“You want a dog, Mister?”

He had no teeth.  That was the first thing you noticed.  He had no teeth.

But he had a dog.

A big, clumsy labrador mix with white paws and a shiny black coat that was quickly becoming covered with snow as the two of them stood there in the Safeway parking lot next to the wheelchair that the man used instead of a shopping cart to transport all his earthly goods.

“You want a dog, Mister?” he said as I walked past.

The dog looked up at me with big doleful not entirely trusting eyes.  She knew something was up.

“She’s a really good dog,” he said.  “She don’t cause no trouble.”

Like all of us, I’ve become hardened to the homeless in a way I never would have thought possible.  Years ago when I was in Europe I was appalled at the beggars on the streets and how people just stepped over them as they sat wrapped in blankets holding out their hands or shaking cups full of coins.  Now I am one of those people.  Not all the time, but, sadly, far too often.  There is too much need, too much pain, and too much uncertainty about which of these people really are in need and which are merely taking the path of least resistance in a society that has become increasingly cruel and difficult to navigate.  A better man than I does not make these distinctions, but I am no longer that man.  I see what I want to see when I want to see it and just go on with my life.

But a man giving away his dog.  That I can’t ignore.  It tears at my heart.

“I can’t take your dog,” I say.  “I’m really sorry.”

The dog looks up at me. I reach down and pet her head.  She moves instinctively back toward the man, as if she knows what is being proposed.

“She’s a really good dog,” he says again. “She don’t cause no trouble.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, and smile weakly and walk past him into the store.

What are we supposed to do in a world full of such moments of unnoticed sacrifice and pain?  A man should not have to give away his dog because he can’t afford to feed her.  A man should not have to choose between staying with his dog and having a place to sleep.

I fill my shopping basket with orange juice and grapes and a bag of French roast coffee — treasured  pleasures in my life of warmth and comfort and ease.

“She’s a really good dog. She don’t cause no trouble.”

I should leave, but I can’t.

“Where’s the dog food lane?” I ask a clerk.  She directs me to the aisle with bags of dogfood ranging in price from $20 to over $100.  I grab one on closeout for $15, check out, and head toward the door.  I take a $20 bill out of my billfold and tuck it into the top of the dog food bag.

The man is still standing there in the ice and snow next to his wheelchair.

His dog is gone.

“Where’s your dog?” I ask.  “I bought her some dog food.”

“Some woman took her,’ he says.  He does not look at me.

I hand him the dog food and the $20 bill.  “Give it to one of your friends,” I say.  He takes the bill and puts the dog food on top of the green garbage bags piled on the wheelchair.

I walk back to my car.  In the back seat is a stack of unused sport coats and dress shirts I’ve been trying to donate to a transition center for men attempting to get back on their feet after addiction or incarceration.  No one will take them.  “The types of jobs our men are trying to get don’t require sport coats and nice shirts” one woman told me.

I place the bag of orange juice and grapes and coffee next to the pile of clothes.  The smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the car.

I drive out of the lot toward the street. 

The man is still standing on the icy sidewalk next to his wheelchair.

There is no happy ending to this story.  There is no ending at all.  Just one more in a series of choices that we make or don’t make in a world where children get warm puppies for Christmas and homeless men give away old dogs that they can no longer care for or feed.

I am not sleeping well tonight.  I hope that dog found a good home.  And the snow is still coming down outside.

27 thoughts on ““You want a dog, Mister?””

  1. Thank you for keeping it real, not supplying the happy ending as one more way we’ve learned (we=all of us) to not smell what we’re standing in.
    I hope , still.

  2. How many stories can one person hold? If they’re related, have they achieved their due when passed on…and fade from memory, or are they retained to be sent on their way again? Most of us, lucky, for lack of a better word, cannot fathom the depths, or understand the trials that result in the state of homelessness. I, with you Kent, hope the dog found a good, safe, warm home and I wish for you, the coming spring arrives early.

  3. Fatback had a good home. Some dogs land in a good home like some kids come to good parents, some don’t.
    I, like you, have a good comfortable life. Our decisions and choices sometimes keep us awake at night.
    I wish you peace.

  4. Tears here…
    And you’re right. Sometimes there just is no happy ending as we all hoped.
    But we do have hope that the dog met with a good date and her owner will care well too…
    There’s always hope.. that’s part of our life’s journey. Life goes on.

  5. My heart aches for the man. His dog means more to him than a harsh life on the streets. A happy ending would of been nice- but in real life on the streets, this man did what he had to do.

  6. Such a good jesture. Such a sad story. A broken man, a loyal dog. Thanks for giving us a moment to reflect. Strangely takes me back to the Trading Post at Porcupine. If not home-less, home-broken out on the Pine Ridge.

  7. In our world so full of big tragedies, war and dissension, this small, painful tragedy tears at my heart. Hopefully the dog has found a good home, but the man… who loved her so much he gave her away.

  8. Maggie Northwind

    It is hard for me to see through the tears as I type… My heart goes out to the many homeless human beings and animals. Sending Love and prayers

  9. Life can hold such sorrow. We all make many decisions daily. Some easy, some painful, some seemingly impossible. It is difficult to try to walk in the shoes of another. They never really fit, because our life story is not theirs. God bless you for trying to make a small difference in this huge world of heartache and suffering. Offering love and compassion and hope is no small thing. Many days hope is ALL we have.

  10. Gratitude for all we have and take for granted. You help us see what really matters..
    Where I live many many people are taking their well loved pets to local shelter, hoping too that they will find a home. The animals do not understand, they frantically try to go to their people. The people do not understand that the animals just want to be with their people, not caring to have a lot. Some have no choice now. Its a better ending than being eaten alive by a pack of wolves in the middle of the night, or by a hungry person, when at one time you trusted people.
    Thank you for the perspective. You tried.

