A little man with bad knees and a diamond earring is on his way to pick up a dead dog.
The big yellow van he's driving swallows him up; his brown cap just pops up over the -- as he cruises up Ritchie Highway. Lighting cigarettes and talking non-stop, Ted Rodriguez, 73, Baltimore native and longtime Glen Burnie resident, expounds on his expertise in pet cremation.
"I'm pretty good at it," says the founder of "Personal Cremations by Ted," whose black business card advertises "one-day service and choice of urns."
"I know what time I put it in," he says, "and I know what time to take it out, and I make sure it's done right."
At the Anne Arundel Dog and Cat Hospital in Brooklyn Park, the veterinarians direct Mr. Rodriguez to a funny-smelling room.
"It's in there," they tell him, "it" being the remains of Chachi the Pomeranian, dead of lung disease. Chachi has been wrapped neatly in a brown plastic bag. Mr. Rodriguez cradles the bundle as if it were a baby.
Later that afternoon, he will take the dead dog to a crematorium (one of two he uses in Anne Arundel), where he personally will oversee the animal's return to dust. The next day, he'll deliver the remains to the bereaved owner.
At the animal hospital, the woman who owned Chachi is too upset to talk. She already has five or six urns filled with ashes of pets cremated by Ted.
"I get all kinds," he says. "I got one lady who has 13 of them. Thirteen of her cats, all in ceramic."
One Towson woman, who declined to give her name, has had 12 Siamese cats cremated by Mr. Rodriguez. She said she doesn't like the idea of burying things.
"When I move, my cats go with me in their jars," she said. "It's definitely an emotional thing. I like the idea of having them in jars."
Another woman, from Millersville, buried her dog in a baby casket and -- two years later -- asked Mr. Rodriguez to dig it up.
"I took a crowbar and a pick to pry the vault open to get the dog," he recalls. "She said, 'Get it cremated, bring it back in anything,' so I brought it back to her in a coffee can. Maxwell House. I left her sittin' there, holding the coffee can, rocking it back and forth and talking to it."
Mr. Rodriguez has been well-known in the Baltimore area for 20 years, ever since he started "Ted's Animal Taxi," guaranteed to transport any animal, anywhere, for any reason.
"I've hauled dogs, cats, snakes, birds, raccoons, peacocks, calves and a skunk," he says. "I understand animals. I told my wife I wouldn't be afraid to go into the lion's den."
"Ted's an institution," says Dr. Greg Herbert, a veterinarian at the Anne Arundel Dog and Cat Hospital. "He does a job that nobody else will do."
Mr. Rodriguez has done a lot of things nobody else would do.
Erstwhile produce huckster, cab driver and manager of rowdy bars; sometime go-go dancer and heavy metal fan; entrepreneur; champion of four-footed friends -- Mr. Rodriguez is all those things.
Mr. Rodriguez had been a taxi driver for 20 years when he decided there was money to be made in ferrying pets around town.
"It was a brainstorm," he says. "You couldn't put a dog or a cat in a cab, 'cause a man would get in with his good suit and get hair all over it. So I says to myself, why not have a taxi cab just for animals?"
Some animal taxi customers hired Mr. Rodriguez to take their pets to be cremated. Pretty soon, he decided pet owners were getting burned by crematoriums that incinerated animals en masse.
"You didn't know what you were getting back," he says. "I give the personal touch. When people know I'm putting that dog in and taking him out, I can say, 'I did this myself, and this is all your dog, and nobody else's!' "
The son of a Panamanian who died while building the Panama Canal and a burlesque actress who once roller-skated from Baltimore to Washington in a contest, Mr. Rodriguez has been making his own luck since he was orphaned at 14.
At 16, sick of selling newspapers and hawking produce, he stowed away to Florida on a boxcar train, then rode to New York, where he stayed in a shelter for homeless boys. He came back to Baltimore two months later and returned to the produce business, seriously this time.
"I was a good salesman. I had two pony wagons and a truck. I'd get up at 4 a.m. to buy all the produce and load the truck and the pony wagon. I did right good at it."
At 19, he married the 15-year-old daughter of one of his produce customers, a brunette named Charlotte who once let the air out of all his tires when she caught him swimming with another girl. In the 53 years since then, the two have had three children and done a little bit of everything.
During the late 1960s, they ran a Curtis Bay bar, Ted and Charl's, featuring psychedelic lights and go-go girls. The city liquor board closed it in 1968.
"I went up before the judge and he says, 'Mr. Rodriguez, you're a menace to society.' " He laughs. "Man, that was a rockin' place. It was the only one in the city like it. I had the politicians from South Baltimore coming down and sneaking in all the time."
Despite diabetes, horrible knees and arthritis, Mr. Rodriguez still enjoys a rollicking good time. He used to dance at Hammerjacks before his leg went bad, and about a year ago he danced, a la Chippendale, at a friend's bachelorette party.
Charlotte Rodriguez thinks all of this is wonderful.
"Life would be pretty dull if we did the same things over and over again," she says. "If we died tomorrow, him and I, we could say we really lived."
The Rodriguezes have lived 20 years in Glen Burnie. They own a little basement condominium, where, on a dresser in the spare bedroom, Mr. Rodriguez keeps his urns: plastic, ceramic and top-of-the-line bronze.
"I always try to get the prettiest ones," he says. "Nothing drab-looking."
A small dog costs about $160 to cremate, but the price rises to $225 for large animals. "It takes a longer time for them to cook," Mr. Rodriguez explains.
Lest you scoff at those who invest in such a service, others in the animal world say there's a real demand for what Mr. Rodriguez does.
"Everybody grieves a certain way," says Dr. Herbert. "For a lot of people, they get the ashes back on the mantle, and it helps them deal with it. And Ted's the best. Of course, he's the only one. But he's very compassionate."