Street Eyes

A man’s best friend?


            I usually didn't let people come into the bar with animals -- considering the disease and how easily it got transmitted around, especially through unprotected vermin. I told the dude as much, but the dog didn't look threatening, or ill, and with the rotten weather outside, I figured to cut the son-of-a-bitch a break.

            He didn't look mean either, an unusual feature for this neighborhood that stirred up my curiosity and drew some questioning glances from my clientele, all of them wondering if maybe there was a story behind all this.

            The dude told the dog to sit, then pulled himself up onto one of the stools at the bar. He was a little too clean cut for my kind of place, something that hinted of the protected life, yet didn't look like an Insider, nor had the bad attitude I got from spoiled kids raised behind the walls of one neighborhood or the other.

            But he did have cash, new bills, from the reissue that no Outsider saw short of wealthy merchant -- and putting that bill down on the bar drew more eyes than I ever wanted looking at me, and manufacturer more mugging schemes that anyone like this fellow would ever survive.

            In my business, however, you don't ask questions. You take the money, you give him his beer, and you let him face his own fate once he's back on the street.

            He must have read some of my thoughts on my face, chuckling as he sipped his beer.

            "You worried about me, mister?" he asked.

            "I don't worry about anybody," I said. "But I do question some people's habits -- and yours seem particularly self destructive, if you ask me."

            The man grinned, lifted his glass to salute me, then finished the beer and nodded for me.

            "I guess I had that coming," he said.

            "You've got a lot more coming once you're out of here," I said, glancing around at the bar full of vultures, each watching the man's every move, waiting to rise up when he did to follow him out. "Unless, of course, you got body amour I can't see."

            "No amour, no shield," the man said. "Only my dog."

            I glanced down at the beast -- though beast was the wrong word. The dog hardly resembled any of the packs of wild dogs that roamed the streets at night, nor any of the more refined breeds used by the wall guards in their patrols. I'd seen pictures of house dogs from the old days, when people could still afford to have them outside the neighborhood walls, and this beast looked as much like one of those pictures as I could make out.

            "Maybe the dog as body armor?" I said.

            "No," he said. "He's just a dog. But I take him with me when I can."

            "You must be a regular animal lover," I said, meaning something else that amounted to "crazy," but in this business, you don't insult the help either.

            "No, I love animals nor hate them," the man said. "But out here in the Outlands, you need something to keep the bikers and the bullies off your back. A bark through the door when someone knocks, and those bastards outside know you're not totally helpless."

            "I hear some neighborhoods keep whole kennels of dogs, hungry dogs to let loose in case the walls get breached or some wandering gypsy manages to get inside with a gun," said Mario, one of my regular patrons -- a disability man who had lost one arm, part of one leg and his right eye to the wars in L.A."

            "How those folks managed to feed the beasts in times like these, I can't imagine," I said. "It's hard enough putting meat on the family table, let alone some in the dog dish, too."

            "That's what I thought when my kids brought this beast home," the clean cut man said. "No point in feeding something we didn't need. I didn't even see a point of insiders owning a dog when they paid hard cash for wall guards. Out here, without walls or guns, dogs made more sense, an extra pair of growling teeth to keep the human kind of beasts away.

            "But seeing the mutt lick the faces of my giggling kids, didn't inspire a great deal of confidence either. This was the beast that would keep the creeps from kicking down our door? He looked about as mean slug and nearly as greasy, looking at me with that sly sideward stare, knowing I couldn't refuse my kids if they had their hearts set on keeping him.

            "`Where did you get him?' I asked, imagining just what kind of disease the dog brought home with him, his ratty coat needing a few weeks soaking in the tub to get the oil stains out. I figured he'd hidden under a car somewhere to keep the roving street kids from cooking him up for beef.

            "`We just found him, Dad,' the kids said. `Can we keep him, huh? Can we, please? Can we?'

            "You know the routine. We've all heard our kids ranting the same way, whenever they see something they want, whether its the fancy and expensive three-D reality games they see at the toy stores in the mall, or the fashionable, non-bullet-proof sports wear they see the stars wearing on TV. In those cases, it's easy to say no. With my salary at the power plant, I'm lucky to pay rent, let alone putting out the kind of money stores want for that stuff, money many of the Insiders have, but we don't.

