Yesterday morning, as rain gently pocked Lake Elizabeth, Nica and I stood alone in Dogland. I took shelter under a tree behind the benches where the bums sometimes hang out. She nosed at the grass nearby.
North through the park there was no sight of her favorite play pals approaching -- Linus, his little fold-down mutt ears bouncing ahead of John and Stephanie, or Dottie, the beagle mix with the Geisha eyeliner, pulling Sandra. When I saw Clif approaching with Buddy the collie, who mostly ignores Nica, I realized I go to Dogland for me as much as for my dog.
Dogland's what I call the open field in Allegheny Commons Park that the city authorized in 2004 as an off-leash exercise area. Encircled by trees, it is roughly the size of a football field. Neighbors walk from the Central North Side, Manchester, Allegheny West and East Allegheny, and some drive from farther away to let their dogs frolic, wrestle and run like the wind.
For their two-legged companions, I dare to act as a spokesman on the deeper implications of Dogland, a community re-created every day by the same and different people and dogs, with a morning rhythm and an evening rhythm.
I hold Dogland up as a model of the bonding power a shared passion can have. It inspires me to believe that what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding may start with two goofy dogs rolling around in the dewy grass chewing each others' necks and ears.
I can see Randy, Donnie the Rotweiller's person, rolling his eyes right about now, thinking, "It's an off-leash exercise area, for God's sake!"
It's also a March mud pit and a summer chicken-bone mine field and a lonely place before dawn in the rain. But in the bigger picture, it's a glimpse into the power dogs have to unite and maybe teach us.
I watch our dogs running in circles in Dogland, trading off from one circle to another, every type of dog in and out of every circle, then two loops joining, into a scrum at our feet ... and it hits me.
If dogs leashed people and Personland were the only place we had the chance to be social and work out our tensions, would we play together with no regard for our breed or how many ways we're mixed? When we all ran up to sniff the new guy, would we smell the job he has, his background, his race or his lifestyle?
In some respects, it is to Personland that Nica takes me, to see people whose circles I didn't run in before. Which is maybe why I'm usually in such a hurry to get there.
One evening this summer, I rushed to change from work clothes, grabbed Nica's leash and headed out with her at a pace that always makes her glance up to see what my expression might tell about the rush we're in. I had passed the gathering in Dogland as I walked home through the park and wanted to get there with her before any of them left.
Nica was merely my appendage, skating along beside me with her tongue out, maybe as eager as I.
It was late last winter, when I was still afraid to remove Nica's leash, that I started getting to know Towanda, thanks to her bugging me.
"You need to socialize your dog," she would say as we passed. Or, "Let her play. It'll be OK."
It took weeks. The day I let Nica off, Beth was there with Petra, her Australian shepherd. "Let her off," Beth pleaded. "If she runs, Petra will herd her back. I promise."
Over the months that Nica and I have been Dogland regulars, her play time there has become as important as any of my own daily needs. The happy fact is that it sometimes coincides with Ruth, our own dog whisperer, speaking Spanish to her pit-bull Dominique, or working with Suzy's socially backward border collie, Peanut. It often coincides with Towanda tossing a squeaky toy for Spice, her elegant Doberman, or greeting every dog that runs up with a hug and a "Hi honey, I've got no treaties, only love."
While Nica is leaping at Linus or being body-slammed by Dottie, Clif or Karen might tell a funny story about their work, or their teenage son, Ben. Between tosses of a ball for Petra, Beth might talk about "my kids" at the school where she teaches. Someone remarks on how much better Peanut is doing around other dogs lately. Then Joe and Colleen show up with Shirley, the pit bull-sharpei mix with a crooked foot and a soulful face and we all say, "Shur-ley!" the way Joe says it, then blue-eyed Kotter comes sweeping in with his persons, whose names I have yet to learn, then as a train begins to rumble by, Suzy yells, "Get the train, Peanut!" and we all laugh as Peanut takes off, running like a gazelle along the iron fence that separates the edge of the park from the tracks below.
It's not that I love everyone in Dogland. But I love the whole of it, its collection of every kind of person, united by a love of dogs and their abiding lessons in being.