Saturday, September 14, 2019


My love for Soot, a dog, grew deeper as we aged, more gentle, more forgiving, and seemingly more understanding. English boxers grow not much more than ten. When I turned sixty, Soot was eleven. I remember Soot as a rambunctious puppy. Before that, I remember my son Avery’s carefully scripted presentations that laid-out his case to select and care for a dog. He did a wonderful job. Soot came from Minstrel Boxers, in Easton, Maryland. Katherine Nevius heads Minstrel. She raises champions and is a mainstay of the boxer community. We gained Soot on “breeder’s terms,” which meant that Katherine had the right to breed Soot and select pups for her ownership and care. Because Soot showed mild overbite and skittish disposition, Katherine chose not to breed Soot, and Soot became fully ours — Avery’s — at age three.

Soot’s registered name is “Minstrel Coal Dust,” Soot for short, because her color is more black than standard. We kept the name when she joined our family. I like “Soot” because it is humble, simple, and earthy — as a dog should be, a thing of nature — albeit high-bred.

As a pup Soot was vastly energetic, running chaotically and without discipline, so most often she was on-leash in our leafy, suburban neighborhood. On divorce, Carolyn moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring. Avery hesitantly approached me and asked if I would take and care for Soot. (He was in college and could not.) I was delighted by the gift. I paid the balance for our Arlington, Virginia, home and made it my own. A year or so after, I decided to move into the city, a better location for a single man. Soot came along. I was born in DC and grew-up in Chevy Chase. I shopped many houses, from resplendent colonials on the Carter Barron “Gold Coast,” Barnaby Woods, and Cleveland Park, to old row houses on Capitol Hill, Glover Park, Adams Morgan, Foxhal, and the southwest waterfront. I sought an easy commute to work, walking distance to the subway, and something “fun” — near nightlife and restaurants.

I was a “young man in an old body” and sought a vibrant life after a not-so-fun 32-year relationship. I did not consider Georgetown because I thought it was too expensive. When my friend called and told me of a Georgetown house around the corner from hers coming to market, I asked, “How big?” It was about 1,350 square feet. I said I was not interested. Moving from my Arlington place, with about 2,500 square feet (not counting an attic and basement littered with stuff), I said I needed at least 2,000. A few days later my agent went to the realtor’s open house. She telephoned: “Jim, this is your place.” On Saturday I went and looked. It was charming, an 1895 four-level row house that was gently cared for by two aging men. (They were selling because the older had Parkinson’s and could not negotiate the stairs.) The place was like a well-kept ship, with cabinets and cupboards for everything, and twisty stairs rising from top-to-bottom. (I installed sailboat grab rails aside the stair.) In back was a walled garden, a place for Soot’s ministrations along with a specimen maple as old as the house, huge, rising from hosta, vining hydrangea, clematis, fern, and ivy. One of the difficulties in buying a place were my conflicting vectors for close-to-work, near transit, and near parks where I could walk and run Soot. I liked Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan, but the parks were small or distant. Georgetown had it all — a couple blocks from the beautiful Rose Park, where dogs run free; and near the C&O Canal, Potomac River, Dumbarton Oaks, Montrose, and Rock Creek parks. It was just a mile from Foggy Bottom Metro, close to bike paths and buses, and five miles to work. The home was steps from restaurants, bars, and music, including Blues Alley and the Kennedy Center. Price was an ass-tightener: $1.2 million. I wrote a full-price contract, and the place was mine. I sold the Arlington house to a builder who bulldozed the family home and built a multi-million dollar McMansion.

I painted my new place, selected furniture from Arlington, and moved-in with help from my Italian lawyer-professor-friend-lover. The place enchanted. Big parties ensued. Soot loved the place. Of the three bedrooms, one was hers (alternatively, a guest room); the others became my den and the master bedroom, at the top of the house, surrounded by windows, an aerie. Karen called it the “GT Love Shack.” Such fun.

Then age seven, Soot and I would walk to Rose Park, where she’d be freed from leash and gambol with other dogs. She loved to find concavities and writhe in the deeper grass, scratching her back and covering scent. Initially, Soot was more urgent and pulling as we walked the few city blocks — Olive, N and 29th — to the parks, but I trained her and we became familiar. Soon she heeled and walked untethered at my side. Now, age eleven, Soot has less energy — and usually trails behind. I stop at every corner, and we cross together when no cars are near. She wins praise from many: “So well behaved!” I love this girl. We journey together — from Chapel Hill to visit Avery, to New York, Maine, and Canada. Sometimes she joins me for classes at Hopkins or Princeton. Soot is easy, gentle, and beautiful. While not the planet’s brightest creature, I impute great intellect and empathy upon her. Such is the habit of a single male, a dog’s best friend.

At Soot’s Camp, my pup eats full, large meals — sometimes grilled steak — and she poops in tall grasses, sallies about the pond, and snores and farts before the wood stove, atop her wool mat.

Life is lovely.

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