            "But the ranting had a more desperate pitch when it came to the dog. After all, I couldn't prove our inability to feed the creature as easy I could by pointing to a price tag. The expense of feeding and caring came over time, paying for the beast on the installment plan rather than cash up front. All the kids saw was the initial investment, and it seemed reasonable, especially considering the emotional reward.

            "I guess this last thing convinced me to take it in. How can you deny a kid a thing so small with a world so vicious around them. I mean things have changed since I went to school. The most I had to worry about was crossing a busy street. They have to worry about muggings and rape, not only on the way to school, but in school, fearing the guards, teachers and maintenance crew nearly as much as the other students. You never knew what would set a man off. Two days ago, a teacher from a Chicago school reacted to razzing from one gang of kids, and took their heads off -- one at a time -- with a machete.

            "I try to provide the kids with those necessary things to assure their safety, bullet proof vests and shields, miniature mace projectors, and in the case of my eldest daughter, an anti-rape system complete with alarm, poison darts, and a complete body shield. But in the rat race, you often leave out those psychological things that make kids happy like three d-video games or fancy clothing, or in this case, something as simple as a dog.

            "`Okay,' I said, thinking about how the dog might walk the kids to and from school or my wife to the store, or even me from time to time to work. I suppose I could have bought a gun. I had hundreds of offers weekly. But the whole issue scared me. People who carried guns in this Outland called attention to themselves, making themselves targets for the wandering spike-haired gangs or the overly aggressive wall guards shooting before they think, or even for the variety of police patrols that float through the crumbling streets in armored vehicles, often questioning the reason you believed you needed a weapon when you could always call on the police. (As if the two hour wait after a 911 call was a reasonable response time.)

            "But as I said the dog looked ratty. I didn't find the creature repulsive the way I did many of the beasts that scrambled in and out of the buildings around us. In the city Outlands, people mostly worry about mice and rats, out where I live, in what once might have been called the suburbs, we got everything from moose to water moccasins, a thriving wild life as dangerous as it is diverse, some of the creatures driven crazy by the nearly nightly gang hunts, gun blasting the landscape from dusk till dawn, wounding as often as killing, making some of these beast wary and wise and likely to attack without provocation, though in most instances, the creatures that crawl up from abandoned sewers and basements looked more pathetic than pathological, sad, scummy creatures hunting food.

            "The dog, while dirty, was not disgusting. Someone had taken care of him at some distant time in the past, letting him loose in a gesture of kindness when many Outland homeowners killed them for meat. His coat, was greasy, however, I could have squeeze out of court of oil from it.

            "`First thing is we clean him up,' I told the kids. `Then we'll figure out how to get him to the vet.'

            "From the sour look the pooch gave me as the kids led him away, you would have thought I'd ordered his execution. Indeed, he let out such a fuss from the bathtub that I turned up the radio to keep the neighbors from calling the police. The struggle sounded more we were murdering something than trying to make it presentable. Yet after the accusing stares and the nearly constant howling, the dog looked little better when he was done. Wetted down, he looked more like a large rat than anything I thought might keep the burglars and rapists away.

            "`Maybe he could use with a little grooming, too,' I said as I picked up the telephone and discovered it still had a dial tone. Most days the phones died just before noon, and did not come alive again until near morning -- repair crews tracing down the latest break, usually as the result of a bombing or a firefight near one of the neighborhood walls, the desperado’s always making the mistake in believing that the Insiders depended upon service from outside. Most did not. Most had their own electric generators and used cellular phone systems. Only the Outlands depended upon anything so conventional as copper wire.

            "Getting a veterinarian, however, proved far less simple. Most had gone out of business or taken up whole Insider neighborhoods as clients, signing a contract that sent them to this walled citadel or that once or twice a month. Outsiders with pets were such a rare species that a vet could starve depending upon them for business. After about a dozen phone calls, I found one vet willing to look at the dog and give him shots, but at such an exorbitant fee that a three-D video game would have seemed a bargain.

            "`The license is extra,' the vet said when I finally got the pooch to his office, my stationwagon overheating from a huge detour, sewer and water lines exploding along our chosen route in the same mistaken belief that the Glen Ridge walled neighborhood used them. We had to circle the city to get around the punctures, and the road blocks, and the exacerbated gangs smashing car windows to vent their added frustration.

