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I’ve come up with a solution to the homeless problem.
I’m not talking about the overall homeless problem in America, which is obviously tragic, and which saps the life and dignity from those swept up in it. I’m aware of how lucky I am, and I attempt with intermittent success not to take it for granted.
I’ve dealt with the macro homeless issue by donating to charities set up to deal with it. It’s impersonal, I know, but it makes me feel better, and I hope it’s doing some good.
The solution I’m referring to relates to the “Andy Carpenter encounters a homeless person on the street” dilemma. What I’ve come up with isn’t perfect, and it isn’t right for everyone. In fact, it’s earned me some scorn from people when they watch it in action.
Every time I run into a homeless person looking for money, I give him or her twenty dollars. I know the argument that they might not put it to good use, that they might use it to buy alcohol, or drugs, and that by giving them money I might only be exacerbating their problems. I understand that point of view and I respect it.
But these people are on the street, and they are cold, and I don’t need the money, and they do. So I give it to them. And if I’m doing a bad thing, then I accept the blame. It just feels like walking by and not helping is a worse thing.
But I occasionally run into a situation that, for me at least, is even more heartbreaking. And that is when the homeless person has a dog with him or her.
That is a killer, and that is what is happening now. I have just left my office on Van Houten Street in Paterson, New Jersey. Happily, I wasn’t there to do any work and I didn’t actually go into the office. I was simply there to drop off my rent check to Sofia Hernandez, who owns the fruit stand on the first floor. The reason I drop off the checks rather than mail them is that if I mail them I can’t pick up any delicious oranges.
In the one-block walk from the office to my car, I encounter a person on the street in front of a pawn shop. He is bundled up in a blanket, with probably all his possessions next to him in a plastic bag in a shopping cart. The poor guy is huddled against the unseasonably freezing cold air, and huddled with him is his dog. He or she seems to be a golden mix, only about forty pounds and cute as hell.
Tomorrow being Thanksgiving makes this situation even more upsetting. It’s my favorite holiday of the year, a day of gorging on great food and football. The fact that I will be in my recliner chair, stuffing my face and rooting for the Giants in the comfort of my nice warm living room, makes the fact that this guy will be spending it on the cold cement even more terrible and unfair.
I don’t know why the existence of the dog makes the situation so much more tragic to me; I suspect it reflects a flaw in my character. But I can’t help it.
Over time I have refined my response to this exact situation, and I execute it now. I give the man twenty dollars, and a PetSmart gift card for fifty dollars. I always carry a bunch of them in my wallet for this specific purpose. I keep the oranges for myself.
When I give the money and card to him, his response is, “Thank you for your generosity. I can assure you it is much appreciated and will be put to very good use.” He turns to the dog. “Isn’t that right, Zoey?” Zoey, for her part, has no comment to make on the matter.
What he has said is a bit jarring, and probably highlights another one of my character defects. I guess I expected him to grunt a quick thank you, but instead he spoke crisply and concisely, with a tone that I would more expect to hear at the Harvard Club than on the cement in front of a pawn shop. Which is not to say that I would be allowed into the Harvard Club; I’m sure their sophisticated bouncer would keep me from getting in the door.
So I just mutter a quick “you’re welcome” and go on my way.
I am Andy Carpenter, doer of good deeds.
Our Thanksgiving dinner is our last meal before Christmas.
That’s because my wife, Laurie, has a rather unconventional view of the Christmas holiday. She loves it so much that she has decreed that it will last from the end of the Thanksgiving meal until the end of January.
Repeatedly showing her the calendar has no effect. She thinks there are five seasons … winter, spring, summer, fall, and Christmas. I’m a fan of Christmas myself, but there is something a tad weird about waking up to a recording of “Jingle Bells” as we approach February.
But the dinner is fantastic, so I am not focusing on the length of the Christmas season right now. Laurie has made turkey, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and has introduced an absolute winner, a corn crème brûlée. She’s also made some healthy vegetable stuff, but since I wouldn’t eat it if you strapped me down and tried to force-feed me, I don’t ask what it is.
Afterward, during dessert, our son, Ricky, mentions something about Facebook. He’s not allowed on, since he’s under the thirteen-year age limit, but he set up accounts for Laurie and me a few weeks ago. He’s the only one among us that has any tech ability, so we relied on his expertise.
Unfortunately, in all that time I’ve accumulated a total of one Facebook friend, Laurie. So I rarely log in, since there’s nothing for me to do there.
It’s like coming home after being away for a week and finding no messages on my answering machine. Or like going to my high school prom with my sister, which I did not do simply because I am an only child.
It’s social media, but it makes me feel antisocial. Ricky said that the problem is that no one realizes I signed up, so what I have to do is “friend” people, which means asking them if they would be my friend.
I don’t think so.
Who begs for friends? What if they say no? Or what if they don’t even answer, leaving me to wonder if they never saw the request, or saw it and decided to ignore it? Maybe they would want to reject it, but thought I would feel bad, so they instead would leave me in Facebook purgatory.
Laurie is an entirely different case. I secretly looked at her profile the other day, and she has seventy-six friends. Seventy-six! I don’t think I know seventy-six people, even if you include those I nod to while I’m walking Tara and Sebastian.
Laurie asks me, “You enjoying being on Facebook?”
“Not really,” I say. “My social calendar is pretty full. If I stayed on Facebook all day, I’d never get anything done.”
“Dad only has one friend,” Ricky says. “You.”
Laurie shakes her head. “That’s so sad. You want me to ask some people to be your friend?”
The only bright side to all this is that I’m not on Twitter. “Must you humiliate me? Can we talk about something else?” I ask.
Laurie nods. “Sure. When do you want to get the Christmas tree?”
