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Tag: basement

Out of the mansion: Leaving Barkley behind

Ace and I have fully moved out of the mansion basement we spent more than a month living in — and while he’s not missing the stairs, and I’m not missing living underground, we are both missing Lord Barkley, the rescued sheltie who quietly watches over the manor.

Lord Barkley and Ace hit it off from the beginning — not in a jumping all over each other kind of way. From the moment they met, you could tell there was something similar to a quiet, mutual respect. They’re both mellow dogs; both can be a little aloof. And maybe something about the stately mansion setting evoked in them a sense that reserved and civilized behavior was to be followed.

Given Ace’s back problems, and the fact that Lord Barkley, according to his mistress, had never hung out with another dog since she rescued him, their co-existence was pretty low key. Only once or twice did they actually run around and play; more often they took turns following each other slowly around the yard, like a mini-pack.

Lord Barkley, when he was let out for his morning constitutional, and his afternoon and evening ones, would bark — though he’s normally not much of a barker — until I let Ace out of our subterranean quarters. Then they’d wander the yard, one behind the other.

When Barkley was called back in, Ace went as well — for our host, Miss Caroline, made it a practice to give Ace a treat everyday.

They’d both go into the kitchen and watch intently as Miss Caroline went to the dog treat jar.

“Manners!” she’d say. “Manners!”

Both dogs would lay down and wait for the treats.

Miss Caroline says, based on the information she received when she adopted him, Lord Barkley spent much of his early life in a crate and possibly was mistreated. Now, in addition to having run of the 22-room mansion, he follows her everywhere — grocery store, drug store, wherever she’s running errands.

In her late 80s, Miss Caroline has lived the kind of life of which books are written. She was a model, an actress, a writer, sculptor and painter, even a race car driver. She worked extensively in the Middle East, and was the star of several commercials made long ago for R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, produced in Arabic. She was a friend of shahs, sheiks and dictators.

She didn’t just tolerate having Ace at her home, she delighted in it, and Ace took an instant liking to her, even before the first treat was dispensed. As he does with those he deems friends for life, he took to sitting on her foot, which always made her smile. Or, with Ace being 130 pounds, was it a pained grimace? Either way, she let him get away with it.

Miss Caroline, who’s now working on a children’s book, has put the mansion up for sale several times. Unable to get her price, she has taken in guests, who live in the basement, the carriage house, or in some of the upstairs rooms, which she has decorated in themes. One of two men’s rooms, for instance, has a nautical theme. There are two rooms for women, too.

I enjoyed our month at the mansion; Ace, though he never seemed keen on the basement, or the stairs leading to it, preferred to spend his time in the yard, chilling with Barkley in the grass, or, better yet, upstairs in Miss Caroline’s house.

When Ace was diagnosed with a herniated disc last month, moving somewhere that didn’t have stairs was necessary. So we bid farewell to Lord Barkely and Miss Caroline, with the promise that we’d come back and visit often.

But, after reclaiming my stored stuff after 11 months on the road, and hauling it to North Carolina, almost all my time has been taken up by the seemingly endless task of unpacking.

With what appears to be a light at the end of that tunnel, next week we will pay a visit, renewing our ties with Miss Caroline, and our bond with Lord Barkley, all, of course, while observing the decorum that befits a stately southern mansion.

“Manners!”

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way

So here’s where we are now: After 11 months of having no home, we now have two — the mansion basement we are leaving and an apartment unit less than a mile away that we are moving into, it being the very unit my parents lived in when I was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I’m paying double rent in April, giving me time to make the transition to the new place from the basement, which we’re leaving because of Ace’s recently diagnosed herniated disc, and the 11 steps required to get in and out.

As fate would have it, not long after Ace’s problem flared up, my mother, who lives in this town, was showing me the first place I ever lived — not counting the hospital — when we spotted a “For Rent” sign in the window of the apartment unit.

On top of its reasonable rent and two small steps to get inside, it seemed a somehow symmetrical place — it’s not where our trip started, but it is where I did — for Ace and me to end our year on the road.

We’ll move in this weekend, and begin unpacking all the belongings I left in storage when Ace and I pulled out of Baltimore 11 months ago to see America.

Said stuff was packed into the truck Monday in Baltimore, with help from Will Weaver and some other friends, all of whom made a daunting task slightly less so.

Will followed me back down to North Carolina in the rental truck Tuesday. And on Wednesday, Will and I — that’s him (top photo), with one of my prized possessions, a painting of Ace — lugged everything into the new place.  That’s me (above left) testing the two small steps into the new place to make sure they are structurally sound.

