You're An Animal Too

A dog is a man’s best friend, they say.  But what do you do when a dog marks you as an enemy?  Here, Jonathan Kiefer ponders this problem with some help from Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story.  

My neighbor’s dog reminds me of Edward Albee. Not the man himself, but one of his plays, The Zoo Story, which happens to be the first play I ever saw and one I’ve always wanted to perform. Any experienced actor will tell you that the highlight of the play is its meaty 7-page monologue, aptly referred to by the character who delivers it as “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.”

“I still don’t know how to this day the other roomers manage it, but you know what I think: I think it had only to do with me,” says Jerry of his problem with a neighbor’s dog. “If you think about it, this dog had what amounted to an antipathy toward me; really.”

That’s what my neighbor’s dog reminds me of.  An antipathy?  The dog hates me. She barks violently and loudly whenever I come or go. Her name is Brownie, though she’s mostly black; she is middle-aged and middle-sized, and—it bears repeating—she hates me. I am sure I don’t deserve it.

Brownie can hear my doorknob, and even its faintest rattle will send her tearing across the yard, barking furiously. She runs up a wooden staircase on the side of my neighbor’s apartment and looks down over the fence at me, snarling and growling, baring her teeth, barking, barking, barking. She won’t stop until someone comes to get her or I go away. This has gone on “from the very beginning,” as Jerry so wearily puts it. The neighbors do scold Brownie for the racket she makes, and they even spank her, hard. I hate to see that, not least because I worry she will associate the pain with me and bark harder next time.

I believe Brownie is a German Hunt Terrier, which, according to the Internet, qualifies her as a “vigilant” and “cantankerous” guard dog, typically “suspicious of strangers” and “not suitable as a pet.” Your average Deutscher Jagdterrier is a solid hunter, among the best of the terriers for rooting out badgers and taking down boar. I have seen neither badgers nor boar in my neighborhood, so there you go. At night, however, I can hear Brownie doing battle with local skunks and raccoons; even they don’t push her buttons as I seem to. She, in turn, can hear me getting up to go to the bathroom, and sometimes she will bark once to inform me of this.

Brownie would do well in some allegorical 11th-century middle-European empire-kingdom, as the court hunter-hound of a king who wants to inspire fear or at least serious aggravation wherever he goes. She makes do instead in the garret of my neighbor’s outdoor staircase. I would say that I’d want her for my own guard dog, except I’ve never seen her display as much hostility toward a stranger as she has toward me, and therefore I would not feel very protected.

Like Albee’s Jerry, I tried at first to make peace. Reaching over the fence at my own risk, I once fed Brownie an entire package of Pepperidge Farm Chess Men cookies, which are difficult to share, even with people. She took them right from my hand, one at a time, and ever so delicately devoured them with obvious satisfaction, then quietly dismounted the steps and vanished into her yard. When next we met, she barked and huffed and snarled as usual. She had eaten my cookies and hated me the whole time, the bitch.

When Jerry’s efforts to kill the Dog with kindness failed, he tried to kill it with poison. But he quickly regretted that decision: “I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to,” he says. I know what he means. Once, while watering the garden to a soundtrack of Brownie barking, I had the idea to pull the hose out into the driveway and strangle her with it. Or at least to spray water in her face. I haven’t done anything yet, either because I’m afraid of getting caught or because I fear it will ruin our prospects for progress, if they exist. Yet my passive resistance clearly has failed; she has learned that I am a pushover, that I can be bullied.

I have often felt invisible in the world, but never when I’ve wanted to. I am not invisible to the more desperate and predatory homeless people, because they are invisible themselves—and I am never invisible to Brownie. To her, I am hyper-visible. Sometimes, in fact, I think that she can see straight into my soul, and that she recognizes something awful in there. It’s unsettling. Sometimes her barking has a tattletale quality, as if I’ve perpetrated some hideous moral offense of which only she is aware, and she won’t let me get away with it. She makes me feel guilty for something I don’t even understand. Faust had a bothersome black dog too, of course. Goethe described it as a poodle, which isn’t an exact match, and it's a harbinger of Mephistopheles, which might be. Just what kind of a deal is Brownie trying to broker with me?

She has a certain purity of expression that I must admire. There is a fine line between self-discipline and compulsion, but another way Brownie makes me feel guilty is by her dedication.  She’ll stop whatever she is doing at any time to come to the fence and bark at me. Thousands of times since I moved in. If I could do anything with as much regularity, vehemence, and unswerving duty as that, mine would be a focused, successful, and very visible life.

Jerry’s Dog does not die, but the play is still a tragedy. Jerry, who also feels invisible sometimes, does make a kind of progress with the Dog. “We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion,” he explains, “and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding. It’s very sad, but you’ll have to admit that it’s an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact, and we had failed.”

Brownie and I aren’t there yet, but I’m not so sure we should try to be. “We neither love nor hurt,” Jerry continues, “because we do not try to reach each other.”

I saw Brownie on the street once. She was loose, unleashed and out of context, her owners absent. I don’t know how she got out, but what a sight. She ran up and down the block, aimlessly, with the joy and terror of liberation, her tongue lolling like a Great Dane’s. She didn’t bark at me once, and I wondered if she even recognized me. I took a few steps toward her, but she ran away.

