The Doggie Daycare Day Job
I hadn’t wanted to work at a dog daycare, so learning that I was expected to address the dogs formally — by their last names as well as their first — felt worse than it normally would. If Mitzy belonged to the Carmichael family, she was Mitzy Carmichael. If Bubba’s owner was Cheryl Scott, he was Bubba Scott. I was taught to differentiate them in my daily journal entries by last initial and locate them in our database by family name.
I liked dogs, even the small kind at this metro Atlanta “playcare,” whose breed names, like Pomeranian and Bichon Frise, sounded like some kind of French dessert made entirely of foam. But I was 23, and I’d recently relocated to Decatur, GA, from Seattle, WA, to intern for an award-winning magazine, where I was supposed to be interviewing authors and musicians and generally moving up in the world. That, however, paid about $1,600 for six months of full-time work. I needed to take a second job. So it was that, while earning what I’ve calculated to be $1.67 an hour for my creativity, I also worked at dog daycare, where my roommate, a fellow employee, had secured me an interview. There, I made $10 an hour to mop up dog pee.
It wasn’t what I wanted but I told myself before starting that dog daycare was a side-job, an only-for-the-money job, a job at which I didn’t need to try. The internship: that was my real job.
Then I met the woman I’ll call Maria.
We met on my first day, when I arrived five minutes early for a 7:00 am shift. Nestled in a gentrifying corner of the city, full of used car lots and recently redeveloped lofts, liquor stores with barred windows and fancy cookie shops, the daycare’s exterior resembled little more than a brick square. Its front door was locked. I knocked, just in case, doubting anyone had arrived earlier than me.
Maria answered the door. She was around 50, with long red hair just starting to gray. She looked me up and down. She wore: Running shoes, cargo shorts, a walkie-talkie on her belt and a whistle around her neck. I wore: the clothes I planned to wear to my internship later that day: a purple t-shirt, skinny jeans and beaded ballerina flats.
We must have exchanged greetings, but this is all I remember: “Those shoes aren’t going to work,” she said.
She pulled back the door to let me in, glancing suggestively at a clock, which now showed exactly 7:00 am, and I wondered what time she’d arrived.
The front room looked like the lobby of a spa: dim lighting, display shelves stocked with high-end food and upscale treats. Maria led me through a second entrance, into a hallway flanked by doorways with gates instead of doors. These, I would later learn, were the daycare’s boarding rooms, advertised on its Website as “luxury suites.” The “Princess Suite” had a pink twin bed, frilly pillows and a pink TV. Another suite featured what can only be described as a Chihuahua-sized fainting couch with a tie-die canopy. The dog in each room stood on two feet, paws on its gate. From the fat corgis to the frizzy poodles, they were all angry, and their anger was aimed at me.
“We need to let them out,” Maria said, and I swear to God she smiled. She began opening gates.
A moment of barking, slobbering, tail-whipping chaos in which one squirrel-sized pooch, one bright-eyed Furbie with hair that looked blow-dried and teased, pranced over and lifted a drumstick-tiny leg over my left foot. My instinct: to kick. But $10 an hour. $10 compared to $1.67. I froze. My foot went warm and wet.
Maria was right. These shoes weren’t going to work.
It was supposed to be a worthwhile trade: the daycare for the magazine.
Because oh my god, that magazine. (No, I am not going to name it.) When I first entered the office, I felt like I’d died and gone to Google. It was start-up chic, with industrial ceilings, long wooden tables instead of desks and poster-sized versions of past covers lining the walls: Thom Yorke, Scarlett Johansson, Parker Posey smiling her brisk smile and pulling off one leather driving glove.
I wasn’t a (complete) idiot. I noticed that the paid staff was roughly the same size as our 10-member intern “class,” and that at least half the interns came from parents comfortable enough to augment our stipend. Especially striking in Atlanta, I noticed that most of us were white. On some level, I realized the business model was both exploitative and catered to privilege. Still, I desperately wanted to be part of it.
That year, 2009, was the year after I graduated college. It was also a year marked by the worst recession since 1929, when unemployment hit 10 percent and headlines told of investment bankers applying to work at Starbucks. Despite that — because of it — I clung to what the internship seemed to promise: a possibility that shimmered, mirage-like, of creativity for pay. It was the possibility of a certain kind of work, defined by all the genteel signifiers of that office: casually dressy work; work that gave you perks; work so impressive, you didn’t need an identity outside of it.
I hadn’t grown up expecting that kind of work. My lower-middle class parents, an electrician and a nurse, hadn’t modeled it. For them, employment wasn’t supposed to be “fulfilling” or “artistic.” It was supposed to pay the bills and end at 5:00 pm. I don’t know where the desire came from, but that year, as I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t have it, I wanted it harder, more. I knew that magazines were closing, not hiring. I knew that most available positions were guarded by $1.27-an-hour-internships. And I couldn’t take any more $1.27-an-hour internships. I’d saved money for this one, and my parents, saddled with health insurance bills and a mortgage that would eventually lead to bankruptcy, couldn’t help me.
