Dog Day Afternoons

Pablo’s father was a handsome, French pianist in his forties. His apartment was immaculate and minimalistic. He was usually absent when I came to retrieve Pablo for his 90-minute walk, but sometimes I would turn my key in the lock and hear him playing the grand piano in the living room. It sounded beautiful, but imposing, and made me feel like an intruder. After his walk I fed Pablo a mix of baked sweet potato and two types of dehydrated meat that were mixed together. Pablo lived considerably better than I did. He was a caramel colored poodle.

Every time I sliced Pablo’s sweet potato, I slipped a piece into my own mouth. The first time I did it I felt dirty and barbaric. Then I came to look forward to it each day. The cooked sweet potato sat in a bowl on the counter, waiting for me. The skin was loose and papery. The flesh was a deep, sweet orange. It was bland, unseasoned, and my mouth watered for it.

I preferred it when Pablo’s father was not there. Once, two months into the job, he walked into the kitchen as I prepared Pablo’s elaborate meal and gasped. “You must cut it up smaller,” he said, gesturing at the sweet potato. He took the knife from me and diced the tuber into miniscule cubes. “He can’t eat it otherwise,” he told me. I nodded and offered up my most subservient smile.

Before entering each apartment, I removed my shoes. Since I wasn’t supposed to use the clients’ toilets, I memorized available bathrooms along my route: the Trader Joe’s on 23rd St, the various Starbucks locations on the Upper East Side. Every day I pissed in the same places, not unlike the dogs I walked. 

When Pablo’s apartment was unoccupied, I would sometimes use the bathroom. It overlooked Gramercy Park. If I lived here, I thought, I would take a bath in this claw foot tub every afternoon and watch the world through the window. But I did not live here, and my afternoons were full. I had dogs to walk.

My job was not a phone app. It was a high-end dog walking company, and I had only got the job in early August because I had struck up a conversation with a dog walker who was leaving the city. He was headed to California, the state from which I had just moved, and it felt like coming full circle. I would be trained as his replacement and walk the same dogs each weekday at the same time. The job started at 3:00 pm and ended at 10:30. The best way to get from one apartment to the next was on a bicycle—it was nearly impossible to make it to each dog on time by subway. After my final walk I would bike home, across the Queensboro Bridge and then the Pulaski, to get to the room I rented in Bed-Stuy. In the mornings I went to school.

The dog walker who trained me said that Callie was unloved. She was a Pomeranian Husky. People on the street would sometimes stop and ask me, “Is that a pomsky?” and my skin would prickle at the word. “I don’t know,” I would tell them, even though I did.

Callie got walked five times a day, but never by the family that owned her. They lived on Fifth Avenue. When I entered their apartment, I would often encounter the maid, the personal assistant, or the private chef. The mother and the two teenage daughters were leggy blondes and there was always one of them lying on the couch in the sitting room. I padded silently through their house in my socks, so I wouldn’t disturb them. There were two long-haired cats with smooshed faces. Callie was relegated to her own room, about the size of a studio apartment, that was bare except for a doggy crate, a beanbag chair, and an assortment of toys splattered across the hardwood floor. After her hour-long walk, I had to mark in a spiral-bound notebook what type of business she had conducted. Once, while I was leaving, I saw a wine glass tipped over on top of the grand piano, surrounded by a dark red puddle. My whole body jolted, thinking that it must somehow be my fault. When I looked closer I realized it was a prank. The wine was made of plastic. 

My scalp would sweat, making my hair look perpetually oily, so I kept it in two long braids. Kareem, the doorman at the Callie’s building, asked who did them for me. I sort of had a crush on him. He had four thick cornrows that clung to his skull and was handsome and sarcastic. His sister did his hair, or sometimes his mom. He didn’t know there was no one in the city that touched me. I taught myself to French braid from YouTube videos.

Once in the elevator of Callie’s building, I found a twenty-dollar bill rolled into a tight tube. If you divided my eight-hour shifts by the amount of money that showed up in my bank account each Friday, I made around $7.50 an hour. This was piecework, I’d been told when I got hired. That meant that I got paid per walk but was not guaranteed a minimum wage. I was not paid for the time I spent biking to different corners of Manhattan, or for the inconvenient gaps in my schedule. At the time I was unsure whether this was a good job or not.

