If you deliver mail for a living you really get to hate dogs. They bark at you all day. After a while it’s like someone is driving a nail into your frontal lobes. Bark, bark, bark! They go crazy. Little ones, big ones, it doesn’t matter. Mail slots are the worst. The duct work acts as a megaphone. And don’t reach your fingers in too far or they might nip you. But what sucks the worst is tippy-toeing around their shit all day. You can’t help but step in it. The turds will be spread around the yards like land mines. There’s enough human shit in the world without adding to it with a whole lot of dog shit. I’ll never own a dog.
I’ve been bit twice. I know guys who have been bit several times. The little dogs we call ankle biters. Everybody fears the pit bulls. They can kill you. Last year, there was a guy on the north side of town who got horribly mauled by two of them. They had to sew him back together like Frankenstein. He took an early retirement. The worst part of stories like that is oftentimes, the owners just stand on the porch and watch.
I had a house on a route once where I had to hold the mail because of a pit bull. A chain-link fence enclosed the property, but the house had a slot and there was no way of knowing if the animal was in the backyard or not. The house was on Second Avenue alongside the freeway. If it was a collie, I might have given the fence a shake and delivered the mail. But this pit bull must have been part horse because it was huge–all muscle with a neck that looked like it could swallow a basketball. I left a note in the box saying that I was holding their mail at the station because of their dog. I suggested they stick their mailbox on the fence so I wouldn’t have to enter the yard. The next day I found the customer had attached a wire plant holder to the fence. There was nothing to protect the mail from the elements. This was definitely not a mailbox approved by the postmaster, but I didn’t care. I had to fasten the letters to the plant holder with rubber bands to keep them from blowing away. After a few days, the plant holder was taken down. A compact man in a tank-top swaggered out to greet me.
“Now, I’ve been out of town,” he began, flashing a gold-toothed smile. “My lady put that plant holder up there. I can’t have anyone who walks down the street being able to take my mail. You understand?”
“Yeah, you want your mail and I want to deliver it. But I’m really scared of your dog.”
“That dog is a family dog. It won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t doubt that dog loves your children, but that’s what makes it dangerous.”
A moment of silence passed. He began to say something then checked himself. I could sense his growing annoyance.
“Here’s your mail, sir,” I said, hoping to end the conversation as I handed him his cable bill. “All you have to do is head down to the hardware store and buy a mailbox, wire it to the outside of the fence and problem solved.”
“I rent this place. There’s a mailbox on the house.”
“I’m not risking my life to go in your yard. Now I deliver to hundreds of houses and walk through hundreds of lawns. Little bits of dog poop from all those yards are stuck to my shoes. When I walk into your yard, your dog thinks its territory is being violated by all those dogs.”
I watched the wheels turn as he digested this bit of canine pop-psychology I’d picked up from Animal Planet. I could tell he was biting his tongue again.
“Uh, I tell you what,” he suggested. “You come at the same time every day, right? I’ll just make sure the dog isn’t out then.”
“Well, for one thing, I don’t deliver this route every day. When I’m gone the mail could come at any time. And you’re not here all the time either. You have children coming in and out of the house. It’s not safe.”
“Can’t you just deliver my fucking mail?” he finally blurted in exasperation.
“No, sir, I cannot.” I replied flatly.
“Well, how about this. How about if I chain my dog up in the back yard? I promise to do that. Like I said, I been out of town and now I’m back and I’m going to make sure things get handled.”
I took my time answering. I thought he was as full of shit as his lawn.
“I’ll deliver. But if I see that dog loose, no more mail.”
I delivered the mail the rest of the week, but I was always sure to drive down the block first to see if the dog was out or not. Sure enough, the next week that dog was out and barking its head off as I drove by. No more mail, I thought, and resumed my hold. When I delivered to his neighbor’s house on Tuesday, he came out on the porch and shouted, “I thought I smelled you coming!”
I ignored him.
“This is bullshit,” he yelled. “You’re discriminating against my dog for being a pit!”
He came down to the station and complained, threw a hell of a tantrum. He ended up having to buy a mailbox and attach it to the fence.
My first dog bite happened early in my career when I was filling in on other carrier’s routes when they were sick or on vacation. The route I was carrying bordered a golf course that made the news that summer because of a horrific accident in which a little girl got her intestines sucked out by a swimming pool drain. There was this house with an old black lab with gray whiskers on his chin. The lab used to sleep the day away in the cool shade of the porch. He wasn’t always there and the porch was constructed in such a manner that made it difficult to see him. You never want to startle a dog, or any animal for that matter, but that’s what happened. I was in a hurry and completely forgot about the dog. I almost stepped on him. He rose to his feet snarling and barking. I back-pedaled off the porch with my adrenaline flowing. The lab clamped its jaws on my right leg above the knee. I shook loose and backed away with my satchel held out like a matador’s cape. The dog was really agitated and still trying to get at me. Instinctively, I shoved the magazines I had intended to deliver to the house into the dog’s mouth. I scrambled out of the yard and watched from a distance as the animal chewed at the mail. To my surprise, I looked down to find my leg was fine. My trousers didn’t even have any holes, just a stain of white saliva. The dog didn’t have any teeth. He had gummed me.
