The Dogfather Speaks
So there I was, being led into a roomy townhouse mere blocks from the Denver Dumb Friends League by the Denver Post's Chuck Green while one of his pooches, eighteen-month-old Auggie, yapped and yowled like Jim Carrey on amphetamines. As Green looked at his furry buddy and said (jokingly...I think), "Stop barking at the bad man," I found myself wondering: How the hell did I get here?
Even now I'm not quite sure. Since 1995, when Green, 53, became a full-time columnist at the Post, various Westword scribes have taken delight in giving him the needle for many of his in-print obsessions, including JonBenét Ramsey, who's been mentioned in his oeuvre about as often as Jesus Christ turns up in the New Testament, and domestic animals -- most prominently, Snowy and Keko, a pair of dogs whose poisoning deaths at the hands of a neighbor spurred one of his most histrionic campaigns, and his own canine Gus, whose diagnosis of cancer and subsequent death were chronicled in melodramatic detail over the course of more than a year. (Like Gus, Auggie is a keeshond, and her full name, Augusta, is intended as a tribute to her much-adored predecessor.)
Green seemed to take these jabs in stride, and even offered Westword kudos at the time of our twentieth anniversary. But after I casually identified him as a "pet worshiper" in an article in early June, his bile geyser erupted. Throughout a June 11 offering headlined "Proud to be Labeled 'Dogfather'" (another Westword writer identified him using this last term in February), he came after the paper with fangs bared and chops foaming, arguing that the employees of this establishment see no distinction between "a loyal, dedicated Seeing Eye dog and the hubcap of an old Dodge." He added, "They have no compassion for, and they have never acknowledged any use for, the golden retriever who leads its blind owner through traffic, or to the grocery or onto a bus."
Oh, yeah -- he also identified me as a "hit man," which, owing to my Italian ancestry, could have been interpreted as an ethnic slur. (When you call me "paisan," make sure you smile.) But I was more concerned about Green than my own tender sensibilities. His column struck me as a strangled expression of pent-up rage and frustration at not having a chance to explain himself to us; particularly poignant was the clause "Although no one at Westword has bothered to ask..."
Chuck, I decided, just needed someone to hear him out, to take him seriously -- and I wanted to be that someone. For this reason, I called him and asked if he'd be amenable to a sit-down at his place, where he could finally say everything he'd been burning to express lo these many years. He suggested a time the following week, and despite the fact that my not-terribly-complimentary response to his anti-Westword column was published prior to the big day, he didn't try to back out. Clearly, this was a man with a lot of baggage to unload, and it seemed that I'd become his designated skycap.
Once Auggie calmed down, I asked Green if I could get a tour of the place he shares with Susan, his wife of fourteen years. Green said that would be fine as long as we didn't go anywhere "too personal" -- after which he showed off practically every square inch of his abode, including a bathroom adorned with a caricature of him reading the Post in his tub and a sleep chamber dominated by an almost-made bed. What could have been more personal than that? A complete library of well-worn Hustler magazines? Or perhaps Heavy Petting?
Much of the decor at chez Green is journalism-related, as befits such a longtime Poster; Chuck started stringing for the paper well before he graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and since his 1968 hiring, he's served as reporter, city editor, editorial-page editor and, for about a year during the '80s, editor of the entire thing. The array is highlighted by his lifetime membership in the Denver Press Club (glug, glug), editorial cartoons by Pat Oliphant and Paul Conrad, who won Pulitzers at the Post during the '60s, and a replica of the Pulitzer gold medal for public service that the Post won in 1986 for a series about missing children.
There's also a slew of weighty bronzes, countless ornamental roosters and angels (Susan collects them), and, inevitably, loads of pet-oriented paraphernalia: bird cages lining a staircase, for instance, and a replica of a car door with a dog resembling Murphy, another of Green's four-legged companions, hanging out of it, tongue flapping. Green said that if there were a fire, the car door is what he'd take with him -- aside from his "family," of course (since he has no children of his own, his pets are his "kids"). In addition to Auggie and Murphy, the clan includes Creature, an elderly cat whom he rescued from a dumpster when the feline was eight weeks old; a cockatoo, Peaches; a large and very talkative parrot named Lassie; and Reggie, its smaller cousin. While Green boasted that Reggie can defecate on command, he chose to have the bird demonstrate another of its stunts. He placed it on its back in his palm, pointed at it with his free hand and snapped, "Dead! Dead!" Reggie responded by laying motionless; then, after Green announced, "Come to life!" the bird began fluttering again.
