But it’s also led to more poignant moments – such as coming across so many homeless people living on the streets of the cities we visited. The Haight-Ashbury part of San Francisco – the birthplace of the free love movement in the Swinging Sixties – was where we first became aware of the appalling hopelessness experienced by many of these people – a hopelessness borne by becoming completely spaced out and existing in some other world to this one that’s failed them so badly.
On the other side of the country, on our first evening in New York, we came across a similarly desperate picture. We’d eaten at an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, where pepperoni was found – too late – to have been liberally dotted across our ‘vegetarian’ margherita pizza, so we were given a replacement, this time smaller but sans meat. Angry that they’d got our order so wrong, we weren’t really interested in eating any more pizza, so we asked them to box it up and then headed back up to our Airbnb apartment on the Upper East Side, determined to find a hungry homeless person to give it to along the way. Unlike earlier that evening, there was not one needy person in sight – until a rather fulsome woman finally came up to me when we came out of the subway and said she was very hungry and could I help her out? Delighted to have found someone to bestow my beneficence upon, I said, ‘Well, I’ve got just the thing for you – a whole pizza! It’s in this box, and it’s for you!’ To which she replied, ‘I’m allergic to the tomato sauce on pizzas… Can you give me money for something else instead?’ Somewhat deflated and taken aback, I reluctantly fumbled in my pocket for loose change and gave her the 75 cents I found in there, not quite knowing whether to be annoyed with her or with myself…
Another very unexpected but highly emotional moment occurred at, of all places, a souvenir shop in the departure lounge at Nashville Airport. I’d been rifling through the rack of T-shirts on sale at the front of the store for a while, trying to decide which one to buy, and feeling sure that I was being watched by an eagle-eyed assistant behind the till. But when I finally made my decision and went to the counter to buy the T-shirt, I was greeted by a red-eyed, clearly distressed woman who took one look at me and could no longer hold back her grief…
‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there,’ she began. Then: ‘I was on the phone to my sister. I lost my thirteen-year-old wiener dog last night…’ At that, she burst into tears and I, with two ‘wiener dogs’ (dachshunds) of my own, felt that I was right where I needed to be.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laying this on a customer,’ she wept.
‘It’s absolutely okay,’ I told her. ‘I have two wieners of my own, and I know how terrible it is to lose a beloved pet. I’m so sorry for you.’
‘Some people just don’t get it,’ she said. ‘They say, “It’s just a dog – get over it!” But he was my life – I slept with that dog in my bed for thirteen years, and now he’s gone.’ She cried again.
I wanted to console her, to let her know that I understood, so I showed her a picture of Silva and Chilli, and she calmed down a bit and said her dog had been a smooth-haired black and tan with a face like Silva’s. Then she said that her other dog was also in a state of grief at having lost her companion. When I suggested that she might get another companion for her, she wept again, saying that her living situation made it impossible for her to get another dog.
Eventually I paid for the T-shirt and walked out of the shop, feeling so sad for this complete stranger and her surviving dog, both of them pining away with no one to help them through what, to a dog lover, is tantamount to losing a family member.
By complete canine contrast, we spent four days becoming acquainted with the gorgeous Titus, a ten-year-old chihuahua mix who had been consistently and unaccountably overlooked at the dog shelter by prospective adopters, but who is now happily ensconced in the home of my friend Elizabeth, both of them counting themselves equally lucky to have found each other!
Random stories, touching vignettes, unexpected incidents, friends we’ve stayed with and come to know better, strangers whose lives briefly crossed paths with ours and then went on their way – these are the things that have made this trip so precious and so utterly memorable.
And it’s not even over yet!