Holiday Pets (Upper East Side Dogs)

by Thomas Beller

12/19/2003

1271 Lexington Ave, New York, Ny

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

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It was the day before the day before Christmas. Several puppies were carousing in the window of a pet store. The avenue was full of people. It was not the normal crowdedness, he felt. It was a less stressed out crowdedness, a crowd in the mood for lingering.

He joined the crowd watching the puppies. They were separated into three compartments. The puppy on the left, a sand colored retriever, was arching its head over the plastic divider and entering the air space of his neighbor, a little black lab with moist eyes, who got up on his hind legs, delighted to have a friend. Two tiny Jack Russells were scampering around in the third space to the right.

It was the love affair in apartments One and Two that had the crowd's attention.

The little black lab was nuzzling and hugging and, in a word, loving his neighbor. The love-fest was picturesque. A man was filming the scene. The cameraman, crouched a little as though to get the best shot of this priceless moment, stared at the little video screen on which the two dogs frolicked. Everyone was looking at the dogs, either in person or on the little screen, and although the observation of these layers would suggest a certain cool distance on the part of our observer, he was as seduced and enthralled and charmed by this display of unabashed puppy love as anyone else. He looked at the dogs in the window. He looked at the dogs on the little screen of the video camera. Then he went into the pet store.

His girlfriend wanted a dog, it was true, but that was not why he was suddenly in the store. He himself had suddenly been possessed with the desire for a dog. It was a new desire, but, at this moment, the day before the day before Christmas, he wasn't going to fight it. He would go with the new flow.

There was a woman standing behind the cash register at the front of the store, right by the door, surrounded on all sides by pet paraphernalia, leashes and rubber toys, etc.

"How much is the little dog in the window?" he mumbled.

"Excuse me?" She said.

"How much is the little dog in the window?" he said again, louder.

"You have to ask a salesman in the back," she said.

This was not a puppy store, it was a pet store and two long aisles lead to a dense, varied world of prospective pet ownership. At the end of one aisle, he saw a man in a red smock holding a hose doing something to the fish tanks. The sound of bubbles escaping to the surface murmurously filled the air. It was gloomy.

The sight of that man holding the hose scared him a little. The fatigue with which he was feeding the fish suggested the long haul of pet responsibility. He considered turning for the exit. But to hell with it, he thought, and headed down the other aisle.

At the back of the store there were more puppies. The smell was thicker here. The smell of old pee, of fur, of loneliness. Some of the puppies were in tiny plastic puppy cages stacked on top of one another with little holes for breathing. He had once seen a television news magazine's expose on puppy breeding. They had blown the lid of the whole cruel world. But he didn't linger on this memory, and instead fixed on the way several of the puppies were sleeping, some on their sides, some on the backs, their body language twisted up in a distinct and very human idiosyncratic shape.

He spotted three salesman in red smocks. A bit slick. Immediately, even though none of them had toothpicks in their mouths, he embellished them with toothpicks. He may as well have been standing in a car dealership. These guys had a rap. Glen-gary-glen-Ross featured men like this. So does Tin Men, the great Barry Levinson movie where the Richard Dryfus character calls the Danny Devito character and says, "I just fucked your wife."

The great epics of the sales floor hustle flashed through his mind, but he persisted in his puppy quest.

"Excuse me," he said. One of the men broke away from the conversation. A round, pudgy face, thinning gelled hair, soft hands, wedding ring. "I was wondering about the dog you've got in the window. Can you tell me about how much it is?"

"Which dog?"

"I'm not sure."

"Hey," he said to one of the other salesman. "Do you know what's in the window?"

"The window? There's a retriever, and a couple of Jack Russell's, and a black lab."

"How much is the black lab?"

"Um, they're around 1600 dollars."

"And the retriever?"

"Around 1400 dollars."

"How about a poodle? Do you have poodles?"

A memory of his girlfriend just the other day came to him forcefully.

He had been walking with her when they came upon a man walking two little black poodles, each on a long leash. One of the poodles had paused by a metal gate to sprinkle some pee, then lowered its leg and scampered to catch up with the other one.

"Hey guys!" she called out.

