I arrive at Beeber and a neighbor leans off her backporch and calls out to me. “What kind of dog is that?” I have Belle, my ‘west philly special’ with me as I walk and photograph. Belle is a story unto herself. A neighbor with four small children found Belle near the Dock Street Brewery six years ago. Belle had just given birth to puppies, her teats were hanging down by her knees and she was so skinny that her spine jutted out of her back by an inch. Terrified of people, she tried to run away, but this the daughters of family, the Marvelous family of Marvelous Records, eventually coaxed the dog into their car with some piece of hotdog. They dislodged the phone cord around Belle’s neck and the barbed wire from her back- and only then did the father of the family think, “wait a sec. I have four little kids- what are we doing taking in a stray dog.”
Enter Katie, veterinary student, ‘sucker’ clearly printed on my forehead. The Marvelous family did the right thing- they found a home for Belle. I took in this 25 pound momma dog and set about fattening her up and teaching her to sit, stay, roll over. It took her two weeks to become potty trained- and training her to do anything else was easy because she so badly wanted to be a good dog for me. As she put on weight and regained covering on the pads of her paws, which had been completely worn out, she started to resemble something more than a miniature emaciated greyhound. Because her spine stuck out so far from her boney ribs, people often asked me if she was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. When she finally filled out, it dawned on me exactly what I had: a pitbull, an American Staffordshire Terrier. A breed banned in many states and cities. A breed vilified for dog fighting. Belle was most likely kept in a closet somewhere and used to breed puppies that would become fighters.
But good golly. If you did not know anything about pitbulls, which I didn’t, you’d think she was made for loving. Belle is like my shadow. It took three years for her to be comfortable with me being in a different room. So obedient and loving, I got her certified as a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International. I took Belle to the Ronald McDonald’s house to do tricks and get belly rubs and cheer up sick kids and their siblings. Pets heal people.
And so, this lady on her back porch with a maltese running between her legs yells, “what kind of dog is that?” to me as I lead Belle around Beeber- and I hesitate every time I get that question.
“She’s a pitbull,” I yell back. She is. She is also a therapy dog. Sometimes I pass her off as a boxer to avoid discrimination.
“A girl?” the woman yells. And I wonder- sometimes people see Belle, think she is pretty, and then want to breed their dog with her.
“Yes- she’s fixed.” I call back.
“Looks just like mine,” the woman calls down to me. “Get over here,” she calls to her dog, ushering a female dog that looks just like Belle out. Her dogs, the maltese and the pitbull, look down at us as I wave, “she’s a looker too!” I think the woman is just happy coaborrating what breed her mutt is. We pitbull/amstaff/pebble/mutt-that-looks-like-a-boxer owners share an inside secret.
This business of dog ‘race’ is just as loaded as people ‘race,’ says the ‘white’ woman who always checks the ‘other’ box on surveys that want me to identify myself.
After that exchange, I turn my attention to Beeber, an elementary school on a hill surrounded by quaint stone houses in good repair. The surrounding neighborhood has large corporations like the Peirce Phelps company in the valleys. I cannot help but think of flooded basements when I drove past and wonder how sustainable those corporate locations are, despite them having been there for nearly 100 years.
The school itself was built in 1931 and is a few short blocks from Montgomery County, Lower Marion, the wealthy suburbs with the best public schools in the state/nation.
Near the school entrance, a tattered black trash bag flaps in a naked tree, like the grim reaper closing in.
A rusty iron fence surrounds a blacktop that wraps around the school. Cars are parked on the blacktop and an exposed Dempsey Dumpster, with its lid open and trash flying out, takes center stage. There are no basketball posts.
From a neighbor’s front lawn, behind a veil of cherry blossoms, one can see signs forbidding littering, dog droppings and trespassing on nearly every post. These unwelcoming signs seem to be on every school that I have visited. They don’t blare “trespassers WILL BE SHOT,” but list a variety of other punishments and fines. I wonder if I am violating the rules just by standing on the edge of the schoolyard.
Schools should be public amenities where neighbors are encouraged to use the hoops during after hours. Or tend school gardens. Or host community meetings. These schools, with their barred windows, rusty barbed wire topped fences, and curmudgeonly signage broadcast the opposite of community. I do not feel welcome.
And I wonder how much of the signage is reactionary and how much is proactive. I am partially a product of public school. I’ve been in a knife fight as a sixth grader. A boy brought a gun to a school dance when I was in eighth grade.
If there had been a sign, would it have prevented those incidences? How much do these prison-like environments provoke prison-like behavior?
Graffiti over ivy creeping up over the brickwork. Violence over nature over man’s good intention.