Then we drove the truck down to Charlotte to pick up a box spring and mattress my cousin and her husband offered me. We stopped for breakfast at a Waffle House, and I picked up a job application (It has always been a fantasy of mine to be the grill person at a Waffle House — though, for now, it remains Plan B.)

Back in the truck, Will drove, while I, aching by then, put my feet up. Thanks to his GPS device, there was no need for my navigational skills, which was good because my knowledge of Charlotte’s roadways had grown foggy in the ten years since I lived there.

At my cousin’s house, as their cat Manny watched, we loaded the bed, and a coffee table, too, on the truck. We were almost halfway back to Winston-Salem when we realized I’d left the dolly that came with the truck back in Charlotte.

Since you can’t clone that kind of dolly (subtle advertisement for my book), I drove back to Charlotte yesterday to pick it up, then back here to square things away with the rental company, which was also wondering what happened to the truck’s front grill. (It came without one.)

For the next few days, I’ll be unpacking, cleaning (a coat of greasy grunge somehow glommed on to all my belongings while they were in a locked storage unit), arranging furniture and decorating, being sure to do some accessorizing to really make things pop.

In the days ahead, we’ll be bidding farewell to the mansion basement, which — except for its stairs, and somewhat depressing lack of sunlight — served us nicely.

Ahead, too, are all the annoying little hassles and choices I gleefully avoided during our near-year as roaming vagabonds — cable or satellite, utility bills, vacuuming, doorbells, and the ongoing dilemma of too much stuff.

We’ll be doing some downsizing, since a lot of my junk is just that, and since the new place doesn’t have much in the way of storage areas. Fortunately, there’s a Goodwill donation center right down the road.

I’m thankful, as Ace and I enter a new phase, for that Goodwill — and for the other good Will, the one from Philadelphia, for helping to carry my load.

(Cat photo and John-testing-the-steps photo by Will Weaver)

Now you see him; now you don’t

The mansion whose basement I’m living in has a big back yard, and in that big back yard is a big swimming pool, covered with a big black plastic tarp.

Ace likes to venture deep into the ivy behind the pool to do his business, and he’s always careful to avoid the pool on his way back.

Yesterday — and I blame the Valium — he didn’t.

As I watched — I’m monitoring him closely because he has been diagnosed with a herniated disc — he finished up and started walking straight for the pool. As I yelled “NOOOOOO!,” or words to that effect, he stepped right onto the black plastic tarp, which, unable to hold his 127 pounds, split, causing him to fall into the pool with a huge splash and disappear.

As far as scary moments in our continuing travels, it was right up there, second only to when, while I was holding his leash, he jumped over the railing at Niagara Falls, landing on a patch of grass that led to a sheer unprotected drop off into misty oblivion.

Fortunately, he jumped right back over then. And fortunately yesterday, his head almost immediately popped back up through the same hole he went through, and it was close enough to the side that he could drape his front paws over the edge of the pool and cling to it with a look of panic in his eyes.

On doggie swim days at Riverside Park back in Baltimore, Ace only went into the big boy pool once, preferring to wade in the baby one. When he did try the big one he was unable to get out. It took me and two friends to hoist him up and over the pool’s edge.

Yesterday, thanks either to adrenalin or the harness he’s been wearing instead of a collar since his diagnosis, I was able to pull him up enough for him to be able to get his back paws on the edge of the pool. I pulled, he pushed, and within a few seconds, he was out.

At that point, either invigorated by the cold and slightly green water, or just happy to be alive, he took off, darting around the yard for five minutes over my protestations. He’s supposed to be limiting his physical activity.

Once he calmed down, I noticed how bad he smelled and, with a public appearance scheduled for tonight, a bath was in order. In the middle of that, fully soaped up, he took off again, running in circles around the yard.

His herniated disc seemed far from his mind. I feared the incident would lead to a relapse, but all day, as in the past two days, it appeared to be bothering him less and less, and the yelps have ceased.

Between the tranquilizers and the the NSAIDs — and despite an unplanned morning swim in a yet to be opened pool — I think he’s making progress.

I haven’t yet told the lady of the manor about the damage he did. Earlier, she offered me the job of pool boy, if I end up staying into the summer, which would certainly look good — unlike the actual pasty and balding, pot-bellied, 57-year-old pool boy would himself — on the resume.

Now I may have no choice, needing to work off my debt for the torn tarp. How’s this for a deal? If you pay me extra, I’ll keep my shirt on.

No! No! No! He’s too young to be old

Ace has been stricken.

