I want to tell you about Shmuli… because he’s so important to me. When we found each other nothing in life was going right. I was in the throes of the most contested, divorce in modern history… the marriage was a mistake from day one and got worse for 20 years. Friends had formed alliances, lawyers were living well off our hatred, and my son was bouncing between our house and beach condo in a haphazard shared custody arrangement.
One day, he called from his mother’s house to tell me she’d gotten him a dog. I was enraged but I kept cool. After he told me all about it … I calmly said… “Well…. That’s great! But the greater news is now you have two new puppies! I got you one too!” My son screamed with excitement and wanted details… what kind… what was its name… when could he see it… where did I get it? I told him to just wait until he got home the next day and it would still be a surprise!
My son was thrilled…. I was screwed!
It was 6:00 pm on a Saturday night and I had no dog! I only knew of one pet store at Jacksonville Beach and it would close in 30 minutes! Crap…. This was bad!
Jacksonville, Florida has a straight shot from town to the beach. It is an endless stretch of road called Beach Boulevard. There are hundreds of nameless shopping centers on 14.96 miles of ugly… all look the same… none are memorable except for one. Just before you cross the intercoastal waterway bridge you’ll see a giant dancing red dog on a sidewalk waving a sign promoting a “puppy sale”. It doesn’t matter how hot or cold or dry or wet it is on Beach Boulevard some kid is always dancing in the dog costume. I’ve always wondered how anyone could do it for more than 30 minutes in the Jacksonville heat… but someone always did.
When I arrived, the big red dog was walking across the parking lot with its big redhead in a teenager’s hand. Inside the costume was a teen soaking wet with sweat. He didn’t acknowledge me as we walked into the air-conditioned shop. He was a tall black kid forced to perform by his mother, the shop’s owner, and tough boss. Something told me he would not be carrying on the family business.
The shop was spotless with young girls changing shredded newspapers from the bottom of cages. Across the “puppy showroom” were Plexiglas cages with multiple puppies jumping and barking … each was perfectly groomed and take home ready.
The owner ran a tight ship and her kids made sure mama was happy… what I’ve failed to mention is mama is a loud woman. The minute I walked in the door… I could hear her snapping orders in a lingo only people in the south understand. This woman had a Ph.D. in it. If she yelled, “Hey! Honey… I ain’t gonna tell you again!” one time …. she yelled it 50! This woman didn’t play….
I had five minutes to buy a dog before that place closed…. This woman was not going to mess with me, so I had to move fast!
In the far corner of the shop, near the dog food was a dog alone in an enclosed cage. It was past that cute puppy stage and had entered the goofy teenage years. Its tongue was hanging out and one eye looked deformed. It was probably the ugliest dog I’d ever seen.
Above the cage was a sign that read “70% off!!!!” Wow… I’ve heard of a markdown but why 70% and why all the exclamation marks?
As I’m studying this dog a voice comes rolling across the store that yelled, “Honey…. You don’t want that dog… he’s ugly and stupid!”
She was exactly right… he was ugly … I mean seriously ugly.
I was shattered by the woman’s words….” He’s ugly and stupid?” Those words cut to my soul! He looked up at me with his tongue hanging out and just stared … he didn’t know he was ugly… or that no one wanted him. He didn’t know people were talking about his imperfections or that he was discounted to the point he was nearly free. He didn’t know he was removed from the other puppies because he wasn’t good enough…. He simply didn’t know.
Dear G-d …. That dog was me!
After a minute, I looked at the woman and said…. “You’re right, he’s ugly and probably stupid…. but honey, so am I! … I’ll take him”. She said, “You’ll regret it… you can’t bring him back!”
No one wanted him and no one wanted me. We were perfect for each other.
The first thing I had to do was name him. What could I possibly name the ugliest dog on earth? The thing instantly loved me…. I thought of “shadow” or “Velcro” or “cling” because he wouldn’t leave my side. I decided to let my son name him because he was my negotiating chip to keep him in my life. That was a disaster.
My son instantly hated the dog! It had raging diarrhea… one eye was closed and yellow puss was pouring out… its tongue was hanging and it was uncontrollably hyper. This was the dog from hell! My son not only wouldn’t name it … he wouldn’t pet it or go near it. I was screwed again!
I named the dog Shmuli after the only calming factor in my life at that time. Shmuli Novack is a rabbi in Jacksonville who changed my life. He focused on the good in people and discounted their frailties. He didn’t have much and he wasn’t looking for much. What he had was inner peace. That was something I couldn’t find… he recognized my self-destruction and approached me with love. My drinking was so out of control that one day he said, “Rob, it will make me very sad to deliver your eulogy and I know I’m going to do it very soon”. Soon after that I left for rehab and got my life back.
Shmuli (the dog) is partially blind and dumb as a box of rocks. He doesn’t look any better than the day I got him… he doesn’t do tricks… or entertain me. He doesn’t do a thing notable other than expect me to take him out four times a day to poop and remind me to buy food.
Shmuli loves me. During my drunken days at the beach, Shmuli waited for me. When I was in rehab Shmuli waited for me. Today, if things are going wrong, Shmuli is waiting for me. There is nothing I have done or will ever do that will cause Shmuli not to love me.
Shmuli is ugly and stupid by the world’s standards, but he’s a savior by mine! Shmuli …. You rock!
This is my journey… this is my life!