Mutt and Joe

Mutt and Joe

A beautiful day in my neighborhood begins with a cup of coffee and my dog, Max. Together we indulge in an early-morning stroll along the root-mangled sidewalks of Bronson Canyon. He sniffs. I sip. I wonder what happened to my youth; he wonders where his teeth went. I size up single-family homes with back yards; he sizes up more toothsome dogs with bouncy legs. We both glare at speeding cars.

Max often mistakes baby carriages and trash cans for past rivals or impending challengers. His hackles rise and he assumes the position. I often mistake people’s words and actions for their character and intentions. My blood rushes, and I seek contrition. These are the dumb ways of dumber days. We are both trying to do that less, the better to conserve our energy for when it’s really needed. I tell him to piss on a tree instead. He makes me notice the trees. We’re training for middle age like two tentative skinny-dippers, toeing the water until our fear passes. Where will we go from here?

Wherever it is, Max will ensure that we’ll always stop to smell the roses. And the poppies, and the sunflowers, and the ivy, and the lemon trees, and the cacti, not to mention the dog poop some irresponsible human left cooking on the sidewalk. His nose knows no boundaries. It’s an equal-opportunity sniffer. It leads him, and he leads me -- up from our rugged concrete to the white-gray trunk of an oleander and its exploding fuchsia-colored flowers, over to the vio-let blooms of a jacaranda rubbing elbows with ripe oranges dangling from a tree that is framed on a blue-sky background interrupted by the jutting white beams of a Craftsman cottage and the green leaves of a towering oak.

Sometimes on our morning walk Max will lead me to a parked car in which some-one is sprawled asleep in the back seat. Or slurping coffee while scanning a newspaper before the job starts. I know why they’ve picked this place to chill, and I’m glad that no matter how hard it tries, Los Angeles can’t always pave over or price out the respite its natural bounty offers.

Max found me about a year ago at the farmers’ market in Hollywood. I think he liked my scars and scrapes, skinny legs, black top and tawny belly. Maybe he saw something familiar in my craggy countenance and its suggestion of hereditary struggles. Whatever it was, we’ve been prowling this neighborhood together ever since.

I don’t necessarily pine for Max and the canyon while I’m at my tiny, claus-trophobic office in a converted motel on a skanky section of Hollywood Boulevard, trying to wring paying prose out of dead air and floppy sweat. But I do look forward to the finish of the summer workday, when we head for the slice of Griffith Park at the end of our street. Here, a fairly wild section of Mount Hollywood rises from the residential zoning like an enchanted forest at the end of the road. Max and I like to hike there in the low sun.

During these excursions, Max gets his woof on by chasing after other dogs. Occasionally he manages to find some four-legged community in a meadow-cum-dog park near the base of the trail. I get my call-of-the-wild fix. Here in the middle of America’s most development-friendly city, I’ve seen rattlesnakes, taran-tulas, owls, hawks, jackrabbits, road runners, coyotes and, in the rainy season, the rarest of all sights -- wild, running water cascading through rocky canyon drainages. At the top of Mount Hollywood (the peak to the east of the Hollywood sign), we bask in a 360-degree panorama of the basin. In the winter, snowcapped Mount Baldy looms over the San Gabriels. Look north at dusk and see the megawatt platelets of the Ventura Boulevard artery bringing life to the Valley. Out in the water, Catalina looks like an emerald isle.

A beautiful day in my neighborhood ends around midnight with Max and me pad-ding back up Canyon Drive toward the park. Modest-size homes line the street in a potluck buffet of shapes and styles. As I pass, I sneak a peek through the windows to see what shenanigans are going on in the radiant glow of the elec-tronic hearth. I am a happy voyeur stuck for now outside the gates of home own-ership. But I imagine what it would be like on the inside, and for the first time, I imagine it’s good. Meanwhile, Max investigates the dogs that poke their snouts through holes in the hedges. I wonder if he has yard envy.

Along our route, set back from the street a bit, is a larger property about which I had long been curious. On the lower half of the lot are a streambed, an old canoe and a guesthouse. Back away from the street and up on the hill stands an ominous main house that could be used for an establishing shot in a horror flick. One night curiosity got the best of us, and we ventured past the gate onto the property. As luck would have it, the owner was out cheerfully stalking the grounds, and didn’t mind our intrusion. He told me the property had been a “hunting lodge” belonging to a big movie star from Hollywood’s golden era. In fact, he said, this canyon was lined with “hunting lodges” of a special sort -- which had earned Bronson Canyon the nickname “Bordello Canyon.”

Frequently, I bring my skateboard. Max knows this means a race home. As we reach the end of the smooth blacktop about a mile up from Franklin Avenue, his tail wags excitedly and he begins eagerly to pace in circles. After a minute or so of pre-game bonding, I point the board downhill and push off, picking up speed on the modest decline. Max canters behind at first as I serpentine through the broken yellow lines and roll over the speed bumps under the hazy luminosity of streetlights. With a little cajoling, he pulls up alongside. I scoot down on my board and give him a hug as we cruise. He licks his approval. We’re out here in the middle of the tree-lined drive under the cover of midnight, having our joke while the neighbors fall off to sleep.

Once, about halfway through this dash, a huge, shadowy form jumped out from the murk beyond the streetlights and onto the road in front of us. I was star-tled, but stayed on my skateboard, with Max right behind me. What the hell was it? I picked up speed as the degree of decline increased at a dark patch of road a few hundred yards north of the Bronson and Canyon intersection. I heard it scrape the top of a speed bump. Max shifted into full sprint to keep up.

We closed enough distance to grasp the regal stature and fluid grace of whatever it was we were following downhill. I was caught in a confluence of the untamed and the overly tame, trying to ride it for all it was worth.

Just then, a parked car flashed on its headlights. I’ve often wondered what must have been the driver’s first thought upon seeing a large buck deer, with a full rack of antlers, being trailed by a 37-year-old man on a skateboard who was himself being chased by a toothless, runty German Shepherd mutt — all of them whooshing down the middle of the street at half past midnight.

Did he rub his eyes and say, “Where the hell am I?”

—Joe Donnelly


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