Showing up four or five days a week at the dog park at the same time, you get to know the other regulars. There were four or five of us that gossiped all the time: Samantha and Allie, a couple in their 20s with a toy poodle mix that never missed a beat playing with dogs ten times its size. Cris, a dreadlocked white lady in her mid-40s with grown children and two shy husky-mix dogs. Bish, the 50ish bearded carpenter who rolled his own cigarettes and wouldn’t hesitate to get down and alpha-roll any dog that got snarly with another. His blue-nose pit Isha was the sweetest thing you’d ever meet, but of course it was a pit, so everyone assumed the worst about her, and about him.
And there was Jay, who couldn’t have been over 12 – he wasn’t yet a teenager, anyway. Just a boy. Most of the people who came to the park were white adults bringing their dogs, and here was this black kid with a BMX bike and no dog. Where were his parents? We didn’t ask. We assumed, if we thought about it at all, that he lived nearby, probably in the public housing towers around the way. But riding a bike around in a park and playing with dogs is a pretty wholesome activity, and if his folks didn’t mind, it wasn’t our business. “Shit,” Allie would say, “My mother was always on me to go outside and play at that age.” Besides, he matched the energy of the dogs, and we were glad to have someone to keep them active and tire them out.
It never occurred to us to ask why he didn’t ever bring his own dog, or why he didn’t seem to have any friends his own age. We assumed he didn’t have a dog, and was lonely, probably didn’t fit in at school. Kids that age can be so cruel, you know. We assumed a lot of things.
He claimed to have two dogs at home, but never brought them, and their descriptions changed from one telling to the next. We didn’t challenge him on those kinds of transparent lies, because he was sweet-natured and enthusiastic and we could tell – this at least we weren’t assuming, this we were observing – that he just wanted to insinuate himself into the group. Everyone wants to feel a sense of community, but at that age, the need for belonging is irresistibly keen. At his age kids will do almost anything to be a part of something bigger. Making up stories about dogs is nothing.
Besides, he was nice with the dogs. He showed empathy for them. If he’d teased or poked or provoked them, we’d have worried. But he was a sweet kid with a big smile. He tried not to swear around us and we tried not to swear around him. He had empathy for the animals and for the other people.
Sometimes a white lady we didn’t know would show up and scold him, and he’d run off. She never talked to us. He claimed that he had no idea who she was or why she was following him. We figured she was his mother, adoptive or otherwise, and that he was just in a weirdly dysfunctional family. He said she wasn’t his mother, and Cris told him “well, if she’s not your mom, she shouldn’t be treating you that way.” Because why, after all, would an unrelated woman come out and scold a lone child for unspecified misbehavior?
Then one day she drove up to the park took his bicycle and put it in the back of her Jeep. Cris and Allie went over to ask her what the hell was going on, and she said she was his social worker. By then we weren’t sure who to believe: Was this stalking and bike theft, or a disobedient child? The social worker didn’t seem very sympathetic, and we didn’t see that the kid had done anything wrong. And he did claim she was just a strange lady following him around.
Jay, it seems, had been running away from a foster home, repeatedly. To us, it didn’t look like running away: It looked like unsupervised play. But the lady was his social worker, and when three police cars and an ambulance showed up, they were able to confirm her story.
Jay began to cry, buried his face in Cris’s stomach, told her he didn’t want to go. She and a couple of the other park regulars calmed him down, and eventually he agreed to get into the ambulance. The social worker said he’d be “Section-twelved.” We had to look that up after they left: It means sent for psychiatric evaluation in a locked facility for up to 72 hours.
Obviously, I have no idea what the rest of the situation is. Maybe he’d been setting fires before heading out to the park and playing nicely with the dogs. Maybe he’d been skipping school. But from my perspective, it looked like the sort of thing that just comes down to race and class. A white middle-class boy in his situation, as far as I can tell, would be brought home, told to do his homework, and kept from watching TV for a week. Grounded, maybe.
Well, now Jay has learned some important life lessons: Never trust a social worker. Never trust a cop. Never trust an EMT. Never trust a nice white lady. Always be ready to run.
And all the white middle-aged people at the dog park learned something we should have known already: That our society regards an unsupervised black child as a threat to public safety. We’ve seen once again how race, class, and the apparatus of government grind the humanity out of humans.
I hope we see Jay again. And I hope he’s still got that wide-open smile. I don’t know how much longer he’ll have it.