We had just moved to the polite version of the projects. Subsidized rents, for low income people. It was quite a change for someone who had grown up with a housekeeper, cook, and gardener… but that was before the divorce.
Our apartment overlooked a park, and since I wasn’t good at making friends, I spent most of my days alone, looking at the park. Around the edges of the green space were fenced-off private parcels, for those Germans who could not afford a house and a garden, they could buy or lease a parcel and have a garden. The largest parcel had a little cabin on it, a tall chain link fence, a thick impenetrable hedge, and in addition it was guarded by a very large German Shepherd dog.
The dog was huge, with a massive head, black muzzle and body and reddish tan legs and neck. Once a day, after work, the owner would come to feed the dog, walk him a little, and see to his needs. There was usually a training session involved. That is how I found out that the dog’s name was Hasso.
You could walk a certain distance of the fence without knowing that Hasso was guarding the parcel. But if you came within a step or two of the wire, Hasso would bark and appear through the hedge, snarling and growling, flashing those white fangs of his. It was daring to try and touch the fence and retreat before Hasso could bite.
I don’t remember why I thought I should make friends with Hasso, but I do remember that I looked out the kitchen window and thought that he must be lonely too. So I went downstairs, crossed the street and approached the gate. There was no hedge at the gate, of course, so you could see Hasso coming. Three big leaps, one bound, he was there. He waited. I was still beyond the “bark” zone. I stepped closer. He growled, real low in his throat. Another step, and he barked a frantic warning, then threw himself against the gate. It rattled but held. I stepped back, half a step.
Now Hasso was quiet. I sat on the curb and began talking to him. Hasso would sit and watch me with his amber eyes.
Every day I would come and sit on the curb in the same spot and talk to Hasso. Then one day I moved closer. He didn’t bark. After a few weeks I could sit right by the gate. He didn’t bark. I began bringing him treats. A bit of bread, some cheese. I would toss those through the fence for Hasso. One day I brought a special treasure – bacon. Mom would kill me if she knew that I had stolen some bacon. But bacon was too good a treat, too special to toss through the fence. I approached the fence and told Hasso to sit. He sat. I held a bit of bacon up to the fence. He took it leaving my fingers. For the next morsel he had to lie down. He did. Then I got cocky and told him to shake. He didn’t know that one! So I wove my hand through the fence and touched his paw. He slapped my hand with his big paw. I fed him bacon. From then on, whether I had a treat or not, I would just call Hasso to the gate, and have him do tricks. Then he would push his body against the fence and I would pet him and scratch his ears and chest. We would play fetch with a stick. It was tricky to get it back through the fence so I could throw it for him, but Hasso loved retrieving the stick. Hasso and I were soon fast friends.
One day I saw that Hasso had something on the ground and was worrying it. He came over to the gate, then ran back to the thing on the ground. He was rather excited about it. It was a hedgehog. They curl up into a spiny prickly ball, protecting their soft belly, and Hasso could not pick it up.
I thought it might be nice to have a hedgehog as a pet.
So I told Hasso to fetch, and bring it to me. He couldn’t pick the prickle ball creature up in his mouth, so he tried to nose the critter my way, then paw it. Sometimes the hedgehog rolled closer, other times further from the gate. I began to fish for the little creature with a stick.
“What do you think you are doing here?” A deep voice boomed.
Hasso’s owner! He had taken time off, and was in the garden! We were in caught.
I wanted to run, but Hasso would be in trouble, for he had not alerted or threatened me, and I was right at the gate, fishing around in the yard with a stick, telling the dog to bring me stuff… surely he would get in trouble over that. So I couldn’t run and leave a friend in dire straits. I didn’t want Hasso to get beaten for being my friend.
“Please, could I have the hedgehog, if you don’t want it?” I stammered. My knees were shaking.
I have no memory of the man’s face, only of a dark towering presence.
“What now? Oh, that… you want it?” He didn’t sound quite so harsh.
He rolled the hedgehog onto his hand and reached over the gate and handed it to me. He had huge hands. But he did not crush the hedgehog. I yelled “thank you” over my shoulder and hightailed it home. The man told Hasso to heel and walked back to the back of the yard.
I was careful to visit Hasso only after checking for his owner after that. But I did visit him and thanked him for the hedgehog. I finally had friends.