The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.