The Ghost of Fred Revisited

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03/02/2008

Park Slope, Brooklyn 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

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Somehow through life’s twists and turns, I’ve come to live in vegan-shoe-wearing Park Slope and own a miniature wirehaired dachshund named, well, er, Pixie. Her full AKC designation is Tiny Tails Pixie Dust. Abridged or unabridged, her name is pure embarrassment, though it’s not my invention. At least I can say she came with her silly name.

Pixie was bred for the dog-show circuit but didn’t make the cut. And so my wife and I took ownership of this mite of a dog, now banished to household-pet status. Pixie, apparently, doesn’t have the desired long neck of a show dog and she is far too small to compete. The fact that Pixie is too small is indisputable and immediately obvious to breeder and non-breeder alike: she’s the size of a well-fed guinea pig.

She’s so tiny it can be visually jarring, even to me at times. I never thought I’d own a dog this small--a pocket dog, a frou-frou dog, whatever you want to call it. I always thought that when I got around to owning a dog I’d get, well, a bigger breed: a retriever, a shepherd, something like that. But I’ve grown to appreciate little dogs, and my wife and I have slowly become versions of a ghastly Park Slope stereotype: anthropomorphizing pet owners.

In Park Slope everyone seems to have a dog or a small child, or both. This is the convention. My wife jokes about a business plan to rent children and dogs, at an hourly rate, like Zipcars, to people entering Prospect Park. Corporate mission: to provide childless or pet-less customers with the sense that they fit in, momentarily, when walking around the lake, the carousel or when in the Long Meadow. (Actually, I’ve learned there already exists, elsewhere in America, pet-rental businesses, but my wife’s “plan” takes it one step further.)

Like many pet owners, we have numerous nicknames for our dog, most known only to us. But on the street and when in Prospect Park, I do shorten Pixie’s name. This way I avoid calling out, “Come Pixie! Come Pixie!” and retain a modicum of masculinity. Instead I call out “Pix, Pix, Pix,” which might remind New Yorkers of a certain age of an after-school video-game show on WPIX television in the 1980s.

Soon after getting Pix as a one-year-old, I noticed a fringe benefit, which I guiltily reported to my wife: young women love the dog. Invariably, she’s the “cutest thing” they’ve ever seen; they stop and talk to me and, curiously, to Pix, who loves people if not other dogs and creatures (which I’ll get to). I now have a greater appreciation for the ploy of using cute pets or children to attract the opposite sex. Women ask about Pix’s breed and about Pix herself. She’s a superstar, though she doesn’t know it. Often they ask for her age. Once in response to this question, I said Pix is four, and a woman asked, “Four months?” “No,” I said, “Four years.”

See: thimble-sized Pix is regularly mistaken for a puppy, though she is several years into adulthood. And because she has a beard, mustache, and wiry eyebrows, she is also often mistaken for being male. She is judged by her appearance. Though, of course, what something appears to be isn’t necessarily what it is.

We live in the part of the Slope where Pete Hamill grew up. That Park Slope, which Hamill describes in his very good 1994 memoir A Drinking Life, is nothing like today’s long-gentrified “South” Slope. Undoubtedly, there were dogs in his Park Slope, though not very many Pixies, I’m guessing. His working-class Park Slope no longer exists. Nevertheless, if one looks closely, one can still see or hear, well, what’s left of those days. One can pick out a face or two or five; that is, one can guess who has, more than likely, been here since before double-decker tourist buses were a common sight on Prospect Park West (Ninth Avenue).

Pete Hamill’s old haunt is now one of the “top 10 neighborhoods” in America, according to the American Planning Association (whatever that is). And those old brownstones, they go for a few million apiece now--too pricey for me though not for everyone, apparently.

And so it is on these streets, newly paved with gold, that I walk a dog the size of an overgrown squirrel. Pix is painfully aware (I’m guessing) of how small and vulnerable she is. I think this because she lashes out in fear at every dog or dog-like creature that crosses her path.

Rottweiler, dingo, Grizzly: it doesn’t matter.

