Dogs at large

The dogs were determined, six in a haphazard row, straight from Disney, a mix of colors, sizes, and uncertain breeds. They looked as though they owned the streets but had a higher power to which they owed an answer.

God, or certainly as close as it would come for the dogs this day, was no more than five-foot-four, graybearded, and squinting like a man who has spent his life looking at the sun. This man, homeless by almost any estimation, gave dirt and muck a reason to be. Squinting, post-tired, and hobbling down the sidewalk, he pulled his chariot, a two-wheeled cart full of the the town’s detritus and the man’s treasures. Sitting on the uppermost shelf of this franken-wagon were five huge pieces of meat. Mostly bone, cartilage, and fat, the leftover cuts from some generous nearby butcher hung perilously close to the edge.

This is why the dogs followed this god of the streets. They knew the meat was there, and they knew the old man had zero fight in him. If the meat fell, it would go to the dogs instead of the god.

While I watched, the meat didn’t fall, the dogs pretended indifference, and the man squinted into an overcast afternoon on a street in the middle of Nowhere, Argentina.

***

Protesting workers shut down the main highway from Buenos Aires to Rosario. A steel mill in the region had shut out the workers. Instead of moaning, filing for unemployment, or finding another job, they did what comes natural to the people of this country: they protested. They stood in the middle of major highways. When the traffic re-routed itself through the backroads and out-of-view slums, the workers went there. It’s an attention-getter, and the police do little to put an end to it.

The workers have experience in this. Said one of my Latin American friends, “Go to Buenos Aires. There are two protests a day.”

An American traveling the same route I did asked, “How long are they going to stay there?”

“They put up inflatable jump-houses for their kids beside the road,” was the only answer he got.

Workers march on Rosario

There is nothing resembling violence in these protests. The same workers marched on the casino where I worked all week. They held giant banners and Argentinean flags. They burned a tire–maybe as a smoke signal to others, maybe just for dramatic effect. I couldn’t tell. Police stood by with shields and riot guns. Our local fixer arranged us a ride and we made it out after an hour without incident.

If you know anything about South American protests, you know the name Che Guevara. I’ve spent the past week in the place where Che lived in his youth. There are kids in America who wear Che shirts but know next to nothing of the guy. Chances are the same kids haven’t stood in the middle of a highway for two days as traffic backed up for a hundred miles.

This is a hard country for an American to understand. It feeds grass to its cattle, it lets its dogs run free, and it protests every injustice that it can find. Some Americans would be inspired. Others would be disgusted. I don’t know how to feel when I’m here. It’s my second trip to a beautiful country full of friendly people and I still don’t understand it.

***

“I’ve been arrested 68 times,” my dinner companion said. Five of us sat around the table. We had 68 arrests among us.

The man–who many people in my industry know, but I won’t name, because Google routinely bites him in the ass and his baby mama doesn’t like the types of activities he enjoys on the road–told us story after story. I don’t know how many were true, but I looked up his arrest record, and he wasn’t lying about that. Battery, unlawful use of a weapon, you name it, he’s been arrested for it. Most of the cases were dismissed for reasons we were unable to fully understand.

“He shot me. So when I got out of the hospital I found him and beat him with a shovel,” the man told us. We believed him unconditionally. We didn’t judge more than we had to. Nobody’s perfect.

The least of the 68 arrests–and the ones for which our man was surely guilty–came in response to the guy letting his dog run free, off a leash, like most every dog we see in Argentina. The charge? Dogs At Large.

We finished dinner with the guy near 1am. He paid and wouldn’t take our money.

“When I’m broke, I’ll need you to buy me a meal,” he told us. He wasn’t joking and we felt fairly confident there would be a day sometime down the road that we’d be buying the guy some food–if he wasn’t in jail. Three years ago he was a millionaire. Now, he was happy about winning a few thousand bucks, because it was all he had.

I got in a cab that night and waxed for a few minutes about the guy. “He’s earnest,” I told my companions. “He’s earnest, and honest. That’s more than you can say for a lot of people in this business.”

Privately, I looked out at the streets of Rosario, Argentina and thought that the guy’s arrest record wasn’t just a record. The man was a walking, smoking, heavy-breathing Dog At Large.

****

Tonight we took that that same ride again. We rode down rain-soaked streets in an old Renault, the Gipsy Kings playing on a cassette tape, and dogs wandering the sidewalks outside. The driver was Argentinean. A Costa Rican sat in the passenger seat. I was in the back with a girl from L.A. As the Gipsy Kings sang, we all clapped along, even the driver, with his hands off the wheel and his voice rising up in harmony.

It was a romantic ride though an old city. We sang, clapped, and smiled. Three of us would be leaving for Buenos Aires within 12 hours. We’d be back on the highway and surely stuck as protestors stood in the rain and made clear their dissatisfaction with the order of the day.

I live in worldwide realm where my complaints marry with the moans of everyone else on channels of brackish, mundane social networks. At any given hour, I can look online at the gripes of people who want more, can’t handle what they have, or have found some way to disrespect the simple honor of waking up every day. I am no exception, though I’m trying hard to rise above the ridiculously easy path of self-perpetuated misery. Though I’m completely connected in every way, it takes journeys like this one to understand that American gridlock–both personal and societal–is an illusion, and a destructive one at that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those dogs back in the middle of the run-down town a few miles off the main highway. They have no place and every place to go. They look for the meat and smile their canine smiles. If they have to follow the squinting street god, they do, and if he doesn’t drop a bone, they’ll make do in whatever way they can. They are a four-legged version of my oft-arrested dinner companion, a man who has made and lost a million bucks, but still laughs like yesterday was just happy foreplay that led to today.

That is a long way of saying, no matter how much we may think of ourselves, no matter how proud we are of our country, no matter how much meat we found in the streets yesterday, we’re all just dogs at large.