My second bite wasn’t much either. A woman going out to walk her toy poodle held the door of her apartment building open for me. She was an overweight twenty-something with an oversized purse slung over her shoulder and a McDonald’s latte in her hand. I hesitated momentarily. As I went by, sure enough, the dog snarled and nipped my ankle. I cried in pain and kicked it away.
“Did she bite you?” the woman asked.
“Yeah, she bit me!” I responded angrily.
I bent down and examined the ankle. There was a red mark where the dog’s sharp little canine had just punctured my skin.
“Please, tell me that dog has had its shots.”
She claimed it had. I didn’t have time for paperwork. I told her it would be all right. She and her precious pooch walked away. It burned me that she hadn’t corrected the dog in any way. There are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Nowadays when a customer says a dog is too little to hurt me, I always think to myself, “yeah, a rat’s small too, but I really wouldn’t want one biting me.”
Even after Emily had returned to health, I wasn’t right. I worried. With cancer you never knew. And my father’s death still haunted me. I was irritable and over-reacted to everything. My job didn’t help matters. As a mailman I get paid by the hour, but the constant haggling with supervisors about how long a route takes can really get to a person after a while. I put in an honest day’s work. But whatever you give, they always want more. Couple that with the sweltering heat and humidity of July and you have a rather grumpy mailman.
There was a basset hound that lived near the end of my route. He was usually chained up at the side of the house and he would always bark like mad when I delivered. But there had been two occasions, both on Saturdays, when the dog was free and came at me. I could tell before I saw him that he was loose because his baleful howl would be more frenzied than normal and become louder as he got closer. When he raced around the corner of the house, I could tell he wanted blood. Despite his stubby legs and dragging ears, the animal was incredibly fast. I had to dance like a fool with only my satchel to keep him at bay until one of the owners managed to restrain him.
It was a cloudless summer day. As I approached the house I could hear the conversation and laughter of some sort of gathering out back. I entered the yard cautiously. The front door was open. I climbed the steps and placed the mail as quietly as I could down the slot. Then I heard him. I reached into my satchel and gripped my small can of pepper-spray. I had been sure to pack it because it was a Saturday and I was afraid he might be out. I had never actually pepper-sprayed a dog before. In the situations I had call to use it I had always been too panicked to even try. I was curious what this stuff would actually do to a dog. I could hear the beast hastening toward me. Strike three, I thought. When I got the bottom of the steps he ran up to me and I calmly let him have it. He froze dumbly in his tracks, stunned for a moment. I expected him to turn tail and run away. But he continued to yowl and advance toward me. I sprayed again continuously, catching him squarely in the face. The lids of his sad droopy eyes were stained red as if by a thick application of mascara. I felt a momentary pang of guilt that was quickly erased by the stupidity of his continued barking.
“Oh, my God!” I heard a woman scream. “What are you doing to my dog? You asshole!”
I gave him one last good spray before she leaned in and grabbed him by the collar. She kneeled down and wiped his face with her hands
“You are such a fucking asshole!” she said hysterically.
“That was the third time,” I said. “Your dog will be fine. You should have had him chained up.”
It seemed like a good time to leave. I continued to deliver mail to the block. When I reached the opposite house, the woman’s husband and one of his buddies started yelling at me.
“We saw the whole thing. That wasn’t right, man! I’m gonna call your manager and tell him what you did!”
“I did my job,” I responded.
“You’ll be lucky to have a job! I’m gonna have you removed from this route!”
All I could think was that I belonged to a union that made both those threats unlikely to happen. I got back to my truck and phoned my supervisor. I was shaken. Nothing like that had happened to me in a long time. I worked so hard to get the mail delivered to that neighborhood and now I just felt like shit. I kind of wished I hadn’t pepper-sprayed the dog, but why did they issue us that stuff if they didn’t want us to use it? The next day I was informed by the manager that the customer had come down to the station and accused me of pepper-spraying his wife in front of a dozen kids at a birthday party. I chuckled in disgust and repeated to her what had actually happened. She warned me not to get into any kind of confrontation with the people and to hold their mail.
A day later I got a call from a postal inspector. I gave him my account of the incident. I told him what the husband had said about spraying his wife. He said the pepper spray was on the dog and she touched the dog. I hung up believing he was on my side. I never heard anything more about it. The dog still barks at me, but he is never loose. I guess someone learned a lesson.