An early-March Santa Ana blows a dry, sepia haze across the city, the kind of day that burns the eyes like kerosene.
I am having a late breakfast in the 12th and Broadway Coffee Shop, where the Orange Line Trolley diagonally intersects both streets downtown. Across the table is Russell Hartsaw, a chunk of American granite, this man. The red tee under his black overshirt makes him look like a street preacher at the collar.
“They won't even let you have fish,” he says.
"Not even fish? Why is that?"
"Beats the hell outta me. I never really pursued it to ask 'em, ya know."
We're talking about pets and his room at the Trolley Court Residential Hotel across the tracks. I had read on Russ' website this:
"The one thing that I want more than anything that I can think of is a dog. A dog to love, take care of and go on walks with. And with my limited income I will never be able to afford a place where dogs are allowed."
"When I was a little kid," he says, "I remember having a dog, and me and the dog, we were, like, inseparable."
"You had a dog?
"Yeah, right before my parents took off on me."
Russ was 9 years old when he came home one afternoon to find his parents had abandoned him. He never saw them again.
"Me and the dog, we were best friends. You find me one place, you find the dog; you find the dog one place, you find me. Through the years, in prison, you find a lot of artists. A lot 'em became friends of mine; they knew my love of dogs so they would paint pictures, portraits and stuff with dogs, give 'em to me for my birthday and Christmas, and I had all kinds of 'em hanging in my cell. I'd just look at 'em and smile, you know."
He smiles over his coffee. Russ began his prison stretch around 20 years old for bank robbery, and was released around 65. That was four years ago. He did the crime, he did the time, but it's not as easy as an aphorism. After 44 years of anything but solitude, he now finds himself alone in the midst of company.
"You know dogs, they don't have a hidden agenda." Russ pauses, and the liveliness of the diner goes on around us—clanking pans in the kitchen, people talking at the lunch counter.
"Same with cats," he continues. "They don't lie to ya, play games with you and the whole nine yards. They're there for you exclusively, and when you leave 'em behind, even for an hour, they go nuts. They want to be with you."
"I think everyone should have an animal in their life. They're better people."
These are not the eternal words of Yogi Berra, but Jules Martindale, volunteering with the San Diego Humane Society's Pet Assisted Therapy Program, and we are in a Society van cruising south on Interstate 805.
"It's something really crucial," she adds, turning around in her seat.
Sallie Knowlton, the van's driver, is also volunteering. Kathie Huisenfeldt is the third blue-smocked volunteer sitting with me in the back. The remaining volunteers are behind us in travel cages. There's Kramer and Nemo, two frisky albino rats; a calico Peruvian guinea pig named Crackers; and a black rabbit called-what else-Midnight.
Today we are visiting Spring Valley, specifically Mount Miguel Covenant Village, where seniors "discover the possibilities" of their retirement. There they play shuffleboard, and if they live in Brandel Terrace, the assisted-living building on campus, they are visited regularly by volunteers wrangling rodents ready to writhe through their fingers and up their arms, much to the glee of everyone.
We are talking about residents remembering childhood pets when Kathie turns to me and says, "It's an icebreaker to conversing with these people, a common bond you can talk about and ask them questions. I mean, how often during the week does somebody actually show interest in conversing with them and talking with them about their lives?"
"Never," says Jules, looking straight out the windshield, as if the word "never" alone could wind a clock.
"That's not true," Sallie counters.
"You must have a beautiful facility," Jules says.
"No, it's not, but you have this weird perception that old people are totally alone and isolated, and it's not necessarily true." Sallie works with seniors during the week in Mission Hills.
Jules: "Not necessarily, but that's been my experience. I've worked in them, too."
Sallie: "Their goal is to give residents music therapy one day, pet therapy, a magician one day. The typical place is that we're not there because they have nothing else to do."
As we arrive at Mount Miguel, I wonder how it must feel waiting for a certain day of the week to listen to music or pet a cat. The managed life of vulnerability reminds me instantly of grade school, only these folks aren't here to be graded-they live here.
Once in the parlor, Jules channels Patti Page by singing, "How much is that doggie in the window?" while holding the hand of an oldster as lanky as Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath.
A talking dog could convey the beneficence of these visits, and there is no opposition from anyone. I feel only compassion as Crackers and Midnight rest in small plastic tubs while wizened hands caress their willing fur. Kramer and Nemo, more curious, scamper over shoulders and beneath sweaters.
"The one with the waggly tail...."
There are other organizations, such as Pets for the Elderly, that meet similar needs, matching elders with adoptions rather than euthanizing animals, which rings Bob Barker's register. There is even a program in which therapy dogs sit with kids who have trouble reading, and you don't need a geriatrics professor to list the similarities between aging and childhood.
"I do hope that doggie's for sale," Jules finishes.