We’ve tried a number of training techniques to get her to stop doing this. She is much better than she was when we first adopted her, but she still lashes out on occasion. As a result, she has a bit of a rep in the neighborhood. A fellow dog owner once called Pix a “little monster.” And I’ve witnessed people crossing the street to avoid her (us, actually). On the positive side, she has gained some serious Park Slope street cred.»

One night I walked by a group of teenagers hanging out in the park (boys and girls, blacks, whites, Asians--a multicultural teen gang suitable for Park Slope). They were very interested in the Pix. One young man asked if he might pet her. Sure, I said. As he bent over to pet her, another dog and its owner had the temerity to walk in Pix’s general vicinity. Pix leapt at the dog, a retriever, barking and showing her rice-sized teeth; instinctively, I yanked her little body back, but Pix kept at it. I ordered her to stop, which she disregarded until the other dog was at a safe distance. The other dog owner had moved quickly along, but his dog had all but ignored the pipsqueak “threatening” it. The kids, meanwhile, howled and shouted in approval at Pix’s bad behavior. One asked her name. I told him. “Oh man,” he said, laughing. “You shoulda called her Massacre!”

Well, Pix by any other name still has the weight of the world on her little shoulders. I can see it in her beady eyes. What’s she thinking? What would she say if she could speak? What do we make of these unknowable, odd creatures--of dogs?

Man’s relationship with dogs is well-trod writer territory. I’m thinking of Thomas Mann and his German shorthaired pointer and of his struggle to understand Bashan. And I’m thinking of Beckett and his Kerry Blue Terrier, the one he mourned for and refers to, supposedly, in “Krapp’s Last Tape.” There’s A.A. Milne, who wrote about a Pekinese named Bingo (not to mention a Pooh bear). I’m also thinking of E.B. White, who had a dachshund he wrote about, humorously, long after its death. The dachshund was called Fred, which might be a name diametrically opposite to Pixie.

Fred appears in some of White’s famous essays, including “Bedfellows” and “Death of a Pig.” One of my favorite Fred pieces is “Fred on Space,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 16, 1957. In it White interviews the long-dead Fred, by then a ghost on White’s property in Maine, about the Soviet Union’s recently-launched Sputnik 2, which carried a Laika into space. It’s a very funny imagined exchange; most of it takes the form of a Q&A.

I think a Q&A with Pix might go like this:

Q: Pixie, do you enjoy living in Park Slope?

A: Of course, Park Slope has all that I might possibly need.

Q: But you’re a tiny dog. What could you possibly need?

A: Exactly.

Q: Oh, I see. So that bike lane on Ninth Street…

A: Meaningless. Look at my legs. They’re an inch long. I can’t reach the pedals.

Q: And that new bank…

A: Again, meaningless--unless you plan on opening an account there. I presume we have a bank account.

Q: We do.

A: Good. Restaurants: also meaningless to me. Unless--just once--you’d bring home a doggie bag. But, for the most part, sure, Park Slope is a nice place to live--for a dachshund and, probably, for a human being, too. I listen to what you say to that lady who lives with us. I hear you talk about how expensive it is, but this doesn’t interest me. I’m here for a briefer time than you, and so I’ll leave that money stuff to you. I’ll worry about my next meal; my bed in the living room. Things like that. As for the rest of Park Slope living. Dogs. Don’t like them. Except other dachshunds. Lesbians. Like them. Vegans. Like them--by the way, I don’t think they’d mind if you let me get at one of those squirrels once in a while? Baby strollers: terrified of them. They look like tanks coming at me, especially the ones with those big, knobby tires. I like kids, though--four-legged ones, two-legged ones. As for those free books people leave in boxes on sidewalks and stoops: useless. Instead of books about outmoded philosophies, why don’t they leave something practical--a squeaky toy or a bone? [Big yawn.] Well, nice talking to you. It’s time for my twelfth nap of the day. Gotta go.

Q: Wait, one last thing. Politics. Where do you stand?

A: I stand down here, dummy. At your ankles.

A former trade journalist, Kevin Nolan is finishing a novel.

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