This is a true story about a dog I knew through my wonderful and weird old neighbourhood in San Francisco, many years ago in the mid-seventies. Young and hopeful, I lived in an old area dubbed “Dogpatch” by the locals and “Irish Hill” by the local historians, near the then-still working waterfront. Bethlehem Steel had a ship building yard with large cranes and the Mission Point “park” was a sturdy public pier next to the Mission Rock Beer Bait and Boats shop. We had the lovely lower flat an pre-quake Italianate Victorian a block and a half west of the water that was, with a few other domestic buildings, mixed in with many warehouses, machine shops, the SF railyard and scattered little factories, fleet yards, and a corner garage at Third and Tennessee, Fred and Jim’s.
A perfect site for an artist, I thought when I first saw the place. (I was trying hard to develop into a professional artist back then.) Now it is absorbed by the name “China Basin District,” once just referring to the channel area of the SF Bay a little north that berthed some small Bay fishing boats, a few houseboats and an antiquated small, old steel bridge that raised its deck for the boats to go through, located on the back route to downtown along Third Ave. I loved the bridge because it was so human scaled and had a small bridge house for the bridge-keeper, just like in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A sailboat would motor to the bridge and signal (often with a horn) that it needed the bridge to rise so its mast could clear the road deck, and slowly, like clockwork, it did. Gears and chains rattled into motion. The deck rose like a magician’s levitation subject. The boat putted through, unfurled its sails and entered the Bay. Now the area is a chic re-development area with tall mid-rises “lofts”, and over-priced galleries, inhabited by arty people, much too expensive for the working artists, writers or people who lived on the houseboats.
The neighbourhood became alive by six in the morning. Trucks rolled in and out. The electric 22 Filmore bus rattled by. Metal doors clanked open, machines whined into motion. But on weekends it was a quiet as a gathered meeting in the country. Except for the dog who lived at the corner garage.
He was the “junkyard dog” except the junk was cars in various states of repair and he was barking a lot maybe because he was lonely. So I walked over to his fence. A long-haired German Shepherd, he looked up and barked fiercely. He was shaggy and boney, he jumped stiffly. I spoke sweet and softly to him. I had found out from my mechanic his name was Skippy and had greeted him a few times in the past, petting his head, the hairs stiff with grease and dirt. Skippy began to beat the air with his meager tail. A greeting. I started a relationship with the junkyard dog.
I took to visiting him on weekends to alleviate his weekend isolation. I got permission from Fred and Jim, the partners, to take him for a walk on weekends with our own dog. Skippy loved the doggie companionship and the change of scenery. It was heaven for him to be out and about. We would walk down to the old boat club or the steel bridge. Later when Skippy got in better shape we would run or bike with the dogs running along side on the wide weekend deserted streets, having the area to ourselves. One Sunday I brought him home. He was so dirty I had to give him a bath so he could be inside. I washed him four or five times before the water ran clear. I trimmed his nails. I brushed him out. He looked and felt better.
I began to give him some nutritious meals to put some muscle on his bones and a shine in his coat. Every weekend I made up a batch of real meat, rice and grated vegetables like carrots with olive oil and eggs. (My dog like it too.) Skippy began to become a happier and healthier dog. His eyes became brighter. His coat was getting soft and silky. Soon he was having weekend retreats with us, getting love, warmth, brushings, exercise and good (real) food. I made up a bed with clean blankets for Skippy when he returned to his post at night. Often he was reluctant to resume his duties. He cried at his gate when my dog and I left him alone. But guard he must. It was his job.
One cold foggy night in late December there was a crisis although we did not hear about it until the next day, Monday. Skippy’s mechanic’s yard was burglarized, the thieves taking car parts and tools and Skippy. They cut a hole in the fence, large enough to drive a car out. If Skippy barked, we did not hear it. The news was worrisome. My first thought was to wonder if Skippy was okay. How did the thieves get past him? He could act very fierce and scared many people at the bus stop on Third. (Of course many people “teased” him, running sticks along the chain link fence.) Did our love and TLC ruin him as a watchdog? Or did he know the thief or thieves? Did the thief or thieves drug some food? How did they lure him into the car? He was found by SF’s finest, punchy and sleepy, in a stolen, abandoned car, guarding the vehicle. They brought him “home.”
I looked at Skippy. Those questions we could never ask him for he spoke no English. He only spoke dog love. He beat the air with his now magnificent feathery tail as if he understood the story Fred told and looked at me with a keen eye. Yes, did you get it, friend? I had no choice. I did the best I could.
Next Friday, I went by to say hello and check on weekend arrangements in case of new security measures. No barked greeting. No Skippy. I felt a wave a panic. Where was he? Did Fred and Jim get rid of him, disgusted with his performance? Nervously I asked where my dog friend was. Fred laughed. “You know, after the burglary, the wife and kids stopped by to get some insurance papers signed. Well, the kids and wife saw Skippy all happy and clean and so glad to see them, they decided to bring him home. The kids wanted a dog for Christmas and now they have one. He wasn’t much of a guard dog anyway. But he is great with the kids. Gentle and protective.”
Soon after, I moved from Dogpatch returning to school across the Bay. I got tired of having my dear old Chevy stolen twice (and recovered twice–police thought “joyriders). I didn’t relish a commute over the bridge daily–this is ancient history before the BART opened. But I have never forgotten that neighbourhood, “Dogpatch,” and the neighbourhood junkyard dog, who with a little help, found himself a new home with his own “owners.” One smart dog, that Skippy.
Ryan Ramon writes for WxNw.org under several names, including his own. He hit 15 minutes of fame with his columnnWxNW.org’s Life in the Forty-fifth Parallel and his defense of Kimball Lewis, cowboy poet and animal welfare activist.
Visit Ryan’s other work at the writers’ links.