With exactly what, I don’t know. But in the past four days, he has taken to yelping when he gets up from a long nap or makes a sudden move.

At the dog park this week, he has plodded along lethargically, showing little interest in other dogs — even when he ran into this little white fellow who shares his name. How’s that for a pair of Aces?

I have poked and prodded every inch of his oversized body, but I’m unable to pinpoint what particular spot might be hurting him.

So today, we’re off to the vet.

My first thought was the hips. That’s based partly on the simple fact that he’s very big. Then, too, some of you might recall, when I took Ace to an animal communicator three months ago, she told me he was having some mild discomfort in that area. Add in the 10 months we’ve been traveling, and all the hopping up into and down from the back of my jeep he’s been doing, and the hips seem as good a guess as any.

I knew the day would come when the jumping in and out of the car would need to cease, and given his size, maybe that practice should never have started. Chances are — at age 6 — that day is here, earlier than I expected, and not without some accompanying guilt on my part.

Yesterday I ordered a ramp.

Then again, it might not be his hips at all. Although he’s hesitating to jump into the car, he’s not yelping when he does so — only when makes a sudden movement, usually after laying still.

I’ve pushed on his paws, rubbed the lengths of his legs, looked into his ears and down his throat, poked his belly and prodded his hips. None of that seemed to bother him. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t do that thing he does where his eyes get big, which signifies, to me, anyway, rising alarm on his part. That would have told me I was getting close.

The only time he yelped was when I lowered his head, making me think maybe the pain is in his neck, or spine-related. A half hour massage followed, which, though it might not have helped at all, he seemed to appreciate.

I am puzzled, too, about how much of his current “down-ness” is physical, and how much of it might be emotional.

Twice, I’ve come home to hear him howling — not howls of pain, I don’t think, but howls of loneliness. Twice I’ve left the video camera on, to try and capture their onset, but he didn’t howl those times. And the times he did, he immediately cheered up and ran around when I walked through the door.

I’m pretty sure Ace is less than in love with our new basement quarters, though he likes the upstairs and yard just fine. He has shown a distinct preference for being outside, content to lay at top of stairs, keeping an eye on the kitchen window of the mansion owner, who gives him a daily biscuit.

Something about the basement bothers him. And friends I’ve talked about it with have different theories. Maybe he was mistreated in a basement in his puppyhood. Maybe the old mansion we’re living under is haunted. Maybe, with a firehouse around the corner, the sirens are bothering him, though they never have before — and we lived in Baltimore, where sirens are background music. Maybe it’s the lack of sunlight, or he’s getting arthritic and the cold and dampness of the cellar aggravate it.

He’s moving slowly, lethargically (except when the treats come out), and rather than circling twice before laying down, he’s circling about eight times.

Yesterday, working with my theory that it might be his neck, I took a treat and moved it around in front of him — from side to side, then up and down. There were no yelps. Either it caused no pain, or the thought of getting food superceded it.

So, with fingers crossed, we’re headed to the nearest veterinarian, with hopes that whatever is bothering him is something minor, something that will pass or doesn’t cost too much to fix,  something unrelated to all the traveling I’ve put him through — 21,000 miles of it over the past ten months, something that is neither chronic nor old-age related.

Because he’s too young to be old.

Tales of debasement: Living 6 feet under

One of the disadvantages of living six feet under – aside from the lack of sunlight, of which we’ve already spoken – is the worms.

I measured the other day and determined that the entrance to the basement apartment Ace and I are living in is exactly six feet beneath ground level. I’m trying – despite coming from a family of undertakers – to not read anything into that.

It was while trying not to read anything into it, standing in the stairwell just outside my door to smoke a cigarette — here in a town that owes its existence to, as they’re sometimes called, coffin nails — that I noticed the worms, slithering by my feet.

The “man cave,” as the owner of the mansion in North Carolina calls it, is a fine place – warm, clean and comfortable, with a wood burning stove.

But living in a basement can play games with your mind – both dog mind and human mind, I think.

Ace has shown a distinct preference for the upstairs, and I don’t think it’s solely because its occupant, the homeowner, is prone to handing him treats – making sure to give one to her dog, Lord Barkley, at the same time.

He dashes up the ten stairs to the outside, ground-level world, and shows some hesitancy when it’s time to head back down. Twice now, I’ve returned from brief outings to hear him moaning from the bowels of the mansion – eerie moans that cease as soon as he hears me coming down the stairs.

I’m wondering if he has a touch of seasonal affective disorder, or if maybe he’s sensing some evil spirits lurking within the mansion walls. Or, it could just be the newness of it – though he’s stayed in about 100 new places over the past nine months. It might even be the fireplace. The sound of crackling wood distresses him, and he tends to never forget sources of distress.

