Reprinted with the author's permission. Mr. Rubenstein's beautiful piece of writing originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 10, 2015.
A Labrador who had better things to do than retrieve
by Steve Rubenstein
Tioga, a yellow Labrador retriever, was 13 years old. And she was a good dog.
In the newspaper racket you write a lot of obituaries about lowlifes who don’t deserve one. Here’s an obituary about someone who does.
Tioga, 13, died the other day. She was a good dog.
She was good at everything a dog is good at, and she liked the work. She liked Fort Funston at sunrise, especially going down the steep trail to the beach and seeing whether anyone had left behind anything promising. She liked the Pacific Ocean up to a point, which was somewhere between her ankles and her haunches. She knew how to swim, but she was smart enough not to do it in the Pacific Ocean. She was a smart dog, so what she was doing with the likes of me is anyone’s guess.
Being a good dog does not mean she did not do bad things. One of them was to roll on dead seagulls. Just when you think you understand dogs, they do something to remind you that you don’t. After a while, my car smelled a lot like dead seagulls, which tended to cut down on the free rides that friends asked me to give them.
She was a retriever, but she usually had something better to do than retrieve. Every morning, The Chronicle would hit the doorstep, and every morning the two of us would go downstairs. One of us would retrieve The Chronicle, and it wouldn’t be her. Maybe she was smart enough, unlike her owner, to have nothing to do with newspapers.
Early most mornings, before first light, we used to slip into Miraloma Park, which is around the corner from our house in San Francisco. There are two signs on the gate at Miraloma Park — one of them says dogs aren’t allowed, and the other one says dogs must be on a leash. Tioga chose to read the second sign, and that was good enough for me, but while we were sniffing around we did keep a weather eye out, in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat on our six legs.
Now that Tioga isn’t around, she can’t get in trouble for having her cover blown. We reporters are supposed to protect our sources. The law can’t touch her now and neither can anyone else, and that’s too bad, because she was worth touching, especially the spot behind her right ear.
She was a yellow Labrador retriever. People were always asking whether she was golden. Owners of yellow Labrador retrievers get asked that a lot. A golden retriever and a yellow Labrador retriever are different kinds of retrievers. But, to answer the question, yes, she was golden. Especially her heart. She knew when something was bothering her housemates, and she would take the time to lie down at that person’s feet and make the problem with the stupid teacher or the stupid boyfriend or the stupid editor go away. She didn’t do it because there was a biscuit in it for her, although usually there was.
She liked driving around with car windows open. People prefer the windows closed and dogs prefer the windows open, and in this matter, as in everything else of importance, dogs are correct. An open window lets things in, and a closed one shuts them out. Dogs have things figured right. I learned a lot more from her than she ever learned from me.
She liked people, although she did bark at some of them, like the trash collector, who was always showing up on Wednesday mornings to take all that wonderful stuff away. (The bark was just part of the job description. Her nature permitted nothing involving teeth.)
She liked cheddar cheese, Lake Merced, tennis balls, bananas and the sound of a harmonica. She liked the last bite of a sandwich from the Safeway deli, and she liked the last rays of a sunset at Ocean Beach, and she liked the last days of her life, even if she didn’t understand why things had stopped working. Or maybe she did. Dogs understand some things better than humans, and they keep their own counsel.
She died at the vet’s office. The vet said that maybe it was her time. My wife said maybe it was, and I said maybe it was, too. It seems like such a reasonable way to settle things, unlike the system they have for humans. Dogs have things figured out, all right. First the thing about the open windows, and now this.
Tioga was a good dog. If she could see the way her housemates are now, she would know what to do about it. She never got the important stuff wrong.
Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:
Thank you Susan for bringing this article to our attention.