In my downtown Washington neighborhood there are several parks and many restaurants with fragrant dumpsters out back, and even a fancy pet store that sells expensive treats, but my dog’s favorite place to visit is a pebbly, muddy, potholed enclosure beside an abandoned school. It’s about the dimensions of a two-car garage. It has all the curb appeal of a crackhouse driveway. It’s trampled by mutts. Maybe 30 blades of pee-bleached grass survive, peeking out from the muck.
For some reason, Murphy drags me there on nearly every walk. We used to play fetch there with a ball or a stick, but eventually it became clear she was just humoring me. Now she just walks around excitedly with her nose pressed to the ground and her tail a-twitch. She never tires of this. She would stay there an hour if I let her.
Other dogs are sometimes there, and they, too, will walk and sniff and wag, eyeing each other warily but keeping their distance, as if policing this empty, featureless place were far too important an enterprise to risk distraction. The dog owners don’t interact much, either: We know that our dogs are behaving like idiots, even by dog intelligence standards, which we gallantly relax; we share an unspoken shame. It’s like the parents’ waiting room of a teenage thumb-sucking clinic.
Only recently, as I watched Murphy on her patrol with another dog, did I realize I was looking at this all wrong. It came to me as a slap-to-the-forehead revelation, which I instantly blurted to the stranger beside me.
Me: It’s their public library!
Me: This is about the power of the narrative arts! There are collections of stories here, which our dogs are picking up! Rich, textured stories about their friends and neighbors! From poop! And pee! But mostly from footprints!
Me: Okay, I’m not explaining this right. Let’s say you were going to make dog soup. ...
She: (backs away a little)
Me: No, you wouldn’t! Of course! But, I mean if you did, you’d use the feet! Because they’re pungent. Have you noticed that? It’s the essence of dog! So, footprints must be a great forensic tool for dogs! They’re not dopes! They are patrons of literature!
She: Biscuit! (Biscuit is her dog. Apparently, it was suddenly time to leave.)
So that didn’t go all that well. But I was relieved to have realized that my dog was actually challenging her mind, such as it is. It made me think more about libraries and how I hated them as a kid because they were a place you were forced to go on class trips, and you had to learn the Dewey Decimal system, which to my mind was an even less useful life skill than how to make a battery from a potato.
It was only later, when my kids were forced to go to libraries, that I developed a grudging respect for them, with their egalitarian celebration of the need for freedom of knowledge. That was around the time libraries were starting to die, swallowed by the Internet. In the future, information will be more available than ever, but not in convivial places where strangers congregate together, hushed as in awe, not talking to each other but somehow teamed in the grand democratic endeavor of finding things out.
As my dog and I headed home, I remembered something. That abandoned old school has been sold to a condo developer. Construction begins in the spring. The dirty old lot will be torn down, replaced with a modern urban high-rent commercial strip, featuring bright, clean, cookie-cutter franchise stores. I dread the day Murphy finds out.
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