Northside SF
Petey's wharf

Petey looked forward to his daily walk at Fisherman's Wharf
Ask any tourist what they want to see in San Francisco and they usually mention the typical favorites: the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf. I understand the fascination with all three (I’m a native San Franciscan) but I never really thought Fisherman’s Wharf was well, that special. Sure, The Golden Gate Bridge is an architectural marvel. And what’s not to love about the cable cars’ old-world charm – clanging bells and sheer terror wrapped into one? But Fisherman’s Wharf? More tourists than fish. This year, though, the Fisherman’s Wharf community completely and undeniably stole my heart with their unexpected embrace of my blind dog, Petey, a 14¾ year-old Jack Russell terrier.

My husband and I don’t have children, so Petey has been our only “child” for the last 10 years. He was a rescue, and although everyone claims that rescues make for the most appreciative pets, Petey turned out to be the most aloof, unaffectionate dog we’ve ever known. Friends said he was more like a cat. Embarrassing. Even so, Petey was unbelievably cute and just as lovable as any Velcro dog. But he was no angel:  his life was all about digging, and sometimes murdering small varmints like gophers, mice, rats, and crabs (don’t worry, he’d always toss the Dungeness back). But all that fun ended last year when he started losing his vision to cataracts.

Thinking we would improve the quality of life for our aging Petey, we took him for cataract surgery with one of the best dog ophthalmologists in the country here in San Francisco, but unfortunately, the surgery failed in both eyes. He ended up losing his vision faster than he would have had we just let the poor little guy be. Thus ended our daily digging adventures, and I hung up my small, trusty hole-filling shovel for good. We moved on to simple afternoon walks at Fisherman’s Wharf, where Petey discovered, with the vague senses he had left, an abundance of treats all the way from The Cannery to the outdoor fish market. 

During these day trips to the wharf, Petey met and introduced me to an array of generous, loving and compassionate strangers. At the fish market, he became friendly with all of the fishmongers as he sniffed the area for bits and pieces of shrimp and French fries. He was their one-man clean-up crew. Soon, one of the vendors began offering Petey calamari (his new favorite) in his own tiny cardboard “boat.” I guess the “Will Work For Food” sign worked. After cleaning his plate, we would begin our trek home past Castagnola’s and the site of the infamous Bush Man. After scaring the you-know-what out of countless unsuspecting tourists with his growling-bush antics, I have to admit that I loved seeing Petey rush over to his bush and return the favor – scaring him, that is. He never left a mark on the bush or the man – and eventually, I could tell that even the Bush Man genuinely admired his old-dog spunk.

Strolling past the bay tour fishing boats, we’d always get an offer for a free boat ride, to which I would respond, “Someday we’ll take you up on that!” but we never did because I knew Petey would never stand for sporting that big, orange life vest; he just wasn’t a costume guy. Petey would then cross the street and head to The Candy Barrel where he would receive a hearty Milk-Bone and a pet on the head from owner, Sharon Weir, or from one of her consistently cheery employees, Vienna, Esteita or Ronald. Just as we’d leave, we’d hear a call from across the street from Lionel, a charming wheelchair-bound man with multiple scerlosis who loved Petey and always whispered a little secret to him in his dog’s-only voice. Lionel kept my spirits up when Petey was going through his operation and he never let me give up hope.

Continuing on, there was Mehar standing in front of his bright inviting corner store, Lectronic City. He would always make funny chirping and whistling noises to fire up Petey – or any dog for that matter. During his last year, Petey recognized those tweets as a kind of dinner bell. And sure enough, if Mehar didn’t have a cookie, he’d rip off a piece of his sandwich and hold it out in his hand for Petey to gobble up. Petey’s stroll on the wharf couldn’t possibly make up for all of the treats he was receiving, as I would have had to walk him to Alcatraz to burn off all the calories he was consuming. But at this point, he was happy and that is all I cared about.