Possibly, he – a very social dog — is bothered by the lack of socialization that seemingly comes with living in a basement. Even though we get out several times a day, there’s a sense of solitude when you’re a cellar dweller that follows you up to the earth’s surface – a feeling that you’re disappearing, a need to shout, “Hey, I’m here. Look at me. You do see me, don’t you?”

Maybe other people can’t see you anymore. Maybe, the memory of you, too, is vanishing.

John and Ace? Oh yeah, they used to hang around the park. Nice dog. Didn’t he write a book about something … John, I mean. Whatever happened to them?

Last I heard they’d gone underground. They’re with the worms now.

Sorry to hear that. Ace will be missed.

The worms aren’t actually that bad. They come out of a drainpipe built into the bottom step, then slither their way to an underground drain in the floor, about 18 inches away, go down that hole and – I’m guessing here, because they all look alike — continue to make the circuit every time it rains.

I’m not sure whether their journey is intentional, or not. Perhaps it’s a light at the end of the tunnel thing. Perhaps they’re seeking some refreshment, a quick burst of sunlight, then taking the subway back home to their families beneath the dirt. But, in any case,  I think they might be on to something.

The secret to living underground, in addition to buying more lamps, is to get out as much as possible.

Then again, partly a result, I think, of my subterranean lifestyle, I have a growing fear – unrealistic as it might be — that I might not be accepted on the actual surface of the earth; that when I slowly emerge, pale and slow-moving, blinking my eyes in the harsh light of day, perhaps a worm or two squirming in my hair, I might frighten people.

They might shriek in horror. “He’s coming out! He’s coming out!” They might run away, convinced that I am intent on drinking their blood, or, worse yet, smoking a cigarette.

“Hideous monster. Why can’t he just stay underground, where he can’t infect us with his evil ways?” they’d say. “We don’t need his likes up here.”

“Nice dog, though.”

Praise the Lord, I saw the light

 

It’s dark down here. Even with every light on, even when the sun’s up, the temporary home Ace and I have landed in — a cellar apartment in an old southern mansion — is, given its subterranean location, something less than bright and cheery.

I have window wells, but little light shines through. I look out and assume it’s a rainy day — only to step outside and see that it’s as sunshiny as it can be. Down here, it’s as if it’s always 3 a.m. Ace wakes up, looks around, and — like me — assumes it’s not morning yet.

I haven’t been cursing the darkness. That’s best reserved for internet connections. But I think it has been keeping me from being awake as I might be, and I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done. Instead I’ve mostly been oversleeping, setting up housekeeping and visiting my mother. She lives about a mile down the road, so Ace and I have visited almost nightly — conveniently around dinner time.  I mentioned to her how dim things were in my apartment, and she, being a former newswoman, felt the need to share that — at least with my sister.

“This just in: John’s apartment is kind of dark. Details at 11.”

I’ve introduced you to my sister before, when Ace and I passed through Madison, Wisconsin. She’s prone to random outbursts of karaoke singing, sermonizing, deep thoughts and good deeds, and I was about to be a recipient of one of them — luckily the latter.

She called to tell me she had found four lamps on Craigslist, and that she was giving them to me as a Christmas present. All I had to do was drive to some town called Midway, and find the home of a man named Ken. She sent me an email with the directions. Like all her emails, it ended with the same quote from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Buying lamps via Craigslist wasn’t an option in Edith’s day.)

Thankfully, Midway was only about 20 miles away. Ken was in the driveway when I pulled in.

I popped open the back window of the jeep. He greeted Ace, noticed there was no air in the tires of my bicycle, still attached to the rack, and offered to pump some in. He helped me load the four lamps into the car, and told me to help myself to the kitchen items packed in boxes in his barn. They, like the lamps, had belonged to his mother, who died last fall at age of 98.

I tried to pay Ken $60 — $48 for the lamps, the rest for everything else I grabbed — but he insisted on giving me change. I stuffed as much as I could into the car — or at least as much as Ace would permit. Ace doesn’t like things rattling around back there, or any of the contents to shift while we’re driving, and given the back seat has been his home for most of the past nine months, I try to oblige.

After loading up, we stopped for lunch in Midway, which is next to a town called Welcome, at a place called The Dawg House, then headed down the road to the Midway General Store, where it was hard to find things because it was dark inside. But I got three copies made of the key to my new place, bought two plug adaptors, three packages of cuphooks and a big greasy hambone for Ace — all for a mere $11.