  11. Wow Here in UK we have men sleeping outside and have dogs with them. I usually buy food for the dog and leave a small amount of cash in an old tin can for the man. My heart goes out to these people and I am left with miserable feelings when thinking of my home I am going to. These sights are becoming more frequent these days and I also have a great feeling of sadness as I can’t give more help.

  12. Homelessness breaks my heart. Animals well being is also a heart breaker. Where I am, it’s 18 degrees outside, with ice and snow. I can’t bring them all into my home. I can’t walk by them and do nothing. I can’t do any more than give a few some money. Tears well up at helplessness. All I can do is all I can do, and trust.

  13. It is good we suffer symbolically (ie comfortably). Homer’s ODYSSEY puts hospitality at the top of the list. That man could have been Odysseus and the dog ZEUS (they were both wont to be disguised). We’re well served to live up to the light we’ve been given…do your best and #:!(? the rest. Dum spiro spero: as I breathe I hope. Here we are like sparks in the darkness.

  14. As I am pulled by my rescue dog with Dog OCD through the snow and cold, I think of the times I thought, maybe we shouldn’t have taken her. Then, I read this and my heat aches for both the man and the dog. The dog may have a new good home, but the man has been forced to give away part of his heart. I look at my dog, who did not have a good life before we rescued her, and I know that I would not trade her for anything and am thankful that I have the resources to take care of her. A story that make me reflect on what we have and what so many others do not. A sad, but good way to start one’s day and try to make it better for someone else.

  15. the choice made for the one he loves…where are the ones that love this gentleman? with a country as rich as ours there should not be hunger or homelessness.

  16. Thanks Kent
    Your sensitivity brings out our creatureliness so much and so often lost, disregarded and undermined in our world of war and hate. I think of the mothers and fathers who who are giving up their sons and daughters and possibly never to see them again all wishing and hoping for their return when many won’t. I often wonder how looking into the sad eyes of a lab can touch us deeply when we cannot see the hurting eyes in each other. Why,?Why I ask, then only silence….. silence and alone with my thoughts. I guess we are all the walking wounded whether we are housed or not.

  17. Thank you for being you… human, relatable… The conflicts of the heart are real and challenging. It was comforting to read of your dilemma as it is one I think all of us have encountered. Conflicts of the heart. I once bout four bags of groceries for a homeless man who lived outside our local grocery store. I felt so good as I drove away. A few days later I saw his picture posted. He was arrested on multiple counts of child pornography and perpetration. A sick man indeed… and I felt sick for attributing to sustaining such an individual. I felt dirty and disgusted.

    A voice still resonates within me though…”Who are we to judge?”

  18. Kent, as always, you bring us the world through your work. Thank you. I find it disturbing that in all the comments before mine, no one tells a story of how each individual CAN help in situations like the one you tell us here. I understand the feelings of sadness, helplessness, compassion, and perhaps most important, discomfort with the uncomfortable. But really! No solutions at all put forth? I may be obnoxious or out of line, but I believe there are ways to help that we each can do, rather than just helplessly mumble, “poor dog,” and “poor homeless person.” I suppose the suggestions below will meet with, “I can’t do that; I’m too busy with my own life.” I hope not.
    1. Donate to reputable national and local organizations that DO help people and dogs. This takes about the time it takes to write a check. I recommend the Humane Society. They do work throughout the world. Personally, I contribute monthly, and I have in my Last Will & Testament instructions to include them with a sizeable contribution.
    2. Can’t donate because you are living on the financial edge? Volunteer at homeless shelters. Same for animal rescue.
    3. Instead of purchasing a pedigree pup, rescue a needy dog.
    4. Advocate with your state and federal representatives for homeless programs and support of animal shelters
    5. If you can afford it, “foster” homeless persons by paying for a modest place to live – maybe for just a month – assist them by connecting with agencies who can help for the longer term. I know of a local person who has recently welcomes three homeless youth into her house and into her life for the longer haul.
    Those are five possibilities off the top of my head, most of which take minimal time and $ (except #5).
    Even if all we can do is send compassion, give a smile instead of looking away, buy food for the homeless dog and for the owner, and the like, we are doing better than just mouthing sentiments like “poor man,” “poor dog.”
    Thank you for reading – CAS

  19. I’m writing this in addition to my previous comment to apologize to Carole H who has helped by taking in a rescue dog rather than spending money on a pedigree companion, and where that money could go to more rescue organizations. Thanks, Carole!

  20. Thank you for the story. We keep $10 bills handy in our car, ready to dispense to those standing on the curb with handmade signs. I don’t care if the money goes to unhealthy food or drink … I don’t want to be that person with a handmade sign … nor the person who ignorantly yells out the window, “Get a job.” Will $10 change that person’s life? Probably not. Will it give a moment of hope? I know that my staring straight ahead from my lane of comfort will not.

  21. I believe this man was transcending and he invited you into his process. He may have hoped you had the courage to stay in his space and see him as a teacher. He had many lessons. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Well dang. Life is so full of small miseries and large tragedies and yet we love. Perhaps that is the lesson – assuming there are lessons – that we are small, insignificant, and simultaneously world changing. Awareness is pain. Perseverance is the balm.
    I came here to thank you for your books that I so much enjoyed and leave touched by our common humanity.
    Thank You

  23. Sometimes the story is just the story…we consider from it what we can, or are moved by it, identify, what you will…the old guy had his reasons, he set out to find a caregiver for his dog… mission accomplished…maybe a big relief for him.

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