If you’d told me five years ago that my primary occupation in the great metropolis would be dog walking, I would have thought you were nuts. In fact, until I moved to New York, I didn’t even know what being a dog walker entailed, never mind that you could make a living doing it. Of course I’d seen the movies and had some vague picture of insane people who walked ten dogs at a time through the crowded streets of Manhattan, but that was the movies, right?
But here I was. Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, picking up and dropping off dogs, checking water bowls, carrying around more keys than a janitor, and schlepping my charges back and forth to the park for their daily exercise.
How did this happen? As I begin picking up my first group of the day, I think about how different my plan had been when I’d first arrived in the city. I was going to be a writer. Perhaps working as an editorial assistant, or in a literary agency, but definitely doing something responsible, with benefits and health insurance. After all, I had my law degree. And until I made this move to New York, I’d been living a very responsible—and okay, very boring and very unfulfilling—but responsible life. Now my days are filled with barking dogs, nutty clients, mayhem, love, laughter, and poop. Boring does not apply.
Perhaps it was the universe’s way of acknowledging my decision, but this particular day was not shaping up to be one of the better ones. I knew it instinctively from the moment of waking, in the same way you know when you’re getting a cold. You try to fend it off, but it’s already taken hold, spreading its misery like a pestilence.
The day was barely underway when the tangible signs began to flicker. The elevators were running in fits and starts at my first stop on 99th Street. This led to a ten-minute delay, during which time Lilly, my two-year-old yellow Labrador, couldn’t wait to get outside, and peed all over the hallway. Lilly is a high-maintenance Lab on her best day. Her raison d’être is a tennis ball, and unless she has a ball in constant motion she experiences an existential meltdown, not quite sure who she is without it.
After cleaning up Lilly’s mess, I picked up my golden retriever, Feather, who proceeded to get into a barking confrontation on the sidewalk with a tiny Maltese. Despite her sweet nature off leash, Feather has always felt the need to assert herself on the street. There was lunging and carrying on by both Feather and Lilly, both of them determined to outshout the other in their quest to intimidate the small dog and its worried-looking owner. I yanked hard on their leashes, then lost my balance as I skidded on a rogue icy patch along the sidewalk. I barely managed to stay upright as I reined them in. I forced them to sit, scolding them with a look they knew well: Honestly, a Maltese?
I picked up the last three dogs in their group (Bella, Sasha and Dash) without incident and was just thinking: Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. Then I ran into Slick on my way into the park. Really his name is Patrick, but “Slick” is how I think of him. From his oily manner to the black hair skimmed tightly back into a ponytail at his nape. Slick. I’ve gotten to know a lot of dog walkers in the last five years and if anyone can be considered my nemesis it’s Slick. Angry in the way that only little men can be, Slick and I have had our run-ins. Not only because he loses his temper faster than you can blow out a match, but because he’s not nice to dogs, or owners. I’ve seen him angrily kick dogs and harass and threaten owners. He chased one old man out of the dog run, stopping just short of punching him. Basically, he’s a bully. We don’t exchange words and he’s moving in the opposite direction, but seeing him clinches it. It’s a portent of things to come.
For about twenty minutes, the girls race around the dog run having a grand time. I’m not relaxing yet, but I’m hoping that the cold will keep people at bay. The run is usually empty at this time of day, but last week we had a few days of warm weather, which brought people out of hibernation. It also explains why the biting cold today feels like an unjust assault. My friend Will and his beagle Barney are in the run, along with two other regulars, dogs whom I know I can trust. Bella, my second yellow Labrador, and my husky, Sasha, are busy wrestling with Feather. Dash, the smallest of our gang, a miniature dachshund, stands quivering at my heel.
I chat with Will as I throw the ball for Lilly. I’ve only known Will for the past year or so, but he has quickly become one of my favorite people. Tall and blond, he has a footballers build and vivid blue eyes, which I might describe as “flashing” if I were writing a romance. He is easily one of the funniest men I know. Will looks years younger than the forty-three he grudgingly owns to, and when you see him with Barney, they look like a walking advertisement for a boy and his dog.
“Uh oh,” I hear Will say from behind me.
“What uh oh?”
“Aunt Tilly’s coming.” Shit! There is a dog in the building where Sasha and Dash live who is a real jerk. He looks like a golden retriever on the outside, but his insides are all Cujo.
