Sunday, August 16, 2015


I'm confused about the name of the dog nuzzling me nose to nose. Is this Pippin, Rosie, Enzo or Ellie? There's at least six of these small breeds: Shih Tzus, Pugs, Beagles, Spaniels, Terriers, Cockapoos, and mixes of them all, that wander the dog park and eventually wind up on my lap.

While I fancy the larger dogs -- the Goldens, Labradors, and blends of the two -- these big guys are like adolescents, racing after each other, wrestling a bit, and then resuming their manic chasing.

"Which is yours?" The question came from a fairytale blond seated next to me on the bench. While she waited for my answer, her eyes tracked the tiny mounds of grass, trees, and ponds, ready to coo when I pointed out my pet.

I hesitated a bit, and then confessed, "Um, I don't have a dog." I said this quietly for I didn't want the word to spread that I was an imposter, someone pretending to have a pet and worse, planning to snatch one.

"I just moved into the building a week ago," I quickly added, "and don't have a pet. But, I've had Golden Retrievers in the past and miss being around dogs." What I didn't say -- because I wanted to avoid pity or solutions -- was that my budget couldn't squeeze in bills for vet, dog food, or boarding during planned trips to Los Angeles. Those details could wait.

This must've mollified her, because she then introduced me to a bench friend and pets. "That's Enzo and my Ellie," she said. At the sound of their names, the two dogs paused briefly in their rounds, lifted their button-sized ears, glanced toward their owners, and then renewed their mini trots.

My plot was working. I remembered how my two dogs swiftly introduced me to friends in new neighborhoods, so I was trying it again, but this time, without my own furry one in the crowd. I knew that dog owners are drawn to each other like long-lost relatives.  Instead of DNA, the bond is affection and addiction to animals.

But as I think of it, there was one dog-induced friendship that didn't go smoothly. The time was 1990; I was 52 and separated from my husband of 30 years. While a bit sad at the split, I was also giddy because I relished the fresh freedom. "I eat pizza on the couch while watching TV," I told friends, which at the time seemed the epitome of new beginnings.

With my Golden Retriever, Sasha, I met -- let's call her Lauren -- and her dog Midnight. (Not his real name either.) She was likely 20 years younger than I, but we bonded because we were single women with dogs.

Lauren and I met daily. We walked our dogs together. We visited each other's homes. We sat on bare and carpeted floors to continue our conversations and simultaneously stroke our pets. We were best friends. Then David entered the picture. (Of course, fictitious name.)

I had met David at a singles event and was immediately beguiled because he was the opposite of my husband. David smoked small cigars and pot, drove fast, ate revolting food, and was into New Age philosophy. And because I was feeling like a kid released from a long, intense residency in a boarding school, all of this made me aflutter.

Now, one of David's proclivities that I didn't include in the above line-up was that he related easily to women. Because of that, he had many female fans that relished his heart-to-heart conversations.

Lauren became one of them. "We're only friends," she said, when I claimed discomfort about their intense relationship. David seconded, "You have no reason to be jealous."

But their words didn't appease; I coveted their intimacy. Eventually, I wrote a long -- quite excellent and well-reasoned -- letter to the both of them, breaking off my bonds. They protested I was off base, but neither chose me over the other.

Now that I consider that time with Lauren and David, I wonder who was the imposter in that dog-engendered relationship? Was it Lauren posing as my friend so she could snuggle with David? Was it David believing his female friendships wouldn't evolve into something more? Or was it I, in a pseudo romance where I pretended to embrace David's unhealthy and risky lifestyle, but in truth rejected it?

Okay, I'll cop to being a bit of a fraud 35 years ago, but today in this dog park, I'm not trying to fool anyone: Bring on the pooches.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Balconies, Stairs, Stoops, and Folding Chairs

As the sun rises, I can peer to the east from the small balcony of my new 37th floor apartment and see Navy Pier. A slight turn of the head to the west brings into view the Tribune Tower. The Chicago River, in its natural green tint, and Lake Michigan -- blue as far as the eye can see -- are also part of my sky-top view. It is quiet now; only the soft rush of early morning autos reaches my ears.

Sitting outdoors on a perfect Chicago summer day coaxes my mind to travel backwards to other unforgettable places where I have perched. And like a jigsaw puzzle whose picture only emerges when all of the parts are snug in place, I add the characters who help create a picture of my past.

The year is 1996, early evening; I am sitting at the top of a long staircase outside my Henderson St. townhouse. My Golden Retriever, Sasha, is hip-to-hip next to me. She rises and madly rushes to the bottom stair to greet her friend: it is our neighbor Tommy returning from work.

As Tommy pets Sasha, I boldly ask, "If you ever want to catch a movie, let me know." I have practiced this sentence because dog and I have said good morning to this fella ever since we moved in. He'd be out for a run the same time as Sasha's first walk. I had learned he was about my age and single. At the time, I was merely looking for a pal in my young neighborhood, and thought Tommy a candidate.

"I go to the Y Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays," he said, likely eager to add his fitness credentials. So any Tuesday or Thursday." I picked a Tuesday, and that was how my second marriage began.

Now, let's flip the calendar backwards to 1970. See my 32-year-old self as I sit on the stoop of a townhouse in South Commons on Chicago's near south side. The brick homes are built around a square, so my neighbor and I can lounge, and at the same time watch our children at play. My daughters are six and seven-and-a-half years old, my friend's two daughters nearly the same.

The scene looks idyllic: the children scooting and whooping in the courtyard are shades of white, black, and brown. We live in a community where that palette was the purpose -- urban pioneers, eager to be part of an experiment to learn if people of different races, incomes, and ages could live together.

While the youngsters are carefree, these two mothers are dour, for we are both in first marriages chipping at the edges. "I don't know what to do," I tell my friend. "Is divorce the answer?" I have asked the question, but will stay wed until he and I part many years later.

Now let's travel far back and ride a Red Hornet streetcar to Division Street circa 1940's Chicago. It's not me on outdoor seats; instead my parents and neighbors on this immigrant block.

"Lock up," my mother says to my father. She is talking about Irv's Finer Foods, our corner grocery store. She has removed and folded the apron she wears in the store and hid it behind the counter where she will unhappily unfold it tomorrow and place it over her head. She does this carefully, so as not to mess her up-swept hair.

"Some kids might want an ice cream bar," my father the askew optimist says. He is sitting on a folding chair outside of the store. His cronies are lined up on one side and my mother on the other. He puts his hand on her bare arm -- it is a hot summer's night -- and she shakes it away. The movement is her answer and a gesture that cracks my heart.

Dad ignores the slight and turns to his pal. "Did you listen to the Cubs game?" he says. His brown eyes catch the light of the lampposts. "Farshtunken," his friend slams. "They're still my boys," my father says.

While our parents are lined up on the chairs they have schlepped from closets, my brother and I, and a slapdash mix of kids are racing wildly on the concrete sidewalk. "Oley Oley Ocean free," someone screams. "You're it!" shouts another.

Before I leave my balcony and reminiscing, I wonder, why these scenes and not others? Surely there were patios and porches where I enjoyed the summer air and dear companions. But when I peer into each vignette, I realize they were all wrapped in beginnings and endings: A sweetheart married and buried. A young love found and lost. A childhood carefree and bruised.

Life. Now a new one.