I love the shape of the Starbucks in Riverside. The open doors reveal a wide, welcoming interior with counter and pastry case along the back wall. Seats at short round tables are the most common, but a few high-tops and one long wooden table break up the monotony.
The pathway to the counter is easy to travel. Katie, York, and I don’t have to fight our way through displays of teetering ceramic mugs or bags of whole-bean coffee.
As we wait in line, enjoying the rush of cold air from beneath the pastry case, I overhear a conversation near the central wooden table. A mother instructs her young child, “No, you can’t pet that doggie. He has very important work to do.” Without knowing exactly where she stands, I turn and smile at this benevolent educator; I’m touched to hear a stranger illuminating service dog etiquette without my help.
Behind me, another customer acknowledges York: “I’d love to pet him, but I know he’s working.”
“Thank you,” I offer her a smile.
After paying for my iced latte, I ask the cashier to transfer my remaining gift card balance onto the aged braille Starbucks card I’ve been carrying in my wallet. In October, Starbucks always releases gift cards for Disability Awareness Month—some autumnal design with the store name in braille. As this is the only braille card in my wallet, it’s always identifiable as my passport to strong coffee. So I transfer every new gift card onto the braille one and hand the blind-friendly card to each cashier: fulfilling my duty as a responsible consumer-activist.
At our own round table, Katie and I hash out plans for our morning. Because of the lovely breeze and sunshine, we’ve decided to visit the Riverside Arts Market. While we converse, a man approaches our table and greets us.
“Hi, can I pet the dog, or is he considered working?”
I explain that even though York looks to be taking a break—lying half-asleep at my feet—he is a working dog and shouldn’t be touched. Accepting my words without complaint, the man collects his coffee and moves away.
As we head to the car, Katie and I compare notes on York’s treatment: in 30 minutes at Starbucks, he has received three positive interactions and no negative interactions. We contrast this with the treatment he received last night when we attended the season finale at the Jacksonville Symphony.
Though all symphony personnel were courteous and respectful, several patrons were rude or intrusive. To justify his attempt at a pet, one elderly man insisted that York “doesn’t know he’s working”—a sentiment disproved by the very presence of York’s harness. If York couldn’t treat the harness as his work uniform, recognizing that his priorities and responsibilities change when he wears it, he would never have graduated as a guide dog. It’s the thoughtless dog-lovers, not my thoughtful companion, who disregard the difference between work and play.
Another woman attempted a stealth-pat as I conversed with an usher. Luckily, Katie was on the alert, and used her knee to push the woman’s hand away—a maneuver she explained to me after getting us out of the woman’s range. The stealth-pat is a particularly insulting gesture; it shows that the person knows the petting isn’t allowed, yet does it anyway.
If I have to find a silver lining in these moments, it’s the incontrovertible proof that York understands his role better than most humans. And when I feel embittered by these unpleasant interactions, I remind myself that I am surrounded by friends and family who respect my relationship with York.
Unlike the symphony, the Arts Market presents no particular doggie challenges. Katie and I enjoy our cool walk from the car to the market—though York is determined to inspect several smells in the bushes along the sidewalk. As we approach the Market, I experience a rush of music and traffic mingling with the smells of lavender soap and beef jerky. Now I know why my mobility instructor told me not to follow my nose; the savory smoke of the beef jerky coils around the corner, well before we actually reach the stall. The wind tosses and scrambles the scents, so that I can only navigate by smell if I’m standing immediately before the vendor.
The Arts Market is a dog-friendly place, and the presence of many dogs on leashes makes York less novel. Even so, several people stop to comment on his looks, asking about his breeding and training. I overhear the familiar parental advice to children: “The puppy is working, so we can’t pet him, okay? He’s helping that lady.”
Perhaps because dogs are a part of this market culture, patrons are more familiar with service dog protocol. Though more people stop to speak with me, no one pets York without asking—which means that no one pets York at all. Every person understands that he is working and is pleased when I thank them for asking my permission.
Apart from York, Katie and I have developed our own market protocol. As it’s hard for me to read prices at most of the stands, we use a code phrase to signify the two most awkward messages: “This item costs more than you’re willing to spend” and “This item is not very attractive.” Because we’ve just eaten breakfast, today’s phrase is, “No, I’m really hungry.” While strolling through the wide aisle and enjoying the unfamiliar melodies of a saxophone, we test the phrase to see if it works:
“How do you like that jewelry over there, made from old board game pieces?”
“I don’t know—I’m still really hungry. Starving actually.”
We exchange grins. Today’s code is a success.
Fortunately, we don’t find much need for the code as we visit some of our favorite stalls. The FreshJax display offers homemade cookies, trail mix, and spiced nuts—with the added charm of free samples. After a tour of the entire stall, I settle on the chili-lime cashews, and Katie snaps up some cookies, oatmeal-chocolate-chip with macadamia nuts.
After cookies and trail mix, we find another stall that offers samples: Little Black Box. A bakery that sells cookies as well as homemade jam, their display boasts several neat rows of jam jars—dark with the promise of their delicious contents. Here, we sample numerous jams, including Plum Gin and Blueberry Red Wine Lavender. Katie and I both prefer the Blackberry Bourbon Vanilla, dreaming up occasions to use the jam as we slide our money toward the friendly vendor.
Making our way toward the quilts, jewelry, and other crafts, we enter a pottery stall with beautiful mugs, plates, and pitchers. Here, Katie takes down pieces that she thinks I’ll enjoy, while I keep York’s curious nose from nestling among the fragile creations. As Katie hands me each piece, she directs my attention to certain colors or styles. My particular favorites are the small round-bellied pitchers that narrow to a graceful spout. Together we discuss the remarkable colors and textures and fantasize about taking pottery classes someday soon.
Feeling the abrupt wagging of York’s tail against my left leg, I turn my head toward the stall’s entrance. A family stands some distance away with their dog, and judging by York’s posture, he would very much like to meet her. He pretends to sit, keeping his rump hovering an inch off the ground, his tail thrumming against my leg. The adults laugh and remind their child that York is a working dog. I ask him to sit again, and he resumes his good posture, aware that he’s on display.
As we leave the stall, I ask Katie, “Was there anyone running that display?” and I’m surprised to hear that the stall’s proprietor was present throughout our short visit. Completely silent, he (or she) was totally undetectable—his behavior an inhospitable contrast with the friendly vendors who welcomed us and spoke readily. Perhaps he guessed that we wouldn’t buy and didn’t want to waste energy in talking. But by not acknowledging us, he turns a hasty guess into a certainty.
Just as inconsiderate patrons won’t keep me away from beautiful classical music, rude vendors won’t deter me from visiting the Arts Market. I am fortified by the many courteous conversations—alive with genuine interest—and the dozens of people ready to honor the intelligence and heart of my nonhuman companion. I wonder how it must be to confine others’ potential by their shape: to see a dog as only a dog, to imagine that he cannot ever share our human capacities for reason and empathy.
It is much more pleasant to let York show me his strengths and struggles—as any human friend would.