Unlike life, good drama solves its own problems, and that’s partly why it’s useful. Albee’s plays always solve the problems they pose, even when the solutions are unpleasant, as they usually are. “The Story of Jerry and the Dog” is really about Jerry and the Rest of Humanity, and this of course is Albee’s instructive gift. When I first saw the play, The Zoo Story initiated me into theater’s mysteries, and some of life’s. Although I’ve played other Albee characters—with, perhaps, the great nourishing satisfaction of some ungrateful Deutscher Jagdterrier eating Pepperidge Farm Chess Men—I’ve never had a go at Jerry. Perhaps I no longer need to.

Jonathan Kiefer

Extreme gardening

Something alien is growing in the community garden on my street. The garden occupies a narrow lot, fenced on all sides and bordered by multi-family homes. There’s a wooden fence in the front; the entrance is always open. In the nearly 30 plots, all of which are planted out this year, we earnest urban gardeners have planted our tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Bold, racy types have planted lavender or arugula or wandering Egyptian onions or albino hybrids. In July, the garden goes wild: the tendrils of my neighbor’s pea plants have reached across the gap and grappled with my Brandywines, and the raspberry bushes are threatening mutiny. We’ve got a compost pile and bees in the back. Lots of bees. The plants are green and lush right now, which is exciting, but a few weeks ago the verdant hues dimmed a little. The organizer of the garden sent out an email saying that one of us wanted to lock the entrance gate. Fruits were being plucked from vines. A locked gate is an understandable reaction to pilfering, a common problem in community gardens. You grow your plants, you carefully tend to them all summer, and days before you reap, some hooligan comes by and cleans off your pepper plant. I get it: What’s the point of gardening, if the products of your labors walk off when you’re not looking?

Ultimately, the gate idea was axed: The majority of us preferred to keep our community garden unlocked and open. And if someone comes along and swipes, well, that sucks. You could get mad, real mad, and plot your revenge. Or you can say, in your best Pollyanna voice, “I hope the people who take it need it more than I do!” or you can stomp at the ground and get over it, or you can shrug your shoulders and say that’s the price of gardening in the open.

The emails and responses grew quickly as people weighed in. People suggested signs: “Don’t Steal” or “We call the police.” A video surveillance system was proposed.

About this time, I realized I have no idea who these people are. I’ve probably seen them, greeted them, talked about bugs or taproot with them, but I can’t match emails with faces. I didn’t used to think of gardeners as being prone to extreme measures, but the situation escalated quickly in cyberspace. Last week, a gardener emailed all of us to complain that someone had stolen a few frying peppers and a basil plant from her plot. She went on to use her email to berate “them” (quotation marks are hers). In her colorful epistle, she questioned whether “they” even know what to do with the stolen food; she mocked “them” for stealing only a few peppers and not the whole plant; she said she thought “they” stole her food for spite, because “they” can. Finally, she said that if those thieves are the kind of people that live in the neighborhood, she doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. I find this fascinating because I, like most of the gardeners who garden there, live in the neighborhood—on the same street.

Her email became a battle cry. Someone thought they could secure broken-down video cameras to install around the garden—a ruse, to drive away vegetable thieves who are afraid of being recorded. Another gardener wrote back immediately to call for solar-powered electric fences. A few days later, a gardener/spy sent out a very excited email with a picture attached. He claimed he had caught photos of vegetable thieves in the act—and he was tapping the collective wisdom to find out if it was appropriate to spray the burglars with a hose. Later the same day, he sent out an email with the subject line “false alarm.” Turns out, he had taken pictures of a fellow gardener picking a few zukes from his own plant.

We gardeners are taking pictures of each other and thinking the worst. Where are we headed? An all-out produce rumble? I’ve been thinking about unexpected brinkmanship this summer because of a recent run-in with Dr. Seuss. (How’s that for a forced segue way?) We were vacationing with my in-laws in Florida, and one morning my mother-in-law surprised my son with new books. She said she had raided her kids’ bookshelves and found lots of lost Dr. Seuss books, and she was very excited to read them to Sam.

After reading The Butter Battle Book, she looked a little shaken. “Well,” she said. “That wasn’t what I thought it was.” I picked it up. The book tells the story of two peoples, the Yooks and the Zooks, who live on different sides of a wall. At the beginning, they disagree about some minor issues. The book ends with a Yook and a Zook facing off on the wall—and they both have nukes. That’s where you’re left, as a reader, seeing two Seussians about to blow each other to smithereens. It’s mutually assured destruction, the end of escalation, the final countdown, zero minutes to midnight. I thought I had known about escalation in Dr. Seuss—I’m familiar with “The Big Brag,” after all—but I was mistaken. I was delighted to find he was so political, so outspoken. I may not ever get past delight: I’m sure tomes have been written about the politics of Theodore Geisel, but that’s probably one area of literary arcana of which I will forever be ignorant.

As it turns out, one of the themes of my summer is “Escalation where you least expect it.” As for the garden—what’s going to happen when we leave the relatively cool climes of June and July and head into the really hot and humid waters of August and September? There's a storm brewing; people are drawing lines in the soil. I can't help but recall these wise words from It Came from Outer Space :

Did you know that more people are murdered at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy-going, over 92 and it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable.