Out here I can keep a full social calendar on the visits of New Yorkers alone. I know my friend Jake only as a Brooklynite, but he comes from Marin County across the San Francisco bay, so I now get to see him on family visits. Yesterday he and his sweetheart, Kit, were at Mission-Dolores Park.
Like the rest of the city, the park is pretty: a shallow bowl lined with palm trees. Good-looking people sprawl on the grass, lying low under the San Francisco wind. And dogs, dogs everywhere, running off leash and sniffing backsides. Well-loved city dogs seem to have a better time than their suburban cousins.
A lemonade robot arrived, outfitted in painted boxes from head to feet. He lumbered through the park, cardboard arms out, selling drinks. The dogs went wild at the sight of this creature. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! They circled him and barked, looked at each other for further instructions, circled and barked again. Retrievers, border collies, handsome boxers, and dobermans chased like kites while their owners watched. The lemonade robot didn’t seem to mind, though it was hard to tell from his cardboard face.
Below us, a toffee-colored setter finally escaped the owner who thwarted her. She shivered as she drew near the mud puddle, then bellied into it, rolling until she was fully coated. Out she stepped, shaking off a fine spray of liquid mud, then rubbed herself into the grass and groaned. A melted-chocolate tail flapped in joy. We clapped the beauty of her canine spirit, knowing we didn’t have to scrub her clean.
“In New York I’m so used to dogs wearing clothes that these dogs look kind of…naked,” said Kit, as a wheezy pug wearing only a collar pushed his way into our circle. Jake’s San Francisco brother was puzzled. Sweaters for the cold? “It started off that way. But now it’s more a fashion thing. They wear clothes all year round. You even see them with these big Elizabethan ruffs. And jewelry. And nail polish.” We agreed that these edenic San Francisco dogs looked indecent.
A guy approached with a clipboard, asking for a few minutes to explain a petition to raise taxes for school funding. None of us wanted to listen. “We’re not residents,” Jake said eventually, and the petitioner shuffled off to the next refusal.
He was in the wrong park. A few weeks before I’d read a New York Times piece about how U.S. cities feared they would go the way of San Francisco–chic and childless. I hadn’t quite believed it. Most of my San Francisco friends have kids, as do many of my co-workers. Bernal Heights crawls with children–it’s one of the reasons why I moved there. I’m not happy in neighborhoods where ages, complexions, and paychecks range narrowly.
But there are more dogs in San Francisco than there are people under eighteen. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Mission-Dolores Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon, where hundreds of sleek puppies had the run of the place, and only a few dozen toddlers–mostly Mexican and Asian–played on the swings. In Prospect Park, we would have heard shrieks and whoops; out here, only barks and yips. The city has trouble getting families to stay, and this says bleak things about its future.
We watched a heavily-pregnant woman walk past the mud puddle, her belly button pointing the way. How strange she looked; a mammal in the land of robots.
POSTSCRIPT: it’s evening now, and I’m just back from a rowdy birthday party for a three-year-old friend. I’m cheerfully eating my words, along with slobber-covered cupcakes.