I told myself that if I wanted it badly enough, if I tried hard enough, I could earn that special kind of work. I felt so Gatsby, so blind to all the quiet privileges that made me believe it was even a possibility, so high on my own 23-year-old narrative of the self-made man. And I wasn’t a man, which only strengthened my resolve.
I wanted it so badly that dog daycare, at first, had seemed like a small price to pay.
As I continued to work there, I became less sure. It was supposed to be a side job, an only-for-the-money job, a job at which I didn’t need to try. But Maria made me try.
I wish I could say that her devotion to those dogs inspired me. It didn’t. But I did worry about looking terrible by comparison. Because a Webcam streamed constant footage of the playroom — one of the daycare’s amenities, in case the dogs’ owners missed them too much — I knew that my $10 an hour had to be earned. I was being watched.
I tried to act like Maria. I started by emulating her calming technique: crouching by each small pooch, gazing into each one’s suspicious eyes and whispering, affirmatively, I see you. But they were on to me. They knew how I really felt about them, and they just growled and skulked away.
I tried to emulate her dominance. She was their Alpha, no question: in the playroom, she sat quietly in a plastic lawn chair, a Bichon named Olive perched on her lap, and if one dog so much as crept up behind another to mount, she blew her whistle and it would scuttle away, tail between its legs. I tried to mimic her: clapping my hands, saying NO, PRINCESS, as firmly as I could to a creature who obviously thought I was a joke. Eventually I gave that up, too, because the dogs weren’t going to respect me.
With the cameras in mind, I tried a different strategy: looking busy. For the most part, that meant scooping poop, so I scooped poop. I scraped it off the concrete, shoveled it out of the bark, carried it to a giant trash bin and lifted the lid. The smell didn’t hit me; it punched me in the face. To this day, I can tell you the exact smell of a trash bin full of dog shit. It smells like sour laundry. It smells like menstruation and moldy raspberries and dirt. To me, it smelled like loathing. It smelled like those dogs and their owners, whose money I needed but didn’t want.
Several months after starting, I took an afternoon shift, when we fed the dogs and, if they required it, medicated them. This particular afternoon, Maria was gone.
One dog did need medication. She was the daycare’s only regular-sized dog, a greyhound, I believe, allowed because she was so old and sick that she couldn’t threaten the smaller boarders. Usually she stayed in her luxury suite, slumped on her side, surrounded by pools of piss.
Her pill was the size of a cockroach. I cut it into three pieces and, as Maria had showed me, wrapped it in a special chicken-flavored paste that resembled brown play-down. I carried her pills, three squishy meatballs, to her suite and sat down, trying to avoid the pee.
I placed one under her nose. She didn’t move. I rolled it closer. She didn’t move. Gently, I opened her mouth and placed it at the back of her long, pink tongue.
She shut her mouth! Success! Then, sudden as a gag reflex, she sat up straight and I knew what she was going to do. And I knew that she needed that pill, so I cupped my hands under her mouth.
Her vomit was green and frothy as juiced kale. It slid between my fingers and dripped down my forearms and, because the pill had been wrapped in that brown play-dough, it smelled like chicken and esophagus.
She slumped back to the floor, and I followed, feeling as hopeless as only a 23-year-old covered in greyhound vomit can feel.
I wish I could go back and tell that girl to calm down. That she would leave the daycare when the internship ended. That she would actually get an editorial job with that magazine (roughly $13 an hour instead of $1.67!) but that it would go under only seven months after she started. That she would spend the rest of her twenties pulling together a combination of things for money: nannying (for children, not dogs!), freelancing, sponsored content, a few staff writer gigs and a spouse with a steady construction job. That she wouldn’t be able to get some sort of New York-style creative-for-pay publishing job, but that she would write and that the practice of creativity, the actual sitting and typing, was something that no one could take away.
She didn’t see any of that. She only saw two options: The magazine or dog daycare.
Slumped in that luxury suite, I wondered which it would be. And for the first time, I let myself really acknowledge that I hated those dogs. Those spoiled dogs with their jeweled collars and their perfect hair and their parents who’d drive up in Cadillac Escalades and drop them off with a week’s supply of treats. Those fucking dogs who, if they were people, would have more upward mobility than I did, who would be able to do any free internship they wanted and sail easily into the creative class job of their choice. I hated every last tiny one of them and I hated Maria, who seemed resigned, happy even, to spend her life serving them.
I hated them so hard that I squeezed the pill in my palm to paste. I could have gone back to the kitchen, rolled it into a ball, wrapped it in a second layer of chicken, but I was done. I opened the greyhound’s mouth and wiped it on her tongue.
That time, at least, she swallowed it down.
Rachel Dovey is a reporter and nonfiction writer from Northern California, whose words have appeared in Bust, Wired, Paste and five Bay Area alt-weeklies (sadly not the SF Bay Guardian, RIP) and on the Internet at NextCity.org, KQED, and Vulture. Because she has a 2-year-old she rarely tweets, but twice-a-week musings can be found at @RachelAnnaD.