The two poodles stopped walked and their heads snapped to attention. Both of them at the same time. Their wet eyes focused on this new addition to their lives. "Who's that?" they seemed to be saying. When they saw the woman with the big smile brimming with excitement at the sight of them, bent forward with hands on her knees, they wasted to time. Attack would not be the word. Poodles don't attack. But there was a urgency to the way they leapt forward and began nuzzling and licking and panting at her hands and legs.»

"Yes yes yes, that's right," she said in the baby/doggy voice she employed in these situations. The dogs were in heaven. She was a human dogbone.

"Did you see that?" she said when they had moved on. "Did you see the way they both turned like that!"

"I did, I did," he said, smiling. "Their heads just snapped to attention when they heard your voice. It was like they were waiting for you all their lives.

"Awww," she said. "Lil' Poodles."

In the back of his mind, he was thinking that in the course of the whole exchange, she hadn't once looked at or said anything to the man holding their leash. It was as though he wasn't there.

"I've got a poodle right here," said the salesman now. He stepped over a few feet and pointed to a plastic cage that was empty except for a morass of shredded white paper on its floor. He gave the cage a rough tap. From the depths of white paper emerged two eager little heads, all white fluff but for the quivering black nose and the eager, hopeful black eyes. "These are around 1800. They don’t shed. Very affectionate. Is this for you or for…"

"My girlfriend," he said.

"Yeah, well they make great gifts."

"They do?"

"Oh man, you should see the number of dogs that are being picked up here tomorrow. Man."

"Where are they?"

"Down in the basement. We've got a lot dogs down in the basement."

He thought of all those little, quivering, peeing loveballs bounding out of bags or boxes, scampering out of bedrooms, or wherever the giver had hid them, and how they were spending the last dank dark night of their lives, in the basement of this store.

"So most of the people who give these things as gifts, they're men?"

"Oh yeah," said the salesman. "One guy's gonna have an engagement ring attacked to the collar."

"Attacked?"

"What?" He pictured his girlfriend's shocked face were he to present her with a dog. But was he up to it? What was his real motive? Did he want a dog to do his loving for him? How happy she would be! he thought. But then he thought of how happy all these other women getting holidays puppies would be, and for some reason this diminished the appeal.

He peered at the dogs stacked in their plastic cages and had a terrible vision of the sameness of the people with these dogs trapped in their own larger version of plastic cages. It was cheap existential terror, but that was the feeling that swept him out of the odiferous store and onto the crowded street.

He had the salesman's card. He had said he would think about it. He walked down Lexington Avenue in the brisk air feeling like he had narrowly escaped something.

**

A year later in the same neighborhood, he came upon a pack of dogs that had situated itself on the South East corner of 88th and Park Avenue. Packs of dogs are common on the Upper East Side. They are all tethered to leashes, all held by the solitary dog walker, who make their daytime rounds towards and away from Central Park.

The dog walker is often a bit tense, surrounded by so many wagging sniffing entities, or if not tense, simply focused. From half a block away he made out the dogs surrounding their dog-walker. Then he saw a movement that was familiar. From half a block away it was clear--one dog was humping another dog. For a full thirty seconds of so he approached this lewd scene while the dog walked stood there, oblivious. (the other dogs didn't seem to care much either.)

The top dog looked like a fox. He had reddish hair and his tail was upturned, and the ass area was all white fluff. The bottom dog was a brown curly haired semi-poodle looking thing. The white fluffy hair was bobbing away, fast (doggie style), but steady. By the time he arrived at the corner nearly a minute had passed and the moment had come to seem almost monotonous and weird.

Then a strange thing happened: A young man passed the dog walker, and was handed a leash. It seemed to be some sort of doggie drop, though the fact that no words were exchanged lent it the atmosphere of a drug deal.

The leash was attached to the brown, sad eyed, not too pretty bottom dog, who was yanked away. Once the hand-off had been completed, the bottom dog was lead East on 88th Street, towards Lexington, and the top dog, along with the rest of the pack of ten or so dogs, was hearded South on Park Avenue.

All this was observed from the corner. And so he watched the smug, greedy expression of the fox-like top dog as it looked back to the corner, the scene of the doggie tryst, and wondered if he was wistful, and if so, for what. Then saw the sad eyed bottom dog also turn back and look at the same corner. Both dogs were looking at an empty corner (except for our observer, standing there). They both jogged forward and looked back. They would look forward and then look back again, both of them. But they did not see each other. He wondered if they would ever see each other again.

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