A couple of years ago I was driving my car with a good friend in the passenger seat. We were on the way to a pickup basketball game, and we were running late. I live in Hollywood (my friend used to live just down the street from me), and the game was in Playa Del Rey. It was a Saturday, so the traffic in Los Angeles was much lighter, but it’s still a far drive. I have a very keen sense of gauging time to distance, that is I can estimate within a couple of minutes how long a given drive can take, so normally I am punctual down to the minute. But there is something about appointments on the weekends, or perhaps it’s something about basketball–because the start times are kind of fungible with a lot of people drifting in to play from various parts of the city–that I inevitably drag my feet, and end up having to rush to be on time. It might have something to do with a thing about the weekends being my time. That’s a peculiar trait that seemed to show up after years of long hours at the job I was doing. When we’re on my time we’re on my schedule. It’s childish but there it is.
I’ve known this friend for about twenty years, since the time he first arrived in Los Angeles and a time when Los Angeles was still a strange, confusing wonderland to me. We bonded over drinking at first (all my bonds began with drinking in those days), but it went beyond that over time. He seemed fearless to me, brutally honest, intensely silly. But we are different in many ways.
One difference is he doesn’t get my thing for animals. I don’t really either. I was not a good animal caretaker as a child. I had plenty of them—hermit crabs and gerbils and rabbits and dogs, but they were just kind of like more toys to me, I suppose, and they were all okay as long as they bent to my will.
But something has shifted and it keeps shifting. I got a cat in my twenties. That seemed to work out pretty well, so I got another cat. And another. And another. The second one died and I grieved from a very deep and honest place for the very first time in my life. The first one got sick and I quit my job to take care of him.
And I became a vegan—well technically I’m still a vegetarian—and my friend reacted as if I’d joined a cult. “Do you know what being a vegan even means?” he said, and I really didn’t. It wasn’t a decision that came from the brain or the ego. I didn’t think about people judging me, or what it would be like now to shop for food or go out to a restaurant, or how I would be thrust face-to-face with the fresh hell of a hundred different kinds of tofu. I had reached the breaking point, the outer limit of my practical brain, the place where fear just can’t reach. It was a moment of simple grace, it came from the heart, and it was like flicking a switch: When it comes to eating animals, I have to stop.
On this drive to the basketball game, I’m speeding down Crenshaw Boulevard, a sketchy part of town, and I roar onto the freeway ramp. We’re running about fifteen minutes late and the freeway is a good opportunity to make up some of it—on a Saturday morning, anyway.
I have to slam on my brakes almost immediately as my car skids onto the ramp. Cars are backed up on the ramp. Brake lights are flashing. There is some commotion. Something’s happening.
It’s a dog, a little grayish pit bull puppy at the bottom of the ramp, only about twenty feet from the edge of the freeway and the Saturday traffic rushing along. He’s emaciated, his drunken gait indicates he’s obviously fatigued, there’s a wild look in his eyes. He wanders in between the braking cars on the on-ramp, stumbles back toward the freeway (and probably certain death), swings back toward the steep hill that rises from the edge of the pavement to a seedy neighborhood above—probably his best move, if he had the sense or the energy to climb a brutally steep hill like that. He’s bewildered, helpless, this little creature looking up, lost and pleading, at these cars trying to wade through and get by him.
A million things race through my mind: because in my heart I am already getting out of my car, scooping him up, and throwing him in back. But my brain races to the scene, sputtering through the myriad of possible consequences and calamities: a car will slam into you as you’re trying to get him… he’ll bite you, and he has rabies… you have nowhere to put him… you have cats, he’ll eat them… you’re an insanely impractical do-gooder… It’s frankly amazing how fast the ego-centered brain can work in such a short amount of time; must be that bottomless slag heap of fear that it’s chewing through.
“Should we stop? Should we stop? Should we stop?” I keep saying, my car creeping along. I see the dog in my side window, stumbling out of the way of another car–like mine–creeping forward slowly. My friend looks at me like I’m insane for even considering the idea. But I realize I’m not really posing the question to him, it’s more like my heart asking my brain. Pleading. As if the brain is ever going to go along with what the heart wants.
I have adopted four cats (well six if you count the ones that have passed away) and I have joined a cat rescue organization. I volunteer, forward emails about animals that need rescuing, donate to animal charities, and it all works as long as it’s within these invisible walls that I’ve built up that seem to have a phrase spray-painted on them: ‘As long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much’.
I accelerated onto the freeway, watching the pit bull puppy in my rear view mirror. The guilt descended like a poisonous cloud almost immediately. “Dog like that, in a neighborhood like that, it did it’s thing and they just abandoned him probably,” my friend said, suggesting that he was a refugee from a dogfight. It sounded kind of melodramatic to me, but this was all very melodramatic. And if it was true, all the more reason to stop.
I played basketball with guilt gnawing at me, drove back two hours later and returned to the on-ramp. No trace of the pit bull puppy. Dead, hit by a car, and you could’ve saved him, my guilt chattered at me. When the guilt wasn’t eating me in the weeks that followed, the rationalizations came bounding in to help. Oh, someone else probably got him, you’re off the hook.
Driving home in the car, silent, my friend not saying anything and not looking at me, my heart seemed to poke up from the back seat. You’ve reached that point. Now you know.
Next time, I have to stop.