped to take a nap after a long bike ride and that after you were rested, you continued your journey. I wondered if I’d see you around the neighborhood later this week or if you had left the area.
Today, Wilma and I went to the farmer’s market on Broadway. As we approached the entrance to the market, I saw your dog again. She is so pretty and I recognized her at once. This time I saw her big brown eyes. She sat patiently in front of your open guitar case watching you carefully, seemingly a pro at this routine of yours. Her eyes followed you as you packed up and started loading your belongings on to the bicycle.
I was elated for a minute, imagining you as a struggling musician busking at the market, a much more palatable story to tell myself than that you were homeless. I wished that we had arrived a few minutes earlier so I could’ve listened to your music. Maybe you are a song writer also and your lyrics would’ve answered my questions about you.
As I approached you, I noticed the tiniest of kittens sitting on a pillow near your guitar. She was tabby striped and had a pink leash on. My mind went blank. I couldn’t even imagine a story line that could explain a homeless musician traveling on a bike with a dog and a kitten. I was relieved to see that you had a way to earn money without panhandling but how could you possibly take care of yourself, a dog and an itty bitty kitten? She looked so small and helpless, not at all strong and confident like your dog.
I quickly turned away because I was so shaken by seeing your kitty cat. Here was my opportunity to help you but I felt simultaneously confused and repulsed. My usual tendency to think of homeless people who keep pets as selfish overwhelmed me once again. I walked around the market not even seeing the gorgeous tomatoes and dark green chard that I had come to buy, a full blown conversation loudly distracting me in my head.
After awhile, I understood that my help was conditional. That I had unknowingly created a barrier between me and your little travelling family. You did not fit into the acceptable story line I had created so I had rejected you.
I was ashamed. Your dog had vouched for you and that should be enough. I turned back around to find you. I was going to ask you to tell me your story in your own words. I would listen. I would share whatever cash was in my wallet, although it likely wouldn’t be enough to make a difference. Maybe I could buy some food for you at the market if you were hungry.
I swallowed my shame and retraced my steps, but you were already gone. I checked the overpass on my way home but you weren’t there either. If I get another chance, I’ll do better. For your dog. For your kitten. For you.