Thankfully now we have SB-1578, which went into effect on January 1 making it illegal to tie up a dog for more than three hours at a time, but we didn’t back in 1990. The dog’s long gone by now, I’d think. I’m pretty sure it’s only the rare abused and neglected pitbull that lives so deep into its teens.
I was working for Sparkletts and my route that day covered Atwater Village between Fletcher and Los Feliz Boulevard, encompassing the good, the bad and the ugly of this little community carved out between the city of Glendale and the east bank of the L.A. River.
I’d had lunch at Giamela’s earlier at the corner of Los Feliz and Glenfeliz, a pepper steak sub with cheese and peppers. I never let the squadron of flies buzzing around the tables bother me, their sandwiches were the best. Later that afternoon after the last bottle of water was delivered and all the service calls were done, I was planning to treat myself to a large vanilla dip at the Foster’s Freeze on Fletcher before rolling back in to the plant in Eagle Rock and log my sales for the day.
Somewhere in between, with the good and the bad parts of Atwater behind me I was in the ugly section, which was south of Glendale and close to the railroad tracks that mark its eastern border. If you want to argue and say it ain’t so ugly now, you go right ahead, but keep in mind that this was long before the Costco and long before there was a weekend farmers market in the Well Fargo parking lot and long before the Glendale Boulevard revitalization grew from the arrival of Osteria Nonni (which was still about a year away). And it was certainly way long before those pimped out 700-square-foot bungalows were selling for $770K-plus. This was back when there was a neighborhood grocery store where now there’s a Starfuck’s and the dear departed Woody’s Bike Shop was in full flower down the street from the Los Feliz pitch ‘n putt, run by a guy I presumed to be named Woody who always seemed more wasted than not. And the southeast section of the neighborhood was as far removed from any village aspects as possible. Seemed like they were almost proud of that disconnect.
Even the names of the streets are different. The ones north of Glendale like Seneca, Revere and Brunswick hit Glendale Boulevard and died while those south of Glendale like Perlita, Madera and Laclede stop as well.
I didn’t have many customers in this last leg. Most of the ones I did have were delinquent. Rarely would I set up a new service unless they paid me cash in advance and even then I could usually kiss the cooler goodbye because they’d quit paying and answering their door or move and take it with them or if I’d luck out in recovering it the thing would be trashed.
So I turn down Laclede, which is the last street before Glendale Boulevard dips down under the rail bridge and comes up on the other side in the actual city of Glendale, and I make a left across a glorified alley called Topock and come right heading south on Casitas, which is the street right next to the tracks. I have no customers on Casitas but I always go down it because route legend had it that some long gone company’s warehouse in the 3200 block still held several hot-and-cold coolers that were never recovered and my supervisor told me he’d personally give me a hundred bucks if I brought them home, regardless of their condition. Passing the place on my left I don’t even slow down because it was locked up tight and totally dead, but who knew…. one day I could happen by and find a door open or a window broken and hello Benjamin Franklin!
At Fletcher I turn right. There’s a little nook of Atwater Village that can be found south of Fletcher, but I never went there. Except for Casitas which continues under the Glendale Freeway into a little residential fishhook, most of the avenues stopped at a street called Carillon. I called it Carion. Three blocks down past Laclede and Perlita I make another right onto Atwater Avenue heading north again.
I’ve got two customers on Atwater. One is this really old Latino dude who’s almost totally deaf and speaks little English. Most of the houses here are nothing like the quirky bunalows you kind find up on Brunswick. Down here they’re little woodframe cottages. But this customer fo mine has got this two-story Spanish standout past the school and north of where Gracia deads into Atwater that’s seen much better days. The grayed plaster that hasn’t been covered up by runaway ivy growth is crumbling revealing crumbling old brick beneath it and the roof tiles are all messed up.
Since the guy’s like in his 90s I bring the bottle upstairs and put it on the cooler for him, and the inside of his place is like a museum. He’s got posters and movie stills up on the walls from a bunch of old Spanish-language films I’d never heard of so I guess he’s either a legend of that genre or its biggest fan.
I can count on him to take one bottle of distilled E2W â€” every two weeks in Sparkletts Man jargon â€” and though he’s someone I don’t make pay me cash in advance, he insists on paying me cash in exact change every time and it’s always a fiver, a one, three quarters and two dimes. I accept the money, bow a little and exit with the empty five-gallon bottle out the back door and down the staircase to the driveway and back to the street.
