So, some asshole steals Charlie out of the car that Joan parks for maybe fifteen minutes tops on Valencia Street to run an errand. The sun is out, everyone is looking everyone else up, down and sideways, traffic is flowing, bicycles are rolling, and the world is pretty much on display. But somehow, no one sees Charlie get pinched. And it’s not like it takes a split second either, because Charlie is a huge, ancient Golden Retriever/Chow mix; he doesn’t move fast, and he doesn’t move easy. Whoever hauls that dog out of the Prius has to flatten the front passenger seat and drag him over the headrest, onto the sidewalk, and out of sight before Joan makes it back.
There are extenuating circumstances, of course. First, Joan is from Iowa and she doesn’t understand San Francisco. Second, and as a direct result of the first, Joan leaves the windows of the car rolled down a bit for Charlie to take the air while she’s in the store. Finally, and this is just rotten luck, Joan happens to leave her phone sitting on the dashboard and, with it, her credit cards and ID.
But Joan still has an iPad that she brought into the store with her.
“I’m having an emergency,” she emails me, and I jump in my car to drive across town and meet her.
We know where to start looking for Charlie because whoever tossed Joan’s car grabbed Charlie and the phone at the same time. A stolen phone can be resold on the street in less than a minute. Charlie’s a little harder to dispose of. This is something the thief likely realized as he scrambled to stash the dog. Otherwise he would have turned Joan’s phone off immediately. But he didn’t turn it off, at least not before the phone pinged its location to Joan’s iPad: Valencia Street near Cunningham Place.
I know this spot. There’s a little fenced playground there, with one swing, a tiny sandbox and three iron benches that are always full of people. Just beyond the playground, behind a chain link fence is a small, open parking lot.
We take my car and park as close as we can get to the little playground, then jog toward Cunningham Place. This is no easy thing, because at 12:30 in the afternoon, Valencia Street is crowded and hopping. Joan has a picture of Charlie on her iPad, and I’ve got one on my phone, so we make a virtue out of congestion. We tell our story to everyone we pass along the way. We embellish.
“Charlie’s sick,” we say.
“He’s dying,” I add, when Joan can’t hear me.
“He needs hourly medication,” we tell the barista smoking a cigarette outside of Moose Juice.
“He’s got terrible diarrhea,” I tell a lady with a stroller.
“He really likes fries,” we advise two buff guys sitting on a bench eating Big Mouth burgers.
“Have you seen this dog?” we ask a friendly, tweaking street guy sprawled across the sidewalk, and then a young girl selling strawberries on the corner of 19th.
Everyone is outraged when they hear about Charlie, and one lady even starts crying, but no one has seen him.
We get to the playground and look past it, into the tiny parking lot. Three guys are huddled together in there, between a few of the parked cars; it’s ridiculous how suspicious they look. Two of them are tall and one of them is really short. They’re all wearing black pants and shirts and jackets. They have black watch caps pulled low over their eyes. The short guy’s cap is peaked at the top. All three are eyeballing Joan and me, talking to each other, handing stuff back and forth.
We walk over to them and talk through the fence.
“We’re looking for a dog,” I say,
The short guy says, “A big one?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Yellow?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
He vaults the fence to reach us, and starts talking fast: “I didn’t see anything. Actually, I saw everything. A man took him. No, a woman took him.”
The guy just can’t stop yammering, and everything he says contradicts everything else he says. We absolutely think he stole Charlie, but we can’t let him know it. So we follow him to the corner of 20th Street.
“That way,” he points.
“Thanks,” Joan and I say and, for good measure, we start to run away from him down 20th.
“Someone took our dog,” we call out to some guys in a garage. “He’s deaf,” I add.
“Look out for this dog,” I say to a young couple eating ice cream cones and strolling in the opposite direction. “He got jacked from our car.” I’m gasping a little bit because I’m still running.
When we’re sure the short guy isn’t watching us anymore, Joan doubles back, retracing her steps toward Valencia.
I’m not there when she finds Charlie. Actually, the couple with the ice cream finds him first. They stumble right into him at the corner of 20th and San Carlos, where they see the short guy dragging Charlie by the collar.
“Hey,” they say to the short guy. “Where did you get that dog?”
The next part isn’t clear to me, and I’m not sure whether it’s clear to Joan because we haven’t really talked it through. All I know is that my phone rings and it’s Joan FaceTiming me from her iPad.
“I’ve got Charlie,” she says.
“Why did the short guy bring Charlie out into the open?” you might ask. I can’t really answer that. All I can tell you is what a cop later told me: “We don’t catch the smart ones.”
Now that we’ve got Charlie back, though, Joan gets really and truly mad.
“I want my phone and I want my ID,” she says, as Charlie dribbles anxious bits of poop on the sidewalk. Charlie might be a little dim, and we joke that he probably didn’t realize he’d been burgled, but a dog knows when he’s not with his people; we want justice.
