Yip Van Winkle

My twin nieces used to keep a list of people who had done something to deserve their ire.  And it’s never taken much to make the list.  My son got himself permanently on the bad list, for example, simply by refusing to tell them how to spell his name.

We all keep a mental bad list, I suppose.  But these girls had an actual notebook with a page in it titled “Bad List.”  I never had that strike on my permanent record, but I made a total stranger’s bad list this week.

A friend and I went to dinner Monday evening.  Mondays in our tiny tourist town are often slow, so we wandered around a bit before finding a suitable place that was open.  The little restaurant had tables set up on the sidewalk, and since it was a beautiful evening, we asked a waiter if we could sit outside.

“Of course!” he said, pointing us toward the only empty table.

I walked over to our table and pulled out the heavy iron chair, accidentally bumping it against the empty chair of the table behind us.   I sat down, and as I scooted myself closer to the table, the feet of the chair screeched across the concrete.  I was just opening the menu when I heard someone say, “You woke my baby!”

I turned around to find that the woman seated alone at the table behind me was talking to me.  I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said you woke my baby.”  I looked at the chair I’d bumped, expecting to see a baby in a tiny carrier.  The chair was empty.  Completely confused, I looked up at the woman, and started to say, “What baby?”

She pointed under the table and said, “My dog was sound asleep, and you woke him up.”

My eyebrows might have shot up past my hairline.  And I might have rolled my eyes before I muttered a quick “Sorry?” and turned back to my menu.

The woman kept talking.  She said something along the lines of how people should be more careful, and then she began talking to her dog: “I know. That loud noise scared you. I’m sorry that woman woke you up, but it’s okay now.  You can go back to sleep.  Just close your eyes and go to sleep.”

And she wouldn’t shut up.  For the next ten or fifteen minutes, she talked nonstop to the little white mop of a dog sitting under her table about going to back sleep, but Rip Van Winkle himself couldn’t have slept through all that yapping.

She finally finished her dinner and asked the waiter for the check.  I noted with satisfaction the scrape of her chair on the concrete as she pushed back from the table.  And then I watched her walk away from the restaurant.  She had that dog on its back, cradling it to her breast like one would hold a baby.

I’ve been thinking about that woman all week. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but believe she has been deeply wounded by people she cared about, and normal interactions with people somehow pick at the scab.  You see, it’s okay to be crazy about dogs (cats, maybe not so much!), but you cross into crazy when you’re unable to have a relationship or even an intelligent conversation with another being who isn’t completely covered in fur.

My friend Martha was recently flying from Roanoke, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, and happened to witness the spectacle of a young woman attempting to get her “therapy bunny” through security without removing the rabbit from its cage.  When TSA inspectors insisted that she take the animal out of its cage or run it through the airport scanners, the girl pitched a fit.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of service and therapy animals.  My dog, Pancho, is a therapy dog who regularly visits the VA Nursing Home here in St. Augustine.  But I don’t think that people who use animals in place of human interaction are actually doing themselves any favors.  Animals don’t question us, and they will never look us right in the eye and say, “You’re as crazy as a shithouse mouse.”  People will, and most of us, I think, need that kind of feedback in our lives every once in a while. Relationships with people are the sandpaper that smoothes away our rough edges.

So even though I currently live with alone with a pair of defiant dachshunds and a three-legged Australian shepherd, I actively seek out human interaction.  Because I come from a line of people notorious for cutting people off, I occasionally need people to tell me when a confrontation is in order and when I should just let sleeping dogs lie.

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