This is a story from our trip to San Francisco in 2010. I figured maybe it’s time for a non-baby post. However, there are many, many mentions of bodily fluids below. My apologies.

An hour after checking into our 4-star hotel in downtown San Francisco, Colleen and I are encouraging—no, begging—our dog to pee on the floor of our beautifully decorated and furnished 400-square-foot room.

“Watson, go potty. It’s okaaaay. Go potty.”
“C’mon buddy. You can do it!”

This is not a comment on hotel service thus far. It is not a sick fetish. This is desperation.

We have big plans for this trip, sights to see, people to visit. But upon arrival, we have one mission, and one mission only. Get the dog to do his business before bed.

We’re at Geary Street and Taylor. It’s Friday around midnight and there is a certain controlled chaos outside the doors of our hotel. Cabs and cop cars vie for position. Horns honk. Nightlifers form lines outside bars and clubs. Liquor stores, drug stores, and convenience stores are still open for business below glorious, rundown buildings. It’s a big city, in other words. And our dog, Watson, is a big blond misfit. He is 70 pounds of country dog looking suspiciously, at this moment, like a fish. A fish out of water.

Problem #1 presents itself about 10 feet from the hotel lobby in the form of those metal grates and manholes dotting the sidewalks. Watson is scared to death of every last one. He refuses to walk over them. His eyes get big. He stops dead in his tracks, digs his nails in, then tugs the leash hard in one direction or the other, content, I assume, to dart in front of a bus if it means avoiding the terror below the grates. Perhaps it’s a bad memory from his younger years. Perhaps it’s the purple goo from Ghostbusters 2. Regardless, he’s making a scene. The only dog on a very busy sidewalk, darting under people’s feet, getting in the way, thinking– I’m sure–that the apocalypse is nigh.

We finally make it to an alley, where just a few minutes prior, we handed our keys and our money to some random guy in some random underground garage with the understanding/hope that he ran a legit business and would park our car for us (somewhere in the city) and that it would still be there when we came calling in the morning. It is in this alley where we first attempt to get Watson to free the yellow fountain. He paces back and forth, but just can’t bring himself to pee on pavement. I even pretend to unzip my pants in a show of solidarity. He is dubious. And so we walk on, through the midnight masses, from one crowded block to the next, looking for a tree, a random patch of grass, a gutter, or a storefront worthy of a good leak o’ the lizard. Watson sniffs them all dutifully, but when it comes to doing the dew, he’s a total snob. Oh, look at me, I’m Watson, I’m too good for the city. I like my suburban parks and my organic dog bones and my deluxe grooming appointments. I’m special.

Just like his parents.

There’s a brief respite when a blonde woman dressed to the nines, smoking a cigarette, stops us and asks to pet the dog. She talks to him and not to us. She tells him how beautiful he is. Watson eats it up. I can’t tell you how often this happens. Some human beings would rather converse with a K9.

Then we take a left. And suddenly everything changes. The bar hoppers are replaced by homeless men and women, drug addicts, winos, dealers. The more we walk, the sketchier it gets. We come to an intersection where a woman is yelling and cursing up a storm. I look around to see who she’s yelling at. There’s no one else within 25 feet. Half a block down, we pass a man and woman who, if not pimp and ho, do a good job of dressing the part. Some of the folks we pass are passed out. Others are nodding off. Not one of them appears mentally stable. But to my surprise, they don’t approach us. They don’t look at us. They don’t seem to know we exist. Watson could poop a live bird and the bird could fly away dropping $100 bills above the entire block and seemingly no one would care. As far as Watson is concerned, the feeling is mutual. He walks on, somewhat frantically, refusing to pee on places that have clearly seen worse.

The entire neighborhood makes me nervous. I keep patting the back of my jeans to check for my wallet. This isn’t what we’d planned. I grew up sheltered in small, middle-class towns where you don’t see the bad stuff. Whatever dark desires or addictions people have, they’re mostly hidden from the public. There are no really bad parts of town where I grew up. I look at Colleen, grip her hand tightly, and notice she’s nervous, too. It’s pushing 1 a.m. I want to call it a night, but the dog hasn’t peed in 11 hours. Usually, he’s only good for 8 or 9. We’re about to reach a critical mass.