"Bow-wow!" barks Tom Joad with a vigor to blush Jack Lalane.
Earlier in the day, I wandered the halls of the Humane Society. In one well-kept cat's eyes I saw the longing for a friend, the empty morning halls, the confinement, hoping for another time and place, for touch, a companion. Cats are like that.
"Not today, my friend," I told him. He put his silent paw up to the glass and high-fived me, eyes down.
There are Society volunteers going out twice a day, seven days a week. They are booked with visit requests until June.
"There's quite a bit of demand," I notice.
"Well, it's time," Jules says. "Shoulda done this 50, 70 years ago, but nobody would let a dog in."
Breakfast arrives, and Russ continues:
"So, ah, I spent probably my first year out trying to find a place that was comparable to my income where I could have a pet. I was even willing to sacrifice—I mean, I've had friends that's had cats in prison. I was in one prison, we had like 30 cats in the yard. They never been outside; they all grew up in prison.
"Many times we'd get a new administration, they'd threaten to take the cats out, and inmates would start burning the place down. ‘You wanna take the cats? OK, we'll burn this place to the ground!' Then the Warden come in there, ‘No, no, we're not touching the cats!' And if one of the cats got sick, had to go to the vet'inarian, they'd take up a collection amongst the inmates, whatever its medical bill was, you know, we'd take care of it. They had people that went out and fed those cats so well that most 'em were in a true sense ‘fat cats,' right?"
"Because they ate all the time," I deduce.
"People go buy, like, a pack of tuna, they'd go out there and look for their favorite cat, and grub 'em down. And there was 2,000 people there. You can imagine how many times the cats would get fed. I seen 'em turn their nose, ‘Oh, I can't eat another bite!'" Russ laughs at the absurdity of a cat turning down tuna. "Man, we loved those cats."
"The cats weren't allowed inside?"
"Nah, it's out in the yard, and they built houses for 'em—cat condos. Them cats were spoiled, spoiled rotten. So I'm not 100 percent, you know, if I found a place, ‘Yeah, you can have a pet, it's gotta be a cat,' I would live with that. I could live with that."
La Jolla, Calif., Jewel of the Sea, home to a conglomeration of high-post body-mod clinics and young colonists' daughters, dogs in hand, shining that space-cadet glow. Decrepitude is hunted as sport here, and spat at like a witch.
It's sundown at White Sands of La Jolla, billed as beachfront "retirement living that's really living." A boss stretch limo out front is anything but a jalopy, and it seems the lobby is a mezzanine looking down on an expansive hall a half-floor below. Politeness and serenity are abundant, and it strikes me as an all-inclusive resort, only these folks aren't on vacation-they live here, and like at Mount Miguel, the residents have a piece of the action.
White Sands adheres to The Eden Alternative, a trademarked philosophy that, paraphrased, connects animals, plants and children with seniors to supplant the loneliness, boredom and helplessness that overtakes you when pride is no longer enough to keep you alive without assistance. At first glance, the Eden website is seductive, a social manifesto, so I scope the place out for myself.
"We've just become such a busy society."
I'm talking with Eden program director Barbara Arbuthnot about what promotes symptoms of alienation in seniors.
"We don't have time to take care of our elders. Just looking back, I think when we had the rural society and farms, it was like that—we took care of each other, and we took care of our elders. Families have become separated. I think distance makes a big difference, distance and busyness."
Many retirement communities have three care levels, and White Sands is no different. Residents can choose to live here independently, or they can opt for assisted living, where reduced agility necessitates partial care. Most complex is skilled nursing, when you're almost completely infirm and dependent. Like any business, the more help you need, as a business or resident, the more it costs and the more it will be regulated.
"I think private industry is going in this direction," Barbara says, "especially assisted living. I have heard that some of the skilled nursings don't go with Eden because they don't feel they can because of government standards and regulations that are in place. Dogs can't come in unless they've been bathed and have the training."
I ask how similar communities compare to White Sands.
"Very rigid, sterile—you couldn't have animals flying around or cats sitting on the couch."
There is one roaming cat living here whose name is Prince. I encounter a svelte orange and yellow parrot, clamoring and pacing on his metal cage while I snap photos right in his face. He pauses and gives me the stink eye.
Barbara brings up a point I had not yet considered.
"Technology is bringing us back together in a different way. So many of our residents are computer savvy, and they communicate with their grandchildren. A lot of them have cell phones; they're walking through the hall and their cell phone rings."
"Do the animals bring residents closer together?" I ask.
"When we had the dog, they all went outside and watched the dog getting a bath. Prince, he wanders all over the place. He'll hop on a walker and ride. Then there's the chaos if the bird gets out, but that's part of life. That's the spontaneity of life."
Mrs. Chambers walks by. "My kitty likes it here," she says.
