We have “a guy” on our street—the unofficial mayor of the block. He hosts parties on his porch where they blast music and gossip all night, drinking red punch out of red plastic cups. He’s a shorter guy, not too tough in stature. But he commands the crowd. I wondered how they all know each other; how this one neighbor got to be king of the ring.
When I was a newcomer to the block, I would walk by, hopefully, looking for someone to wave me in and pour me a glass. That didn’t happen. It was hard adjusting to neighborly distrust in my new city. I grew up in a small town where “Ride Your Tractor to School Day” was actually a thing. I lived with my family on five acres carved out by cottonwood trees and woods thick with pine. We only saw our neighbors when we passed them on our long-winding country road, and there’s a rule about that: You gotta wave. When I moved to Chicago nine years ago, I quickly learned that the waving rule does not apply here. If you approach someone, they assume you’re selling, scamming, or suburban.
I like to think I’ve assimilated to the city culture in a lot of ways. I don’t look like a scared woodland creature when I take the CTA anymore. If you give me an address I can tell you where it hits on the Chicago grid. I know to treat every parking sign like an air-tight contract, and if broken, punishable by the death of my bank account. And I began to adjust to life in my neighborhood, recognizing familiar sights, like the “mayor,” and his red cup club.
I came to walk by him many times each week. Occasionally, I’d muster the courage for a quick smile and nod as I passed the makeshift party. I’d see the man, with his black hair slicked back exposing a wide forehead over kind, welcoming eyes. In the summer, he always wore a button-up printed shirt over shorts. The kids on our street look up to him, and soon, I found that I did, too. I wanted him to like me, to accept me as part of the neighborhood. I couldn’t get used to passing human beings on the street without acknowledging their existence. I couldn’t stomach the sinking feeling of isolation that came afterward.
I was a newcomer. They didn’t trust me yet. But the day I got my dog Zelda, all of that changed.
Back then, Zelda was so small that running through the grass looked like a hurdling race. About six times a day, I’d snap on her pink leash and take her out to the grass. That’s when the waving rule came back into play. The little girls across the street would rush over to see her prance around. My neighbors on the right would hear the commotion and get their little chihuahua, King, to join her. As Zelda grew, everyone would comment on how much she’d grown, how she was losing her little puppy face, and how beautiful she still was. It felt like we were raising her together. I felt like we shared something.
Zelda is lighter and fluffier than your average golden retriever. When we’re out on walks together, we stick out like the poster children of “dogs who look like their owners.” We both have white blonde hair, we both smile a lot, and we both love to meet new people but we’re just a little bit shy.
With Zelda as my sidekick, I grew bold enough to break the silence. It even seems like there’s a special code among dog owners that if the dogs want to meet—you’ve gotta stop and talk. We always start with the usuals: “What kind of dog is she?” “How old?” The exchange of compliments. I’ve got the script down to a T. But the best part is when the conversation goes a step further. We stop talking about the dogs and get to know each other.
The guy at the end of my block—the mayor? One day, he had a huge, white, shaved-to-the-skin dog by his side. This was my chance. As Zelda and I approached, he told me not to worry, the dog was just shaved because he had fleas. I laughed, with equal parts relief and concern. He told me how he’s had this dog since he got married, but that two years ago, they were blessed with a son and they had to put the dog up for adoption. Last week, the dog came back. He’d run away and miraculously found his way home. He was (happily) stuck with him now. We talked for almost an hour that night, and in the days following, talked every day after we got home for work.
The more often our dogs met, the more I learned about his life, and him, mine. He told me that his son had Down Syndrome and that his wife was off work on disability. They were making ends meet with his junk removal business but it wasn’t easy. As we talked, the dogs would chase in circles around each other. We’d meet in the park so they could play ball together. There were no hurt feelings when it was time to go—the dogs are tired, see you tomorrow. It sounds like a typical friendship of neighbors, but to me, it was more than that. I had a friend, an ally in my neighborhood. I, with the help of Zelda, was part of the club.
Being a pet owner provides us a social lubricant—the pressure is off to be the source of entertainment. We share secrets on the best doggy daycares and groomers. We make fun of ourselves for buying collars for our dogs that represent our interests. Our pets are an extension of our identity, and we can share ourselves in a more overt, and more unique way with them by our sides. As urban dwellers, we need that. Studies show that especially single people and those without kids experience great physical and mental health benefits because of their dogs. We’re less likely to suffer from depression and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol. We live more active lives. And our basic human need for affection is fulfilled, making us calmer.
Some employers are taking that to heart and making sure their offices are dog-friendly. There’s even a group out there advocating to allow for one week of “Paw-ternity” leave for new pet owners. It sounds eyeroll-worthy to those who have raised human children but the idea is that new pets require extra love and attention their first few days in a new home and potty training doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a bit indulgent. But I get it. Pets become an extension of the family. We want to love them right.
In Chicago, we’re divided by more than just our neighborhood lines. You can’t just plant yourself in a community and expect your neighbors to come over with a basket of muffins. I learned that in my own way. Can our pets shield us from the loneliness of living in the city? Of course not. But when I’m home on a Tuesday night, browsing Facebook and thinking everyone’s out there living like The Great Gatsby while I’m drinking wine and watching The Good Wife, I look over and I know. I’ve got a thing going on here. I’m a dog mom. With her, I’m no longer walking alone on a city street. I’m a Chicagoan, waving to my neighbors, with the pitter-patter of puppy paws by my side.