In Part 1, I introduced you to the crappy problem we’ve been dealing with: people from a nearby apartment complex letting their dogs to take a dump in the alley behind our house and leaving it for someone else to clean up, and how that someone, under threat of being fined by the City of Phoenix, turned out to be me. Part 1 ended with me in the alley, shovel and pail in hand, considering how I was going to get out of the fecal-fest I found myself in.
There’s a certain social contract that has always existed among men. It’s one that’s so fundamental to the free and agreeable interactions of people that it’s rarely mentioned, but always assumed. It’s been a deeply embedded part of civil society for countless generations. It was so self-evident that Thomas Jefferson felt no need to even mention it in the Declaration of Independence, and so obvious that God Himself felt it would have been redundant to put it in the Ten Commandments. But if He had, it might have gone something like this: Thou shalt not alloweth thy dog to shitteth upon another man’s home, or even the alley behind his home.
Okay, I might have added that part about the alley.
The fact that so little has been committed to writing on the topic only added to my frustration as I contemplated how to respond to the small group of dog-owning apartment people who were using our alley as their own private pet poopery. I searched everywhere for some written shred of support I could wave in the face of the next person I caught back there, walking a dog that even gave the subtlest sniff that it was thinking about cranking one out. I was hoping Shakespeare might have addressed the issue, maybe in one of his minor historical works, or perhaps Dante had met someone who was guilty of breaking this sacred injunction in one of hell’s lowest circles; but no luck. All I found to show those reprehensible apartment people the error of their ways was one brief passage in the biblical book of Deuteronomy*, which says: “The man who permits his dog to unburden itself in a public place and stoops not to clean it while yet warm has defiled both himself and his dog. This man shall be unclean for three days, and must purify himself in the following manner, by bathing both himself and dog before even each day, and sprinkle with hyssop both himself and dog before even each day. On the third day, this man must also wash his dog with the ashes of a heifer, and make a sacrifice of one fourth of a ram, and a tenth part of an epaph of flour mingled with a hin of oil, so that both dog and man will be purified.”
*God bless Deuteronomy; they have a rule for everything, including one about not plowing with ox and ass together (Deut 22:10). Aside from revealing clear micromanagement issues, who among the ancient Israelites would’ve wanted to do such a thing? It seems obvious that if you yoke an ox and ass together you’ll end up plowing in a circle, either because of the ox’s superior strength, or the ass’s superior stubbornness.
While I think this passage clearly shows the seriousness with which the ancient Israelites viewed this kind of transgression, I had no idea what an epaph and hin were, let alone hyssop. I elected not to use it on the basis that it would require too much explanation to be effective in any conceivable alley situation.
Just how are you supposed to handle those who refuse to acknowledge one of the basic courtesies by which most of us live? I had already decided I wasn’t just going to roll over and accept being the neighborhood’s manure man, its feces facilitator, its poop patsy. But I also couldn’t just hold my nose and let nature take its course either, not with the constant threat of a fine from the city squatting over our heads.
Initially, I decided to try the straightforward, sensible approach. I would simply wait for the next opportunity to approach someone walking their dog in the alley, and ask them to clean up after their pet. People are reasonable, I told myself. If they know their behavior is causing a problem for someone else, they’ll rally. With this attitude in mind, I waited for my chance to discuss it with the next offender.
Fortunately, I had an easy way of knowing when that opportunity presented itself, even though we have a six-foot block wall fence that screens off the whole alley from our view. When she’s outside, our dog quickly reacts to anybody’s presence back there. She does this by racing from one side of the yard to the other, barking like mad, clawing at the gate, and leaping up to look over the fence. It’s far from being a subtle set of clues. So, I started leaving her outside more often than usual, and like a simple fisherman, just waited for the bobber to jerk.
It didn’t take long to get our first bite. Unfortunately, the first bite was almost literal, as our dog nearly ate a poor woman’s Pomeranian when I threw open the gate to confront the unseen suspect. Even after I got our dog back inside the yard, her crazed barking and constant scratching at the gate made such a racket that it was impossible to carry on a conversation, and I eventually had to let the shocked bitch hurry away, and the woman as well.
