Friday, February 25, 2011
April is the cruelest month. And in New York City, February and March are too. Especially if you have a white dog. Each spring, with the thaw, come the rivers of mud, collecting mostly in those places you need them least: like right on the walking trails of Prospect Park, inside all the dog runs, and in a big, unavoidable puddle right at the bottom of your apartment building’s stoop. City mud, of course, has its own unique accoutrements, including cigarette butts, lottery tickets, and carcasses of the rats poisoned by the parks department every fall. These are not the sorts of things you want your white dog rolling in.
The spring thaw also reveals all that unscooped poop that people left behind during the winter months. For some reason, even those New Yorkers who are typically conscientious about cleaning up after their dogs will walk away from steaming piles on the snow during the winter. Perhaps because the snow in New York is so offensive anyway (it’s not white, dear readers—it’s gray). Perhaps they think the poop will simply disappear, blanketed by more and more layers of snow, until it disintegrates. But just as a frozen body can last thirty years in the name of science, so can frozen poop. It can last until the thaws of April, the cruelest month, when there it is once again, underfoot. This is proof that you can’t leave the past behind.
So can you blame New Yorkers for being grouchy in the spring? When we were children, spring meant crocuses and daffodils, green grass, budding trees, and the smell of Mother Earth shaking herself off and rising again in all her rich wonder. When we were children, I swear it didn’t rain so much. So where did all this rain come from—the Bush era?
In New York, the spring rain falls so hard that it bounces right off the sidewalks and straight up your skirt. It ricochets off the sides of buildings, pelts you on the neck, and seeps down into your collar, even though you are wearing a giant duck-billed hood and a scarf wrapped thrice around your neck.
Wallace, like many dogs, did not like the rain. At least not city rain. In the country, he would bound across the fields as he always did, occasionally stopping to shake himself, even though he never got dry, but on the Upper East Side he considered rain to be an assault. When we took him out to relieve himself, he’d press his body against the sides of buildings, trying to shelter against the downpour. Sometimes we’d pass under a scrawny awning, and there Wallace would stop. He’d put on his doggie emergency brakes: feet planted, leaning backward, with a look of stubborn solidity on his face—like that of George Washington on Mt. Rushmore.
I always had an umbrella on these occasions, of course. And, good dog-parent that I was, I would hold the umbrella over him rather than myself. I’d follow him along and hold the umbrella over him as he squatted to poop. Last summer I saw a picture of Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or whatever he’s called, strolling along the promenade at Cannes looking positively smashing in white linen pants and a white shirt. And a similarly dressed manservant was hurrying alongside him, holding a white umbrella over his boss’s head. I couldn’t help but think of this picture as Wallace lifted his leg on a fire hydrant—he was protected: I was splashed by a passing cab.
The big problem with carrying an umbrella to keep your white dog clean and dry is that when it comes time to pick up his deposit, you need a third hand, because one of your two hands is holding the leash and the other the umbrella. This is why Puff Daddy has a manservant, I guess. My method was to put the umbrella between my knees, but then it would tip over, and both of us would get wet. Wallace, offended at this injustice, would bolt toward another awning, and more often than not, I’d topple over.
I decided to buy the dog a raincoat. Now, on the Upper East Side, most of the dogs wore clothing—expensive garments from Burberry’s and Coach. But Ted refused to pay $300 for a “sissy rain coat.” So I ordered an inexpensive coat from Drs. Foster and Smith. It was a cute yellow slicker, just like the one I’d had as a child, the color of a school bus, or a Crayola crayon. This made me like the idea of a raincoat even better, because I always liked to find yet another way to infantilize the dog. But when the slicker arrived, it was too small. I’d ordered at Extra-Large, but it still didn’t reach all the way to his backside. You were supposed to hook a large elastic band around the dog’s tail, but this coat barely reached the big brown spot on top of his rump. So I had to return it.
“Good,” Ted said. “How are you supposed to shit with a big yellow elastic stretched across your anus anyway?”
“Could you not use the word ‘anus’?” I said.
Then Ted said he had another, less expensive idea. “Remember that dog at the Halloween contest that was dressed like a raisin?”
