The Dog Playground

by Lynda Schor


We, some of the gringos of San Miguel de Allende, meet in el jardín, the central square, to give our dogs a chance to play together, and to talk about getting municipal officials to set aside part of Parque Juárez, or a small piece of land somewhere in town, for a dog playground. Most of us have taken in and adopted strays from the SPA (Sociedad Protectora de Animales) or from SAMM (Save a Mexican Mutt). Our dogs are fortunate. They have been saved from living on the streets, often in small packs, searching for scraps of food, often nothing more than a tasty stain on the cobblestones, with no chance of affection—a life of dodging cars and cruel children. Most of the Mexicans of San Miguel aren't sentimental about their pets, and let their dogs run around town without the benefit of collars, identification, or grooming. We see dogs that walk on three feet, dogs whose ribs can be counted from ten feet away, dogs whose curly coats are filthy and matted. Those are the lucky ones. There's a class of dogs here—guard dogs, we think—that live solely on rooftops. They are never brought down into the house, taken for walks, or given affection. As you walk along the narrow streets you can see them, various breeds, patrolling the edges of the flat cement rooftops. If you have a dog with you, the rooftop dogs will bark loudly and frantically, running back and forth along the roof edge, practically jumping from their heights, their nails clinging to the concrete or stone roof edge, their muscular bodies seeming to be ready to leap down on us.

We gringos must seem odd to Mexicans as we walk through the streets, our dogs on leashes, us following, picking up their wastes with our hands inside colorful plastic bags saved from our trips to the supermarket. While walking our dogs, some of us carry canes or sticks to ward off the perros malos that try to engage our pampered pets in unwanted play, mock-fights, or sex. Having their dogs or cats neutered can be beyond their owners' financial capacities or their cultural habits—we're not sure which. Gringos and Mexicanos live here cheek by jowl, often knowing little about each other's culture.

We are a group of five, mostly seated in the sombra on the wrought-metal benches beneath the canopy-like mulberry trees whose rounded tops meet, letting our dogs play while we hang on to their leashes. While some might say that all of San Miguel is a dog park, we think it would be nice for our dogs to have a safe place to play while unleashed, getting their fill of exercise and social activities, and where we can talk without worrying about their annoying anyone or being annoyed. We are used to these amenities, and because most of us, those who ever worked, are now retired from our jobs as teachers, as psychoanalysts, as financial advisors, as commercial artists, we have the time, not only to improve the lives of San Miguel Mexicanos by way of all the charities we have instituted here (by teaching them English, for example, or by delivering sacks of food the needy in outlying villages), and to better our own lives and those of our beloved pets.

Though most of our dogs are mutts, we take pride in their unknown and mixed extractions. Our Natasha's papers, next to "Breed," say "French cross," so we assume, perhaps wrongly, that part of her is French poodle, white—and there are many of those here in this town. But also she looks something like a terrier, maybe a wheaten terrier, having a bit of orange along her back and mixed in her white tail fur (something like the hair of my husband, a redhead gone white), which sometimes looks pink in a certain light. We're letting her fur grow to see how long it will get. She was newly groomed when we adopted her from the gringo-begun organization Save A Mexican Mutt, her coat no more than half an inch long, except for a longer moustache framing her nose, and the long shock of fur cantilevering out over her eyes, like a canopy. Her long legs were so skinny she seemed to walk on tiptoe. Her eyes are round and nearly black. They match her round black nose in color and size. When you look closely into her eyes you can see that they have a sienna tone, especially in sunlight, and are protected by long orange eyelashes.

My husband and I spend a lot of time praising her. "What a wonderful coat she has," we say. "How bright she is. And how sweet." We speculate about her past. Tears come to our eyes when we picture her alone, dirty and tangled, hungry and frightened, dodging cars, and hiding from the early morning rocket cannonades that sound like the town in being bombarded by artillery, but indicate some kind of holiday or fiesta, or possibly a birth or upcoming marriage. We wonder why, even though she seems sweetly civilized, she will, on her walks, sneak garbage—a filthy, old chicken bone, a scrap of tortilla, a dried turd—gobbling it up fast before we can take it from her, or hiding it in her mouth until she's back in the house on her bed.

"She looks just like you," I say to my wheaten-haired husband. "She does." He smiles, proud. "She understands everything," we say, even though we are still working on housebreaking her, and carry with us pieces of chorizo to reward her with when she does her duty in the appropriate places.

