I discovered this one morning a few months ago, when I was walking with Dempsey near downtown. Down the street was a homeless man, sitting on the curb. My gut instinct was to cross the street and avoid the man, but with the heavy traffic that day, crossing the street wasn't an option. I told Dempsey to pick up the pace, with the intention of walking quickly by.
Being a sucker for anyone who compliments Dempsey, I stopped and explained that Dempsey was in training to be a service dog. Dempsey sat politely at my heel, wagging his tail.
“Dempsey seems like a really smart dog,” the man replied. “I know I'm not supposed to pet him, but he sure is beautiful.”
The man beamed with joy. “I'd love to!”
Dempsey was still politely sitting at my side, but as soon as I said “Release,” he dashed towards the man and gave him a snuggle.
The man buried his face in Dempsey's neck and gave him a big hug. “Dempsey reminds me of my old dog, Rocky” he said. As he petted Dempsey, he explained that the first thing he did after coming home from Vietnam was to get Rocky, who always woke him up from his nightmares by kissing him. Rocky was a matchmaker, too: The man met his wife, he said, when Rocky ran off at the park to greet her.
With Rocky's help, the man had put his life back together after Vietnam. He got married, bought a house, and had a baby.
Then came what he called the worst day of his life. His young son had forgotten to close the gate to the backyard, and Rocky ran off. He said he knew it was bad news when he heard a car screeching to a halt outside. The man ran outside to find Rocky in the street, blood pouring from his mouth. He died right there, in the man's arms.
The man didn't finish the story, but I imagine that day was the start of the downward spiral that led him to living alone, on the street. He was crying, and Dempsey was right at his side, wiping away his tears with big doggie kisses.
“I'm so sorry,” I said, knowing how empty those words must sound. I just stood there, watching Dempsey comfort the man. It shamed me to realize that my dog is a better person than I am: a more perceptive judge of character, more attentive to others' needs, more generous with his love.
“Well, I guess I should let you guys go on your walk.” He looked at Dempsey, who was sitting perfectly still, looking back at him. “Dempsey, you're an angel on earth. You're going to change somebody's life.”
Dempsey was sitting politely, wagging the tip of his tail. “Wait a sec,” the man said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a $20 bill, and offered it to me. “Dempsey's a great dog. Go buy him a steak.”
I was dumbstruck. I've had countless homeless people ask me for money, but never in my life had a homeless person offered me money. “Oh, I can't,” I stammered.
“Look,” the man said, “I'm an alcoholic.” He nodded towards the liquor store across the street. “As soon as that store opens, I'm just going to buy some booze. Do me a favor and buy Dempsey a steak for me.”
Now, I've studied philosophy at the graduate level, but I can tell you that when you're on the street, trying to decide whether you should take money from a homeless man who says he'll only use the money to hurt himself, all the fancy talk about categorical imperatives and utility maximization means absolutely nothing. I had no idea what to do.
“Ok,” the man said skeptically. He put the money back in his pocket, and looked again at Dempsey. “God bless you, Dempsey. You're very special. Now go change someone's life!” Then the man looked at me. “And God bless you, too, for training him.” He was smiling now, and I knew he meant it.