Watching Max amble toward me as I lean against a column outside our agreed-upon lunch location — a Vietnamese burrito establishment in the heart of downtown San Francisco — it’s hard not to hear the seductive beats of a 1970s love ballad. His saunter reflects both the stiff joints and devil-may-care attitude of a seasoned surfer. A Santa-white perm, with a hint of chartreuse near the roots, harkens back to a masculine beauty seen in the faded pages of a vintage pornographic magazine. It is a chilly, overcast day, and Max is dressed smartly, wearing fur, a tail, and a sporty red harness with a leash attached.
“Bark,” he says, eyeing my crotch. “Bark.” Then he casually lifts his chin to reveal a collar dripping with three medallions, including one that reads simply, and a bit narcissistically, “Max.”
Between his ostentatious jewelry and his corkscrew hair, Max calls to mind both the stylized swagger of Ron Jeremy and the protuberant sexlessness of Dolly Parton. This is to say that, in a way, Max’s virility seems dampened, even neutered — which makes sense, since Max has been neutered.
I soon learn that my unspoken sex analogies are not entirely misplaced. Max is currently employed as the “office mascot” at a rising San Francisco start-up, but he last worked as the stud at a puppy mill. In other words, as a nine-year-old poodle — now middle aged — Max has spent most of his life as a sex worker.
“How do you think your experience with prostitution informed your decision to go corporate?” I ask.
Max stares at me, his black lips twitching slightly. The hard grey boogers in the corners of his milky eyes shake when he blinks. I will obviously have to tread lightly on this subject.
And so, despite the restaurant’s burrito reputation, I opt for a salad to keep one hand free — recording his muddled past will require copious notes. Max, dieting presumably, settles for the pieces of my salad that have fallen onto the concrete below. (Perhaps as part of his nutrition regimen, he does not chew the lettuce so much as “feel it with his mouth” before gently regurgitating it onto the pavement.)
Much like James Franco, Max is something of a Renaissance man. Since exploding onto the tech scene in 2012, he has dressed as a ram for Halloween, become leash-trained, learned multiple tricks (including “Roll Over” and “Paw”), and been sprayed by a skunk. He has also become increasingly comfortable with human company; he now hates to be alone. But according to sources who speak of their attempts to “love on him,” Max is chock-full of contradictions: He is as hungry for love as he is for artificial bacon treats, yet he’s unwilling to look you in the eye when you pet him. His coworkers describe him as goal-oriented but prone to pranks and follies nevertheless.
“One time he vomited under my desk,” the company’s Creative Executive Officer wrote to me in a recent email about areas in which Max still showed room for improvement.
“He ate my plant, and then puked it up into my backpack,” added Max’s coworker in a phone interview.
Nevertheless, Max is “knocking it out of the park,” according to his manager, Martin.
“He puts in long hours, and is dedicated to getting better — at sleeping mostly,” Martin said, answering questions over coffee. “He sleeps in his dog bed next to my desk from around 9 AM to noon. Then, at lunch, there’s a brief flurry of activity; he trots over to where we eat and begs [for food] for about an hour. After that he lies down again, and sleeps on his dog bed until it’s time to leave.”
“He does hit me sometimes,” Martin added, “like, actually reaches out with his paw and slaps me when I make him stay at the office past seven. But what he contributes to this company greatly outweighs his imperfections as an employee.”
In speaking to his manager and coworkers, and to the CEO, I learned that Max also has the tendency to get erections at work — a seemingly random occurrence that, Jan, the human resources director, says is not exactly appropriate in an office environment.
“I suppose he thinks that’s still his job,” Jan offered, referring to Max’s former career as professional procreator.
But if you’re eager to learn more about the puppy mill where Max was taught to “perform” at such a level, and was later discovered covered in fleas and puppies — his dirty, untrimmed poodle fro swollen to an unkempt and record-setting circumference — prepare to be disappointed. Max, for one, is not interested in delving into that aspect of his “pre-reformation” past. As with many individuals who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, he is simultaneously defined by his early life and unwilling to look back at it — unresponsive to anything, it seems, but food. As a result, the opening chapters of Max’s rags-to-riches story are essentially unknown.
“Tell me about the offspring you might have had,” I insist near the end of our lunch, holding out a limp sliver of lettuce. “All those puppies, just snatched away from you!”
But Max seems to have made up his mind about vegetables. Instead of answering my question about his children, or perhaps in an effort not to, he shows me his butt and ingests some scattered rice from a stranger’s burrito directly off the floor.
“Nom, nom, nom,” he says, elusive as always. Perhaps food is one of the ways in which Max drowns out his past — perhaps he has a full-fledged eating disorder. But how are we to know? The more time one spends with Max, the more one comes to understand that one will never fully penetrate the figurative shell that protects his literal curls. He is inscrutable.
“Perhaps we should wrap it up,” I concede, impetuously running my fingers through his hair, a level of intimacy he seems unperturbed by. “You must be very busy.”
Max continues to chew, looking just past me, and concurs by audibly burping. The sound is somewhere between a frog chirruping and a large human man mumbling to himself.
I nod. We stand to go our separate ways. Max shakes out his beard and rolls his shoulders beneath their harness; I warily appraise the route back to the subway. Over the past year, this particular block of San Francisco has been under constant construction, a huge parking structure rising to accommodate the electric cars of start-up employees.
I glance at Max, standing sphinxlike on the sidewalk. To an inexperienced bystander, his porcelain curls might hint at a certain kind of angelic fragility. But he seems unfazed by the noise.
And yet — and yet — even now, when Max is most himself, most apathetic, his expression suggests a degree of inner turmoil — an implacable restlessness. It is difficult to tell whether he is remembering his puppies, reflecting on his hard-won success, or simply preparing to barf.