I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. — Winston Churchill
Bella held a mini carrot over the pygmy pig’s head, but as the animal’s mouth closed in to snatch the treat, the six-year-old lost her nerve and tossed the carrot onto the cherry-wood floor. Her skittish reaction to the unfamiliar creature reminded me of the first time my dad took my sisters and me to the local pond with a bag of stale Wonder bread. The geese were aggressive, and I swore I caught a glimpse of sharp teeth in their bills. I held a large slice of bread at the end of an outstretched arm and dropped it the moment before the bird got close enough to take it from me.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of — Carnitas just wants the carrot, not your fingers,” I said to my niece, only half-believing myself. Kids make hypocrisy so easy. “Here, watch me.” I took a carrot and let it sit on my palm for a moment before Carnitas gobbled it up. “See? Easy peasy.” Encouraged, Bella extracted another carrot from the bag and held it over the pig’s head. Again, she threw the morsel just as the pig lunged for it.
I’d abducted my friend Sara’s pet for a few hours so I could help my sister Jane create a video of Bella singing for some kiddie website. Jane figured — not unreasonably — that the presence of a pig in the video would garner favorable reviews from other kids. When we’d finished exploiting both the child and animal for our entertainment, I suggested we walk down the street to grab lunch.
I’ve been down University Avenue countless times. I’m not one to avoid eye contact or interaction with passersby, but I don’t go out of my way to seek it out. When close to people (e.g., when riding together in an elevator), I’m more comfortable smiling and greeting than I am ignoring them. But on the street, I defer to the moods of others: if they raise their gaze and smile, I will do the same; most of the time, though, people pay no attention to me as they go about their day.
Stepping onto University Avenue in the company of a little girl in a sundress and pigtails who is walking a tiny black-and-white pig on a harness is like stepping into Bizarro Hillcrest. I had never realized how many people were out and about on a typical weekday until every single one of them materialized to stop us in our path.
Carnitas sucked people in like a rip current — stylists emerged from hair salons, waiters from restaurants, a clerk from the thrift store. As I smiled and greeted the natives, Sesame Street’s “People in Your Neighborhood” song popped into my head. How many times had I walked past these storefronts without so much as wondering who might be inside?
As a crowd gathered, there were no “Excuse me’s” or “Hi, how are you’s.” Instead, the same basic questions were shot at us like gunfire. It was as though everyone had regressed to that uninhibited age when children don’t think twice before announcing how bald or fat someone is to their face. Is that a pig? How old is it? Will it get bigger? What’s its name? Reactions to hearing the pig’s name (which translates to “little meats” but is also a popular Mexican dish) varied from amused to disapproving.
Once their questions had been answered, people tended to stick around and stare at the animal as they divulged details of their lives to no one in particular. One guy had grown up on a farm. A woman had always wanted a pig but wasn’t sure how they’d behave in the house. We learned all about other people’s pets — their names, breeds, and personalities.
On any other day, I might have avoided the searching gaze of the shirtless and filthy man with the shopping cart, lopsided grin, and can of beer. I’d be wary that he was going to say something lewd or ask me for money. But, as we passed him and his eyes dropped to the pig and smiled, I felt no need to be vigilant. Instead, I smiled back and shrugged, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s a pig — weird, huh?”
A man ran across the street from the 7-Eleven to confirm that his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. “Okay,” he laughed, taking in the view. “Only in Hillcrest would you see an adorable little girl like that walking a pig. I love it.”
Like a cute puppy (or baby, if you’re into that), my friend’s pet was a great equalizer. His appearance was seen as permission to approach and interact — not unlike the blue parrot that rides on one local man’s shoulder or the giant orange reptile I once saw a woman wear like a broach on the front of her shirt. Carnitas was cool with all of the attention, grunting as he sniffed the cement for traces of food, barking like a dog whenever he was spooked by someone’s a-bit-too-enthusiastic touch.
It took us half an hour to make it the few blocks to Baja Betty’s, which has a dog- (or pig-) friendly patio. David whispered his order to the server so that Bella wouldn’t hear that he was planning to eat something of the same name as her hooved friend; Jane and Bella stuck with vegetarian dishes; I got my usual, mini tacos with beef. Once we’d settled in, David gave Carnitas the slice of lime from his margarita, and the pig remained occupied under the table long enough for us to eat our lunch.
“What do you think about getting a pig?” Jane asked me. Winston, her chocolate lab of many years had just passed, and she had been lightly toying with the idea of a new family pet.
“You know, I’m all about this little guy,” I said. “He’s so much fun to hang out with. But it’s a lot of work to take him anywhere. A simple morning walk would take half the day.”
“Speaking of which, we should head back now,” David said. “I have to be at my studio in an hour.”
“But your studio’s only a five-minute drive away,” I said.
David turned to look down along the sidewalk in the direction from which we came. “It’s not the drive I’m worried about.”