Natasha loves both people and other dogs. She gets so excited when she sees another dog that she walks, at the end of her leash, on her hind legs. We are astounded, and often disgusted, at the dogs she wants to play with, but we love it that she's so friendly and playful. She has some regular friends on the block—Paco, a white poodle with one black eye bigger than the other white one, who sometimes plays too rough, and Rosita, a grey and white long-haired something-or-other. Natasha especially loves Shadow, a white poodle-Maltese mix that Gail calls a Malti-poo. Also a former street dog, Shadow still has trust issues ("fear-based aggression," says Tomas, the professional dog psychologist and trainer) and won't allow anyone to come near or touch him unless Gail is holding him. When she is, it's possible to stroke his soft white curls, his adorable snout. Shadow loves to play with Natasha too. We've arranged playdates for them, mostly at Gail's casa (or is it a casona, a mansion?) because she has a huge garden where the two dogs can chase each other around at a full run. I suspect they dig holes in that garden too, because when they come back to us for pats and hugs their snouts are covered with moist, dark dirt, and they look like babies that are feeding themselves with spoons for the first time. Gail's maid, Maria de la Luz, loves Natasha, whom she calls Tacha, and whom she'd like Gail to keep. She wants us to take Shadow because he nips at her pants and her apron and barks at her even though he's seen her every day since Gail adopted him over two months ago.

Also in the jardin with me and Natasha, and Gail and Shadow, is Mary Ellen, with her large black mutt Koji, Jean and her clever white poodle Koki (who may be part Maltese and who has hazel eyes) and Dianne, with her new Chihuahua/dachshund (we invent new mixed breeds names like Chihuahund and Dachshuahua) mix, who followed her home one day. She named him Chico. He is small, sleek and shiny black with just a minuscule white beard beneath his black lips. His eyes are dark too, with no lashes; it's almost impossible to see his features. He looks just like a Chihuahua but with everything—legs, body, snout—quite a bit longer than they should be. He's cute, though my husband says he looks a bit like a New York City rat. Though he'd never say that when Dianne's around.

My husband and I moved to San Miguel because we are writers. Both of us have taught at universities in the United States all our adult lives, but as former adjunct professors we didn't receive benefits like health care and pensions, so we are living on our small Social Security pensions, and can no longer afford to live in New York, our home. Though we have had children, and paid taxes all our adult lives in the States, we can no longer afford our rent, food, drugs or medical expenses and supplemental health plans. We are called "financial expatriates," and there are a number of us here in San Miguel.

San Miguel used to be a town artists flocked to. It was cheap, funky, and there were different values here than in the States. There were a couple of famous art schools that became accredited and accepted the GI Bill. Over the years artists were drawn to San Miguel, and the more adventurous ones moved here.

Currently, far more prevalent are the wealthy gringos who came for a short visit, fell in love with the place after one day, and spent the rest of their trip looking for huge casas, casonas, ranchos, or haciendas like the ones they saw belonging to other people. Imagine if you sold your property at the height of the US real estate bubble, how large an estate you could buy here in Mexico. Even though doing so created another real estate bubble here.

We expats stick together, the poor and the wealthy mixing easily, unlike in New York. We are all living in a foreign country. Most of us need to learn more Spanish. Most of us are better off than most of the Mexicans living around us. Most of us are writing or doing some sort of art. The wealthier ones, or those who have good pensions from well-paying careers, now have the freedom to write their memoirs, or to take sculpture or watercolor or paper-making classes. Hal and I, dedicated writers all our lives, are in the minority here.

"know someone on the city council," says Mary-Ellen, referring to the dog playground. Of course she would. She's also good friends with our US consular representative, Ed. They each have a huge mansion up in Colonia Atascadero.

"Would they be interested in doing something that would be mainly for gringos?" I ask. "Because very few Mexicans are going to be using a dog playground."

"Well, maybe they will after they see us using it for a while," says Jean, who rents a lovely terraced apartment in La Aldea, a gated community that has its own guard and its own garbage pick-up service, though its gate is always open and often, especially at night, unguarded. When the lights in town go out during a storm or because of an auto accident that has taken out a powerline, the lights there are among the first to come back on.

