LOWELL — He stepped to the edge to die. Weathered hands gripped the rusted railing of Lowell’s Ouelette Bridge, beckoned by the rushing river current. Brick warehouses and amber smokestacks bore silent witness to one final act.
Oncoming headlights lit up his face. Below, fly-fishers hooked salmon and trout. Ducks congregated along the sandy banks, beside the rocks and reeds, where his body would wash ashore by dawn.
The Dogman came to the bridge on a blurry quest for death, the pain and past lingering after another night of chugging cans of Budweiser at the downtown bars. On an early morning in 1998, he readied for the plunge.
Still, he wondered: Who would miss him — or even care — once he was gone? And how could a local legend, lost in his ways, rediscover life in the shadows of the unfinished ballpark just down the road?
. . .
“Here, I’ll tell you a story.”
He has red Oakley sunglasses on his nose, blond hair down to his shoulders, tattoos decorating his skin like art on a highway underpass. His white moustache curls upward on the corners. His facial hair is smiling.
Being the Dogman, what’s not to love about life?
Born Del Christman 57 years ago, everyone calls him by his nickname. Or Doggie, the nickname for his nickname. A beloved fixture at Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., he spends his summers as Lowell’s clubhouse manager, in a room guarded by thick metal doors and a poster that reads “Beware of Dog.”
Coffee in hand, he arrives every day at 5:30 a.m. When work ends go too late to make the 10-minute walk home, the clubhouse couch becomes his bed. He vacuums dirt and trail mix from the carpet and mops the showers clean of mold, takes out the trash, and buys the pregame spread of turkey sandwiches and potato chips, thinking about the opportunity he has been given to work in professional baseball. For the wide-eyed Single A ballplayers at LeLacheur Park, he is often their first friend in the minors.
An energy drink in human form, the Dogman is always barking. At players, at you, at no one in particular. His ringtone is “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by Baha Men, and he has a Scooby Doo tattoo. Truck drivers and police officers honk their horns as he walks down Lowell’s unpaved streets. “Ruff-ruff, Doggie,” they roll down their windows and roar. “Arf-arf,” he howls back.
“He’s always the first one in in the morning, him howling and barking,” said Spinners vice president Jon Goode. “It’s almost like when the roosters crow, the Dogman barks when the sun goes up.”
When Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz first arrived in Lowell, he passed by a janitor power-washing the windows on his way into the stadium. The next morning, that janitor was in the clubhouse, shaking his hand, barking at the newest player. He is, as Goode always says, a cartoon character brought to life.
“That was my first impression: ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a whack job for a clubhouse manager,’ ” Buchholz said. “But deep down, he’ll do anything for you. There’s a lot of weird people in this world, but if you can be a good person while being weird? That’s fine with me.”
Matter of survival
What the Dogman endured would break even the strongest of men.
He grew up with troubled kids, the type who hauled gallon milk jugs to filling stations so they could inhale the gasoline fumes in the basements of Lowell’s projects. He walked miles with his family to a welfare center for blocks of yellow cheese and cans of Spam. When bullies called him stupid at school, his mother’s then-boyfriend forced him to pick fights. And when the Dogman lost, the boyfriend got drunk and beat him, too.
His father died in a car accident when he was an infant. Years later, his mother took a nap while the Dogman played with his sisters in the front yard. When the Dogman tried to wake her from a nap, she wouldn’t budge. Heart attack, it turned out. He flagged down a passing motorcycle policeman for help. While his mother recovered from three ensuing heart surgeries, the Dogman moved into Lowell’s Franco-American orphanage.
“I learned to survive, nothing out of the ordinary, we did what we had to do,” the Dogman says. “You can’t dwell on that. There are always people who had it worse than I did. Like when I was a kid, you put one foot in front of the other and you move on.”
Sports helped him forget. He rode the train from Lowell to Fenway Park, watching from the bleachers for $10 a game. He remembers Bobby Orr skating on the Boston Garden ice, beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke. At home he watched his beloved Celtics, parked in front of the television, devouring boiled hot dogs and sipping a two-liter bottle of cola.
Meanwhile, he buried the pain, days turning into years, adulthood passing by, until one night the ghosts returned on the bridge. The Dogman remembered life as Del Christman. He thought about his mother, who checked into a Cambridge rehabilitation center with a weary heart, and died the day after her 40th birthday in 1973, the same year the Dogman began a two-year stint in the Army.
He drank to fix the depression and considered taking sleeping pills so he could meet his mother in heaven. He was working two jobs and wanted no part of life.
“I thought I’d be better off dead,” the Dogman said.
“There’s a story about this guy.”
The Dogman taps his left forearm. Of his nine tattoos, including the “Dogman” written in Old English script on his calves, this is the most important. The detailed face that stares back is Michael. The son of his stepdaughter, the reason he loves to live.
Something compelled the Dogman to step down from between the cast-iron trusses that night. To this day, he doesn’t know why. But days later, on May 28, 1998, holding a newborn Michael at Lowell General, everything became worth it.