Gus, of course, can't do any tricks anymore, but he remains a very real presence in the Green home more than two years after he chased his last butterfly. His photo sits among those of the other pets midway up a flight of stairs on a shelf that Green built in his woodshop, and he's at the center of more than a dozen other snapshots that decorate a wall leading to the townhouse's lowest level. Clothing is a running theme in these images: Gus can be seen wearing a tuxedo, a baseball uniform and a Halloween costume (I think he was supposed to be either a pirate or a patriot, but I'm just not certain). Showing them off, Green got a little verklempt.
"He was our cartoon dog," he said. "Our little pal."
Upon sitting down at a dining-room table where we were to conduct the more formal portion of the interview, I pulled out a tape recorder, and Green did likewise. When I asked if he was doing so to make sure I got every quote just right, he said, "I'm more interested in the context." I took that to mean that if he answered, "Yes, I do" to, say, a question about loving Mom and apple pie, he wouldn't be thrilled if I pretended he was responding to the query, "Do you sometimes smear Alpo all over your naked body and then ring the dinner bell?"
In actuality, I led off with something more benign; I wanted to know why the "Dogfather" and "pet worshiper" references had set him off. He responded that, in his mind, the words not only mocked him, but anyone who opposes cruelty to animals. "I don't go along with PETA," he insisted. "I eat meat, I eat chicken, I eat beef and I wear leather, I suppose -- I've never checked. It might be artificial -- I don't know. But why would I be ridiculed for [my pet stands]? It didn't bother me that I'd be ridiculed, but why would the cause be ridiculed? It just pissed me off. I thought, this is not right; this is wrong. I'm not a pet worshiper; I'm an animal lover. Wildlife and household pets and so forth. And 'Dogfather of Denver'? I thought that was in a derogatory manner. But what's wrong with being the Dogfather? Somebody has to stand up and say dogs count, you shouldn't poison them, you shouldn't throw antifreezed meat over the fence, and if you do, goddamn it, you ought to be prosecuted. And so that's what, to me, crossed the line."
When I got a chance to jump in, I told Green that I hadn't intended any allusion to animal cruelty; rather, I was implying that he tended to write about pets and the like with staggering frequency and that he usually did so in a syrupy, oversentimental manner. Green didn't see it that way. First of all, he considered it unfair of us to stereotype him as the Post's dog champion, because he writes about a wide range of topics. "One of the strengths of my column is its variety," he said -- and truth be told, he has pretty much steered clear of the animal kingdom since his "Proud to Be Labeled 'Dogfather'" diatribe. Maybe we made him a teensy bit self-conscious.
Moreover, Green hinted that Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole had written about his woofer, Oreo, more often than he'd talked about Snowy and Keko. (Wrong: A data search showed that Amole mentioned Oreo, whose 1995 death earned him a Gus-like eulogy, seven times over the years, versus seventeen for the Green-Snowy-Keko axis -- and the last time Oreo's tail wagged in print was in a vintage column reprinted in 1996. Poor doggie.)
As for the sentimentality charge, he pleaded guilty without sounding guilty in the slightest. "The best stories that are told are personal stories, and Gus is a good example. I've written about Gus, and those columns have just received an enormous response -- an enormous response -- because people identify with it. The column I wrote about my last day with Gus was one of the five columns I'm most proud of writing, because it touched people, and that's what I think a column is supposed to do -- touch people."
Then Green made a chilling claim: "If it was a formula that I thought I had not discovered but that I thought I was taking advantage of, I could do a lot more than I do. I mean, trust me, I pass on opportunities to do that all the time. Oh, geez, all the time. I have a little guard against that on a lot of topics -- not just on animals or little kids, but grandparents, World War II vets, handicapped people, blind people. I mean, there are a thousand causes out there that I know if I hit them, they'll hit an emotional button...and I avoid that more often than I take advantage of that.
"But should I never write about animals because that's a hot button and I might be accused of taking advantage of it? No. Old people? No. Grandmothers, grandfathers, my personal life, World War II vets? No."
Contrary to appearances, Green doesn't have the freedom to publish anything that pops into his head; over the years, he said, he's had five or six columns spiked, the majority by former Post editor Dennis Britton, about whom he could hardly speak with more contempt. One effort Britton rejected was a JonBenét piece in which Green invited experts to speculate about whether the child's bedwetting could have prompted her parents, Patsy and John Ramsey, to fly into a homicidal frenzy. As Green remembers it, Britton "called me in and said, 'I'm not going to publish this, because my child wet her bed and so have the children of a couple of editors here, and we are not murderers.'"