After slipping the plastic bottle into an open crate I climb back up into the truck’s cab and note the transaction on the route card. I lean forward to crank the ignition key and fire the diesel engine to roll to my next stop across the next cross street, when just about the most helpless and pathetic sound catches my ear. It’s a whimper so faint it seems like it could’ve been 100 miles away. Then as quick as it found me, it disappeared. Still it was enough to get my hand off the key and lean meback in the seat trying to tune it in again like a faint transmission on a shortwave radio.
And there it was again. Barely. A high-pitched cry. It was a sound I’d never before heard, filled with such defeat and sadness and the next thing I knew I was out of the cab and on the street and turning my ears this way and that trying to divine its location and source. Hearing nothing I moved to the truck’s starboard side onto the sidewalk trying to distinguish it from the blanket of noiseless noise the city continually emits.
I picked up the whine again only this time it waspunctuated by a morose bark that trailed off into a hoarse noise that was half howl and half growl. Then nothing. But it sounded as if it was coming from behind the house to which I’d just delivered and I cautiously walked up the driveway, peering slowly into the overgrown back yard not knowing what I’d find and to be honest not really to sure I wanted to find whatever was making that terrible hopeless sound.
There was nothing there except ivy and weeds and a gangly loquat tree nest to a garage with a pronounced structural lean that looked like its off-kilter wooden doors hadn’t been opened in 30 years. Beyond it came the sound again, louder yet of a frequency that was almost out of the range of human hearing, followed by the weak rumble of an angry growl.
Moving down the right side of the garage down the narrow space between it and the fence that ran along the property’s southern boundary I came to a pink cinderblock wall about five feet tall. Across it is the backyard f the adjacent property fronting on Perlita. Directly in front of me are empty clotheslines and past them I can see all the way down the driveway to the street.
I don’t even see the dog until it whimpers again and jerks my attention in surprise to the leafy tree growing in the center of a grassy area. Before I can catch myself I say “Holy shit!” load enough for the dog to hear and get this, it barks at me.
Under normal circumstances that would be totally understandable, but considering the predicament the pooch was in my “Holy shit!” is much more understandable that what amounted to a completely incapacitated canine still trying to defend its turf. And by incapacitated I mean that the dog had not only wrapped its chain around the trunk of the tree, but it had somehow managed to get tangled up tight in the chain so that except for its head and one forepaw it was completely immobilized. That’s why when it locked eyes on me and barked, leaving his teeth bared, I had to stop myself from laughing. It was just that ridiculous.
I thought about retreating to my truck, driving around the block and knocking on the door to alert the dog’s owner of what I’d found, but it was clear there was either no one home or some evil sons of bitches there who could ignore the poor animal’s agony.
So I vaulted atop the cinderblock wall, swung my legs over and sat down on it to see how the pit would react. Sure enough he didn’t like that and somehow forgot his pain enough to bark heartily while straining against the chain. That only succeeded in pulling it tighter around him.
Then I thought about going and finding a pay phone and calling either the cops or the animal services department to see if they’d come out and handle the situation, but I figured that could take hours and I couldn’t wait around that long. Certainly neither could the dog.
So after the barking stopped and it sagged back in its trap I hopped off the wall and into the backyard. Standing there I expected the dog to set right back up again with all the commotion but it didn’t. It was just too worn out to bother.
So I spoke to him. Called him a good dog and said I was there to help. He just looked at me panting with his tongue lolling out the side of its jaws. I tried to be as soothing as I could but my calm was cut with an edge of tension. Not only was I trespassing in a place that frankly I wouldn’t be caught passing through, but who was I to say that in one lunge the dog couldn’t free himself and take out all his frustrations on my ass. I was in a precarious situation at best, not to mention that even if he was stuck, my goal was to free him and what… hope he appreciated the gesture?
Let’s sub in idiotic for precarious.
And then there’s the dog itself. A great black thing with its ears cropped and chopped, lending him an exceptionally sinister look. There was scratches and scars along its one visible flank and in counting the ribs exposed against its skin pulled tight across them I had no doubt that however old it was it had spent the better part of its life at the end of this chain and shown little or no love or respect, and not enough food. Though half-starved I’d bet he still weighed 60 pounds.
I took a couple steps toward him and he tensed against his binds, turning a pitiable whimper to a menacing growl in a heartbeat. Beyond him I sighted two overturned bowls and a water spigot and hatched a plan. Then I told him.
“Hey boy, what’s say I check out those bowls and get you some water going?”
Without waiting for any reply I gave the dog a wide berth and moved around him counter clockwise to where the bowls were, all the while talking to him calmly and yet set to bail as best and fast I could down the driveway if he sprang free. His giant head swiveled as he watched me, but otherwise he didn’t move. When I got to the bolws for food and the other for water, but both were upended and empty and looked like they hadn’t been replenished in some time. On the plus side I was heartened that he did no barking as I went around him nor while I filled one up with water.