Natasha is out there, walking on her hind legs because I'm holding her back with her blue leash. She's desperate to play with Koki, Jean's long-legged white poodle, not much larger than Natasha. They like to scrap and tease each other. Natasha's always outgoing and is always in a good mood, while Shadow sits quietly, shyly, on the bench next to Gail. Natasha is by far more well-adjusted than my own children, who held back, fearfully, in the playground, needing constant reassurance from me before they could move away from my side—more like Shadow than like Natasha.

Alejandra comes running along with her pedigreed standard poodle. Estella, who is black, moves jauntily. Alejandra is an upper-class Mexican woman who has a casa here in San Miguel, but who most of the time lives in Mexico (as we call Mexico City down here). She's always complaining about her full-time maid and gardener and the decrepit condition of her huge estate on Calle Aldama, the size and richness of which put the rest of us gringos to shame. If she hadn't taken art classes with us gringos, we would never have gotten to know her. Fluent in both Spanish and English, she's very friendly and very talkative, so when she's in San Miguel we often include her in our little group. Or she includes us in our group.

"Are you having a meeting?" she asks. "I just can't get my maid to do things the way I tell her. I tell her 'wash the floor on Mondays, and use the vacuum cleaner on Tuesdays, and iron on Wednesdays.' I can't stand her cooking either," she says.

"Most of us don't have maids who cook," I say, " so don't complain." Our maid, Maria de Jesus, comes only once every two weeks. She cleans the entire apartment, but never cooks, never does laundry (we don't have a washing machine or dryer) and never uses a vacuum cleaner (which we don't have down here either). How she manages to get our rugs clean is a mystery. We suspect they aren't really very clean. She also uses an old-fashioned string mop—sponge mops are hard to find in San Miguel, and most of the maids, we've heard, wouldn't use them anyway. After she's gone home, we find dried strings, like worms deprived of water or soil, coiled around the legs of our furniture. We pay her the equivalent of twenty-five dollars a day for about nine hours of work. At first we thought we'd do our own cleaning, as we did in New York, but we are too old to keep our Mexican apartment clean. One friend told us, "In Mexico you either have a maid, or you are a maid." I think about that a lot.

"What would be the incentive for going along with a dog park?" asks Mary Ellen. She removes her linen jacket. We study her newly slender shape—she has been dieting for a few months—her pink shirt and her black slacks. She lets Koji go, but doesn't remove his leash, which drags behind him getting tangled with those of the other dogs.

I wonder whether she's referring to giving someone—the mayor, the city councilmen—a bribe. We've talked about how the previous mayor of San Miguel left office having given contracts to a Mega superstore, a Liverpool department store, a Wal-Mart, and a Starbucks. We've imagined the bribes he must have received. We gringos want to keep the town we live in quaint, as it was in the old days. We need to remind ourselves that many Mexicans want those stores and think of their arrival as both conveniences and signs of progress.

"We could offer to pay for it ourselves if we can have the small allotment of space," suggests Mary Ellen. She brushes some Koji-fur from her pants.

Koji sniffs Natasha's butt. This annoys Natasha, who tries to turn away. Koji is fixed, but he's always trying to hump other dogs, male or female. Natasha humps other dogs now and then too, even though she's female. But somehow that doesn't bother us. In fact, when she does it we think it's cute. We like to see our dog acting alpha.

"I'm sorry," Mary Ellen says to me. "He's still working out his dominance issues."

"It's because he's insecure," says Alejandra. Estella sits beside Alexandra like a queen. Natasha tries to get her attention by jumping up and down, and by biting Estella's neck, which she has to jump to reach.

"Don't do that," says Alejandra to Natasha. "No."

Estella growls. "She doesn't have much interest in playing with younger dogs anymore," says Alejandra.

I pour some water from a plastic bottle into a plastic bowl I carry in my plastic Mexican shopping bag with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe woven into it. Koki runs over to drink. I shove her away. "Here, Natasha," I say. "Tasha, toosha, toooshie-poo," I mumble, patting her while she drinks.

"Hey," says Jean, "there's enough for both of them. Don't shove Koki."

"We don't talk baby-talk to Shadow," says Gail. We want him to know we take him seriously."

Who's this "we" she's talking about? I say nothing. "Did you get that idea from Tomas, the trainer?" I ask.

Natasha begins to drink. "Oh, my darling, you were so thirsty," I say, patting her longish, semi-curly fur. She's not as soft as Koki or Shadow, but her unusual intelligence makes up for that. Koji, who is a large black hound-type dog, with white spotted feet, begins humping Natasha while she's trying to drink. I push him away.