Ace nibbled his bone as I took the back roads home, passing church after church — all with marquee signs out front:

‘Hands joined in prayer are never empty,” one said.

“The church is a pit stop in the race of life,” read another.

“God’s plans for us are better than our own,” another advised.

Space being limited on church signs, attribution for the words of wisdom on them is seldom provided — so you never really know whether they come from God, the local preacher, Edith Wharton or some book, like “1001 Catchphrases for Your Church Marquee.”

Whether they are original words, or a reflection of somebody else’s, doesn’t really matter — as long as they are getting shared, because church marquees, even those that don’t light up, are all about spreading the light, giving life some meaning, tossing a little hope, inspiration and joy our way.

My new lights, once plugged in, didn’t lead to a hallelujah moment of the religious kind. But I can read now, and find where I put my coffee filters, and make sure the socks I’m putting on match.

On top of that, never having lived in darkness before, I’ve learned that, much like a chili cheese dog, light — the non-symbolic, simple wattage kind — makes me happy.

For Ace, a hambone works just fine.

Dwelling in the cellar of an old mansion

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. The pouring rain had subsided, but a steady drizzle fell and the old trees swayed in the wind as I pulled my car around the circular driveway and parked in front of the mansion.

I left Ace in the car and walked up to the front door. As soon I knocked — as if the scene was being scripted by a horror movie director — a crack of thunder rattled the night sky.

Slowly, the door creaked open.

The lady of the manor greeted me warmly, invited me in and introduced me to the lord.

“This,” she said, “is Lord Barkley.”

Lord Barkley is short in stature, with stubby legs and a proud stance. He eyed me warily, keeping his distance — standing still but ever so slightly pushing his nose in my direction, as if to get a tiny whiff of me, but not my total essence.

Clearly, he was the cautious type. Slowly he approached me, his thick and fluffy, well-groomed hair – black, white and brown – flouncing as, stepping gingerly, he advanced. I held out my hand, and he gave me a fuller sniffing, seeming particularly interested in my left shoe.

He opted to stay upstairs as his lady showed me to what will be home base for Ace and me for a few months during this latest leg of our travels: the basement — or as the homeowner calls it, the wine cellar — of a stately old mansion in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

It’s a large room, with kitchen and living area, the centerpiece of which is big wood-burning stove, with a bedroom and bathroom and wine cellar off to the side. A fire was burning in the stove and a plate of brownies sat atop the extra-wide kitchen counter, which was built with wood salvaged from a burned-down house.

The TV doesn’t work, or the refrigerator, but those are minor details which, I’m assured, will be rectified in due time.

Details about our host, for now, shall remain vague – at least until I set up some ground rules with her. Just because I’m exposing my life, and Ace’s, as I recount our continuing travels doesn’t give me the right to, without some permissions, expose hers. Etiquette – we are in the south now, after all – demands I show some restraint, that I have some manners in the manor. I’m sure ya’ll understand.

Back upstairs – no, please, after you, I insist — the lady of the manor gave me a quick tour, showing me some of her most prized possessions. Then she encouraged me to bring Ace inside to meet Lord Barkley, something I had hoped to put off until the next day given the possibility of him tracking mud onto carpets, especially after learning at least one of them was a gift from Middle Eastern royalty.

Ace was eager to enter, and I attempted to keep him on a short leash. Lord Barkley gazed at him long and hard, a slightly surprised look on his face. He cautiously approached and, as he had done with me, gave him a slight sniff at first – as if at a wine tasting — followed by deeper sniffing.

His lordship — and 8-year-old Sheltie — remained totally calm about it all, his tail wagging rhythmically. He seemed unbothered by a strange dog entering a domain in which he has been the sole canine inhabitant, and where he, on the days the maid comes, enjoys breakfast in bed with his master.

Ace, who is used to smaller dogs excitedly jumping all over him, seemed to appreciate Lord Barkley’s sedate nature, and while I think he was eager to explore every nook and cranny of the mansion, Ace sat mostly still and behaved well.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be telling you more about Lord Barkley, his owner, and our cellar-dwelling lifestyle. For now though, the first thing we need to shine a light on is our living space, which, being underground, stays fairly dim. As a result, Ace and I – both normally early risers – are finding ourselves sleeping in. An alarm clock might be a good investment.

Still, those are minor details. As for the most major one – whether Ace and Lord Barkley would hit it off – I think they have. Both being calm and gentle types, I think they’re destined to become good friends during our days in the mansion.

My only worry is that Ace might start expecting breakfast in bed, too