Innocent Bystander: Dog's Name in Vain and Other Vulgar Matters

As a self-confessed dog-lover, I’ve spent the last three years—ever since I started writing this column—trying to think of a way to write about dogs that wasn’t trite or soft-centered or unbearably sentimental. No way. Everything that has been written about dogs to date—from Senator George Vest’s flowery (and apocryphal?) tribute on the Senate floor, to Albert Payson Terhune’s collie Eddas, and the annals of Silver Chief, Dog of the North—has presented this fortunate animal as the possessor of all the Boy Scout virtues and the invariable object of the highest human esteem and affection. Since my feelings about dogs coincide—roughly, at least— with those of the above eulogists, I didn’t appear to have a point of view to stand on.

Not, that is, until I realized one day that the dog, for all the fulsome lip service we pay him in song, story, and daily discourse, is also the butt of our unconscious; that, for all our vaunted and reciprocal loyalty to the species, we are also sneakingly inclined to do the dog dirt, so to speak, behind his back. And in what way? Not so much by kicking, beating, or starving him, or even by vivisecting him in amoral or downright evil laboratories, but simply by taking his name in vain in our everyday speech.

A little brain-cudgeling will produce a number of prime examples of this. Calling a man a dog means he’s a rat; calling a woman a dog means she’s a fright. A dog’s life is a misery barely to be endured. A dirty dog is a moral leper. A dog’s chance is no chance at all. In the doghouse is in disgrace. To go to the dogs is to go to one’s ruin.

A glance at that curious and lovable volume, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, reveals that our verbal castigation of the dog goes back for centuries if not millennia. The dog is characterized as a scavenger in 1 Kings: “Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat.” Horace considered that the sight of a black dog with its pups was an unlucky omen, and for centuries the Devil has been symbolized by a black dog. The phrase, “A black dog has walked over him,” was once used of a sullen person. A dog in the manger is one who will not allow others to enjoy something he does not want for himself (from the fable in which the dog, out of sheer cussedness, kept the hungry ox away from the hay). “A living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes) suggests that, in Brewer’s words, the meanest thing with life in it is better than the noblest without.

If a gay dog plays fast and loose with the ladies, a surly dog is ill tempered and a dull dog boring. Dogs get it both ways in the expression, “Die like a dog,” which connotes a miserable death, and in the superstition that dogs howl at death. Prior to death, one is sick as a dog. A dogsbody is a drudge; if he is not, he would probably respond to a request to do menial work with the biblical phrase, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” And so on and on.

In fact, there are hardly any neutral or favorable expressions about dogs: almost all, with the exception of idioms like “a dog’s age” and “putting on the dog,” are marginally neutral or openly pejorative. Why is this? Perhaps the answer lies in another phrase from Brewer, “The more I see of men. the more I love dogs.” Is it possible that humans, long thought to be the dog’s best friends, both perceive and resent the moral perfection of their canine companions? Can it be that we secretly despise the dog for his innate decency, loyalty, and goodness? Do we perhaps despair of equaling his high standards in our squalid and messy lives? Does the dog’s obvious trust of us lead us to violate it in a language he does not understand? If that’s the case, my friends, we’re all in trouble.

The open admission of my vulgar taste for dogs leads me to further confessions of a vulgar taste in other matters. I’ve long suspected that many Americans who profess some sort of intellectual primacy are really brothers and sisters under the skin with the American proletariat, at least insofar as those vulgar tastes are concerned. And this is not mere slumming; in my case, at least, these lowbrow tastes are part of my birthright, and they are as seriously held and professed as many of my highbrow likings.

For example, I hereby confess to a partiality for all sorts and conditions of low foods, or eats, as they are more properly termed. From childhood, I have been a devotee of such items as Franco-American Spaghetti, Fig Newtons, canned hash, and canned spinach, even though I know better, in the sense of having sampled—and liked—many varieties of real Italian spaghetti, assorted French and other fancy pastries, the sublime hash of various men’s clubs, and, of course, fresh spinach straight from the garden sand. No amount of good eating, however, can condition the boy’s taste out of me: I still relish ballpark hot dogs (there’s another dialectal ignominy for the poor dog), drive-in hamburgers, drugstore malts, roadside fried clams (getting precious and costly now), and even good old fish and chips, guaranteed to arouse the mother and father of heartburns. Similarly, I dote (as S. J. Perelman characters used to say) allegedly Swedish and Italian meatballs, almost any kind of pizza, most varieties of shopping-plaza Chinese cookery, and even diner chili con carne.

