I drove down South Main Street, one the poorest sections of Springfield on a steaming hot Saturday night. The local news said the temperature felt like 100 degrees, even at 7 PM. I was on my way to Jamie’s house with a dose of Capstar, a short-term flea pesticide, for a two-month-old mutt I’m planning on fostering. I’d never met Jamie before and I wasn’t happy about meeting her on Saturday. All I knew about her was an incident of animal neglect. But she had a puppy that needed a home, and as everybody knows, I’m a sucker for puppies.
As I crept down the narrow roads, searching the road signs for Nineteenth Avenue, I noticed people – black, white, and Hispanic –everywhere. They were socializing on porches, grilling hotdogs, working on cars, playing soccer. I had all my windows rolled down and heard the musical chatter of children playing. If it wasn’t for the sad-looking houses and trailers practically piled on top of each other, it might have been a suburb on a movie set.
Earlier that day Jamie called Donna about a two-month old puppy a friend “dumped on her.” Jamie said if ICHBA couldn’t foster the pup, she’d keep or find her a home. Knowing Jamie’s history, Donna didn’t hesitate and agreed taking the mutt into our program. Last month, Donna had pulled Duke, a flea-infested mutt, from Jamie’s home. Duke’s flea infestation was so bad it permanently damaged his hair follicles, meaning his back end will probably be bald forever. After hearing about Duke’s prognosis, my first inclination was if Jamie couldn’t afford the basics, she shouldn’t have animals.
I pulled into a narrow gravel drive. Jamie’s house was as sad looking as the next. She must have been watching through her crooked blinds because she stepped outside onto the porch. She was a tanned, forty-something-year-old woman wearing a white T-shirt with an aqua bathing suit underneath. She carried an eight-pound ball of gray and white cuteness in her arms. As I got closer, I saw fleas crawling on the pup’s pale pink belly. Anger tightened at the base of my spine.
“Ain’t she sweet?” Jamie asked half-heartedly, wearing a defeated half-grin. She leaned against the rusting doorframe and cocked her hip, so it would be easier balancing the dog.
“Can you give the puppy this flea medication tonight?” I said and handed Jamie the small white pill. In twenty-fours hours, most of the insects should be dead, and I’d be taking the pup home.
“You got two more of those?” Jamie asked. “That flea stuff costs forty dollars at Wal-mart.” Still cradling the puppy in her arm, she opened her front door. I caught a glimpse of unfinished walls and scuffed wood floors. A fat Chihuahua waddled onto the porch, sniffed my Vans, and started itching. I rooted in the box, pulled out two more Capstar tablets.
“Thank you so much, “ she said, then continued talking for the next twenty minutes without stopping for breath. A story that started with an anecdote about pouring motor oil on Duke to kill the fleas turned into a laundry list of the numerous dogs that Jamie has either saved or helped while living on 19th street. Initially, I had hoped my visit would take five minutes or less, but I found myself passing fifteen without even thinking about leaving. I was drawn to her honest ignorance, her disarming shame. I found myself wanting to comfort her but not knowing how to do anything except listen.
As I heard Jamie’s many tales of rescuing dogs, all the anger I felt before meeting her melted away. I had judged her based on nothing but my assumptions, and I was wrong. Her stories about dogs without teeth and abandoned strays were so familiar I realized we really weren’t that different after all. We both had a hard time accepting love can’t save them all.