The old black dog knew his customers. Despite the still early hour, I was tired from walking the back canals and alleyways but determined to see a truer Venice than the one that surrounded the preposterously busy Piazza di San Marco. No gondoliers in the back part of town, no Africans hawking fake Armani and Louis Vuitton products, no street performers, jugglers, hustlers, sidewalk portrait artists, no battalion-sized tour groups, no pricey boutiques, no trattorias back to back to back.
This was the part of Venice where the year-round populace lived. There were a few bakeries, an occasional bistro and several neighborhood Coin grocery stores carved out of the ancient tenements. Every couple of blocks was an open square, sometimes with a tree and benches, sometimes just sun parched buildings with shuttered windows and thick wood doors.
One slightly larger square had trees, benches and a café. Seating was al fresco although there were tables inside for inclement weather days and those winter months when the temperature can dip into the low forties. Not much English spoken in the periphery but, communication was not difficult. I was pointed to a table and was handed the menu.
A few feet away, perched against an ocher colored building, was a large black dog, probably some kind of Lab mix, although I don’t know dog breeds very well. He was basking in the warm sun, tongue hanging, head swiveling, eyes darting, tail twitching. He paid me no heed and dogs aren’t very conscious of human gaze. Soon, his tail speed increased, he drew himself up and quickly strolled, head down, towards an approaching young woman. She greeted him by name, Cupid, patted him on the head a few times, and went inside for her morning cappuccino.
Other customers followed, each time the dog rose and walked over to greet, was patted on the head, with an occasional aside conversation from older men who might well have been greeting their pastor or a life-long confidant. The dog seemed pleased to be on intimate terms. Perhaps some of the daily clientele came because of the friendly dog. When an occasional tourist stopped by, Cupid paid them scant attention. I suppose one needed to make the initial contact to get in his good graces.
I asked the waitress if the dog belonged to the owner. She said no, the owner was afraid of dogs, even Cupid, and he was never allowed inside the café. I gathered from the waitress’s unsteady English, Cupid belonged to someone who lived on the square and was let out each morning and called in each evening. “It has been that way forever,” she told me. I knew enough Italian colloquialism to translate that “as long as I have worked here.”
Then I asked how the owner managed with Cupid constantly outside. “They avoid each other,” she said, “never look at each other. For each one, the other does not exist.”