"Pets should be living here," Barbara says. "Those programs are wonderful, and we've had them come in, but it doesn't replace the animals actually being here in the apartment."
Russ reflects and sips his refilled coffee.
"One day I was walkin' through the Salvation Army store, and up on the shelf lay this big, dirty stuffed dog, right? And when I look in his eyes, he looked in mine, like, ‘Get me outta here!' So I immediately bought it, took it up to the counter and the lady started laughing. She said, ‘That's the dirtiest street dog I've ever seen!' I took this big floppy-eared dog home. I got his picture on my website."
"I saw that," I said. "‘Rascal,' right?"
"Rascal. I give 'em a shower, put 'im on a towel, brushed him out, and for three years he's kept a smile on my face. Couple times he scared the hell outta me."
"How'd he scare you?" I ask, between mouthfuls of oatmeal.
"Well, I had my room sprayed for insects. I got a whole collection of stuffed pets, you know, and I had all my pets lined up on the bed, they got their own spots and stuff, and I came back and Rascal had his nose buried all the way in the pillow, and the maintenance guy came in and looked, and he says, ‘That's not the way we left 'im.' I said ‘I know. It's like Rascal's tryin' to block off the fumes from the sprayin.' He wasn't in a position where he could just, like, fall into the pillow, and I really tripped on that. I'm going, ‘I'm convinced this dog is possessed.' So, ever watch Montel Williams? Remember that psychic he's got, Sylvia Browne?"
"Sylvia Browne, yeah."
"I called her one day, and I told her about Rascal. You'd never guess what her answer was. There are some crazy answers she comes up with."
"She probably told you it was the dog you had when you were a kid, and he'd been reincarnated."
"No. She says, ‘This is your guardian angel.' You know, she's heavy on guardian angels, and she says, ‘They know you want a dog, so they've given you a dog to interact with.'"
"Takes on a higher meaning," I offer.
"It trips me out, it's not logic," Russ says.
"Do you think it's your imagination?"
"Nah, I been examined by too many psychiatrists. You know, a lotta times I just like to go out and do things. I don't have a real dog, so I go out and I buy Rascal presents. I let him watch TV with me, so I went to the Salvation Army-I seen this nice chair, so I bought 'im his own chair."
"Would you call yourself a senior, Russ?"
"Realistically, yeah. You know, people like to approach the subject of, ah, death. I tell people that's already been decided in my case. God and Satan got together-neither one of 'em wants me, so they thought they'd just leave me here on Earth. Everyone starts laughin', right? But I was telling a friend of mine I have a standard prayer I say every night. I'll say, ‘Thank you, God, for a good day. Please look out for my furry family. Thank you for them, and please look out for the people that need your help, and don't forget me, I been there. I love you, I respect you and I thank you. Have a good night, God. Pleasant dreams.'"
Russ shares his mightiest prayer lacking any hint or fear of vulnerability. I know Russ is real because of this. I know I am hearing the truth.
We're almost finished eating.
"Thanks, Russ. Well, let me ask you this: Do you see any similarities between growing old and being in prison?"
Russ doesn't pause.
"In prison you don't grow old. I seen senior citizens walkin' the streets of San Diego obviously so much alone. You can see it, in the way they hunch their shoulders, the sadness on their faces. You know, it's like you and I, we're sittin' here enjoying each other's company. They go out to eat, they don't have anybody to share their meal with."
"Not even a dog," I say.
"Exactly. They're lonely. They need some company, they need somethin' in their life to give a damn about, a dog or a cat."
"A lot of them aren't allowed, wherever they're living, to have animals," says Alan Elster. "When they had their own houses, they had pets, and so they miss their dogs."
At Elster's side is Gabby, a mixed-breed longhair. Gabby, it seems, once went into an Alzheimer's unit and got an unresponsive woman to speak.
"The woman looks down at her and says, ‘Well, my, my, aren't you the most well-behaved dog,'" says Alan's wife Debbie. "Then all of a sudden she was back into her own world again.
"It's something they don't have to think about too much," Debbie adds.
The Elsters and I are at the Carlsbad by the Sea Retirement Community, a skosh west of Interstate 5, and high enough on the cliffs where the fresh, foggy breezes never languish. There is an elegant dining room off the lobby, with wait staff currently serving Sunday brunch, clothed tables for large groups, high ceilings and curtains to imbue Scarlett O'Hara with a velvet jealousy.
Mary Lee Kendrick describes CBTS as the "Cadillac" of places she visits, and there are many. She's a visit captain from the Love on a Leash organization, and her partner is Cody, a gray toy poodle with his own business card.
These volunteers bring their own dogs, and we have the run of the assisted-living floor, going in and out of rooms like attending physicians. The hall is broad and carpeted comfortably, an amber-gray series of rectangles, and it reminds me of the beginning of the film The Wall, Pink Floyd's symphonic fever-dream of disconnection.