Another doomed slab of wisdom focused on Pam Paugh, sister of Patsy, who said she'd had some beyond-the-grave communications with her late niece. According to Green, his piece proposed, "Gee, Pam, next time you talk to her, why don't you ask her, 'Who hit you over the head, little girl?'" -- a question he didn't think to pose in his own letter to JonBenét, published in March 1997, about three months after her death. Instead, Green wrote that he was haunted by her autopsy photos but preferred to think of her "sitting in the chair of a swing, on a schoolyard playground, being pushed toward the sky, your pretty hair flying in the wind and your laughter filling the air." Britton refused to go forward with Green's initial idea because, Green said, "we were ridiculing Pam Paugh, and it wasn't our job to ridicule people."
In an internal Post evaluation about six months after JonBenét's death, Green admitted, his superiors told him he was concentrating too heavily on the case "and to knock it off." But Green ignored the advice -- "I probably wrote about it more in the next six months than I had before," he announced proudly -- because in his opinion, his fans wanted more, more, more. "A lot of readers thought I was writing too much, too, but most readers said, 'Keep it up. Don't let them get away with this. Keep it up, keep the heat on. Boulder is corrupt. Money shouldn't buy justice.'"
It did procure Green's services as a television commentator, however. Talk-show host Peter Boyles has refused compensation for appearing as a Ramsey commentator because he doesn't want anyone to accuse him of benefiting from JonBenét's demise. But Green, who for the past four years has been paid by NBC to comment about the Ramsey case and other local stories that have gone national, sees no sin in accepting TV dough. "This is my job. This is what I do. This is my career. My career is as a journalist -- so why should I provide my services for free to the networks? Because I will be labeled a profiteer? Well, label me a profiteer, if you will, but I prefer to label myself as a worker...So I guess I should be working for the Denver Post for free and digging ditches or selling vegetables for a living? I don't think so."
These days, calls for Ramsey remarks have been coming less and less often, and Green concedes that he's had more than his fill of the topic: "The only things that I have written about JonBenét in the last six or eight months -- I'm not saying only, but mostly -- have been prompted by the Ramseys," he adds, as if they'd busted into his office and demanded that he attack them a few more times.
He needn't make a similar request of his fellow workers at the Post, many of whom have been all too ready over the years to make sport of Green's work: After one column about Gus, staffers put up a list of fifteen potential followups, including "JonBenét Would Have Loved His Dog." At the mention of such behavior, Green's tone, which had previously been familiar, even friendly, turned pitch black.
"I don't give a shit about what my colleagues think. Most of my colleagues despise me," he growled. "I'm probably the most unpopular person in my own newsroom. But I don't care."
After the shock of this admission wore off, I asked Green why he thought he was so hated, even as I formulated some predictions of my own. Not surprisingly, Green's were different from mine. "There's some professional jealousy there," he said. "They resent my work schedule, they may resent my freedom, they may resent my friendship with Dean Singleton."
Ah, Post owner Singleton: a controversial figure whom Green referred to in a column penned immediately after the announcement of the proposed joint operating agreement between the Post and the News as "the Superman of the American newspaper industry" -- and if you think that was meant ironically, think again. In conversation, Green didn't say he and Singleton were best buddies; they've never visited each other's homes, for instance. But he did reveal that during the early years of Singleton's Post ownership, Green frequently shared his opinions with Dean (who, like Green's wife, Susan, has multiple sclerosis) about the personalities on board, and they continue to speak personally every month or two.
That's called job security, my friends -- and with Green having just inked a new seven-year contract with the Post, expect him to be around for the long haul whether he's Mr. Popularity or not. "I don't write for my colleagues," he declared. "I don't write for my editors, and I don't write for Westword," (which, he conceded, "fills a void in this community -- not as big a void as it imagines, but it fills a void").
"I consider myself to be a representative of common sense," he went on. "I don't know if that's a definition of a populist or not. But I think that I have a lot of commonality with most people in terms of values, experiences good and bad, sentiments, interests. And I try to hit to all those fields."
Not long thereafter, the dueling tape recorders were clicked off, and Green, with Auggie in tow, escorted me to my car. As he did so, I thought that he looked happier, more at peace than he'd seemed hours earlier. I hadn't been able to solve the JonBenét mystery for him, nor could I bring back dear, departed Gus -- or make those so-called peers of his stop snickering at his work behind his back. But I'd listened to him, at least, and that was something.
Chuck probably could have turned the whole meeting into something warm, cuddly, touching -- and maybe just a little bit nauseating. But I just drove away.
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