For a lifelong freelance writer, it was a dream assignment, out of a career of only a couple of dream assignments — one to report on a new upscale hotel on Nantucket, all expenses paid, the other to fly to New York to interview Bette Midler about a project to “save the wilderness” of New York City. (I never did meet the movie star; instead I received a jolting jeep tour of Bronx parks, and was handed stapled copies of some of Bette’s ‘real’ interviews.)
So last week, when my editor at this newspaper asked if I’d care to hang out at a doggy daycare facility in West Tisbury, I, being a dog lover — like so many others of you — of epic proportions, said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the way a hoppy, yappy Westie greets a freshly grilled T-bone.
It was a sweltering Thursday as I made my two-bus way to Betsy’s Dog Spa in that wooded tract of land beyond Up-Island Cronig’s on State Road.
I’d decided to leave my Boston terrier at home. “Does not play well with others” (had he been human) would have rounded out his kindergarten report card. He’s OK out in a field without a leash, but put him in a close-quartered situation with other hounds, and you’ll think he’s reincarnated from a low-level Gestapo thug. I would have spent the whole time dragging him from the flanks of dogs four times his body weight.
Owner Ruth Darach, originally of the Galapagos in Ecuador (yeah, right? Who knew those islands were in Ecuador?), greeted me from a metal table as she clipped the damp gold-beige beard of Aquinnah, a diminutive borkie (that’s a Beagle-Yorkie mix). Ruth learned dog grooming when she came to the States 17 years ago, settling in Boston with her now-ex-husband. This same now-ex had connections here on the Island, so they relocated, Ruth finding work at Mary’s Groomingdales. Four and a half years ago she set up shop at the present location, which adjoins living quarters for her and her two children, 10 and 7, a boy and a girl, now attending school in Tisbury.
I’d arrived in sneakers, black leggings, and an old red summer dress I could gladly sacrifice to dog hairs glued into place with that peculiarly slick and sticky saliva dogs drool onto everything. (What’s in that stuff, anyway?) My mood? I think it’s worth noting that the summer had whacked the starch out of me, and I’d been feeling less than Sandra Dee perky. A dog fix, for sure, could help.
First to greet me, like the mayor of the pack, was a huge golden retriever puppy named Cooper, followed by Zeerie, a tiny beige-brown sib of Aquinnah. Ollie, a smallish mutt with tight white curls, trotted up for a cold-nose-to-warm-ankle introduction. The dogs were on a color spectrum of gold-to-bisque — is this a trend or just a coinkidink in that day’s gathering? — so the one dark fellah, a little dachshund named Jack, stood out, not only for his coloring, but his decidedly friendly habit of crawling up between Ruth’s boots as she worked, or amid the feet of young aide Dursan Mijatovic of Serbia and Florida, and similarly young Maryssa Panetta, originally from Hull, and my own already ruined white sneakers. Jack is that kind of dog you knew at once you’d known forever.
Atop another metal table, a sheep-sized, stupendously pretty, white, and ultra-fluffy Pyrenees named Millie received the last of her bath and hairdo from Maryssa. Marie Antoinette, after her two hours of wardrobe, makeup, and white wig poufing, could not have looked more resplendent and ready for her court. But Millie was no Marie. After she was lowered to the floor, she padded into the hallway, away from the madding crowds, to slump regally alone.
Another galoot-sized dog, Lily, an umber-gold boxer-lab, peered at me with faint distrust. By and by, however, she accepted me as a pack member, and passed me repeatedly as I sat cross-legged on the floor, each time treating me to a long lick of my left ear. A big goldendoodle, Charley, greeted with gentle bumps from either her left hip or her right, depending on the direction from which she approached. My favorite-looking dog, Dave, a mini goldendoodle with big empathic brown eyes set in a muzzle of dark blond permed-looking curls, looked for all the world as if he wanted to hustle over and become my bff, but each time I called, “Dave! C’mere!” he looked hopeful, tried out a tentative step, then froze. At last, Maryssa scooped him up and placed him in my arms like a newborn baby.
As I roosted on the floor, it occurred to me that little white Ollie had made a home of my lap, like a position he’d assumed for over a hundred lifetimes. His implicit trust put me over the moon. (A message to Ollie’s owner: If at any time you need to drop him off with someone, for however long, even forever, call me!).
At the end of my time with the nine dogs, I told Ruth I’d gladly toil for her and, in fact, I’d pay her for the privilege. It was only later that I realized I’d done no work whatsoever; I’d simply chilled with those furry buddies.
A cure for melancholy? Well, sort of. Unlike waiting five weeks for Prozac to kick in, the company of dogs creates instant bliss. But only a number of minutes later at the bus stop in the West Tisbury business district, as I sat and read the not-so-satisfying novel I’d brought along, and nibbled a curiously tasteless peanut butter cookie — the sandwich joint was out of chocolate chip — I was back in the Slough of Despond. For pooch company to work as any kind of real therapy, you’d have to live and travel with eight or nine dogs at all times. That’s a lot of kibble and bowls, walks and poop-scoops and, galloping borzois! Can you imagine the vet bills?
So maybe punching the clock full-time for Ruth is the answer? And yet, as mentioned, this reporter, by sheer accident and innate laziness and irresistible distractions, performed no work whatsoever.
And you know those leggings and sundress I wore to the “job”? Straight into the trash.
Guess I’ll have to make do with my one goofy dog. At least winter’s coming, and he loves to snuggle on cold nights (it’s strictly platonic).