We see other things in this part of town–signs of life and promise almost blotted out by the night. Because we’re foodies, we focus on the restaurants. Mostly ethnic food, crammed into tight spaces. All of it looks amazing. Later in our trip, we visit a Thai restaurant with six tables and only two workers—a man and a woman. They look like brother and sister, or husband and wife. She cooks; he serves. They banter back and forth in their native tongue while we wait. We watch her in the kitchen. Her moves are effortless, her timing impeccable. Everything is served up hot, spooned into takeout Styrofoam bowls. It’s the best curry I’ve ever had. So complex. So spicy and sweet and haunting. As I eat it back in our hotel room, I think of the life of the woman who made it. Her background. Her journey to San Francisco. What it must be like to try to make your mark, thousands of miles from your native land. To find a piece of land to call your own, a place that feels like home.

But that experience comes later. Right now, we’re just trying to find a place to pee. So we make a left, away from the restaurants, past darkened buildings and street dwellers with no real idea of where we’re going. A block down, we come across our first sign of greenery—some trees lining the street. We walk toward them, all the while, trying to brainwash the dog with pleas of “Go potty.” It’s practically a mantra now. “Watson, go potty… Watson, go potty…”. At first he seems interested in the trees, then he backs off. The trees aren’t surrounded by grass. They’re surrounded by the evil metal grates. Watson wants no part. And the fire hydrant nearby? I guess they just don’t make ‘em like they do back home.

Here’s the thing that surprises me, though. As we walk deeper into this seedy and yet vibrant underbelly that I later learn is San Francisco’s famed Tenderloin district, I start to feel safer. Not necessarily more comfortable, but safer. In a neighborhood full of addicts and prostitutes, the sick and the homeless, we’re the ones who stand out. We’re the freaks. A couple middle-class white kids with a golden retriever, walking around like we own the place. Circus, anyone? I think the natives are fascinated. They might even feel sorry for us. In my head, I make up conversations for any potential crooks who lurk in the shadows behind us:

“Dude, how about those guys? Easy targets.”
“Nah, man. That’s like Mike Tyson beating up Richard Simmons. There’s no sport in that.”
“I bet they got some money, though. And look at him. What a pushover.”
“Yeah, but look at the dog! That’s some cute shit! C’mon, man, we can get our drug money somewhere else. Oh, wait a second, here we go… little old lady at 10 o’clock…”

It’s after 1 by the time we get back to our hotel, defeated. It’s a stunning place, really, complete with high ceilings and chandeliers, murals on the wall, and thick, expensive rugs. From the outside, the building doesn’t seem like it could house any hotel, much less one this nice, but as we ride the elevator up to our room on the third floor, we consider the unthinkable. What if we just tell Watson to pee on the floor? Forget the smell. Forget the cleanup. Maybe the hotel will never know. Maybe then, at least, we can get some sleep. And so we encourage and cajole and plead, but Watson won’t pee here, either. He’s too well-trained. And so we maneuver around our tiny little room, brush our teeth, take our clothes off, pull down the covers, and crawl into bed, exhausted.

A few hours later, the whining starts. Whimper, whimper. Pace, pace. Whimper, pace, whimper. The clear cries of a full-bladdered pup. It’s, like, 4 a.m. Colleen wants me to ignore it all, says if he’s gotta pee, just let him. I probably should have listened. Instead, I throw on some clothes, put the dog on a leash, and wander back down into the cool pre-dawn.

The crowds have thinned slightly, but there’s still a buzz in the air, and if anything, the city feels even sketchier now. The cops are gone. The college kids and young singles have disappeared back to dorms, apartments, and other flat spaces. Only those who live on the street remain. As for the dog and I, we go to the same spots. I’m convinced the alley is the place the Emancipation Urination has to happen. All the signs are there. Watson is walking funny, looking up with aching eyes as he shuffles from one side of the alley to the other. Then he stops and does his patented half-squat-and-lean. Here it comes.

Only… it doesn’t. There’s no release, no jet stream of uric acid. At the last second, the dingle dog jerks up, paces a little more, and then looks up at me with big sad brown eyes. He just can’t do it.

I can’t blame him. His reputation is on the line. Peeing is marking, after all—the canine form of graffiti, a surefire way to let everybody know “he wuz here.” And, frankly, the alley’s nothing to brag about, even for a dog. So, fearing a mugging, I don’t linger. I give the leash a tug, and walk back to the room, tired and dejected.

A few hours later, the daylight (not the sun, per se, but the daylight) breaks through our window, and I wake up, expecting to find a wet spot on the floor, maybe something worse. He hasn’t pooped in about 24 hours, either. But amazingly, there have been no accidents. I pet the dog, tell him he’s a good boy, and we go downstairs again.