I learned my way around Manhattan, going to neighborhoods in which I likely wouldn’t have found myself otherwise. I was trying to navigate a world of wealth. I thought I had known rich people in San Diego, but realized after a week of dog walking that I had been mistaken. There was an unspoken divide between the people who lived in these neighborhoods, and the people who catered to their needs.

At school I felt conspicuous. I was the oldest one in all of my classes and had never been on a real university campus before. I had transferred to NYU after four years at the community college in my hometown. At a transfer orientation, I was asked by fellow students, “Are you sure you want to work while you’re in school?” A boy questioned why I didn’t live in dorms like the rest of them and I told him that it was too expensive. “How much is it?” he asked.

In early September, one of the girls lay on the sofa at Callie’s apartment as the Brett Kavanaugh hearing played on the television. I lingered in Callie’s room, listening while I put her leash on.  So much was happening in the world, and my life revolved around eight different dogs and their bowel movements.

My third walk of the day was a large, beautiful black German Shepherd named Piper who lived in Greenwich Village. I was inconsequential to her. Like most of the dogs, she never appeared excited or unhappy to see me, just indifferent. I loved taking her down to the Hudson River, and strolling cobblestoned side streets lined with beautiful brick buildings. As the days got shorter, I would peer into the glowing windows and eavesdrop on the sound of people making dinner.

When it rained, I would wear a trash-bag-poncho in which I had ripped holes for my head and arms. The soles of my shoes had worn through, so I slipped a pair of doggy bags over my socks to keep my feet dry. They crinkled with each step. I worried that one day I would show up to an apartment and see one of my classmates.

Eloise hated to walk. She was a small, grey, curly-haired dog and lived across from the Flatiron building. The sidewalks there were always crowded with people churning in and out of Eataly and the Lego store. I would carry Eloise through the throngs of people until I could get two blocks south where I would set her down. She liked to stiffen her legs, and when I pulled her leash she would slide along the concrete. I would tug her towards the apartment of Parker, an ancient miniature schnauzer who was just as stubborn. I had to text Eloise’s father after her walks and tell him whether or not she took a shit. I wasn’t supposed to let him know in person, though I saw him every evening.

In their back room, the doormen of Eloise’s building had a five-inch-tall metal figurine that depicted one rhino mounting another rhino from behind. The rhino being penetrated had a label on it that read the building’s address. The other rhino was labeled “The World.” 

Parker’s mom had her own Wikipedia page. She was a young, bubbly, old-money, Manhattan socialite. The elevator opened straight into her home. Her son had a male nanny who looked like a model. One night I found her seated on the couch with an Asian woman crouched on the floor in front of her. It was her personal manicurist. Another night I showed up with a tear-stained face, and she looked at me with genuine concern. “What’s wrong, girlie?” I shook my head, unable to form words. She asked if I needed a hug and I nodded. She rubbed my back in wide circles while I cried about the job that I hated, my perpetual exhaustion, and the pittance that showed up in my bank account each week. I could explain none of it to her. It was the first time I’d been touched in months.

Food was always on my mind. On Sundays I would make a big pot of beans and rice, and bring some to work each day in a Tupperware. Often, after walking Eloise and Parker, I would go to the Trader Joe’s on Sixth and 21st, where I would buy a single banana and steal a protein bar. When the weather was nice, I ate in one of the many parks. As it grew colder, I sat in the corner of a Starbucks, not buying anything, charging my phone and doing my homework. There was an inconvenient hole in my walk schedule. I had eight dogs scheduled each day, and sometimes an extra one or two more. But usually from 8:30 to 10 pm, I had nowhere to be.

For the most part, I was invisible to the children of these families. Piper’s home had a trampoline in the living room. The teenage daughters at Callie’s didn’t even turn their heads when I opened the door. I was a background feature, expected to be silent and reliable. There were two children at Eloise’s. The boy was maybe four, and the little girl was young enough to toddle but couldn’t talk. When they heard my key in the lock, they would run to the front room. The boy liked to ask me questions about my life, what I did over the weekend and whether I walked other dogs. He was surprised to find out I went to school, too. The day before Halloween he offered to share his candy with me if I didn’t have time to trick or treat. He knew more about me than any of the adults I worked for.

