The one thing I didn't plan on when adopting a dog was that I'd also be adopting my neighbors. And as I soon found out, I realized that can be both a blessing and a curse. Especially if it's before I've had my coffee.
It usually is.
My fiancé and I adopted a puppy recently. We couldn't be happier. She loves dogs, and as for me, I've wanted one since I was a kid. I have a soft spot for canines. Plus, I'm incredibly needy.
But a funny thing happened as we began to take the pup for her walks around our suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. People... started talking to us.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't mind a little small talk now and then. I used to do it in bars to pick up women (never worked) and I occasionally do it with cashiers at the grocery store (in hopes they don't notice I ate a box of Mallomars while shopping). But this was different. Suddenly, having a dog was like having the key to an entire new world we didn't even know existed. Now, it seemed, we were "part of the neighborhood." And it was terrible.
Okay, maybe terrible is a strong word. It was intense. See, I'm a New Yorker. I used to live in Manhattan, and so it's in my nature to avoid befriending those in close proximity to my living quarters. That's just the way it is in the Big Apple. I can't really be certain how this evolved. Perhaps it's a healthy fear of "the pop-in." Or maybe it's because all NYC apartments have very thin walls. You hear all the strange and embarrassing things your neighbors are doing and, as a result, would rather not have a relationship with them.
My neighbor in Manhattan used to sing in the shower. Listen to Dr. Phil self-help audio books on Saturday nights. Have wildly inappropriate sex with strangers. Seriously, I once heard my neighbor reach orgasm in a way I only read about in Fifty Shades of -- I mean I didn't read that.
So then, the next morning, I ran into said neighbor.
And was forced to "make small talk" with her.
As we walked up five flights of stairs together.
It was so awkward! She was clearly wondering if I had heard her sexual liaison. I was clearly wondering if I could have her one-night-stand's phone number to ask him for some tips.
But things are different these days. And I'm not talking about the fact that now I'm the one listening to Dr. Phil self-help audio books. What can I say? He makes me feel safe. So while walking the dog, I've learned that humans are creatures of habit. Around the same time everyday, the same people walk their pooches. And they'll give you this look, like "Hey... I have a dog too. Let's know each other." It never fails. Suburbs are weird.
Last Tuesday was the worst. Hadn't had my coffee. Drank too much bourbon the night before. Couldn't find my Dr. Phil tapes anywhere. I walked down the sidewalk, feeling like what I just scooped into the plastic bag I was holding. And then came along a neighbor with a bounce in her step and a Bichon Frise on a leash.
She had a dog. I had a dog. Apparently that was enough to start a conversation.
"Hey, I'm Michelle," she said with an overwhelming enthusiasm that could only be brought upon by seeing an adorable puppy. Or prescription drugs. "And who's this cutie pie?"
"Oh, my name's Jesse," I replied with a smirk.
"I was talking about the dog," said Michelle, not getting my attempt at humor. No wonder my fiancé doesn't like to go on these walks with me. She could only roll her eyes so much before it's considered a medical condition.
But this is how it begins. Now every time I go for a walk with the dog, I have to say hi to Michelle. And then Michelle's husband, Pete. Their friends. Their friends' friends. And suddenly, we're in their "circle." It shouldn't be long before the invitations to block parties and BBQ's kick in. Now, I'm not trying to come off as curmudgendy, because don't get me wrong, this is all very nice. Very sweet. It's just a little... much. I mean, getting a puppy was quite the lifestyle change. But four blocks worth of dog-walking neighbors whose names I need to remember... that's huge.
There are strange hierarchies that I've begun to notice as well. For example, the folks pushing babies in strollers seem to have an attitude towards the dog walkers. Think they're better than us. "Oh, you care for a dog? Well I care for a child. Keep it on the leash. And away from my baby." There's as well at least two couples who sit on their front lawns with a bottle of Chardonnay and cats on leashes. Interestingly enough, the dog-walkers and baby-stroller-pushers seem to have formed a truce around a shared hatred of the "cat-leashing winos." Needless to say, they're at the bottom of the hierarchy. And then, below them, are people without dogs, without babies and as far as the neighbors are concerned, without hope.
Funny. Just a mere three weeks ago we were those people. It feels good to be accepted. God, I am needy, aren't I?
So why exactly does introducing a dog into the mix change things? I suppose it's the way guys bond over sports, or women bond over Bethenny Giuliana Kardashian (is that a thing?). Having a shared interest draws people to one another. It creates a sense of community. Plus, it allows for juicy gossip, one of the foundations all good suburban neighborhoods are built on.
Yesterday this one neighbor couldn't help herself as we watched our dogs play together. "So, you know Ryan, the guy with the Irish Setter who lives in the townhouse on the corner? He's cheating on his wife."
"Oh my," I retorted, surprised by the news. "Who's his wife?"
"I am," she responded bitterly, before crying on my shoulder.
Things got awkward after that. Where's my Dr. Phil self-help audio books when you need them?
The dog adoption company recently called to check in. To see how we were coping. I hesitated for a moment. I mean, the puppy was doing great, but what about the new acquaintances, cliques and cats on leashes? Then I realized something. In a world where small talk has been relegated to Facebook posts, and a conversation these days usually takes place over text or twitter, maybe all the "hi's" and "hello's" on our walks aren't so bad after all.
As long as I've had my morning cup of coffee first.