From then on, I had to wait for the signal from our dog, and then wrangle her squirming 80-pound mass into the house, which was no easy feat, close the door, get over to the gate, and then unlock and open it. The process was so time-consuming that the next few people were long gone by the time I made it out into the alley, even though the distance from the house to the alley is no more than fifteen feet.
But I did get lucky with my next opportunity. Our dog was still in the house when I heard one of the neighbor’s dogs start barking. I happened to have the keys with me for the gate, so I rushed over and undid the lock. Heaving open the gate, I saw a man slowly walking a dog in the direction of the apartments.
“Excuse me,” I called out. The man didn’t stop. “Excuse me,” I said again, moving towards them.
The man stopped, and turned around. “What is it?” The man was very large, tall and some might say even burly (I know I would); the dog was small, with a face full of fuzzy white whiskers, and a curly white coat that had big blotches of gray on it. The man regarded me with the cool, impassive look of a bouncer. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if he wasn’t a bouncer, he had missed his calling.
“Uh, hi,” I began. I looked at the dog again. It was at the straining at the end of its lead, sniffing at something farther down the way. Since I had no proof this dog was a currently depositing customer of the turd bank behind my house, I had to approach the issue gingerly. I feigned interest in the dog. “Hey, that’s a nice dog…” I said, bending over. The man just stared down at me, waiting. I straightened up. “I’m just going to be straight up with you. I’ve been having this problem with people walking their dogs back here, and not cleaning up after them when they…” I left the sentence incomplete, even though I couldn’t imagine such a big guy getting upset the way my mom did at a word like ‘crap’ or ‘poop.’
“So?” he eventually replied, unmoving.
“So, I was hoping that if your dog was one of the dogs that was, um…you know, that you could show some consideration, and pick up after him…or her. I can’t tell from here.”
“My dog doesn’t go back here. We’re just walking.” His face was still cool, but it was no longer impassive. He clearly wanted me to shut up, and go away. Unfortunately, that kind of reaction is almost guaranteed to trigger a particular kind of counter-reaction, one which takes over without regard for life or limb.
“Yeah, I understand. It’s just that sometimes dogs just have to go, you know? Answer Nature’s call?” Silence. “And sometimes that happens when they’re out for a walk.” More silence. “And I can’t help but notice that you don’t seem to be prepared for that kind of contingency.”
“So?” He turned to fully face me now, and I could tell that he was heated. I could also that this guy relied on the word ‘so’ to get out of problems the way firefighters relied on water.
“Look around. There’s dog crap all along my fence. If your dog takes a dump here, I have to clean it up. Otherwise, I get fined by the city.”
“So?” There’s that word again. Now I was getting mad.
“So, do you really think that’s fair?”
His voice now was stiff and measured. “I already told you, my dog doesn’t go back here, okay? End of story.” He turned, as if he were going to walk away.
“You know, you’re not supposed to even be back here. It says so in the North Glen Square neighborhood newsletter. I have a copy if you want to see it. It says the alleys are not for public use, and we’re supposed to call the cops if we see anyone back here. It’s trespassing.”
He turned back, and gave me an angry stare. “Who’s trespassing?”
“You, the dog, the poop; you’re all trespassing!” I said, throwing my hands in the air.
Feeling myself slipping into unfettered outrage, I took a deep breath and regained some measure of control. I continued. “Look, I don’t even care about that. If you walk your dog back here, clean up after it. That’s all I’m asking.”
“And I’ve already told you twice that my dog never poops back here…”
I looked down. “Really? Then what is he doing now?”
Sure enough, the dog was hunched over, looking up at us with a semi-embarrassed tilt of its head and dropping a sizable amount of organically-processed kibble on the ground.
I looked slowly, deliberately, from the dog to its owner. “You want some paper towels?” I offered.