As happens when you live in a city and don’t run into people for months, then start seeing them every day for a week or two, somehow we’ve gotten on the same schedule with Cujo. I’ll be about to get on the elevator and he’ll come out, all teeth and barking. This in turn has caused my girls to give it right back. He also slipped his collar one day and attacked the group. He’s not a fan favorite. Cujo didn’t used to come into the run. But lately his owner, whom Will calls Aunt Tilly as apparently he bears some resemblance both in dress and manner to Will’s great- aunt, has decided to come to the run at the same time as we do. I tried very politely to explain to Cujo’s owner that there was some entrenched animosity here that went beyond “on leash” behavior and I thought it best if we varied our times at the run. In other words, I’m here from 9:00 to 10:00, you’re not working, so please plan accordingly. I wasn’t overly worried, because I’ve outlasted many an annoying dog and even many annoying owner over the years. From the man with the crazed cocker spaniel who tries to attack me whenever I’m wearing shorts, to the guy with the unneutered husky, who comes in, gets on his cell phone, then ignores his dog as it dominates every other dog in the run. I just have to wait them out. But when you’re in the thick of it, it can drive you crazy.
Lately, Cujo’s owner, his partner, and some other man, whom we call the Enforcer, have been coming in and making a point of staying for about fifteen minutes. “All the dogs will be fine together,” Cujo’s owner obstinately insists, somehow deaf to the ferocious barking by all parties as his dog draws near.
Not wanting any fights on my watch, I’ve been shepherding my kids into the puppy area. It’s a smaller fenced area where puppies or little dogs can play if they can’t handle the bigger run. It’s the dog equivalent of the “kiddie” pool. Since no small dogs use it at this time of day, I can corral my group in there, letting them play by themselves until Cujo leaves.
Unfortunately, my girls are not getting enough exercise this way, which has led to me glaring at the trio from across the run.
“Is he coming in today?” I ask Will, already knowing the answer, as I try to lure everyone into the small dog run with cookies.
Will doesn’t answer, but starts humming the Jet Song from West Side Story. “Wrong musical,” I tell him, pushing Lilly into the small run just as they are about to enter. The Sharks and Jets we aren’t, but I have recently bought all of the girls pink collars, figuring since they are all such badasses I should embrace it. I’ve nicknamed them the Pink Ladies. There is only one Sandy (Dash, the little dachshund) in the bunch and the rest are Rizzos. The girls are all sweet, terrific dogs, they are just young, exuberant, mostly alpha females who don’t take abuse from anyone.
As soon as Lilly spots Cujo and his entourage, she begins barking frantically. I’m grateful we are all secured.
I toss Lilly the ball to muffle her outraged barking, preparing to cool my heels until they leave. The men are sitting at the picnic table on the far side of the run. I can practically hear their fingers snapping.
“You’re right,” I tell Will. “West Side Story.”
“Upper West Side Story,” he quips, then opens the gate a smidge to let Barney come in with the ladies. He’s about to close the gate when Lilly makes a break for it.
“NOOOOOOOOO!” I’m yelling in slow-motion animation, but can’t reach her before she scoots out and charges across the run toward Cujo.
“Shit!” Will’s voice echoes behind me as I race across the run, shouting Lilly’s name. She starts barking in Cujo’s face and so, of course, the dog reacts. I haven’t nicknamed him Cujo for nothing. The dogs begin frantically going for each other, a tangle of yellow fur. Somehow, in burst of adrenaline-induced dexterity, I am able to get Lilly by the tail and pull her out. I swing her toward me as if I’m some sort of rodeo clown. We fall to the ground in a heap.
Thankfully, this fracas was mostly noise–as most skirmishes at the run tend to be; no one is actually bleeding, and the men are able to get Cujo. “I didn’t think he would have a problem,” Aunt Tilly keeps saying. “He’s a very sweet dog.”
I look at Will from my perch on the frozen earth, where Lilly and I sit panting, my arm flung around her neck in a half nelson. Lilly, now that she’s made her point, is remarkably calm. Will shrugs an “Oops.”
Dragging Lilly back across the run, I usher her inside with her friends. They all congratulate her on her good work. It’s only nine-thirty in the morning and I’m exhausted.
Not for the first time, a question pounds through my head like the headache it precedes. What the hell was I thinking?