I’d never hated a dog until I met Winona. She was a bull terrier with black beady eyes whose body was so dense and meaty that if she did not want to move, I could not force her to. She lunged at any creature that came near her, be it animal or human. Her choke collar had no effect on her. She would strain against it, letting the pronged chain dig into the flesh of her neck. I picked her up on the Upper East Side each night at 8 pm and would walk her to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, past the hot-dog cart and straggling tourists. Winona once yanked me towards the remnants of a hot-dog on the staircase and gobbled it up before I had the chance to dislodge it from her jaw. She would thereafter return to the same spot over and over, as if by magic the hot-dog would be there once more. But I wasn’t so different. When I found a tray of bagels in a meeting room on campus, I returned every afternoon to poke my head through the door, hoping that the tray would materialize before me again.

At night, each apartment window looked like a square portal into another universe. The buildings in New York were older and taller than the ones in Southern California, so everything felt significant. I could look up at any moment and remember, with surprise, I am in New York now. Sometimes I would stand and warm myself on the air coming up through the subway grates, savoring the groaning sounds of the trains underneath me. In the sidewalk planter boxes, ornamental cabbages replaced the summer blossoms. New York was constantly unfolding around me, and I wanted to open my eyes wider so I might be able to take it all in. People began to ask me directions and I was pleased with myself when I found I was able to answer.

Bacchus and Buxley were brothers, two incontinent bearded collies on the Upper East Side with divorced owners who had both remarried and lived eight or so blocks apart. Every week they traded B & B off, and I had to remember which apartment to go to. The owners were friendly and so were the decrepit dogs. They would often accidentally pee in the hallway as I tried to rush them outside. It is likely that these dogs are now dead.

Occasionally I would walk a brown and white puppy named Maisy on the bank of the East River. The service elevator brought me to the apartment’s service entrance. I would arrive a few minutes early and stand outside the door, watching the clock. With this client, you were not allowed to arrive one minute early or late. The owners spent $100,000 a year so that Maisy could be walked 12 times a day. She smelled sweet and clean. I loved to cradle her in my arms.

I developed a sore on my ass from biking and couldn’t get it to go away. It rubbed against my jeans painfully. At night I would get home at 11:00 pm and sit in bed, massaging my feet, and trying to soothe my body. I would wake the next morning at 6:00 am and everything would repeat.

I learned the city through dogs. They shit straight on the cement. You could never really pick it all up because it just smeared around. Especially Pablo, whose excrement was softened by excessive amounts of sweet potato. I sat in the dog park with him, looking up at the buildings of my university. It felt impossible that this was my life. I called my manager and told him I was miserable, that I wasn’t even making minimum wage. “Don’t do me like that,” he said. “Give it another week, I’ll see if I can get you some more walks.” It wasn’t more walks I wanted, it was more money. It took me three tries to finally quit.

In mid-November New York got its first snowfall of the season. It would be my first real winter; I was from the most southwest corner of the country. One of the doormen warned me ahead of time to dress warmly, but I didn’t have anything to wear. I watched the first snowflakes with wonder and dread. Within an hour the world was cloaked in white. I could no longer recognize the city. My shoes had no tread, and I slid everywhere, not trusting myself to lift my feet up. The next day would be my last.

I never said goodbye to the owners. I said goodbye to the dogs, quietly, with a scratch behind the ears. They wouldn’t miss me. A replacement would come on Monday and they may not even notice. I hadn’t been their first. I said goodbye to the doormen. “This is my last day,” I told Kareem. 

My final two walks of the day were cancelled. So all of a sudden I was done. I hadn’t biked so I hopped the subway at 23rd Street to head home. It was over. I stood body to body with rush-hour commuters and felt warmth emanating from all these living creatures.

A year after quitting I saw a young man with a familiar looking Pomeranian-husky in Washington Square Park. I checked the time––it was the afternoon walk I used to take Callie on. I felt an urge to call out to him and say, “I know what you’re doing! I’ve done it too!” But I couldn’t even remember Callie’s name. All I could remember was her beanbag chair, Kareem, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the smooshed face cats, and the prank wine glass. When it finally came to me, they were out of sight. 

***

Apart from her time as a dog-walker, Cora Womble-Miesner has been a grocery store stocker, boxing instructor, landscape gardener, nanny, house cleaner, barista, and editorial intern. She graduated from NYU and currently lives in San Diego, CA. 

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§ One Response to “Dog Day Afternoons”

  • Amanda says:

    What interesting insight into another world. At first I thought, what lucky dogs to live in such fancy homes, then I thought again. Great article.

§ Leave a Reply

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