The aged white wooden door squeaked open. I walked into the poorly lit home behind Tehran's Baharestan Square. It looked as if it could have been the home of an important government official or wealthy bazaar merchant at the turn of the century, steps away from the old Majlis (parliament) building.
As I was turning into a hallway I saw a furry little white ball rolling toward me. It crashed into my foot and unraveled. It was a puppy.
He didn't have a name yet — well, other than Hapoo, the generic name for dogs used by Iranian kids. He was running to catch one of the household children but had slipped on the floor tiles and lost his balance. I don't know if it was fate or not, but I instantly knew he was the one for me. And her.
I had just come from America for a visit and during one of those bench talks with my girlfriend in Laleh Park (formerly Farah Park), she had told me she wanted a dog. Not just any kind of dog but one of those sosisi (sausage) kinds. You know, whachamacallit; the short ones with long bodies, smooth reddish-brown hair. Pencil-sharp tails.
True. I was in the capital of the Islamic Republic where dogs are generally considered najes (unclean). Usually pet stores only sell birds. But in Tehran, if you really want something, whether a dog or a satellite dish or Henry V's favorite pillow, there are people who would get it for you.
I asked around and was told to go to the Jamshidiyeh district. There I could find anything from “chicken milk to human life.” So I went and sure enough there was a lot of chicken. A dozen or so chickens were stuffed in TV-size steel cages, piled on top of each other in row after row of shops in a narrow alley teeming with people.
I came close to one of the shop owners and whispered. “A dog. I want a dog. Got any dogs?” The man turned his head sideways and scratched his rough face. He looked down for a moment and then stared into my eyes. Was I for real? “End of the alley, turn left, fourth door on your left. Take the stairs down to the basement. Tell them so-and-so sent you.”
At the end of the alley, I turned into a narrow passage. Not a soul in sight. I knocked on the fourth door. A boy stuck his eyes out. “I want a dog.” The boy said “Befarmaied” (please come in) and swung the freshly-pained blue steal door wide.
I took the steps down to the basement. I was impressed by what I saw. This was a place in downtown Tehran — way downtown — where people anonymously come to pick dogs. But I would not have been surprised if I had seen a “Baxter, Tush, Goldman & Associates” sign on the wall. The room was bright and clean. There were two tables next to each other in an “L” position.
One of the three men, who seemed to be the boss, politely offered assistance. He wore a kind smile under his sharp, black moustache. “I want a dog,” I said. The Boss took out a catalog from his desk, opened it and slowly turned the pages. There were photos and drawings of all sorts of dogs. But mostly the big, unsmiling kinds — basically they were for scaring off thieves.
“I want a sosisi,” I said. The Boss said he had sold his last one just a few weeks before. “I have a very nice eshpeetz.” He showed me a drawing of a short white dog with a fluffy curled-up tail. Under it it said “German Spitz”. “They are the perfect kind. Small. Domestic. Friendly. You can keep them in the house or outside in the yard,” The Boss said.
I was given the address of the home behind Baharestan Square and told to give them my decision over the phone. So as soon as I saw that cute furball, I called and closed the deal. I paid the equivalent of $150, twice the average monthly salary of a civil servant. And I was thrilled. I couldn't wait to show him to my girlfriend.
But I couldn't just carry a puppy in public. People would look at me in a strange way. And besides, no cab driver would allow a dog or even a puppy in his car. So, even though it was a hot summer day, I had to carry the poor little thing in a rice sack. But his new comfortable home was only an hour's drive away.
I stopped an empty cab, got in the back seat, put the sack by my feet, and gave the address. Cabs in Tehran carry three passengers in the back and two in the front. I told the driver that I would pay him a little extra so he wouldn't have to pick up more passengers.
The cabbie zigzagged the side streets to avoid the traffic in the main streets. Stop and go. Stop and go. A sharp turn here. A wild maneuver there. It was a typical driving experience in Tehran. But little furball had never been inside a car (and a rice sack) before.
I bent over to see if he was taking the wild ride and the heat okay. I almost had a heart attack. My shoes were in a pool of white liquid. The poor little thing had thrown up the milk he had drank before we got into the cab. And he was sitting on his bum, looking very cool, smiling with his red tongue sticking out.
I almost had another heart attack. That day marked some religious occasion. I don't remember which, but it was not a happy one. Many people, including the cabbie, were wearing black shirts in mourning. If the driver saw what a mess a dog had created in his car I would be in deep deep doodoo.
What the hell was I going to do? Think! THINK!
Before I could think, furball put his two front paws on the seat and threw up again. “Ohhhhhh myyyyyyy gaaaaaaaaaaawd…” I thought. “My kingdom for a sponge.”
Other than my wide-open eyes, my face was emotionless as the driver looked at me from his mirror.
— “You look like you have come from abroad, haven't you? From America…” — “Yeah.” — “How is it over there?” — “Okay.” — “My brother lives in Los Angeles. He's trying to get me a visa. But I don't know. This is my home. I have family here. I go to the mosque every night.” — “They have mosques in Los Angeles.” — “Yeah. But it's not the same. If I go there my kids will become like other American kids and soon they would want to stay out late and have a dog.”
I looked at furball. I looked at the white spot the size of Texas on the seat and the pool of puke under my feet. Commence mission impossible. IMMEDIATELY!
I rolled down both side windows to contain the smell. I put my hands on the front seat, pressed my back side down and very slowly dragged it to the side. I could feel the cool from the liquid being soaked up by my black GAP jeans. I shut my eyes and let out a sigh of relief through my nose.
In the meantime I tried to clean the floor by moving the cotton rice sack — and furball — back and forth. By the time we got to my girlfriend's house, I had taken care of much of the mess. There were only a few white spots left.
I wanted to tell the driver how deeply sorry I was but I just paid him twice what I had promised him and got out a soaking nervous wreck. But the crisis was over. I had saved my ass and furball's. And soon I would make my girlfriend very happy. I rang her bell and the door opened. I walked in and went toward her room. As I was passing the kitchen I saw her father preparing skewers of kebab.
— “What's that?!” he said with a surprised look. — “Umm, it's a puppy. Your daughter wanted one. Didn't she tell you already?” Obviously not. Then I said, “Look what the little bastard did” and I pointed at my pants and made an isn't-this-hilarious face. Father was not amused.
At that moment my girlfriend came into the kitchen. As soon as she saw furball her face bursted with joy and she howled “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaazeeee…” (cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuutie). For a split second she looked at her father and said “Isn't he a darling, dad?” and without waiting for an answer she took furball and I with her to the yard.
— “You didn't tell your dad about getting a dog?” — “I had mentioned it to my mom.” — “You're in trouble, girl.” — “And so are you!” — “Yes, I know, thank you very much. I think your dad loves me a lot more now.” — “My dad does not have a problem with you. I'm the problem.” — “I know. I can imagine.” — “You're in a nasty mood today!” — “Your dog threw up all over the cab. Look what I had to do to clean it all up.” — “He's so darn cute. Thank you, thank you. What should we name our baby? How about Panbeh (Cotton)?” — “Panbeh?”