It's a bright, sunny morning in Bywater, and Ken Foster is taking his dog Sula for a walk. The two of them come bounding up Piety Street, back from Markey Park, and before you can voice any reservation you've ever had about pit bulls, Sula has dispelled them all with her sloppy wet kisses.
Foster's other dogs, Zephyr and Brando, are waiting inside the house. "Two is a good number. Three is trouble," Foster says. But Sula is the cover girl today, as she is for Foster's new book, "The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind" (Lyons Press, $12.95).
It's a memoir that will appeal to dog lovers, for sure, but it's also a human story of considerable dimensions, framed by the national tragedies of Sept. 11 (Foster was living in New York then, playing in a park with his dog when the first plane went overhead) and Hurricane Katrina (he had moved to New Orleans to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a job now gone with the wind).
Along the way, he lost two close friends, writers Lucy Grealey (to suicide) and Amanda Davis (who died in a plane crash); suffered heart failure (remedied by the installation of a pacemaker); and kept up his work of rescuing dogs, especially pit bulls.
In his introduction to an earlier book, "The KGB Bar Reader," Foster wrote: "There may be just one universal story: Someone loses something."
Despite its title, loss is everywhere in "The Dogs Who Found Me." Yet Foster himself has a light heart; he laughs easily and often as he shows off photographer Cami Johnson's portraits of his dogs and describes her use of a feather to focus a dog's attention.
"It wasn't something that occurred to me until I was done with it -- that the book was about loss and moving forward in some way," Foster said. "I don't know if I would rescue dogs or what I would have done in the hurricane if I hadn't experienced the periphery of Sept. 11. Once something that huge happens in your neighborhood, essentially, it totally changes you."
Now, more than ever, Foster is committed to his adopted home, and his adopted dogs.
"When things happen, you can be the person who does nothing, who retreats, or you can be the person who takes some kind of action," he said. "Once you have enough things happen in your life, you have to become that person. After the storm I was at a community meeting, and there were a lot of people who had lost everything, but the angriest, loudest people were complaining about the fact that their cable wasn't working. Cable! Probably nothing bad had happened to those people before then."
Foster grew up in Pennsylvania, studied writing in Boston, Portland, Ore., and New York (where he took a class taught by Nancy Lemann), and generally lived the life of a student and barista (his stints of residence in New Orleans include working at PJ's, then in the Garden District, 12 years ago). When he was at Columbia University, he founded the popular KGB Bar reading series at an East Village watering hole, which resulted in the anthology "The KGB Bar Reader." He is also the editor of the anthology "Dog Culture: Writers on the Character of Canines," and the author of a collection of short stories, "The Kind I'm Likely to Get."
All along, he was moving toward New Orleans, steadily.
"Even my dogs have an appreciation of this city," he said. "Life goes on outside your door, not inside of it. One of the first things I noticed living and visiting here is that nobody is exclusively what they do. You walk by houses where lawyers live and hear them practicing their musical instruments. Especially after living in New York where people are only what they do and you only know people who do what you do, and you only talk about what you do with other people who have done it. When I first moved there and wanted to learn to be a writer that was great. Then I could find writers, hear their work, and learn how to be a writer. But now. . ."
Now, he is getting ready to go on tour for "The Dogs Who Found Me," hoping to raise funds for the SPCA, and working on his contribution to a new book, "Intersections," which will feature the work of 24 New Orleans writers and artists, all the while teaching an online writing course and freelancing.
And volunteering at the SPCA.
"I don't have the fear response to the idea of pit bulls," he said. "Really, I'm just one of many volunteers, but I keep an eye out for pit bulls. That's the thing I can do and would like to do. Cute fluffy, happy lap dogs get all the attention."
But Ethel, a pit bull mix with a German-shepherd colored coat, "so laid back and so sweet," and Mikey, an enormous pit bull Staffordshire terrier, get Foster's attention.
In "The Dogs Who Found Me," Foster writes with passion and self-deprecating wit about the dogs he's rescued, recounts with sadness one haunting failure, and realizes his own vulnerability. There are chapters about no-kill shelters, bits of advice on how to approach a dog, one chiding list of things dog owners all too often do -- titled "How to Lose Your Best Friend" -- lists of resources, a meditation on "the folk art of lost pet fliers," reminders of the need to plan for pet evacuations. But above all, this is a story of the ways in which animal and human love and loyalty strengthen and sustain us -- and how love requires our best efforts and hard work to succeed and endure over the long haul.
"One of the reasons we rescue things," Foster writes, "is to feel a sense of control that we may not really have in our own lives. If we can save something, maybe then we can do anything. Or maybe saving that one thing really is all we can do, but we will have done it absolutely."
An excerpt from 'The Dogs Who Found Me':
This is what I left with: three dog crates, three dogs, a bag of dog food, a single change of clothes, two bottles of wine. I didn't want to take too much, since it would only be a day or two that I was gone.
This is what I left behind: dog bowls, all of my photographs, all of my books, my iPod, my hard drive, my DVD collection, my pacemaker monitor, my health insurance cards, my bank cards, my checkbook, my clothes, drafts of stories, notebooks, packaged food that I would later want when I was hungry, bottled water, my address, my job, my students, my neighbors, my friends. Almost everything.
You think about whether you'll ever see your things again. You think about whether you'll ever go home. You think about the people you knew but didn't know, like Grong Grong and his family, their baby, and the stray dog we found that they were going to take home.
I had friends. I had people willing to make room for me and my dogs. I had more help than I knew what to do with, partly because it is hard to know what help you need when you don't even know where to begin. "I don't know if I need anything," I said when people offered to help. I didn't know how homeless I was. I didn't know what would help. I knew that there were plenty of other people and animals who needed more than we did. My friend Leslie Pietryk told me in an e-mail: After my husband died, all these people kept wanting to do nice things for me and it was confusing and I couldn't quite trust them or know why they were acting that way. Made me feel odd. Eventually, I decided that they were mostly doing things to make themselves feel better . . . so I let them, which is harder than it sounds.
The dogs knew this already.
-- From Ken Foster's 'The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind'