Friday, February 20, 2015

Schmoozer: Origins

Schmoo - The King of Kings

When it comes to Schmoo, so much of what is at the forefront of our minds is his recent struggles – or, more accurately, his triumph over those struggles. In 2011, he broke his back, was surgically repaired and paralyzed for several weeks before regaining the use of his back legs. In 2013, he was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma before undergoing chemotherapy and ultimately surviving another eighteen months. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic in saying that a lot of people found his seemingly indomitable spirit during these years to be inspiring. The story of the down-on-his-luck pup who surpassed expectations and carried on defined him in his final years and was a big part of what made him such a special dog.

But Schmoo was with us long before that. It all began when the trajectories of our lives collided back in May of 2007.

We like to speculate about what Schmoo’s life was like before we adopted him. I’d like to believe his life before us was a pleasant one, filled with the love and adoration such a dog deserves, but the evidence is to the contrary. This is definitely one of my highest-priority time-machine scenarios. I imagine I’m not alone in day-dreaming about what benefits I could reap if gifted with the ability to traverse time. If such a scenario arose, one of my first missions would be to go back and find Schmoo as a puppy. Just to see him would be enough - as he was probably the cutest creature that ever lived – but I’m also so curious about the circumstances of the first act of his life. Where did he come from? What were his parents like? (was his momma a Corgi or his dad? Or were they both mixes?) How many siblings did he have? (I wonder if any of them are out there now. Does he have any nieces or nephews?) What kind of circumstances was he brought up in? And what stroke of luck brought him to us?

What we do know is that he was a corgi-mix, shipped up north from an overflowing shelter in Kentucky. The Humane Society said he was just a year-old, though I now suspect they were underestimating that by at least a couple years. He had a rip in his ear, a scare on his nose and roundworms in his heart. These clues lead me to several possible backstories: 1.) He was street dog. Eating trash and sleeping in garbage cans. On the run from bumbling dog-catchers and sadistic fashionistas who’d have him for a coat. 2.) He came from a puppy mill, where cruel and idiotic breeders strived to answer the question of "how to create a mutt with largest ratio of back length to leg height imaginable?". Or 3.) He had an owner and belonged to a household, but they didn’t care a whole lot about him.

What he was even called before arriving at the shelter is a mystery, though they bestowed upon him the most regal of appellations – Chester.

Around the time that the-dog-who-would-become-Schmoo was on the bumpy road from the Bluegrass State to America’s Dairyland, talk in my college household had turned to the prospect of getting a dog. This talk was not spurred on by myself or my two life-long friends who actually resided in the house. No, this topic was almost exclusively broached by my girlfriend of 7-months and dorm-resident, Julie. Initially, this was an idea to which I was resistant. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved dogs, but I also understood what a serious responsibility they are. I’d grown accustomed to sleeping late whenever the opportunity arose and pinching my pennies as hard as I could. A dog could bring ruin to the cheap and sluggish existence I was comfortable in! And besides, if I wanted to get my canine-fix, I could just spend the weekend at my parents’ house with their vast-menagerie.

Julie, on the other hand, had never owned a dog growing up – just some gerbils and a six-toed cat. I was sympathetic to this as it’s not a life I could imagine, but it wasn’t enough to have me rushing down to Wisconsin Avenue to pick out some random mutt. What if they bark? What if they bite? What if they’re destructive? What if they’re a distraction and inconvenience to my lazy existence? But persistence won the day. I could never bring myself to fully put my foot down and Julie is not one to drop a subject.

Soon after spring semester had ended, we finally made our way over to the shelter to check out some of the pound puppies in person. While making our rounds, we came upon a sturdy, little Chihuahua-mix. I’ve never been too big a fan of the breed, but this guy seemed like a stout fellow – confident, playful – not the cliché ankle biter. We wanted to take him home and we wanted to call him Taco. It being a weekday evening, we didn’t have a whole lot of company at the shelter, so the wait wasn’t going to be long to get in a room with him – just one matronly woman was on the list ahead of us. This wasn’t anything to panic about. She had probably 20+ other dogs to choose from. Surely, she wasn’t interested in our little Taco as well.

She was.

Well, just because she was looking at him doesn’t mean she was going to adopt him. There was bound to be some deliberating on her part.

