Noe Valley Voice December 2002 - January 2003

Florence's Family Album

By Florence Holub

A Shaggy Dog Story

Voice raconteur and artist Florence Holub wrote this piece 11 years ago, for the December 1991 issue. It's the tale of a scruffy stranger who padded into Noe Valley one day in search of a home.

The stray dog who wandered up our steep hill 10 years ago was a pitiful-looking creature with thick gray matted fur, head hanging low, and a slow ponderous pace. Our mailman offered this undocumented bit of lore: "Old dogs always come to the top of a hill to die." This statement, as well as his appearance, reinforced the already sympathetic inclination of the residents of our block, and since we didn't know what to call him, my husband Leo dubbed the canine Underdog.

Our neighbor, the late Janet Pera (a tenderhearted animal lover), was the first to put out a bowl of water, and with this small act of kindness, the dog settled into the life of our street. During the ensuing days, bowls began to appear on doorsteps up and down the block, and as Underdog made his daily rounds, his steps became quicker and his head was held higher. It became apparent that he was not about to die.

At first, he slept in the open carports below the apartments at Church and 21st streets until driven away by nocturnal headlights. Gradually, he gravitated to our house, sleeping on the front porch, where we had placed a blanket for him. Strangely, he never barked, although our old dog Fred, who was pretty indignant, barraged him with furious "yaps" through the cracks around the front door.

Underdog remained so reticent we wondered if he was mute. But perhaps this trait had allowed him to survive as a street dog--he looked like he had been wandering for some time.

At first, he allowed no one to touch him. Whenever a contact gesture was made, he retreated backwards, just out of reach. After days of offering reassurance, however, Leo was able to touch him, and slowly the dog responded. Then he allowed Janet to pet him, but she fled home in tears, crying, "The poor animal has lumps all over him!" This was true, but fortunately the lumps turned out to be just big clumps of matted fur, which Leo set about getting rid of.

Each day on our front stairs, Leo struggled with comb and brush to dislodge the tangles, but it was a futile effort. The combings did improve the shaggy fellow's appearance, however, and, we assumed, his chances of finding a home. But we were not nearly as concerned about his coat as we were about his neck, because strays were picked up regularly by the Animal Care and Control van. To help Underdog avert this fate, a local telephone network sprang up, with the neighbors pursuing every possible lead to find a haven for this hound--before the dogcatcher caught up with him.

Just when we had almost given up hope, our neighbor Rhea, the widow who lived across the street, informed us that she was considering taking the dog. It didn't take long--all she had to do was look into his trusting eyes. The rapport was mutual, and the decision to take him home was made.

The next day, in celebration, the four of us--Rhea, Leo, myself, and Underdog--went to the groomer, who offered his expert opinion. He said that Underdog was in excellent health, was accustomed to being groomed, and was only about three years old. As to his breed, he was less certain, but he judged him to be a schnauzer. Because of the heavy matting, the groomer estimated that Underdog was carrying six months of neglect on his back, so he clipped him down to the skin, but he left the traditional schnauzer moustache.

We chose a red collar and leash, then Rhea took him home to his new life as a pampered house dog. He proved to be adaptable, intelligent, housebroken, and musical! This was important because Rhea had shared musical evenings with her late husband Ted--she at the piano and he on the flute. It had come as a delightful surprise one evening, as Rhea played at the keyboard, to hear her pet raise his voice in a high-pitched, lilting accompaniment. After that, they often performed together. Rhea became convinced that he preferred French music, so she usually chose Debussy or another French composer for their duets.

On Underdog's second visit to be clipped, the groomer stated firmly, "This dog isn't a schnauzer after all, he's a standard gray poodle," and proceeded to give the appropriate clip, complete with top knot.

Underdog was now a sturdy, fine-looking animal with a long thin tail ending in a plume, and perfect white teeth through which an amusing pink tongue hung out. He had become so elegant, in fact, that Rhea renamed him Jacques.

Jacques had a delightful way of welcoming his human friends. He would bound into the air, five feet or more, again and again. Whether Rhea had been gone for five minutes or five hours, she got the same joyful reception.

Conversely, whenever young men walked up 21st Street, Jacques, from behind the wrought-iron gate, would bark angrily until they were out of sight, perhaps sparked by the memory of some earlier mistreatment.

Rhea, like so many widows, had been left with an empty home and terrible loneliness. But Jacques changed all of that. A beautiful relationship developed between them as they became a familiar sight walking around the hilltop--the lady and her gray poodle. On their daily outings, they met other people walking their dogs, and a whole new social life evolved for Rhea during the following months, until illness struck. Then various neighbors, or Rhea's nurse, took turns walking Jacques.

Upon Rhea's death, the neighborhood was spurred into action once again, expanding the network until it extended along the Peninsula. One man came from Woodside, but alas, he had a larger dog in mind. Then a tiny lady who had once raised poodles came by. She led Jacques back and forth on the lead, he performed to her satisfaction, and she took him home with her. Within a few days he was leaping happily into the air, she reported, and in a few weeks he was singing as she played the piano.

We thought all was well, but she phoned not too long after that, to say she was obliged to return him, upon doctor's orders, because he was too large for her to handle. This was apparent when I arrived at her apartment to pick him up. In recognition, he jumped up and down explosively and nearly knocked his frail mistress down.

Our neighbor Janet then found a new mistress for Jacques, and so for a few months the late Alice King, who worked at the Bank of America on 24th Street, could be seen walking a gray poodle around the neighborhood. But Jacques, for some strange reason locked away in his memory, was unable to accept Alice's grown son, so she was forced to return him.

Undaunted, we put together an illustrated flyer and posted it everywhere, including the open-air flower shop operated by Barbara and Louis Bischoff, next to Aquarius Records [where Lit'l Lizards is now]. The flier caught the attention of the owner of Aquarius, Butch Bridges. Butch was familiar with poodles because his mother had always had one, so when he saw Jacques, he was impressed.

At their arranged meeting, Jacques was trembling from a disquieting day of unexpected changes, but when his prospective owner knelt to reassure him, he calmed down. Butch then led him home to a new and more athletic lifestyle. In keeping with this new lifestyle, he altered the dog's name to Jock. There was a change in the music, too. Instead of French classical, it became strictly rock 'n' roll.

During a short period of adjustment, Jock barked his benefactor from room to room, but the response he received was only one of kindness, patience, and firmness, until he recognized this young man as a friend. In a few days, Jock was leaping into the air joyously every time his master returned.

They became constant companions, and could often be seen walking or jogging around 26th and Church streets. They tended the store together, made business calls with Jock sitting regally in the back seat of Butch's foreign sports car, and even went shopping on 24th Street.

I met them one day during the Christmas rush, and Butch told me, "Jock's getting along fine, everybody loves him--even the old cat accepts him--and he's transferred completely to me." Then, proudly, "He's a good dog!"

Butch and Jock had three great years together, but then Jock fell ill, and when his vital organs stopped functioning properly, his master performed the last act of kindness--he held his dog in his arms as the doctor put him to sleep.

Jock is buried in Marin County, close to a house near a wooded area, where he and Butch used to wander on weekends.

As Christmas approaches, I am reminded of the joy we all felt for the good fortune of our furry friend--Jock, alias Jacques, alias Underdog.