By LENNOX FARRELL
I must confess a certain ambivalence towards winter and dogs. I blame two sources for this defect: one my earliest observations of the differences between life in Canada and in Trinidad. In particular, the differing social status of dogs from both places. The other: my growing-up experiences with one particular Trinidadian dog.
It all started in Trinidad several decades ago during a week leading up to Whit Sunday, or Easter, or for my grandmother, Pentecost. One school friend, Percy, and I on our way home saw, there in the blazing Trinidad sun, a mother dog, nipples drooping like rags with her litter, all on their own. Such scenes were commonplace. Most families had children by the bushel and dogs by the ton. However, in her brood was one, its body completely black, except for its nose, completely white. Some pup!
Until then, my parents had disallowed, apart from children, our having any more mouths to feed, dogs especially. But I had always wanted my own. Here was a chance, during a special week for our parents, a time of transcendence, free-floating holiness, sort of. Also, Percy vowed piously to share ownership.
In memory of the week, the pup’s name with variations in pronunciation became Witty, or Whitty, or Whitteie, or Whatever. She was also what one would disparagingly call, “a pothound”. These were born skilled at sneaking into kitchens, absconding with eatables, victuals; cooked, uncooked, steaming hot, icy cold, no matter! Mongrels were to be watched.
They also did their own watching, waiting: “egg-sucking scoundrels”. In no time flat, they could raid a chicken coop, a duck enclosure, devouring their spoils on the run, escaping. Given that eggs and hatchlings were usually traded to local food vendors, exchanged for tinned milk, salted kine, or blocks of ice, stealing these eggs made the women, who usually ran these joint-enterprises, spoiling mad at these “suckers”.
My mom, Easter graciousness aside, stoutly refused entry. Resourceful, I arranged for Percy to store the pup an hour or so. His mother, smelling dog urine, ordered both out. Back and forth it went until Whytthie settled the whole matter. She would adopt our family and graciously.
When she died a decade later, Mom cried evermore. Even now, at family gatherings, weddings and the like, the presence of that little mongrel, standing about one foot in height and one and a half feet in length, holds pride of place in our memories.
However, she was a dog. Dogs knew their place: outside, not inside the house, not inside the sitting room, certainly not in a bedroom. And about being on a bed? Scandalous!
In January 1969, I emigrated to Canada. I had my experiences, learned a thing or two, for example, never to trust “outside”. Even in August I carried winter wear: scarf, gloves and boots. One never knew when “outside”, suddenly freezing in malevolence would aim to kill me, again. Winter, I took personally.
Then, there were the Canadian dogs, a breed apart, a cut above, and here compared not with Trinidadian dogs, but with other Canadians. They killed me.
I later understood why one shrewd guy applied to Ottawa to go canine. He’d practiced rolling over, wagging, being endearing, whatever. He had observed that by comparison, beggars sleeping on Yonge Street raised no eyebrows even as passersby stepped over or stumbled across them, poor souls.
However, for such uncaring to happen to a dog? Heaven forbid! I mean, we’re talking here about Canadian dogs! Good grief!
The guy’s application failed. He couldn’t become a Canadian dog. Ottawa’s reasoning? “He’d lower the pedigree.”
Before applying, the guy should have consulted me. I’d begun to understand sometime before how Canadians felt about their dogs. One particular experience cemented it for me for all time.
It was 1970, another year of winter. It was rush hour and I was squeezed, riding, sitting in a full bus, its windows streaked with snow-salt and street-grime. Unsure of my Bathurst and St. Clair Avenue stop, on boarding, I’d asked the driver to tell me when. Now, not wanting to pass my stop and also not get off too soon, and unable to see out, I asked again, “Are we there yet?”
One fellow, towering over me, on hearing my accent finally leaned his hairless face down. Politely he asked, “You from Trinidad?”
Rejoicing to hear in a Toronto’s wintry evening the sunny word, “Trinidad”, I replied, enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, yes!”
May that dude rot in h _ _ _! He then addressed the whole damn bus, already eavesdropping on us. Like some airport announcer, he declared, “They have skinny dogs in Trinidad!”
What the h _ _ _! There was a loud hush. Then a gasp. Then a draft. Then every eye was bolted fast on moi. My life passed before me. Mercy, was I responsible for all those skinny dogs in Trinidad? Would I make it out into the killing winter outside, alive? Damn, everybody in Trinidad was skinny!
Trinidad’s dogs, people and children had seemed fine enough to me, myself included. I fled long before my destination, every eyeball a guillotine on the back of my muffled neck. Man, as cold as winter was outside, it was colder inside that bus being responsible for all those skinny dogs in Trinidad!