The Labrador Retriever puppy is not happy without his human family. That was the opening sentence in the book Diana and I had checked out of the Berkeley library to help us train our new two-month old puppy, Ubu. Little did we know it at the time but Ubu had his own ideas about “training” and they weren’t going to be found in any book.
I had been walking on the Berkeley campus the day before, and at the foot of Sproul Plaza, next to the “LESBIAN NON-SMOKING VEGTARIAN STALINISTS AGAINST THE WAR” table I saw a young woman seated, cradling a box of cute, black, furry puppies in her lap. I smiled at her, told her I thought the jury was pretty much in on Stalin but I might be willing to give him a second look if only for her sake. She smiled and pointed to the box of puppies and the hand written sign “free to non-Republican families.”
I shook my head sadly “no” and walked on thinking I would really love to have a dog but my parents won’t let me. And then I remembered. I don’t live with my parents anymore. I haven’t for about seven years. I live with a beautiful young woman, Diana Meehan, who I know loves dogs, cats, squirrels and oddly enough seems to love me although at this point in our relationship I’m probably after cats but before squirrels.
In about ten minutes, an excited Diana joined me on campus to help pick out our puppy. As we studied the box of puppies carefully we realized this was not going to be an easy choice. We met the mother, Frieda, a beautiful elegant canine. Father unknown but everyone suspected Rusty, a handsome roguish Labrador who lived off Telegraph Avenue and was tangentially connected to the physics department.
As we took each puppy out for a walk it became clear that we really wanted to take them all. Since our apartment didn’t allow any pets at all, it seemed the wiser course perhaps would be to just take one. And, it was clear that the one we liked best was this little guy who kept rubbing against our legs, almost like a cat and then looking up at us with those burnt-sugar eyes that said “take me home.” And,we did.
On the ride home Ubu sat in my lap as Diana drove. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Evidentially so was Ubu, who promptly peed all over me. Diana looked at me and smiled, “That means he likes you.”
Ubu was wickedly smart and his training proceeded at a rapid pace. He got “sit” and “stay” in one morning. He thought the idea of “lie down” was excessive since we already had “sit” and “stay” but he good-naturedly picked it up in an afternoon. At this rate we’d have to introduce Algebra and Geometry soon to keep him interested.
As far as being apart from his human family this was not a problem for Ubu because he never was. We took him everywhere. School, movies, restaurants. He had a unique ability to “get small.” And, when he would hear that command – (Ubu preferred to think of it as a suggestion) - he would slink quietly along the floor and when we got seated in the classroom, or the theatre, or the restaurant he would silently curl himself into a black furry ball and get under my chair.
Ubu carried a Frisbee in his mouth most of the time and was really a world class player. Diana had written on the inside, Ubu’s Frisbee and listed his telephone number, too. When we went to class together a lot of times he would walk me to the door and then go trotting off to find someone on campus to play Frisbee with him. He was direct, as are most Labradors and he would go up to someone he thought a likely candidate and drop his Frisbee at their feet or on two unfortunate occasions drop it on an art project and a senior thesis. Sometimes I’d be walking with him and we’d pass someone I didn’t know who’d say, “Hi Ubu,” and Ubu would smile back. “Who’s that?” I would ask. “Just a guy I play Frisbee with.”
Ubu was, what I would later hear described as a “lifetime dog.” As in once in your lifetime, if you’re lucky, you meet that dog who’s going to change your life. And Ubu changed mine.
I had always wanted to be a guy who had a dog. A big dog who was never on a leash but who would be controlled by – (Ubu preferred “respond appropriately to”) - affection and respect. I was trying to change myself from a city kid, sports-crazed and rigid, to a more laid back country boy. More mellow, more in touch with nature. And, being with Ubu and his energy put you in contact with those natural rhythms.
Ubu taught me to play. Just play. Not worry about winning and losing but making time and space disappear as I watched this creature totally immersed in every moment of his life. Never false. Fiercely loyal. Unabashedly affectionate and generous of spirit. Qualities I wanted in myself. Ubu always expected the best of me and I tried to live up to that reflection. He gave me confidence to be who I wanted to be. He taught me patience. He taught me to take time to smell the flowers. And, occasionally to piss on them.
One night a few years later when Diana and I were both working as waiters in L.A. I got a call at work from the LAPD Station on San Vicente off of Sunset Blvd. Ubu had somehow gotten out of our apartment and had gone out looking for us when a Good Samaritan saved him by pulling him off the street. And, they were holding them there.
I rushed out forgetting my wallet with my I.D. and when I went to pick up Ubu they wouldn’t release him to me. “How do we know he’s your dog?” The desk sergeant asked. At that point Ubu who was chained to a brick in the wall in the next room heard my voice and started howling. Then there was a crash and then the sound of a chain scraping the floor and then Ubu came out into the front room.
He had gotten so excited when he heard my voice that he’d literally ripped the brick out of the wall and was dragging it behind him as he came to me and knocked me over with kisses and hugs. The cop looked at us rolling around on the floor together each making high-pitched squeals of delight. “Okay, I believe you. He’s your dog.”
Yeah. And, I was his guy.