As we headed toward The Cannery, we always (and when I say always, I mean always) got a big hello from the ever-changing 20-somethings working at Blazing Saddles. But Petey had no time to slow down, because he was only feet away from his dream destination, the happiest place on earth, his own doggie Disneyland: the Argonaut Hotel.

The Argonaut is a dog-friendly hotel – and that’s an understatement. They not only allow dogs to stay at this beautiful bay-front location, but just inside the entryway is a table displaying a huge jar filled with doggy treats. And the bell captain, doormen and valets are armed with jerky pieces for any passing dog with an appetite, like my Petey. Once he could no longer see, his raison d’être each day was to cruise down to the Argonaut for treats. Maybe they dipped them in chowder, but whatever it was, he was hooked. After a few months of this, I started bringing my own treats out of guilt for not being a hotel guest. I would surreptiously palm my treats to the guys standing out front, like a drug dealer. Fortunately, Petey never caught on and remained forever in love with his Argonaut pals – especially John, the doorman, who never let Petey pass by without offering up a snack and a belly scratch. Without a doubt, John singularly trained Petey to be the Argonaut’s Number One Fan.

Petey lost his sense of smell during his last few months. The vet had no idea why because it was not connected to his loss of sight. He said that the only time he had ever seen this in the last 25 years was in one dog that had a brain tumor. We didn’t want to put Petey through more anxiety-producing tests, so we just let him continue on. As long as he still had a hankering for Fisherman’s Wharf, he would remain on this earth.

For a local, taking a walk through Fisherman’s Wharf may seem like no big deal, but not for Petey. His world was so small during these days. The majority of his time was spent sleeping or just being frustrated: banging into walls and walking around in circles, fearful, as the last flicker of daylight vanished into the pitch-blackness of night. My husband and I discussed putting him to sleep during the worst of these times, but when we saw him light up with pure, unadulterated joy whenever we’d head toward the hotel, we knew his life was still worth living. Fisherman’s Wharf literally saved Petey’s life for a while.

Finally, in December, I took him to the wharf, knowing that he would probably only make it to the Argonaut that day. I had to drive him halfway there because his energy had greatly decreased. When we arrived, my usual gang of cheerleaders – John, Ernie, Sarun, Haruk, Donavan, Nate, and Michael – were oddly nowhere to be seen, so Petey and I walked inside the Argonaut to help ourselves to the usual doggie treat from the jar on the table. But to our surprise and dismay, the jar was completely empty. This was the first time that had happened. Ever. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.

During the next couple of days, Petey’s desire to walk dwindled. From that elated jaunt to the Wharf, it became a defeated march from our front door to the nearest patch of dirt and back again. Through a torrent of tears (mostly mine), my husband and I made the heart-wrenching decision to let our Petey go.

A week after mourning that excruciating event, I went to visit all of our wonderful friends at Fisherman’s Wharf to say thank you. It was a very difficult walk that day. All of those amazing people had given so much to Petey and, in doing so, to me as well. After hearing the news, an emotional Mehar threw his arms open and gave me a bear hug. So did my favorite limo driver, Michael, of the Argonaut, who always kept a bag of treats for Petey in his glove box. And then there was John, teary-eyed, who had single-handedly inspired my blind, elderly dog to get from our home to his hotel, a half-mile away. Did this affable, compassionate bell captain realize that his tiny daily gesture of kindness saved my dog’s life for almost a year? I am, and will always be, forever grateful to John in his white helmet, whose voluminous heart is clearly visible, palpable, through that austere, dark blue nautical uniform.

It has been several months now since my boy, Petey, died. “And it’s not getting any easier,” as a friend who had also recently lost his dog said to me at The Candy Barrel. But I’m doing the best I can. In fact, the weather’s supposed to be pretty nice this weekend, so maybe I’ll go down to the wharf and finally take one of those boat rides. And I’ll make sure to wear one of those goofy orange life vests. Petey would have wanted it that way.

Sandy Fertman Ryan has written extensively for several women’s magazines and virtuallyall of the national teen magazines, including Teen, Seventeen, Sassy,CosmoGirl, YM, and Girls’ Life. She is currently trying to grow up.

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