I’m still worse, if anything, in the baked-goods-and-confectionery department. I have been known to eat without visible wincing a ten-dayold Dunkin Donut from the glove compartment, and I regularly consume (or did before a recent diet) the fresher, or counter, variety; likewise, I am an aficionado of store cakes and cookies, including especially such Nabisco productions as Biscos Sugar Wafers (those very crumbly oblongs with sweet white paste inside), Oreo cookies, and Coconut Bars (plain or frosted). Not to mention Drake’s coffee cakes and Devil Dogs. (Not Twinkies yet, thank God.)

If my gastronomy is far below reproach, my tastes in reading matter are even more irretrievable and damned. I positively love the daily comics, with an evenhanded devotion to both the satirical strips (Doonesbury, The Wizard of Id, the late lamented Pogo) and the fine old soap (or ink) operas like Steve Canyon, On Stage, Rex Morgan, M.D., and Apartment 3G. I read these and other newspaper features—including Ann Landers and Mirror of Your Mind, for instance— with none of the scorn I bring to certain other reading I am hooked on, reading I masochistically consume for its very inanity. Samples of the latter class of delicious selfchastisement might include Vogue (and assorted newspaper fashion ads), which I read for their dogged, dated whimsy and archness (there I go, beating those poor dogs again); almost any Hearst columnist, for an undiluted whiff of the nineteenthirties in full, decadent bloom; the National Enquirer (or England’s News of the World) for its evergreen evocation of the old American Weekly; and W, the off-colored (not obscene, just a printing problem) offshoot of Women’s Wear Daily, for its courageous and intransigent irrelevance and idiocy in a world full of problems too hard to bear.

Besides these publications and Cosmopolitan, which I rely on for sardonic little bursts of sugary pleasure much like the ones afforded by the twenty-nine-cent boxes of cheap chocolate-covered cherries that I forgot to mention above, I also dip, from time to time, into the mass of popular fiction which surrounds us. While I have never attempted a Gothic novel, I have sampled substantial numbers of detective stories and thrillers, mostly of the California-private-eye or English-urbanmurder varieties. Not much to be said for most of these, except as cotton-batting time-fillers; but a few rise to the highest wit of their genre and give us a sip of the elixir of good bad books. (A good bad book, by common consent, is one which transcends the trivial nature of its type by some astonishing adherence to that type; thus, the Sherlock Holmes stories, which virtually created their genre, are the best of good bad books, while The Ministry of Fear, say, is merely a bad good book.) Among my favorites in this category, besides the predictable Hammett and Chandler and sometimes Simenon, are Michael Gilbert (for his legalistic detective stories), the late J. J. Marric (a/k/a John Creasey, for his police-procedure novels featuring Gideon of Scotland Yard), and Ed McBain (a/k/a Evan Hunter, for his procedural stories of the Eighty-seventh Precinct), not to mention an occasional spy story by the likes of John Le Carré or Adam Hall (a/k/a Elleston Trevor).

To conclude this savage indictment of mv reading habits, I’d better add that I also regularly read cereal boxes and the small ads for piles remedies, horse liniment, and dream books tucked away in the back of various lowlife magazines. These ads contain the essence of the Simple American Con, before it got fancied up by four-color magazine spreads and sixty-second television spots, and I rejoice to see them still alive and well in the stormy seventies.

Just to prove that I’m totally unregenerate—the thought police will be coming for my intellectual’s ID card any second now—I must add to this confession a list of favorite vulgar smells. Yes, I admit, I love the mingled smells of peanuts roasting and dusty floorboards in an oldfashioned five-and-ten-cent store; the odor of deep-fat-fried egg rolls drifting from a cheesy Chinese restaurant; the whiff of fresh-ground Bokar in a thousand A&P’s; the attar of patent and ethical medicines and soda-fountain syrups in any good drugstore; and, horrors, the reek of raw 100-octane gasoline in any service station, a pleasure I may soon be bereft of. In my depravity, I have even been known to savor the smell of beer from a workmen’s tavern at eight o’clock in the morning and the smell of a crowded movie house (hot buttered popcorn, mostly) at eight o’clock at night. And I am curiously moved by that old (and doubtless deleterious) city smell of soft-coal smoke bellying upward from apartment buildings on a snowy morning.

So there you have it: for all my fine pretensions, I’m just an ordinary guy, replete to the gunwales with fierce, ineradicable tastes for the plebeian. Before the constabulary comes, if you don’t mind, I’ll compose myself in comfort, with battered red carpet slippers on my feet, an old beige cardigan buttoned snugly around my torso, my faithful dog curled like a snail shell at my side, a glass of Old Milwaukee (or any other cut-price, off-brand beer) in my hand, a roaring fire in front of me, a plate of Premium Saltines and Pabst-Ett Cheese Food to eat, and a crisp and virgin copy of Mechanix Illustrated to dream on while I wait for the heavy tread of the arresting officer.