News & Politics » Year In Review

Getting Off to a Crappy Start




Chicago is a city of litter. One of my first impressions upon moving here was created by a man, walking home with the Sunday Tribune, discarding the unwanted sections on the sidewalk. For a while I confronted people like that, but eventually I concluded that I was actually confronting Chicago and its culture, so I gave it up. Love it or leave it, right? My kind of town. I try to look at it in a romantic light, like Berlin after the war.

But I cannot endure the dogshit. Sure, I know it's everywhere: I've lived in several major cities in the continental U.S., and I've missed much of their grandeur and spectacle simply because my eyes were usually lowered in an unconscious but continuous dogshit alert. But why does there seem to be more dogshit in Chicago than anywhere else? Do we have more dogs? Do they eat more? Is there no end to this crap?

The first heavy snowfall brings some aesthetic relief. The stuff is down there, out of sight, swept beneath the frozen carpet. However it's also preserved, intact--as sure as if you'd popped it in the freezer ready to thaw, to bushwhack, to blossom to its full bouquet with a slight change in temperature.

So last January, my first in Chicago, the snow of a mild winter suddenly melted and I was assaulted not with a daily quantity of dog litter, but with the cornucopia of an entire season. Those little rectangles of dead lawn between the sidewalk and the curb looked like miniature manure farms. And this dark vision of the new year in my adopted home has festered ever since in the bitter recesses of my memory, so that recent abuses in my neighborhood have keyed me to a fevered pitch, and I must now recommend a swift and merciless purge as the fitting measure to meet the crisis.

Whoa, you say. Is there no reasonable solution? No legal recourse?

Ten years ago, Alderman Burt Natarus proposed a change in the Municipal Code of Chicago, Chapter 98, Section 19. This is the dogshit ordinance, and the revision, which was passed into law, is as follows:

98-19. No person shall appear with a pet upon the public ways or within public places or upon the property of another, absent that person's consent, without some means for the removal of excrement; nor, shall any person fail to remove any excrement deposited by such pet. This section shall not apply to a blind person while walking his or her guide dog.

There's only one difference between this revision and the original ordinance on the books: the stipulation that the pet owner must be carrying "some means for the removal." So not only do you have to pick up after your dog, but you must also carry a baggie or a scooper. It's the law. And it's an honorable reflection on the honorable Burt Natarus, and on the City Council, that this revised ordinance was passed unanimously. I'm particularly touched by the concession made to the blind.

But let's get real. Try to imagine a squad car screeching to a halt, double parking on a busy street, and two uniformed officers (Chicago police, no less) rushing over to the scene of a crap in progress. The owner is frisked. He or she is found without baggie or scooper. Rights are read and the arrest is made. The dog is impounded and, as a final courteous gesture to the public welfare, one of the officers scoops up the mess.

I have a hard time picturing this scene. So I try to imagine another in which a policeman walks his beat, swinging a nightstick and whistling a little Irish ditty; encountering a dog walker, he politely inquires if he or she happens to be carrying some means for the removal of excrement. When I envision this in my head, it's a cartoon, and the policeman is a dog.

Yet let's suppose, one way or another, that Section 98-19 is enforced, and the offender is served with a summons. Said offender would go down to branch 41 of the municipal court on a Tuesday afternoon at 1:30, the time established for hearing such cases. The fine, by law, is to be not less than $10 and not more than $200. Now let's suppose our perpetrator is found guilty, as indeed occasionally happens. What usually transpires (according to anonymous sources who want to keep their jobs) is that the first-time offender is let off with a warning. No fine. And repeat offenders are as rare as albino dwarfs.

The law. Ha! It breaks down at every level. It's even poorly written. What is this "some means for the removal of excrement"? What's to prevent the irresponsible dog walker from saying, upon being found without a baggie, "Well, officer sir, actually I'd planned to just pick it up with my fingers. Baggies cost money, you know." Certainly such a preposterous lie wouldn't be beneath the sort of scum who'd allow their dogs to shit all over the neighborhood.

Who are these people? What are they doing? Walking their dogs, sure, but why? Because they don't want the dogs shitting in their living rooms. That's obvious enough. But, by not picking up their crap, they're making us live with it. Why? Because they're above us. The world is their toilet, and we are mere itinerant turds. These are people without morals!

Of course, they're also people with dogs. Sometimes big dogs. Confrontation could be risky. So I don't suggest rubbing their noses in it. That could be construed as assault, and you might wind up in the slammer, maybe even a mental hospital. Besides, are you going to get physical with some fascist walking a Doberman? You could try to reason with them, appeal to their sense of social responsibility. Good luck. And I don't think it's altogether pragmatic to go around picking up all the dogshit in your neighborhood yourself. That would mount to a career. And, as a professional lackey, you'd only encourage further abuse.

So what can you do, Citizen Doe?

Consider the psychology of the criminal dog walker. He refuses to take responsibility for his animal. In effect, he's saying, "I am clean, but my dog is not. My dog lives in a state of nature. Tough shit." OK, fine. Let's declare a state of nature. Let's abide by the laws of nature. In nature--and, mind you, this isn't my idea--the bottom line is survival of the fittest. So we must arm ourselves!

At this point I assert that neither I nor this publication endorses the actions that I am about to suggest. I only entertain the possibilities.

Homo sapiens, in all his amassed wisdom, has thus far failed to solve this problem. We should defer to a more capable species. Perhaps you see what I'm getting at. Dogs must police dogs! Perhaps even now you're considering getting a dog of your own. Nothing wrong with that. But it would have to be a big dog. Or, if not big, then dangerous. Personally, I'm thinking along the lines of a timber wolf or a pit bull.

People will tell you that a pit bull is a freak of nature. (Who are these authorities?) But I say that the animal that shits where it lives is a freak of nature. And the animal that shits where I live is a criminal. And I propose to punish not the freaks, but the criminals.

Imagine yourself walking proudly down the street, a couple of baggies stuffed in your back pocket. At your side is Bud, a healthy one-year-old pit bull. Bud isn't real smart, and he only has one ear, but he knows the facts of life. You and Bud encounter a stranger, walking his Scotty. Well, not actually walking, since the Scotty is taking a dump. You stroll up with a smile and a "Howdy, stranger!" and hand the guy a baggie. He refuses. He sneers at you and tugs on the Scotty's leash. But Scotty isn't finished. Slowly Bud's lips are curling back from his teeth. Now all it takes is a nod of your head and Scotty is a grisly memory. Merciless? At least it's over quickly. You apologize and leave before the astonished dog walker can invoke the appropriate chapter and section of the Municipal Code. If you're squeamish about returning to the scene of the conflict, relax: the city is far more responsible about removing dead animals than it is about enforcing Chapter 98-19.

This January, let pet owners reassess their sense of security. It could be another winter of brown snow mixed with yellow. Or it could be a gaudy epiphany of red snow, the sound of running dogs, and the burning of paper tigers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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