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Thursday, February 12, 2004

The pits

I'm in a van, a bulletproof vest strapped tightly across my chest. Every once in a while I run my fingers across it, marveling at its lack of a steel plate in front of my heart. Technology I don't understand will allow a fabric thinner than an aututmn sweater to stop a bullet from ever reaching my skin.

"It'll leave a helluva bruise, though," one of the guys next to me explains. I hope not to test his knowledge. Last time I hung out with this crew, somebody attached a taser to my hip, pulled the trigger, and left me in the grass, a babbling pile of flesh. These guys are a real hoot.

I feel the vest one more time and decide I actually like it. It's tight against my chest and stomach and acts somewhat like a girdle for anxiety. I'm two seconds from feeling a little bored when one of the six heavily armed men in the van with me says, "We gotta go now."

Another man starts speaking in bursts, calmly but emphatically directing the driver into position. Seconds later the van's side door explodes open, light shoves itself into the calm, and the shouting begins.

I can't make out the words at first, but soon they become as clear as a Hollywood movie.

"Hands up! Lemme see your hands! Hands!"

Guns are out, a woman is crying softly, and an old man is babbling.

In a matter of minutes, a suspected crystal meth dealer is sitting in the van, his hands flex-cuffed behind him. A metal stud sicks out of his eyebrow and his face is expressionless.

One of the crew steps next to me and points to the old man. The geezer looks harmless enough.

"Sonofabitch had a gun in his pocket."

I touch the vest one more time and remind myself I'm only an observer.

Over my shoulder, I hear a whine. A chain is holding back a rather docile pit bull terrier. The dog is issuing occasional bulletins of confusion. He's not sure whether to force an attack or play it safe and sit with his head resting on his forepaws. He (and it is obviously a "he") opts for the latter and watches his master, eyebrow-stud and all, get taken away.

I'm in the company of a crack team of narcs and fugitive trackers. They work for a relatively small city, but they are well-equipped and as serious as a Glock 9mm about their jobs. They've agreed to let me tag along as they sweep the streets of dealers and ne'er-do-wells.

This is not new territory for me. Others of their ilk have taken me for similar rides in the past. Hookers, dealers, even killers have become old hat. I don't expect to learn much and am hoping for--at the most--a decent adrenaline rush to fight an old head cold.

Barely an hour of arrests and takedowns has passed before I'm again face to face with a pit bull. This one is not nearly as docile, but he (yes, he), too, is chained. His owner is another hood from town.

Over the next four hours, I start to see more of the dogs. Various colors, various sizes, all pit bulls and all owned by people poor enough to qualify for government assistance.

Two weeks earlier I was waiting to get my oil changed and struck up a conversation with a talkative lady, a school bus driver who was waiting with her son. I took her to be a conservative sort. Her son was a mammoth kid. He claimed to be only a high school freshman, but his size belied his age. He was flipping through the liner notes of a rap CD and looked up suddenly and asked his mom, "Can I have a pit bull, mom? I want a pit bull."

I wanted to ask what a big kid like him needed a tough, ugly dog for. Before I had the chance, his mother shot him down with a look that said, "You're not that kind of boy."

I didn't really understand until the night with the guns, dealers, and dogs.

By nightfall, I'm tired of seeing pit bulls. I'm looking for a labrador. Maybe a yorkie.

The van pulls up in front of the house where the local Animal Control officer is already wrangling dogs. Pit bull puppies are bouncing all over the yard. I count nine puppies and two big ugly adult dogs.

Emory the dogcatcher, when questioned, affirms what I've started to suspect.

"The pitbull is the status dog of the hood."

Status dog? Yep.

Again, flex-cuffs click onto the wrists of the 23 year-old kid on the front porch. He's got about a half-pound of dope bagged for individual sale, a mean-looking gun, about $1500 in cash, and no small amount of crack cocaine.

Oh, yeah. There are also three babies in the house and no other adults.

A neighbor is offering to take care of the kids, but doesn't have enough car seats to carry them all away. As the man is dragged to his car he starts to yell back toward the group of assembled cops. For a moment, I think he's going to direct the cops on how to contact the kids' mother or grandmother. Or something.

"That one in that back, bossman!" He's yelling at Emory. "That's Smoke. He's the only one that doesn't have a license. I got licenses for the rest! Bossman!"

Slowly, the naive observer (that's me) realizes the dealer cares more about his collection of fighting dogs and future fighting dogs than he does the three kids.

As the cops shove the kid on the car, a man comes running down the street, a look of concern on his face. My half-second of faith in humanity is shattered when the first words out of his mouth are, "What's going to happen to those dogs?"

A few hours later, I'm at home in an autumn sweater. I can still feel the tightness of the anxiety girdle around my chest. My little 13-pound mutt is growling at a red, plastic bone. Later she'll run around the room, her rear-end dragging on the carpet in an adorable game of Chase-Me-I'm-Bored. For a half-second, I imagine her getting mauled by a pit bull that's confused by an upbringing of pain, fighting, and blood.

I conceal my shudder and rub her belly as she rolls over. Then I rub my wife's pregnant stomach.

I find myself feeling immensely fortunate that I live a life that is not defined by a status dog, but rather by how I rub bellies.

And as fortunate as I feel, I can't help but recognize my latent anger. It's making me imagine the pit bulls turning on their owners and doing all of us a tremendous societal favor.

I embrace the anger and don't feel an ounce of guilt as I go to bed with my wife, future baby, and dog of mercifully little status.


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