Now his voice was fighting for control. “This is your fault. We wouldn’t have been here even, if you hadn’t stopped us with your stupid talking.” That might have been true, but it might also have been true that he was there just waiting for his dog to go. I was not about to let him off the hook.
“Are you saying you’re not going to clean it up?” I said, my eyes narrowing.
He fixed me with one flat stare. In that instant, it became clear that he didn’t care that his dog just crapped in the alley even though he told me three times that his dog never took a crap in the alley. He was lying, and now he didn’t care that I knew he was lying. His stony expression now was a single, blunt question asking me what I was going to do about it.
Not much, as it turned out. I wanted justice, but I wanted an intact face more. A disbelieving “Really?” was all I could muster in response.
The man jerked hard on the leash, and the dog, which hadn’t quite finished, skidded stiffly in the gravel. “C’mon, Buzz; let’s go.”
I watched them walk out of the alley and disappear under the carport of the neighboring apartments. My worst suspicions were confirmed. There was no Dog Shit Fairy or Shit Bunny in this man’s life. These people just didn’t care. I was madder than ever, and immediately began thinking of my next move. I needed to adjust my strategy to accommodate this new reality. People who would allow their dogs to crap wherever they want and not clean it up were capable of anything, and thus must be dealt with circumspectly.
I took to spying on the alley. Whenever our dog would start with the barking and the racing, I would climb stealthily up into my daughters’ jungle gym, which happened to be located directly behind the central downtown area of the thriving poopopolis our alley had become. From this vantage point, I had no trouble seeing people who were just passing through, or the dumpster divers who were poking through the large black trash bins stationed on the opposite side of the alley. But the people with dogs tended to stick close to our side, and our six-foot block wall fence screened them completely from view. That was frustrating, knowing that some dude’s dog might be taking a dump right under your nose, and you couldn’t even see it. I toyed with the idea of setting up some surveillance cameras, but I never really cared for the penitentiary look in home design, and besides, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount them high enough that they could surveil any more effectively than I could from the upper deck of the jungle gym.
Another approach was needed. Since the issue was not being able to see the area immediately beyond the wall, I set up a series of ladders and other objects like chairs and sturdy little tables that I positioned at regular intervals right up against the fence so that I could quickly step onto them, and look directly down on the other side. Then I waited for our dog’s next alarm. When it came, I charged out to the nearest lookout station, a large blue and white Coleman cooler. In my excitement, I practically vaulted over the wall, and almost received a spontaneous contribution to the poop pile from two kids I ambushed as they walking home from school. I felt bad about the kids, but every war has its innocent victims, and from my perspective, this was definitely a war of some kind.
I started bringing my camera and cell phone outside with me; I planned on taking pictures of offenders with the camera, and planned on using the cell phone to call 911 if those offenders reacted badly to me taking unauthorized snapshots of them with their crouching pooches. I had no idea what I thought I was going to do with the pictures; maybe print up flyers with a caption that read, “Do you recognize these assholes?” and post them on telephone poles in the neighborhood, or maybe I could start a Tumblr site called “Public pooping fetishists,” and hope for it to go viral. I just knew that I wanted to publicly shame these inconsiderate people for their irresponsible behavior. I never did take any pictures, though. Catching the dogs actually in the act was much easier said than done, and without that key moment captured, all you really have are cute, random photos of people out walking their rascally friends.