I did—an Irish Setter had been wearing a big Hefty bag that was stuffed with newspaper. It never occurred to me to wonder how the “raisin” went to the bathroom, but Ted figured we could cut the bag in half lengthwise and fasten the “cinch wrap” around Wallace’s neck.
“What about his anus?” I said. “And that other body part he needs to use?”
“They will be unobstructed,” Ted said. I figured that, when it came to matters of male anatomy, he knew best.
And so Wallace became a raisin. It took an additional 20 minutes to walk him each time it rained, because Ted and I laughed so much at the way he looked in his Hefty bag and his cinched-up face. We didn’t stuff him with newspaper, but still. It seemed to embarrass Wallace to have to walk past all the fancy restaurants on Madison Avenue, and by that Poodle in the pink plaid Burberry raincoat. And he still pressed himself against the awnings, and his belly still got wet and black and coated with that toxic spring mud.
After it had been raining for what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights, and Noah had not yet called to invite us aboard his arc, I decided to keep the dog indoors more often. I bought a book called Caninestein, which showed you how to measure your dog’s intelligence and offered tips on how to increase his IQ. Thus I was inspired to develop a game I called “Find the Kong.” I’d make Wallace sit and stay in one room (remember that we only had three rooms in that apartment: the kitchen/living room combo, the bedroom and the tiny bathroom only big enough for one). Anyway, I’d make him sit in the kitchen and then I’d go “hide” the Kong in one of the other rooms. I used the word hide in quotation marks, because, in the bathroom, the Kong would be “hidden” right on top of the toilet and in the living room it would be “hidden” on the windowsill. In any case, I’d tell Wallace, “Okay, go find it. Find the Kong!” And he’d race off, tail held high in excitement, with that look of fun in his eyes. He always found the Kong, of course, and would bring it back to me, his ears flattened back with pride and his tail wagging. I made a big show of praising him and his cleverness. “Who’s an Einstein? Who’s a Caninestein?” And then I’d hide it again—always in an obvious place—and the game would begin again. Sometimes Wallace would cheat and break his stay. I’d see him peeking at me from the doorway, and make him return to his designated spot. Most of the time he cooperated, because he knew if he cheated too much, I’d stop the game. He was a genius, I tell you. A regular Caninestein.
When Ted came home from work, soaked to the waist even though his umbrella was the size of a table for six, I threw myself on him in excitement and told him I had taught the dog a new game. I was as proud as if I had just typed a full novel in 23 days, which is what they say Stephen King always does.
“What a good mother you are,” Ted said, “teaching him a rainy-day game. Most mothers would just plunk him down in front of the television set.”
When we moved to the Upper East Side, our repertoire of rainy-day activities increased. This is a neighborhood where, starting at age three, all the children are sent to riding school at the Claremont Riding Academy, impressionistic painting classes (in oils) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then to flute lessons with a man who used to play with the New York Symphony. After a short break for toast and tea with their etiquette instructor, the children would be on to French lessons at the Alliance Française.
On the Upper East Side your dog could have a quadruple pedicure at Lolly’s Pet Salon, or go for a temperature-controlled swim at Biscuits and Bath. Then, after being washed, dried and fluffed by an aesthetician at the club, your dog could accompany you to the Regency Hotel, where waiters in white gloves would pour chilled Evian into a silver dog dish, and then serve him a warm dish of chicken, broccoli and rice. Twenty bucks if just the dog ate. Forty if you treated yourself. But you can’t do any of this wearing a plastic bag.
Luckily, Petco was just a few blocks away from our apartment. And, as you all know, “well-behaved” dogs are allowed inside the store, provided they are on a leash. Petco doesn’t even mind those dogs who leap up onto the biscuit bar and steal a couple of treats, because there are always security guards around who will narc on you and you will be forced to pay for the treats. This is a New York thing, I think—the security guards in a pet store. I heard that one time an Akita peed on one of them—a quick squirt to the pant leg—and the dog was banished for life. But then people on Manhattan Dog Chat got word of the banishment and threatened to sue Petco for breed-specific discrimination.