Pretty sure by now that he was indeed absolutely pinned against the tree trunk I threw caution away and approached the dog straight on coming to a stop about a yard away at the very moment he hunkered down a bit, pulling the remains of his ears down and back and growled at me through bared teeth.
I knelt down to his level and held the filled bowl out in front of me, lowering it to the grass and with my head bowed as a lowly subject would make an offering to a king.
And it was there he lunged â€” not at me, but at the bowl. Still, I surprised myself with how quickly I rolled away into as best a protective ball as I could. But when no attack came I peak out from between my elbows to see the parched dog straining for all he was worth at the bowl and just not quite getting his tongue to the water’s surface.
Slowly I stood upright and again moved to within a yard of him before dropping to my knees and reaching forward to inch the bowl to within his reach. With one last push that slopped some of its contents over the sides, the bowl was close enough where the dog, straining against the chains to get his head down as far as possible could lap at the surface.
You could almost see the relief. When the water got too low I’d reach out and pull it away, go fill it up and bring it back. By the third fill-up I was sitting cross-legged right next to the bowl. With my arm and shoulder easier to get to than the water dish, the dog could have bitten me if it wanted to. Instead he just kept drinking until he finally had enough and it slumped back against the trunk. And there we stayed for a few minutes.
Finally and carefully I reached to the bowl and lifted it up to where his head was. He turned his head to it and sniffed, then he sniffed my hand and then the water again and then my hand and I thought to myself this is the moment of truth, and I told him so.
“We’re at a point where I’m either going to need my hand stitched up or we’re going to get you out of here,” I said. And just as I did his soggy snout pressed against the back of my hand and he exhaled sharply, then dragged his big tongue across it. And then again. And I took the bowl away with my right hand and just kept my left there in front of those massive jaws, willing to take the risk that he was just tenderizing a long overdue snack. And willing to trust that he wasn’t.
And he wasn’t. And before long I was running my hand down the back of his neck and along his back. And he was whimpering and shaking as if he’d just now discovered that some of us humans aren’t bad or mean. And after that I set to setting him free.
And it was a mess. I started by detaching the lead from his collar â€” a choke chain, of course â€” and then backtracked it from around him and around the tree and around him some more like untying a big metal knot.
The rest of it is pretty anticlimactic. There was only one time where his temper flared and that wasn’t so much directed at me as it was directed at how much it hurt when I pulled a section of chain that had cut into the inside of his left rear leg. Thankfully it wasn’t very deep and instead of biting me he immediately busied himself and his tongue cleaning out the wound. So I busies myself refilling his water bowl and putting it beside him where he lay and in trying to figure out how to say goodbye I dared to pat him on his crown when he wasn’t looking.
He swung that big head around and looked at me. He was still panting and his tongue was slack to one side of his huge head, but he looked much more relaxed â€” even relieved. There was certainly no hate in his eyes or a need to defend his turf.
“It’s time for me to go now buddy,” I said, and he cocked his head as if hearing something familiar. Maybe his name was Buddy. I turned and walked back to the wall I’d come over about 15 minutes earlier and when I climbed up on top of it he barked at me â€” not a mean or angry bark. Just the canine equivalent of “Hey!” And now it was my turn to turn and look at him. When I did he rolled up off his side and came into a position like a sphynx, on his belly with his front legs pitched out in front of him. He let out another playful bark and I told him to be a good dog and he scooted forward a little in the grass and sneezed. And his tail was doing something I hadn’t seen up until that point.
It was wagging.
I’m not sure what his owners thought when they came home and found their killer dog’s chain had been relocated and shortened up by about five feet so he couldn’t run it and himself around the tree anymore. I thought about coming back and confronting them but that could’ve gotten ugly quick so I decided against that and then thought about going through the motions of filing a complaint with animal services, but I had the sinking feeling that wouldn’t accomplish anything other than them confiscating the animal and killing it.
So instead I checked in on him the next couple days after that and then once every couple weeks (E2W) when I’d deliver to the old Spanish house on Atwater Avenue. If his water bowl needed filling, I’d hop over and fill it. And I was pleased to see the chain was never relocated from where I’d replanted it. Maybe his owners hadn’t even noticed. Best of all he seemed content or at least he did whenever I’d show up. It didn’t hurt our relationship that I managed to have a rawhide chew or some jerky or a couple dog biscuits with me. Appearing at the back wall I’d call out “Hey Buddy!” and he’d swing that big head around wagging his tail like he’d only recently learned how.
And maybe he had.