It did. There wasn’t. Our would-be Taco was going home with someone else – pretty much the only other person in the whole facility – the matronly woman. She seemed happy. What an asshole, we thought. On the ride back to Maryland Ave., tears were shed and many nasty things were said about a woman who was probably, in reality, a decent person. I sometimes wonder how their lives unfolded after that day. She probably loved him and he probably loved her. He was a young dog, so odds are he’s still with her. I hope so anyway. I don’t know what obstacles lead to her beating us to the punch that day - It could have been a singular instant of a slow driver causing us to miss a green light, or some miniscule chain reaction from earlier in the day that delayed our leaving the house. Whatever it was, I’m so thankful for it, just like I’m thankful for the matronly woman, who swooped in like an angel to make sure we got the dog we were truly meant to. I don’t really believe in fate, or destiny or the pre-ordained, but sometimes life is random and strange in ways that are so fortuitous that you can’t help but wonder.

I’m sure I would have been happy to go home with that Chihuahua-mix and I’m sure I would have loved him very much. I was ready to get a dog that day, but I honestly don’t think I was sold on it. As much as I was fine adopting a dog, I would have been just as fine not getting one. However, the aftermath of the Taco-incident showed me just how much Julie wanted this. When she went to work the next morning with tears still in her eyes, I hatched an ambitious plan – the kind of plan that typically never works out. Over the course of the next eight hours, I was going to find the perfect dog, adopt it, and have it waiting for her when she finished her shift.

The whole plan hinged on that first part. Where was I going to find the perfect dog? We were just at the Humane Society twelve hours earlier and only one dog really stood out for us and he was gone. I checked their website that morning not expecting much and rightfully so, their roster was pretty much the same except one blank spot where a picture should be. The disclaimer said something to the effect of “I’m camera shy”, but the breed caught my eye – “Corgi-mix” – and above that – “Chester”. 

Though I’d never owned one, I’d been a corgi-guy for some time. I worked at a Humane Society when I was in high school and on one of my first days, I happened upon the saddest-looking dog in the world sitting in a cage in the back area – a corgi. We sat together for a spell, enjoying each other’s company, but when duty called, I bid him farewell until later. But there wasn’t to be a later. For some reason (I never did ask why) he was put down. I was heartbroken to hear this. I wished that I had been his owner and that he’d be spared such sadness. I don’t think I ever did see another corgi during the four years that I worked there. I had to imagine that his case was a rarity, that if you were lucky enough to end up with such a breed, you held onto them. “Chester” was only a mix, but that was better than nothing. Odd are Julie was going to be into it.

Though I was going to be the one doing the adopting, this dog was still going to be the “house dog”, so my roommate Matt tagged along to go get a look at him. When we arrived at the shelter, I immediately asked to see him, not wanting a repeat of the night before. As it turned out, I was the first person from the public to see him. He was still in the back of the facility, waiting to be moved up to the viewing floor. He’d been there the night before, while we were fawning over Taco, probably scared and confused, possibly wondering what was next from him.

We sat on the floor of the interview room as they lead him in. He was corgi-esque, sure, but quite different too, with flopped over ears and a square snout. I’m not sure I knew what to make of him off the bat. I’d been a part of so many adoption interviews in the past that I had certain expectations for them. I’d imagined a young, spry pup, running into the room to greet us before playing with the toys that littered the area. Chester walked in slowly, cautiously – not scared, but not particularly excited. He walked straight at us, but when we tossed balls and rattled trinkets at him, he just stared back and forth between us with a look like he was going to cry. I remember he eventually walked over to Matt and kind of halfway crawled into his lap.

When it came time to decide “are we getting him?”, I don’t know if I’d really made up my mind to say “yes”, but when Matt asked, I said “sure”. I wish I could say I was madly in love with this dog from the moment I saw him, that I was so excited to have him be my dog, but that’s not really true. I didn’t want to rush it. I wanted to be discerning about this big decision, but there was some force - a momentum to my actions that day – that told me this needed to be done. I just couldn’t say “no” to this little dog (a feeling that would remain with me for the next seven and a half years).

I’d assumed there’d be some sort of approval process and maybe I’d be able to take Chester home the following day. This shelter did not operate that way. I could put a hold on him, but for only an hour, before he went back up for adoption. I was still operating without debit or credit cards at the time and I didn’t come with cash in hand because I wasn’t sure it would be needed. I had to race across town to my bank, withdraw the adoption fee and return before he slipped through my fingers. With minutes to spare, we returned and were allowed to commence with the adoption process.