            "`Okay,' I said, cursing my kids and the increased regulations that would double the cost of the dog before the beast even settled in. `I can understand that.'

            "`And you have to go to the county building to fill out the forms.'

            "`The county building? Are you crazy? That's a war zone down there. Can't you fax it in or something?'

            "The vet shook his head as he plunged the needle into the dog, drawing a slight yelp, but no violent reprisal.

            "`They have to have the original downtown. It's the gangs. They've been training packs of pit bulls. God knows why? Do they think the dogs can storm the walls any better than they can themselves?'

            "So we took the drive downtown, over the pitted roadways left by the metal tracts of the police tanks and armored vehicles, the park across from the county building still smoldering from the latest clash between gangs and police. I left the kids and the dog in the stationwagon, confident that the steel plates and commercial grade bullet proof glass would keep them safer than the halls of the county seat, where TV reported at least one death a day to machine gun fire and small explosives.

            "Even in broad daylight, the place scared me, the two dozen steps up to its columnar facade, thick with concrete barriers, and mounted machine guns, and police swat teams in full combat armor, perched behind firing posts, squinting at me through their thick plastic face protectors, the snouts of their heavy caliber weapons moving with me as I climbed.

            "For a dog, I was doing this, I thought as I reached the top, and faced another small army of well-armed men and women, each of them glaring at me as two more lightly armed clerk type cops frisked me then asked me for identification. Even they disbelieved me when I told them I'd come to get a dog license, eyeing me as if I needed serious psychological attention. But they let me pass, letting some other bureaucrat inside worry about me.

            "Several searches, banks of metal detectors and bands of security guards later, I finally reached the deck which could issue me the license. Unfortunately, they wanted to know more than I could tell them, about blood type and family history, and what kind of training the dog had had. Had it or any of its sires served as attack dogs for the army.

            "`How the hell am I supposed to know,' I yelled in frustration. `I found the dog on the street.'

            "I don't know why they gave me the license, but they did, perhaps only to get rid of me and my outrageous screeching protests over their insistence on registering a dog more thoroughly than a pistol. I could have bought a rocket launcher with less trouble, and launched it with less suspicious stares. Something registered in their eyes when I said this, making them stamp my papers and shoo me away.

            "When I got back to the car, I found it surrounded by blue and purple haired motorcycle freaks, their gang distinguished from the hundred other local gangs merely by the fact they rode motorcycles rather than Jeeps or ambulances or Wells Fargo-style armored cars. Their faces had the same dread expressions I encountered daily on my way to and from work, almost bored in their attempts to be outrageous, like workers on an assembly plant seeking some new and original way to get their kicks. Each held a gun. Each grinned in at my kids like a savage. But each kept from hammering at the glass or twisting open the metal by a set of snarling teeth on the other side, furious teeth that seemed determined to set themselves on the gang member's throats.

            "Oddly enough, the gang parted as I walked up to the car, each glaring at me, as I drew the ordinary metal key from my pocket and inserted it into the ordinary lock, backing away from me when the lock clicked and the door opened and the howling of teeth snarled at the crack seeking blood.

            "`Hey man,' one particularly ugly gang member said with green spike eyebrows to match his green spiked hair. `That your dog?'

            "`Yes,' I said, staring at the man. `Why?'

            "`That's a dangerous beast, man. You shouldn't go around driving with a beast like that. Somebody could get hurt.'

            "`I know,' I said, with a grin nearly as nasty as the dogs. I slid into the driver's seat, pushing the beast back with the heal of my hand. No teeth touched me. Then, closing and locking the door again, I started the engine, continuing my grin to match the grin the dog gave the intruders, no longer begrudging the beast his share of the food, no longer thinking the trip here wasted.

            "I wiggled my fingers and drove away, our newest family member howling up a storm."

            The man reached down and patted the head of the patient dog. Everybody in the bar stared at the dog, including me. And when the man drained his drink and made his way towards the door, the dog padded along behind him. No one else in the room made a move to follow, though a heavy sigh of relief sounded when the door closed and the man with his dog was gone.






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