Dogs and the Man

 Dogs and the Man

In their groundbreaking book, Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs, authors Neil Plakcy and Sharon Sakson have interviewed subjects range from Edward Albee to Charles Bush along with twenty-three others. Below is an excerpt from their introduction to and interview with filmmaker Jonathan Caouette.

Jonathan Caouette is the groundbreaking filmmaker whose award-winning documentary, Tarnation, tore through critics' assumptions of what documentaries could be. There have been several dogs in Jonathan's life, as I learned when I spoke to him between his trips to Mexico, where he was screening his film.

I've loved dogs since I was about four years old. In general, my memories are tied to two things. A lot are tied to what music was on when a certain thing happened. I think a lot of people associate like that. But also, when a memory comes to me, I'll remember the dog I had then. They were always a poignant part of my life.

My first dog had two names, Sport and Christy. What name we called her depended on what kind of mood we were in. Sometimes she was Sport; sometimes she was Christy. She had come around during a time when there was a lot of tragedy going on in the family. The family circumstances were very bizarre.

My Mom had gotten very sick and had to go into the hospital. She suffers from severe bipolar disorder. Just before that happened, my mom got this dog from one of the neighbors. She was some kind of terrier, a dirty-golden color. I don't know if she was a purebred or not, but she was a beautiful dog. I have this great picture of her with me when I was about four years old. She's sitting with me, and I have my arm around her. I never wanted to go anywhere without her.

There was a lot of drama in our house. That's what happens when you have someone who's bipolar and schizoid. On those occasions, I would retreat into our backyard to my Slip 'n' Slide or swimming pool. We had this really great overgrown fig tree. I would hide in the fig tree with Christy and pull the branches over us.

I would sit alone with Sport and try to communicate with her psychically. I was trying to see if I could read her thoughts. I still do that every once in a while. You know, dogs are so hypersensitive to whistles and sounds. What would be so strange if they could actually, if not read your thoughts, read your body language? Even if it's just a subtle look in your eyes or a changing of your face?

I would be sitting and Sport/Christy would come up and look at me as if she was trying to tell me something. Or warn me about something, maybe. She would look me in the eye and I would get the sense of a thought, and I would sit still and try to understand what she wanted to say and then someone would call me. Or I'd hear my mother screaming. Or my grandparents would come over to me. And the moment would be broken. I never got the message.

My grandfather and grandmother were raising me. My grandmother had a hysterectomy and took a long time to recover. My grandfather had to work to pay the bills, so there was nobody available to take care of me. Children's Protective Services got word of that and yanked me out of the home. I had to go into the foster-home system.

When I remember Sport/Christy, it seems to me that she represented the last vestige of normal family life. I was four, almost five. When the foster home happened, I never saw Sport/Christy again. It was devastating. I'll always remember her. She was an amazing animal. After her, stuffed animals had to take over for a while.

I was in the foster-home system for two years. It was a very brutal time. I was beaten and starved, and went through a lot of abuse. There were no dogs in my life during those two years. Finally, my grandparents got legal custody of me when I was seven.

What I really wanted then was to have a normal family. And to me a normal family would include a dog. I would have these conversations with my grandmother and tell her I was getting a dog. There was never a yea or nay response. I was one of those people who would stop along the side of a street when I saw an animal, and whether it had a tag on or not, I would kidnap it. Now I know that was a horrible thing to do. But I was so desperate for a dog's company. There were a couple instances where I grabbed a tagged dog that probably belonged to someone in the neighborhood, took it home with me, and fed it for a couple days. Sometimes the dog lasted a week. Sometimes it lasted a month. But my grandmother would call the pound to come pick up the dog, and I would come home, and the dog would be gone. I hope my grandparents didn't call the pound on any of those tagged dogs. Hopefully they just opened the door and let it find its way home.

If I ever asked my grandmother what happened to a dog, she would always pass it off as He (or she) just disappeared. I just came in the house and the dog wasn't there.

I was careful with these dogs. I fed them, and walked them, and slept in bed with them, and when I left for school, I always made sure the dog was locked up safe in my bedroom. There was no way the dog would have gotten out on its own. Every day when I left for school, I would pray and hope that the dog would be home when I got back.

I went through many dogs that way. Probably ten during my childhood years. I got a Chow, around the time that I accidentally knocked three of my teeth out roller-skating in the swimming pool around the corner from my house. That Chow lasted about a
week. A mutt or two or three thrown in the mix. I got a precious little poodle when I was nineteen that was in the house for about a week and a half.

When I was ten, I had a dog named Boomer, after the TV show, Here's Boomer, about this cute little stray that traveled the country helping people with their problems. My Boomer was amazing. He would follow me everywhere. We met when I walked to our local park in the suburb of Houston where I grew up, and he followed me home. After that, he followed me everywhere. There was never a need for a leash.

It was very European of us. I love how, in Europe and Mexico and all these other places that I've been, these dogs can be so cool about walking in these big, urban areas with all these buses and cars and pedestrians going by, and they're right by their master.

What I really wanted, during those formative years, was to experience having a puppy, raising it and keeping it for a long period of time. But I never got that, because of my crazy grandmother. On many levels, the animals seemed saner than what was going on in my house. It was the stability factor that I got just by being with a dog in one room, the two of us, hugging each other in our own little world where there was no crazy family and no troubles.

I got so much affection from those dogs. I always let the dog lick me without making a face. I loved to let the dogs lick me on my cheeks, on my nose, on my lips, everywhere. They slept on my bed (and they still do now).

