My life is informed by film, and when I am having a particularly terrible terrible awful experience, I often suspend the trauma by framing it through someone else's celluloid suffering, conjuring an imaginary foil the way Jimi Mistry invented Kyle MacLachlan as Cary Grant in A Touch of Pink. On Thursday, simultaneously recoiling from and managing scenarios involving a critically ill, bloody, elderly dog, and the equally mystifying and horrifying traffic on the Palmetto Expressway, I let myself think of Shirley McLaine in (viewed now, the obviously overrated) Terms of Endearment and Amy Madigan in Robert Benton's retrospectively underappreciated Places in the Heart.


My Italian Greyhound Astra, who will be fifteen years old on Halloween, enjoys good senior health. Aside from being blind, deaf, incontinent, and possessing a holler that seems to be coming not from a ten-pound dog but from an amplified rooster, she enjoys spending her golden (extra emphasis on golden) years urinating on every imaginable surface and consuming vats of corn chowder and coconut almond gelato. But a real emergency threatened this past week: Osteo erosion had created a hole in Astra's palate, by her large canine incisor, that was allowing ... stuff ... to pass between her mouth, nose, and brain. So she needed a bone graft, stat.

Of course, here in MDC, where it is possible to procure a Birkin bag or an audience with Shaq at the snap of a substantial wallet, specialized veterinary care should be easy to come by. Except it's not. You need only look at public animal shelters overflowing with sad-eyed, curly-tailed feral dogs, or on Lincoln Road where terrified, overheated Yorkies and TCPs are dragged panting as living fashion accessories, to determine animal health and welfare is not a prominent cultural value here.

The only -- the only -- vet in South Florida who performs geriatric oral surgery is Jan Bellows, whose office is in Weston, nearly three counties away. "Dentistry is an underserved area of specialization," Bellows told me. "I do have people come to see me from all over the state, but most are from Miami."

During Astra's three hours under anaesthesia (she ended up having a few more teeth pulled and other stuff), I continued to wonder about a city where old animals, like old people, aren't valuable, shunted aside, I guess, when they no longer serve the primary function of every other living creature in Miami -- to be, or at least appear, youthful, dewey, unlined, history-and-disease free.

Finally, the grizzled red dog -- who can now add "toothless grin" to her list of attributes -- was able to leave the animal hospital at 6:15 p.m. (And like any other quality-of-life enhancing feature in SF, Bellows' services do not come cheap -- our bill was $2980, or about $700 per extracted tooth -- the down payment on the acre of land in South Dakota I will not be making.) Bellows gave me a sack of antibiotics and pain medication for Astra. "She will be expectorating blood," he advised. "And, once the morphine begins wearing off, she will be uncomfortable, so get her home, get her settled, and give her her meds."

Having arrived at the Arvida Parkway clinic early in the morning -- I left Miami at 5:30 a.m. -- I expected it to take the 45 minutes heading south it had taken going north. Wrong. The traffic on I-75 was okay (outside the Miami-Dade County line, I realize now), but when we exited to State Road 826 -- the Palmetto Expressway -- cars were inching along. And we had about 20 miles to go to our exit off the Dolphin Expressway and Lejeune Road.

Despite living here for three years, I'd actually never been on the 826, which obviously is a good thing. At 7:00 p.m., the NPR program News & Notes came on. We were somewhere near 113th Street NW, and red taillights, coming on in the dusk, stretched as far as I could see. Was there an accident ahead? I looked at the people in the cars around me. Some were on cell phones, some were reading, some were bopping to whatever tunes played inside their solitary hatches, as nearly all these vehicles had only one occupant. No one appeared as agitated as me, but then -- although it's possible -- it's likely no one else had a bleeding, beginning-to-moan dog on the passenger seat beside them.

At 7:30 p.m. we were only about a hundred yards farther down the eight-lane highway. In frustration, exhaustion, and incipient panic, I began to cry the tears Astra could not shed for herself. This traffic jam seemed to be a nightly ritual, a harbinger of low expectations, a manifestation of wasted time, contaminated resources, caged pain, of 305-style Waiting for Godot misery. This notion, and the feeling of being trapped and realizing flight was the only answer -- reminded me of Madigan's pivotal scene in 1984's Places in the Heart. An educated teacher who leaves Dallas to follow her oil company-employed husband to a tiny town in the wellfields of the 1930s, Madigan's brittle but fragile character finally loses it after a tornado wipes out the one-room schoolhouse where she'd found refuge. "There's no use staying here," the character, named Viola, tells her husband as she begs to return to civilization. "There will always be storms, people will always be poor ... it will never change here."

By 8:00 p.m., Astra was fully awake, but instead of her normal throaty howl, she was emitting only a tiny, wet whimper, somehow more wrenching, even, than full-blown wailing would've been. At 8:05, finally, we reached the right-hand split of the 826 to the MIA side of the 836. There actually had been an accident, and the ran-into plus the runner-into had stopped their SUVs (because of course they were SUVs) in such a manner as to perfectly block both traffic flows, one in the merge lane of the 826, the other on the exit ramp of the 836. Both middle-aged men, one in baggy faux hip-hop wear, the other in a suit, they stabbed the air with their fingers as a Florida Highway Patrol officer -- who had just arrived himself, it seemed -- kept them separated.

Seeing that no one was injured -- not even the vehicles, really -- and that these sons of entitlement just wouldn't pull off to the breakdown lane, the better to act indignant and make a public show of the scratches on their leased rides -- my fury tripled. I envisioned Shirley, in the role she has somewhat embodied ever since, as Aurora Greenway, in her showdown at the nurses' station while tending her terminally ill child: "My daughter is in pain. I don't understand why she has to have this pain. All she has to do is hold out until ten, and IT'S PAST TEN! My daughter is in pain, can't you understand that?"

Somehow, projecting out of the real scene and into the movie version prevented me from leaping out of the car and shrieking just about those same lines at the two road bullies.

Postscript: We got home. Astra got her painkiller. She had a little bit of lobster bisque for breakfast, and is enjoying working the canvas of our residence in her new medium -- bloody saliva. Dr. Bellows says that, as with people, life expectancies for dogs are increasing, and it's possible Astra could continue to enjoy her life for a few more years. For me, I'm trying to suppress the memory of those two-plus hours on the highway, but I can't stop thinking about how crappy the entire infrastructure is here, and how, and why, people just put up with it and act as if it's how a normal, civilized society should be. Because it's not. -Jean Carey

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Frank Houston