Downtown looks much different come morning. Instead of edgy, it just looks old. Old and arty. Harmless and adorable like a reformed hippie in ill-fitting business attire. Down the street, the homeless folks have lined up outside what I assume is a shelter, waiting for the morning grub. This time I go the other way, up a hill instead of down one. It’s 9 a.m. People on the streets are perfectly content to keep to themselves. I’m still the only one walking a big dog. I feel like a horrible dog parent. We make a right at the light and, a few minutes later, roll into a much more comfortable part of town. The hotels are bigger and more luxurious looking. One of them even has red carpet rolled out in front of the entrance. But Watson is not a class snob; he’s a grass snob. So our 15-minute walk ends with no victors and nothing vanquished.

Back in the hotel room, Colleen is just rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Did he do it?” she asks. “Nope,” I say.
“What do we do?”
“We’ve gotta find some grass.”
I walk down to the front desk and get a map of downtown. I explain our predicament to a bellhop, and he points out a few parks.

Back upstairs, I lift the toilet lid in the bathroom and talk while I pee.
“I think Union Square is the place to go. It’s only a couple blocks away.”
“And there’s a park?” Colleen asks.
“Looks like it,” I say, as I look down. Watson is staring at me. It has now been about 20 hours since he’s gone. I feel guilty. Maybe I should hold it, too. It was my idea to bring him to San Francisco, after all. My idea to drive all the way up from Phoenix–20 hours and change, after LA traffic and a few wrong turns trying to find the Pacific Coast Highway–with a SoCal Wendy’s the only patch of grass Watson found worthy of his whizz.

“Want to grab some breakfast?”
“Yeah, maybe a bagel to-go or something. We gotta find this park.”

So we set off, map in hand, but I’m apparently a horrible navigator, and somehow we end up back in the Tenderloin. Deeper in the Tenderloin. I make excuses. San Francisco turns me around. The streets are one-ways. They run diagonally. There are hills and tall buildings obstructing views, and crucially, no mountains off which to base direction (growing up in Colorado, we gave directions like “toward the mountains” and “away from the mountains”…or else we just listened to whatever Tom Shane told us on the radio).

The Tenderloin looks different this morning. We run across fewer homeless, fewer addicts. Instead, we find a bunch of early-rising immigrants. Chinese, Vietnamese, African. They live and work in this neighborhood, I assume, because it’s more affordable. And because of that, they can open businesses, inject a little bit of their culture into the streets, feed their neighbors pho and curry and wat, serve them from salons and storefronts. Sell them all the good stuff they make by hand. Speak to them in their language. And most importantly, give them a home-away-from-home, a hangout, a refuge from the sometimes mean streets. For years, it’s been a place for immigrants looking to belong. And so they put up with the bad stuff. The crime. The drugs. The scary sight of a mentally-unbalanced neighbor coming right at them, yelling. It’s part of the deal they make for a slice of the American dream.

And hints of that dream unveil themselves in the light. Like the community park we find just a few blocks up from Market Street. The park is small and it’s fenced-in, but there’s grass and playground equipment, and lots of kids running around, shrieking. For a minute, we get excited. Then we check out the sign on the fence, and confirm our suspicions. No dogs allowed.

Up the hill we walk again. This time, Colleen navigates, which is better for all parties involved. We talk about immigration and food and our fears. The dog just trots along.

Soon, we are back on Geary Street, close to our hotel. But this time we head the other direction, the way most tourists, I suspect, are directed from the start. And sure enough, the streets get nicer. A few blocks later, we catch our first glimpse of Union Square. At that moment, it really does feel like a desert oasis. We cross the trolley tracks and suddenly find ourselves surrounded by a massive shopping district. Tourists abound. Families run around, taking pictures of one another. Locals browse an art exhibit laid out in the center of the square. We hear laughter. And there, right in front of us, a strip of green grass is waiting.


Watson takes to it immediately, tugging hard at the leash and sniffing around. Two more big dogs enter the park. They look over at him briefly, then pick a spot to squat. Watson’s still pacing, though, teasing us. Will he ever just go, we wonder? Then, the other dogs leave, and Watson makes his move. He goes to the same spot where the big dogs did their business—the spot where countless other dogs have no doubt done their business—lifts his back leg, and with one glorious, glistening stream, proclaims this patch of grass, hundreds of miles from home, as his.