After the poodle at nineteen, I wised up. I left my grandparents' home when I was twenty-three, and there were no animals until I was twenty-four, living in New York City, with my own place. That was the first time that I got to have my own dog and have it stay with me.

My partner, David, initiated us getting what we thought for a long time was an Argentine Dogo by the name of Shiny. We've since learned that she's a mix of something, maybe half pit bull and half Dogo.

David is from Colombia. One day he got a frantic phone call from a friend of a friend from Bogot. They were living in an apartment in New York temporarily, and had all of these puppies with them. Shiny had been born in Colombia and then flown to Miami and then flown to New York. This poor dog must have been so traumatized just by the air travel! Shiny was about six months old. It was the summer of '97.

All those puppies were beautiful, but Shiny made the most eye contact. And she seemed like the scapegoat. I think David and I empathized with that. There was something very heartwrenching about her, something that made her very special. The other ones seemed really macho. She's white with black freckles all over.

She was the icing on the cake of the relationship between David and me. With her here, it was obvious that what we had was something definitely along the lines of a marriage. It felt very official. That echoes what I was looking for as a kid. We've had Shiny for almost as long as we've been together, almost ten years. So we sort of measure our relationship by how old Shiny is.

In my film, there's a real transition when David and I got this apartment and made a family for ourselves. We lived in this wonderful railroad apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Shiny adjusted immediately. The only problem was that she chewed the hell out of everything. We had so much wonderful furniture, and she just destroyed it all. After a while, I was angry and frustrated but had succumbed to a kind of complacency about it. I collected books and CDs, and she destroyed tons of them. I had to let go and let the universe be what it was. She's trained at this point, to a certain extent. She's out of her chewing stage.

In my early twenties, I was working in a hair salon in SoHo as a receptionist and occasional shampoo boy during the day. Shiney was still a puppy. I walked her around. I think it's cool to see the way people will interact with you if you're walking a dog. I don't think you should get a dog exclusively for this reason, but it's a really cool thing, the way dogs connect people. People say hello to the dog, and want to stop and pet the dog, and they just start talking to you. I enjoyed that.

One day I had to take Shiny to the Humane Society clinic. I hadn't been in New York very long, let alone with a dog, so I didn't know all the rules. At 14th Street, I had to transfer from the N to the R train, so I was standing on the platform when this big walrus of a policeman walked up to me and said, What's wrong with you? Why do you have this dog here? Is it a Seeing Eye dog?

I said, No, I'm just taking her to get her shots.

He said, Come with me.

We followed him down the platform to an office. I thought maybe he wanted to show her to somebody. He went in the office and came out and handed me this ticket. It was expensive! Three hundred dollars!

I said, I had no idea it was illegal to take a dog on the subway.

Isn't that terrible? It's ridiculous. We had a muzzle on her and were very careful with her. You would think in a city like New York it wouldn't be a big deal to take your dog on the subway. I was in Mexico City last week, sitting in a cafe where they were serving food, and three stray dogs walked in. They have a lot of homeless dogs there. I don't know if this is a cultural thing, or a Latino thing, but left and right, people were embracing the dogs, petting them, without any fear. I thought, This would never happen in New York.
Just after I got the ticket, I took Shiny on the subway to get home. Just before we got off at our stop in Brooklyn, Shiny peed in the subway car. She'd never, ever done anything like that before. The subway doors opened, and just before we walked off, she peed like mad. It was her way of saying, Fuck you! to the system.

Then Shiny had thirteen babies. We had moved to our third apartment at that point, so Shiny was about three years old. We mated her with a pit bull. David ended up walking around the neighborhood and passing the puppies out from a basket. It got to that level because we couldn't give them away and we didn't get any buyers from an ad. When they hear the words pit bull, people tend to run and hide. We kept one of her puppies, and named him Miel, Spanish for honey. Unfortunately about two and a half years ago, David was walking here in Astoria with Miel very late at night down a one-way street toward a park. A car with a drunk driver zipped around the corner and came down the street, the wrong way, at lightspeed. Miel wanted to protect David. Just as the car came roaring down on them, Miel jumped out in front of the car. The car killed Miel. We came to the conclusion that Miel saved David's life. That was a really sad time for us.

When something like that happens, it changes your whole perception of how amazing these animals are. I don't understand people who won't let dogs on their couch and on their beds. It almost feels like, Why do you have a dog? Our dogs are absolutely members of the family. We have a car, and we take them everywhere.

Something has paid off recently from what happened in my childhood. I just recently converged my entire family under one roof. So I'm at the point where I'm taking care of everyone. My mother and my grandfather. We all live in Astoria now, and we have two dogs and three cats. Kind of a full house.

Besides Shiny, our other dog is Lucy. David and I found her by the side of the road in Pasadena, Texas. A guy was selling her for sixty dollars. She's a beautiful terrier mutt. Terriers are kind of a unique subdivision within dogs, and if they're not disciplined, they can be nuts. Lucy sort of looks like Sport/Christy. She reminds me of her, and how close I was to her. And then, the other day, my grandfather out of nowhere told me that the dog was trying to tell him something. He has never said anything like that in his life before. He thought Lucy had something to tell him, but he didn't know what it was. So he's basically saying the same thing that I said about my terrier when I was four. I thought that was really interesting.

But I can't take him back in time and get him to change the way things were. All I can do is try to make things work now, with my family and my dogs.

From Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs. 2006, Sharon Sakson and Neil Plakcy. Reprinted courtesy of Alyson Books.