The adoption counselor struck me as a bit of a burnout, but an amiable Shaggy (of Scooby Doo) type. When he asked why I’d decided to adopt a dog, I cringed when Matt mentioned something about him being a gift for my girlfriend (a half-truth). As that’s not something shelters typically look fondly on, I assured him that was not the case. Ultimately, he didn’t really seem to care either way. After signing a few papers and purchasing a few items from the shelter store, I was allowed to lead my new dog out to the parking lot. He was much too short and unwilling to jump in my car, so I reached down to scoop him up – at which point he tried to bite me. Startled, but undeterred, I rolled up my sleeves, wrapped his leash around his muzzle and tried again. It was immediately apparent that he didn’t care for car rides. He acquitted himself of the back seat and tucked his frame on the floor behind the driver’s side and shook.

I couldn’t blame him for being a little shook up, but all this uneasiness made me a little apprehensive. What kind of dog was going to emerge from this? Upon arriving home, he was able to get more comfortable. Remembering the campus-proximity home I shared with two other young men, I’m certain there was no shortage of interesting smells for the little guy to investigate. So, soon after introducing him to his new home, I left him in Matt’s care, while I went to visit Julie on her lunch break. I had a ruse to keep up.

I’m not a very good liar and I’m extremely poor at keeping secrets, especially when I desperately want to tell you. If I get you a good Christmas present, I’ll tell you weeks in advance. If I play a prank, I will giggle and squirm until it plays out. This doggy doozy was the hardest secret I ever had to keep. I wanted to tell Julie, who was still mourning the missed opportunity from the night before, and I’m sure she would have been super-psyched to learn what I’d been up to, but the allure of the surprise was just too good. When she asked what I’d done that morning, I told her I watch Apocalypto, that Mel Gibson flick about the fall of the Mayans. When pressed for details about it, I said it was “okay”. To this day, I’m pretty sure I’ve still never seen that film. That half-hour outside Beans and Barley seemed excruciatingly long, but I kept a straight face and remained convincing. I probably even said something consolatory like “other dogs will come along” without breaking character.

I returned to the house and hung out with my newly-acquired ward for a bit before having to finally pick Julie up at the end of her shift. He was still a little uneasy, but the small comfort of the loveseat and the smell of Matt cooking hotdogs in the kitchen perked him up a bit. I can’t speak for Schmoo, but I imagine some relief was starting to wash over him after his long, stressful journey and subsequent ordeals. His big, expressive eyes looked up at me with curiosity, seemingly scanning the essence of my soul or, perhaps, just wondering if I was going to fetch him one of those hotdogs.

When the moment came to go fetch my girlfriend, I was vibrating with excitement. The surprise and payoff were going to be massive, but I reached down deep into the well of my high school drama training and put on a morose veil. Shifts at Beans didn’t typically improve Julie’s mood and this day was no exception. When she got into my car, a cloud of depression and disappointment followed. Great! I thought to myself.

When we arrived back at the house, “Chester” was waiting, still comfy on the loveseat. Sitting with him were my housemates and some random visitor – a high school acquaintance who happened to be in the area. Julie asked, “whose dog is that?” – assuming he belonged to the random visitor. “He’s your dog”, I replied. Her response was one of disbelief. She seemed happy, but I didn’t want to misread things. “Do you like him?” I asked. She responded with tears and an “uh huh”.

The three of us spent the following days getting acquainted with one another – in our respective roles as owners and pet. I began to warm to my new buddy very fast who, at this time, was going by “Lou Reed” and “Wiggum” and probably a few other monikers. He didn’t bark. He didn’t try to bite me a second time. He didn’t get into any trouble. I liked that. I remember taking him for a walk one of those early days and thinking – okay, I’m committed – but not exactly relishing all the duties that went into pet ownership.

Over the years, Schmoo graduated to different levels of comfort for nighttime sleeping; dog beds, a series of chairs designated solely for him; and occasionally a spot at the foot of the bed. But in those early days, Schmoo slept on a pillow on the floor. I don’t know why I thought that was appropriate, but he didn’t seem to mind.

During one of those first nights – Julie and I squished together on my old twin bed – we were met with a surprise. Around 2am, I woke up confused and startled by a very peculiar sound. Sirens blared past our house on Maryland Ave. nightly, so I could sleep through those. But this night, in concert with those sirens, was Schmoo’s howling – a sad, pathetic, hilarious noise unlike any other. Up until this point, we hadn’t heard him make a single peep and here he was singing such a mournful song.

Julie and I both sat up, not at all bothered by the interruption to our sleep, and laughed hysterically. I think it was in that moment that I was finally, completely sold on the little guy. The voice in my head said I love this dog and, from then on, my new responsibilities, and the many other ones that evolved as life rolled on were my pleasure and an honor.

NEXT UP - Schmoozer: Nemesis