"Hey," says Mary Ellen.

"Well then," I say, "if your dog is going to go around humping everyone, keep him back."

"Oh, let them play by themselves," says Dianne. "They'll be okay. They need to learn to solve their social problems themselves."

"Come here, Koji honey," says Mary Ellen, giving me a dirty look with her big blue eyes, which have had the benefit of a surgical lift.

Chico, the elongated Chihuahua, looks at me with his dark, old-man's eyes and tries to climb up into my lap, scratching my sweater and my jeans. "Ouch," I say. "Get down."

Natasha, jealous, leaves her water dish in order to bite one of Chico's skinny legs. He yips. He's got a horrible bark—ear-piercing—not elegant like Natasha's. Now they are both pulling with their nails on my clothing and my arm. I want to hit Chico with my purse, but pretend to like Chico while Dianne watches me. I pull Chico up on my lap. Natasha jumps up and down in a frenzy. Chico farts, soundlessly, creating a cloud of rotten air. This is a problem with him. He's the smallest dog here, but seems to be mostly a huge digestive system, with the largest poos and smelliest farts. I throw him down. Dianne hurries over, dropping her purse, the one with Frida Kahlo embossed on it.

"Poor baby," she says, picking him up and cuddling him. He closes his tiny brown eyes in ecstasy.

"Calm down," I tell Natasha, who is still jumping, and now panting, her long pink tongue the shape of an iris petal, hanging out the side of her open mouth. She immediately calms down, lying on her back on the filthy concrete under our bench. Can you imagine a dog so intelligent she understands the concept of calming down?

"Drink, honey," I tell her. "You are still thirsty." I try placing her blue bowl in front of her, but she's lost interest. Koki takes the entire bowl in her mouth and carries it away, the water dripping all over the filthy sidewalk. I run after her. Jean won't bother to.

"Hey, ladies," says Jean, as if nothing is happening with her dog, "let's get back to business." She runs her hand through her short blonde waves. "I have my massage therapy later today, then the gym, then my LifePath meditation class, then tennis, and then riding. Next month I'm going to try not to overschedule myself," she says.

"I'm thinking," says Mary Ellen, "of re-doing my floors. I don't like that polished concrete we chose. Robert wants white marble. Our architect is also in favor of the white marble. And our goddamn fountain is broken again."

"Do you think the property values here are going down? Have they been affected yet by the downturn in the States?" asks Gail.

Chico shits right near our feet, an amazing brown reptilian turd. "Good boy," Dianne says to Chico. We all look down, impressed. Dianne takes a plastic bag from her purse, turns it inside out and picks up the poo. She searches for a garbage can, of which there are few. Luckily there are some in the jardin.

These streets would be cleaner if they put out cans, we've often said. We don't want to call Mexicans dirty, but certainly the streets are filthy with corn cobs, plastic juice bags, chicken bones, pork bones, soda bottles and cans, sandwich wrappers—something we find hard to live with, but pretend we don't see.

I hand Natasha an old marrow bone that she likes. She's so amazing; she keeps all her toys and bones and soggy rawhide strips together on the orange rug under our desk. She takes it between her lovely white teeth, gently.

Koji jumps on her back. Chico grabs her marrow bone. I yell, "Keep your dogs under control," and bite Dianne's arm. Jean tries to pull me away. Koji, trying to get the bone, bites Natasha, and Natasha yelps. I extract my teeth from Dianne's bicep. My lips are dry from the crappy synthetic fabric of her blouse. I watch Natasha, poor little white Natasha, squirm, trying to get away from Koji's teeth, but Koji's got a strong grip. I give him a hard push, and then a kick, with my thick-soled Skechers sneaker.

Where is Mary Ellen? I hit Koji on his hard head with Natasha's food dish. He keeps Natasha's flank between his huge yellowish fangs. I look around, and slowly bend down, which isn't so easy any more. The waistband of my jeans presses into my expanding middle. I open my mouth as wide as I can, and sink my teeth hard into Koji's sun-warmed and hairy back.

His yelps are loud and high-pitched, but he lets go of Natasha, who cocks her head and looks me in the eyes, puzzled. Everyone is gathered around looking at me now, friends and dogs. But I've got my teeth into Koji, and I'm feeling the most pleasure I've felt in ages, and I can't let go.