So we head back to the little park where, astonishingly, the short guy has rejoined his two other companions in the parking lot. “This is almost too easy,” I’m thinking.
Joan keeps Charlie outside the park, while I go in, straight up to the short guy, and say, “Give me the phone.” He starts in again with the patter, pointing, waving, talking: “A girl has it. No, a guy has it. She headed south. I mean, he headed north.”
By this point, I’m tired of the short guy. “Just give me the phone,” I say.
Finally, his survival instincts kick in: he turns and sprints away from me out of the park and down Valencia Street, bobbing and weaving around the lunchtime traffic.
That leaves the other two guys, who walk out of the parking lot, too, yanking their caps even lower over their eyes, covering their faces with their hands. They split up, one walking right into the middle of Valencia Street, the other turning back down the alley.
I realize at the time that this isn’t a great idea, but I decide to follow the guy who’s smart enough to stay out of traffic. I head down an alley after him, and I call 911 as I’m walking. The dispatcher answers the phone and I tell her all about Charlie and the three guys and the fact that I’m following one right now.
“Now?” she asks me. “Where exactly are you?”
And here’s the thing: I’m so worked up that I’m not really sure where I am. I’m just following the guy. He turns to look at me, and I trip over a bump in the sidewalk.
“See,” he says to me, shaking his head in dismay, “Now you’re going to fall down.”
And right then, a police cruiser drives by.
“Hey,” I yell. “I just got robbed.”
The cruiser screeches to a halt, two cops jump out, and in seconds the guy I’m following is sitting on the ground with his hands up.
“Ma’am,” asks the younger cop, “Can you positively identify this man as the person who robbed you?”
“Well,” I say, “he didn’t rob me, he robbed Joan.”
“Who’s Joan?” asks the cop.
So I tell the officers what happened and they send another cruiser over to the little park to find Joan and Charlie. I want to hear everything that’s going on, and I step a little closer to the action.
“Ma’am,” says the older cop, “step away from the suspect.
“Ma’am?” the younger cop asks me. “Do you think you could identify the suspect who was handling the dog?”
“Absolutely,” I say.
He walks me back down the alley to the park and there, sitting handcuffed on the wall next to the little lawn, is the short guy.
“Do you recognize that person?” asks the cop.
“Absolutely,” I say, crowding up close to see what’s going on.
“Ma’am,” says the cop, “step away from the suspect.”
“Where did you find him?” I ask the officer.
“In the park,” he answers.
“Why would he come back to the park?” I ask.
“We don’t catch the smart ones.”
The police escort me to Joan and Charlie, who are inside Moose Juice with the barista. Joan identifies the short guy, too, which means the police can search him. When they do, they find Joan’s credit cards and identification in his pockets. The cops interview Joan and write up the burglary on little notebooks that are spiral bound at the top. They ask how much Joan’s phone is worth. Then they want to know how much Charlie is worth.
“He’s priceless,” I interject.
“Well, emotionally, sure,” they concede. “But how much did you pay for him? How old is he? Did you get him from a breeder?”
I think we should fight for a high valuation, because the cops are missing the point entirely, but Joan is having none of it.
“He’s a rescue,” she says to them. “I paid $125.00 for him.”
We walk up and down Valencia Street with one of the officers, and Joan shows him where she was parked when her car was robbed. We’re quite a sight, Joan, Charlie, me and the cop. Joan and I tell everyone we pass that Charlie is a recently recovered kidnap victim and they are all fascinated. Everyone wants to give Charlie something: water, a piece of a hot dog. One lady coming out of Dandelion Chocolate asks me if he’d like a Danish. The cop looks under rooflines and building eaves and up telephone poles as we stroll, identifying surveillance cameras that might have footage of the crime. He is extremely thorough and we’re very impressed.
Finally, it’s time for Charlie, Joan and me to go home. We thank the cops. We leave Joan’s car behind for now, and load Charlie into the back seat of mine. We buckle up, and head north on Valencia Street and out of the Mission. We talk some, but we’re exhausted by the whole day; Joan is stunned again and mostly silent. I can sense that her deep and abiding faith in the purity of the human heart has been compromised. I want to remind her of all the people who helped us: the couple eating ice cream, the barista at Moose Juice, the girl selling fruit, the smart cops, the strung out street guy basking in the warmth of the sidewalk grate. I want to talk about everyone who crowded around Charlie after his rescue, who hugged him and petted him and offered him hot dogs and a beautiful Danish. But people deserve the right to manage their own innocence. So we drive quietly back across the city, pushing through the afternoon traffic, with the windows down for Charlie to take the air.
Anne Kenner was a 2016 Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, and has been a prosecutor, law professor and high school educator. From 1986-2000, Ms. Kenner served with the United States Department of Justice as an Assistant United States Attorney. Based first in New York and then in San Francisco, she specialized in narcotics, organized crime, and white-collar fraud prosecutions. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Southwest Review, and Columbia Journal and her essay, “The Lower Layer,” was recognized as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2019.