“Why do you want a Christmas tree?” I ask. Laurie knows that even though I’m fine with the idea of having a tree, the act of decorating it with the ten million lights and ornaments she always wants is torture.
“Tell him, Ricky,” she says.
He smiles. “Because it’s Christmas.”
I could mention that it is actually Thanksgiving, but I’d get nowhere. And since this conversation is not going well, I stand up and say, “Let’s watch television.”
I turn on the local news, since we are having dinner in that window between football games. I turn it on even though I know Laurie does not like the idea of it being on during family meals.
“Thanksgiving should be a time for human interaction,” she says. “For talking.”
“They talk on television,” I say, and in fact the news anchors are talking when they come on. “See?” Then, “Hey, that’s Ralph.”
They’re showing a photo of Ralph Brandenberger, the guy who runs the Passaic County Animal Shelter. I turn up the sound, and although we’ve missed the first half of the report, it appears that a homeless man with a dog was attacked last night. He fended off his assailant, and his dog apparently bit the guy as well.
Just before the segment ends, they cut to the homeless man talking to a reporter. He is saying, “I want my dog. Why won’t they let me have my dog?”
“I know that guy,” I say. “I saw him yesterday on the street near my office. I gave him money. And I gave him one of the PetSmart cards.”
“It was ten degrees yesterday,” Laurie says.
“What are you saying? I should have given him my coat?”
“He lives with his dog on the street?” Ricky asks, not fully understanding. “On the sidewalk?”
“Yes,” I say.
Laurie is quiet for a few moments, an intense look on her face. When she gets that look, it rarely ends well for me. “Let’s help him,” she says.
“Yeah, let’s help him!” Ricky agrees, strongly endorsing the idea. I’m having trouble remembering an idea of Laurie’s that Ricky has not strongly endorsed.
“We won’t know that until we start,” Laurie says. “But let’s try and get him what he needs. His dog back, for one thing. You should be able to do that. And then a place to stay, out of the cold.”
“You mean a house?” I ask. “A hotel room?”
“The apartment above the garage … maybe. We’ll see. But let’s get involved. Let’s do something for this man.”
“Yeah,” Ricky says. “Come on, Dad.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” If I want to put the brakes on this, I’m going to have to come up with much stronger statements than wimpy ones like that.
Laurie says, “That’s okay. I’m sure.”
Ricky nods. “Me too.”
“Other than the fact that you’re a terrific human being, why do you want to get involved in this?” I ask Laurie.
“Tell him, Ricky.”
Ricky smiles. “Because it’s Christmas.”
“I’m feeling terrible about this, Andy.”
I’m at the Passaic County Animal Shelter, talking to Ralph Brandenberger. Ralph’s a good guy and is especially caring about the animals. He does the best he can while being constantly overcrowded and underfunded.
“You talking about the dog from last night?” I say.
He nods. “Yeah, but there are rules, you know? And I might bend them sometimes, but this was on television.”
“Which rules are we talking about?”
“Well, for one thing, the dog bit the guy; she drew blood. And it’s on tape, for God’s sake. So I have to hold her for ten days.”
I hadn’t seen this on television—it must have been the part of the story that we missed—but Ralph tells me that somebody pulled up in a car, got out, and tried to mug the homeless man. Apparently, the assailant confused homeless with helpless, and this guy is far from helpless. He fought off the attacker, and the dog, Zoey, bit him as well.
A person that was either on the street or in an apartment above one of the stores must have heard or seen the commotion and called the police.
A video of the entire thing was captured by a security camera covering the front of the pawn shop. So Animal Control, in the person of Ralph, knows that the dog bit the guy. They have to hold her for ten days to make sure she doesn’t have rabies, even though the victim took off.
“What’s the protocol after that?”
“I’m checking into it, but I don’t think I can just give her back to the guy. He doesn’t have an address, which is required, and even if he did, the fees for retrieving a dog amount to almost three hundred bucks. There’s no way this guy can pay that.”
“Can you give the dog to me?”
“Sure. You’re a rescue group, so you’d be authorized to take her, as long as you held her for the ten days. Would you do that? It would be a big help and it would sure make me feel better.”
My friend Willie Miller and I run a rescue group called the Tara Foundation, which is what Ralph is referring to. Since we are a registered rescue operation, he is allowed to give us the dog.
“No problem, and I’ll pay the fee.”
“There’s one other thing, about the dog…”
“What is it?”
“Our vet checked her out. She’s pregnant.”
“That’s okay. We’ll take care of her and find homes for the puppies. Do you have any idea where the owner is?”
“Are you kidding? I thought you knew.”
“He’s here; he’s outside the dog’s run. He’s been here since we took in the dog.”
The runs in the shelter are half indoors, half outdoors, with a door separating them that stays open during the hours that the shelter is open. This way the dog can be inside or out, and the door can keep the dog inside in inclement weather.
Ralph points to the window, and I look through it. The homeless man is lying against the cage on the outside portion of the run, and the dog is up against the cage. It is among the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed.
“Why don’t you let him inside; they could hang out together in the adoption area? It’s cold out there.” There is a room where prospective adopters can meet the dogs they are interested in. It would seem to me that they’d be a lot warmer and more comfortable in there.
“I offered, but he didn’t want to,” Ralph says. “The guy’s a little weird.”
“What’s his name?”
“You know, I never thought to ask,” Ralph says. “I’m embarrassed to say that.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ralph. I’m going to talk to him, and I’ll be taking the dog. How much do I owe you?”
Ralph figures out the amount and I write him a check. Then I go outside to talk to the man, who is still lying next to the cage, reaching his hand through to gently pet the dog. It’s not that difficult, because the dog seems equally anxious to make the connection and is lying right up against the cage near him.
Copyright © 2018 by Tara Productions, Inc.