The Dogman, who has two children with an ex-wife, acted as Michael’s surrogate grandfather. He changed Michael’s diaper, walked him in the stroller. They went to the Aquarium to see the dolphins. He brought back a baseball from Fort Myers, autographed by Pedro Martinez, Michael’s favorite player. Michael slept with it beneath his pillow.
“Maybe God was trying to tell me something,” the Dogman says, “That he was going to send something to me. I didn’t think about no problems after that. Nope. No regrets at all.”
The Dogman now prays every morning, having rediscovered a faith once lost among nights of pounding beers until he blacked out in open fields. The Dogman thanks God for allowing him to live and work.
He has inside jokes with all the players — mostly expletive-riddled movie quotes — but scolds them if they leave the clubhouse too messy. He still sends fruit baskets and Christmas cards to former Sox outfielder Trot Nixon, whom he calls one of his closest friends and whose son reminds him of Michael.
On a July afternoon, hundreds of summer campers spilled into the locker room for a clubhouse tour. They sat on the leather couches, and watched SpongeBob SquarePants in his pineapple under the sea. Then the Dogman walked in. He spoke about the importance of family, just like he does when he reads to students at Lowell’s elementary schools. The kids leaned back on the couch, necks craning upward as if they were in a planetarium, staring at one giant star.
“I could run for City Council and win,” the Dogman says. “I would have a politician hot dog. All pork, no beef.”
Now, about the hot dogs . . .
Ballpark franks made Del Christman the Dogman. He never graduated high school, instead entering food service, cooking meals at Sequoia National Park and in the Everglades.
When the Spinners moved from Elmira, N.Y., to Lowell in 1996, the Dogman began selling hot dogs at Alumni Stadium, the team’s old park, before the old clubbie quit with two weeks left in the 2000 season and the Dogman accepted the position from general manager Shawn Smith without hesitation.
He once sold a record 488 dogs in one night, and enlisted a patent lawyer to copyright his hot dog names. A bloodhound has ketchup. A golden retriever has mustard. Want the works? That’s a mongrel. “My ex-wife,” he always says.
“My character, it stands out with young and old,” he says. “They have a blast, and that’s why I do it. My style, making people laugh, young and old, that’s who I am. I’m just having fun.”
‘Know where you came from’
Away from the ballpark, the open road provides peace, and license to give back. He has run 28 marathons, and took up biking after ankle surgery in 1999, always racing for charity. After Spinners owner Drew Weber lost his wife to pancreatic cancer in 2007, the Dogman biked from Hadlock Field, home of the Double A Sea Dogs, in Portland, Maine, to Lowell to raise money. Weber never asked him to do that.
Before one Chicago Marathon, he met a kid from Texacoco, Mexico, who planned to spend his prerace night sleeping on a bus station bench. The Dogman offered up his hotel room instead. When the kid invited the Dogman to the Mexico City Marathon, the Dogman brought a duffel bag, stuffed with 500 old race T-shirts.
“You’ve got to mean what you’re doing, you have to know where you came from,” the Dogman says. “Everyone has a story in life. I just do what I do naturally. I’m not looking for fame. It’s nice, just being myself.”
After his mother died, the Dogman was raised by an African-American family. His adopted mother was Jessie Horne, a “remarkable woman” who put Velveeta in her baked macaroni and playfully cheated at Monopoly. She taught the Dogman to respect others, even when heads turned in the grocery store, wondering “how the white boy could have a black mom.”
Horne died on Nov. 29, 2011. Her picture now hangs on the Dogman’s clubhouse door. Nearby is a painting by Lowell resident Bill Tyers, called “Dogman.” In it, he wears his Red Sox gear, standing in the foreground. Behind him, Spinners fans stare. Tyers loves crafting portraits of Lowell. Pastels of buildings. Oils of streets. The Dogman is just another part of the city.
He knows the end is near. He has swapped birthday parties and Father’s Days for mops and soapy water. The hours take their toll, far more than marathons and bike rides ever could.
“It hurts,” the Dogman says. “That affects you. It really does.”
When it’s all over, he might take the show on the road. Travel to minor league stadiums, like former Red Sox pitching coach Ralph Truel once suggested, selling shirts and hot dogs to benefit charity. “Come one, come all,” they’d bark. “Come see the world-famous Dogman.”
He dreams about the afterlife, about meeting his mother in heaven. When that happens, or maybe even before, he wants the city to build a statue outside LeLacheur Park, as it did for downtown with boxer Micky Ward.
He wants people to smile at the bronzed Dogman, wearing his floppy Scooby-Doo hat, holding his hot dog tray. He wants fans to taste the last bloodhound they bought from him, and hear his bark echo beneath the bleachers. He wants them to remember how he gave back what he never had.
But who will remember the laundry? All day, the Dogman washes and dries. Folds and hangs, lugging shopping carts and trash cans filled with sweaty jerseys on clothespins.
His workspace smells of cleaners named Blue Sparkle and Island Fresh, the canisters lined on shelves like cellphone bars. He mixes one cup Clorox with detergent and stain releaser, his secret recipe, stuffing baseball pants into a plastic paint bucket with a splintered Louisville Slugger. Just ask, and he will scrub away your stains of dirt and grass. Given time, the Dogman can make everything look as good as new.