Anyway, my dog did not pee on anyone at Petco; nor did he jump onto the breakfast bar. He seemed to know that those biscuits, in their unnatural colors of orange and green, were not fit for canine consumption. Plus, I had told him that most commercial dog food was made of euthanized animals, elephant carcasses and baseball gloves, and reminded him that such food was beneath him. “Remember, you are a French Spaniel, and as a Frenchman, you must value your food.”
Instead, he would pull me to the second floor, where all the fish, birds and rodents were kept. It always smelled to me like sawdust up there, and indoor/outdoor carpeting; but to Wallace, with his heightened sense of smell, it must have smelled like the rainforests of Costa Rica, or the hedgerows of England. As we walked past the sealed terrariums full of gerbils, hamsters and tiny white mice, his nose quivered, his eyes narrowed into pinpoints, and his right foreleg rose into a hunting point. His face was focused and full of anticipation, and I realized this was the same look I had as I walked though the shoe section at Barneys: I want one of those, and one of those, and two of that pair...
Wallace would rush up to each terrarium and press his face against the glass. Oddly enough, the rodents never noticed him. They would continue spinning on their little wheels, or nibbling on grass, their little pink noses twitching and their tiny red eyes focused on the task at hand. If they had noticed him I would have taken Wallace away, because I don’t like to frighten other living creatures, but I never saw them blink or shiver. I wondered if they were sedated. Or if their cages were sealed so tightly they got no real air.
Once we had said hello to all 36 gerbils and hamsters, Wallace would pull me on to the bird section. This was a small, glassed-in room, like a squash court, full of cockatoos and parrots and one splendid African Gray. They were kept in cages, in neat rows, except for that Gray, who stood in a bird cage the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. This was Wallace’s favorite room. The birds were not encased in glass, so the smell was more acute. Wallace would jump toward their cages and send them squawking in various notes. I’d always pull him off, make him sit and tell him to be quiet. “If the security guards hear us, they’ll kick us out,” I said.
But the security guards never said anything. Which I thought was weird. I’ve noticed that sometimes the people who work in pet stores seem to have little compassion for the animals they sell. But here, I guess, as long as you didn’t pee on them, you were okay.
I found a way to calm the birds down. I am now officially a crazy dog lady, remember, so why not talk to birds? I’d cluck and whistle and explain that, although technically Wallace was a bird dog, he wasn’t really all that that “birdy.” This wasn’t true, but I wanted to reassure the birds, let them know we meant no harm. Wallace would sit there, all beady-eyed, his body tense, with just the tip of his tail moving. Anyone with a bird dog knows what this means. But I explained to the birds that we lived in a tenement apartment building, and that there were no trees on our street, so we really didn’t get that much exposure to wildlife. “Plus, it’s raining cats and dogs out there,” I said, which sent them squawking again, I guess because I mentioned cats.
At that point we’d leave; Wallace reluctantly (at having to leave his own private aviary and head back into the dreadful rain) and I, satisfied (knowing that my dog got to hone his instincts and exercise his brain). Caninestein said this was essential. At Petco, Wallace got to practice what he did best: plotting how to kill all these hapless creatures. In his dreams, he actually did kill them. I could tell by the way he woofed triumphantly and flexed his lips and his paws. I knew he dreamed of open fields and sunny days. None of this rainy-day-in-a-Petco crap.
Anyway, I always allowed Wallace to pick out one toy on our way out of the store as a reward for not lunging at any of the birds. Wallace liked the fuzzy-wuzzy toys, especially those that resembled a squirrel, because he liked to practice the art of snapping spines. He also liked to pick out a greenie bone or a piggy ear and carry it home himself. With his tail up and a spring in his step, he’d hurry home, anxious to get out of the rain and eat his treat. His lips stretched around his prize into a dog-smile, big a goofy grin. And even though it was raining, and even though rain puts all New Yorkers into the foulest of moods, everyone we passed would smile at him as. He seemed to suggest that May would come, that spring really was just around the corner, and that the cruelest month would soon come to an end.