With each failed effort, my frustration level grew. Every time I had to go out into the alley and clean up after derelict dogs, I got angrier and angrier, and more and more set on revenge. I began to consider more direct ways of dealing with the problem, like placing some small land mines (the kind that blow up; not the ones that were already there), or installing some spring-loaded spear racks, like the kind that got that one guy in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was aware that my thoughts were taking a darker turn, and I had to regularly remind myself that it wasn’t the dogs’ fault, and that the blame lay entirely with the owners, those reprehensible apartment people. It wasn’t fair that they were allowed to let their dogs take a dump with perfect impunity, while the city forced me to be their personal pooper-scooper. And my efforts to catch them were driving me to a frenzy. It reached the point where every time I heard a sound, or even thought I did, I would drop whatever I was doing and scamper out to my post. Every time our dog would bark, I would be instantly on edge. It got to where any dog barking anywhere made me anxious and upset. I was home almost all the time, so there was no escaping it; I was on perpetual poop prevention patrol. My productivity in all respects was suffering because I was so hyper-vigilant about what might be happening at any given moment on the other side of that goddam block wall. I couldn’t stop myself thinking about it. I was constantly preoccupied with various strategies, of which the land mines and spear gates were among the most lenient.
Things went on like this for several months. One day, though, I was in the back yard, moving bags of garbage out by the gate, while simultaneously contemplating whether it would be cruel to put down a layer of cayenne pepper in the alley, how much I would need to get, and how late Costco was open. As I turned to go get the next bag of garbage, I was suddenly struck by a thought: Is this the person you really want to be? Does it make you happy to know that you’re obsessing over what’s going on in the alley every waking moment, and getting all twisted up whenever you hear a sound coming from the backyard? Do you really want this to dominate your life the way it is? Jumping every time there’s a noise out back? Cringing every time the dog barks? Do you like being this person?
Of course I didn’t. But if I didn’t fight it, the only other option I could see was to accept a permanent role as the ballast butler to these wayward whelps, and worse, their reprehensible owners. I can’t do it, I told myself. I won’t lower myself to clean up after fools like that. It would be degrading.
Would you rather things go on the way they have? You’re driving yourself crazy trying to control what other people are doing. You’re going to make yourself miserable over this thing which really isn’t that important in the bigger scheme of things, is it? Is this an example of the kind of person you want to be?
I thought about a future me, a bitter, crumpled up old man, watching out the front window for a chance to yell at the kid who dares step on my lawn, or throws a ball too close to the house, or stops to smell a flower. I didn’t want to be that guy. But still, cleaning up after those reprehensible apartment people’s dogs? It was anathema; I would rather die first. There had to be another way, didn’t there?
How much time have you wasted concocting these lunatic schemes, and chasing after every little sound? A lot, I had to admit. How much time does it actually take out of your week to clean up the alley? Actually? Three minutes. Maybe five. Is your pride really that much more important to you than your sense of happiness and well-being? Let it go. Let go of the anger and the resentment, and your need to feel superior. Let them all be as nothing. Let all the crap flow right through you…
I swear to God, if you say ‘Become one with the poop,’ I’m going to smack you.
I wasn’t. But in reality, cleaning up someone else’s dog shit is only degrading if you choose to see it that way. Why not think of it as a way of practicing humility, of choosing to serve those whom you think don’t deserve your respect? Wouldn’t that demonstrate great power, generosity of spirit, and self-discipline? Would that not be more aligned with the kind of person you want to be?
Damn you, I thought. This isn’t a fair fight. You know all my secrets.
That part of me, whatever it was, talked me into giving it a try. I returned the ladder and coolers and chairs back to their proper places, and stopped trying to calculate exactly how tall the posts would need to be for blanket video coverage of the alley. I stopped listening for, and caring about, the noises I heard, or didn’t hear, and I found that a good 90% of my stress and anxiety over what was going on in the alley disappeared almost instantly. And even during those five minutes once a week, shovel and pail in hand, I still felt mostly positive about the choice I made. Though I will admit, to this day, when I go to make my spicy grilled chicken, and I take out the giant Costco container of cayenne, I still pause to consider its efficacy at deterring doggie-doers before hesitantly returning it to its dark place in the cupboard. After all, I said ‘mostly positive.’
True, this zen thing is not easy. For one thing, I’m still having a hard time adapting to the phrase ‘non-reprehensible apartment people,’ which I am trying to incorporate into my thinking as a replacement for the other phrase.
But all in all, I have to say it beats the crap out of the alternative.