“How old is he?” I ask the man who hovers over the little black dog. His white chin hints at an older age.
We leashed both Aussie and Henry as the two approached, which is our usual protocol when someone comes down the path, till we have the all-important exchange: Is he friendly? Ours are friendly. It’s a simple and important dialogue. If the answer is yes on both sides, it promises mutual sniffing, feinting, jumping, racing, and the possibility of an all-around frolic. If the answer is no, or even yes with caveats (He’s still a puppy and gets nervous, or She gets intense around other dogs), we keep Aussie and Henry on leash, smile, bid adieu.
In this case, the answer is “He’s afraid,” so we keep both dogs on leash. As far as how old he is, the answer is: “I don’t know.”
“What’s his name?”
“Hobo the Railroad Dog,” comes the answer. And before I know it, the man launches into his tale:
“I’m a train engineer,” he tells us. “I’m in the locomotive driving the train and we come to a stop. While we’re waiting I look out and something shines way down below in the bottom of a ravine literally under the tracks. I look again, and I realize it’s eyes, a dog’s eyes. He fell between the tracks right into a deep hole and there was no way he could get out. I wondered how long he’d been there. So, I got off the locomotive and walked down the tracks towards him and got him out. He was all skin and bones, hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for days probably. His ribs were showing. I picked him up, climbed back onto the locomotive, and we got on our way.
“My wife and I, we lost our dogs a couple of years ago and we decided at our age we weren’t going to get any more. We brought him to a local shelter and I called about a week later. Nobody’d picked him up; I think they were spooked by how thin he was. So, I went down there and picked him up myself, and now we got us another dog after all. I called him Hobo the Railroad Dog.”
Hobo looks at us vigilantly while his story is being told, and even Henry has the good sense not to bark. Aussie, on the other hand, sits on the ground, a skeptical look on her face.
“How could anybody take something that looks like that home?” she sniffs from the back seat once we get back to the car.
“A lot of hobos were like that, Auss,” I tell her. “Now it’s harder to ride the trains, but back then they often didn’t have a home or family, nobody wanted them. And after you live on the trains long enough, you probably don’t look that great, either. We used to live on the streets for days at a time in street retreats. Believe me, it doesn’t take long for you to start looking scraggly. There was usually plenty of food in food pantries and soup kitchens, but you couldn’t wash regularly or change your clothes, you got wet in the rain, you didn’t have a bed in which to sleep.”
“I wouldn’t take you home looking like that, either,” says Aussie.
I thank her.
“Besides, if I took you home, then what about all the other homeless humans I should take home? Once you start, you never stop. It’s better not to even start.”
“You know, Aussie, we never know when the stop happens. We have no idea how things will turn out.”
“I know how this will turn out. If I adopt too many humans, there goes my home. Caring for them, feeding them, training them. Do you know how much attention and work humans need?”
“If you think like that, Auss, you won’t do anything. Think of just one human. Let’s say it’s me. You see me on the street and I’m hungry, what do you do?”
“Nothing. You’re overweight already.”
“And what are you, Auss?”
“The point is, Aussie, I don’t have solutions for the problems of the world and I certainly have no idea how things end. I try to respond to things as they come up. Hobo lies down in a deep hole between the train tracks, I get off my locomotive and get him out. Even if I can’t keep him myself, I take him to the next step, which in his case was a shelter. Hobo’s companion didn’t plan on keeping him, he just did what had to be done that moment, see?”
“But what happens if nobody adopts him?”
“I can only respond to this moment, Aussie, not worry about how things will eventually turn out.”
“If I take you home from the streets, you’d never leave. And I’d have to brush you every day.”
“Aussie, I think it was the other way. Bernie and I took you out of a shelter, remember?”
“And I never left, see? Lucky for you I’m so adorable.”
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