I ask Mary Lee her thoughts on our culture's place for seniors.
"I think when people, like teenagers, want to say, ‘We know it all' and ‘This is our time, and that was your time,' they just don't understand it. That's probably why they try to push them in a corner. ‘Oh, it's too much trouble to go see Grandma' or ‘Grandmother's not going to know my name-she's better off in bed' and ‘Why am I there?'"
Without someone old there can be no one young-that's why.
"I would just like to see continuity," she concludes, "and that we have places for these people whether they're real rich or poor. We're all gonna get to that level eventually."
One thing straight: Russ isn't some lackadaisical ex-con trying to wheedle his way back into civilization. He's an online journalist and a working advocate for homeless kids, and he has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice administration. He suffered a stroke but is still as lucid as the second star to the right.
I tell Russ my experiences with the Humane Society volunteers.
"I like the Humane Society," he says. "Drives me crazy when I see 'em bring a dog on KUSI that needs a home. I want a dog and I can't get the dog that needs a home."
"What would have to happen for you to be able to get a dog?" I ask.
"I check out rents and stuff—in fact, if I could find somebody at Trolley Court that was worth a damn, we could easily afford a two-bedroom apartment by the park and not cost us any more than we're payin' now if we do it together. There I'm away from this crappy downtown area, I'd see trees and bushes and flowers instead of concrete and steel and homeless people fallin' over dead drunk. Now they're talkin' about buildin' a high-rise hotel next to my window. Can't win for losin'."
Outside, the trolley horn double-burps, "Departing."
"I think," he explains, "senior citizens, you know, I've seen things here in San Diego that's totally blew me away. You can tell a senior that's homeless. It's like takin' a picture it's so obvious. I've seen people walkin' down the street, no shoes and socks. I seen one guy layin' on the street, and nobody even give 'im a second look. Messed-up society, nobody cares."
According to the California Department of Aging, our state has the largest elderly population in the country, and that population is expected to grow at twice the rate of our total state population.
Before I leave Carlsbad by the Sea, I speak with Del Saenz, weekend concierge at the front desk. Del keeps a box of Milk Bones stashed under the counter for the dogs and has a direct, aw-shucks way about him.
"Is being alone and elderly a problem?" I ask.
"Well, we've had spouses that pass away, but the thing about being here is that, because of the friendships that are made, the residents have an easier time dealing with the loss of a spouse, instead of after the funeral and after the relatives go home and they're by themselves in that house where they lived with that spouse. There's always somebody here. It's not easy, but it's a lot easier than being out in a neighborhood by themselves."
The Trolley Court Residential Hotel guards the entrance to a box canyon of architecture and rock just south of a cotillion of condos that juts sharply into the cityscape like the bow of a blue fantasy-glass schooner. Concrete dust consumes us as a deafening saw cuts the roadbed for a new trolley station, and there is a mangled chain-link fence over which Russ stands defiant, smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun. He explains how they don't check on the seniors in his building until the rent is late or the body putrefies.
The Trolley Court's claustrophobic lobby reminds me of juvie hall. You leave your ID like checking a gun, and you need a key to get out of the lobby. I leave my identification with the man in the sweaty black T-shirt at the front desk. It's the rules.
The elevator's permit is expired, grinding its way to Russ' floor, and the cold-sandwich carousel at 50 cents per is empty as a broken heart, usually sold out within hours of being filled.
Russ' room is subcompact and tidy, and on the wall are two Dali prints, one of which is the hallucinogenic Still Life-Fast Moving, a mad study of contradiction. I meet Rascal and his pal Blackie, an ebony stuffed dog. I'd trust either to pull me from a burning building.
"The large majority of seniors, if they've gotten married and had kids, the kids have moved away-they don't wanna be strapped down to senior-citizen turf, and they have a lot of medical bills, this or that, so they just wash their hands of 'em," Russ says. "You've got senior citizens who don't have anybody."
I hear sirens echoing outside, really moving, closer and louder.
Russ reads from his work, "44 Years of Incarceration":
"To respect people and to demand the same respect back. My biggest obstacle is realizing that I'm walking the streets of life alone. It is very lonely. One of the first lessons one learns in prison is not to show any weakness, but here I shall have to break that rule."
The halls are dark and tight, and as I leave, Russ shows me the community shower that resembles a gas chamber the size of a tiled birdbath. I catch light from a window at the end of the hall and survey the city east of 12th Street, the Popular Market and Salvation Army across the tracks, Golden Hill and beyond.
Luckily, Russ reminds me to retrieve my ID from the deskman. As his fingers fiddle with the cards, he speaks to another man on the subject of how no one buys pornographic magazines anymore.
I don't expect you'd get a conversation like that at White Sands.
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