It all started with a Pit Bull puppy.
I was on the F Market train heading home from a meeting. Usually, I’m superglued to my iPhone. Miraculously, on this sunny San Francisco day, I wasn’t. Free of a device, my eyes landed on a fragile-looking man with a tangle of knotty dark-brown hair sitting across the aisle, slumped against the window. His was wearing a ripped T-shirt, dirt-streaked jeans, and a loose-fitting yellow rain slicker. Lost in his own reality, he was muttering gibberish at his reflection.
A few stops later, a young woman sporting multi-hued bangs, a laughing Buddha tattoo, and maroon Doc Martens boarded with her sturdy, sloppy-pawed Pit Bull puppy. She sat in front of me next to the aisle, situated the muzzled pup between her feet, wrapped the leash around her hand, and buried herself in a book.
The man turned away from the window and locked eyes with the pup. Undeterred by the muzzle, he repeatedly attempted to cross the aisle to greet him, but his owner maintained a tight rein on the leash, not wanting either of them to engage.
Realizing her dog was refusing to take no for an answer, she finally loosened her grip, letting the dog sprint across the aisle. He jumped on the man’s seat and fastened himself against his side, angling for a stroke.
The man cracked a smile. “Your Pit is really cute!” he gushed, gently patting his head as the pup tried unsuccessfully to lick the man’s face through the muzzle.
She peered up from her book.
“I used to have a Pit, too, when I lived in New York… grey with blue eyes… just like yours,” he reminisced.
She shifted slightly closer. “Oh, really?”
He was from upstate and had grown weary of the frigid winters. A San Francisco-based friend encouraged him to move to the Bay Area six years ago. He got a job, but was laid off shortly thereafter. He had been zigzagging in and out of employment and on the streets for nearly a year.
The dog rolled on his back, his tail wagging feverishly.
The man patted his chubby belly. “And what’s your puppy’s name?”
“Gus,” she replied.
He smiled. “Mine was Chester. I was planning on bringing him to San Francisco for an adventure, but he got cancer and I had to let him go. One of the hardest days of my life.”
He paused and his voice trailed off. “Such a champ. Only 7 years old…”
“I’m so sorry” she whispered, her voice thawing.
Gus rolled over and perched his head in the man’s lap.
“I’m actually from New York, too,” she volunteered.
The two enthusiastically swapped stories about their dogs and New York, but were soon interrupted by the train operator’s announcement.
“Oh, this is where I get off,” she said, gently pulling Gus off the seat. “It was really nice meeting you. C’mon Gus, gotta go…”
Gus lifted his head off the man’s lap, jumped off the seat, and followed behind as the pair made their way to the exit.
“Best of luck!” she said.
He waved and said, “See ya Gus!”
The homeless man then slumped back in his seat, stared blankly out the window, and reverted back to muttering incoherently.
When he got off at the final stop, which was mine, too, I walked behind him for several blocks. I wanted to tell him that I have a dog who I adore and that I was so sorry he lost his.
But he was still muttering. And I was not brave enough to start a conversation.
However, if my dog had been with me, I think he, like Gus, would have brokered a connection. And that for a fleeting moment, a life might be brightened.
Because that’s what dogs do.
About the author: Rachel Katz is a San Francisco-based spiritual director, human-animal bond researcher, and writer. She is also the founder of Besotted, a cozy Facebook community dedicated to the animals in our life and the depth of the human animal bond. In her spare time, Rachel can be spotted canoodling with her Labradoodle. Charlie, and certified therapy cat, Bodhi, as well as roaming the streets of San Francisco in search of urban adventures, great thrift finds, and anything shark related. Learn more about Rachel at theurbanspirit.com.