Katie Up and Down the Hall The True Story of How One Dog Turned Five Neighbors into a Family
By Plaskin, Glenn
Center Street Copyright © 2010 Plaskin, Glenn
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781599952543
As a kid, I was never a “dog person,” to say the least.
In fact, I was terrified of dogs.
It all began with “Strippy”—a menacing black-and-white spotted English pointer, who was always barking furiously at the top of his lungs in our neighbor’s yard.
There he was, all seventy pounds of him, nervously pacing back and forth on a long metal chain, or sitting ominously on top of his green-and-white doghouse, surveying his kingdom from above.
Strippy was the king of the mountain—and I was his prey, frightened by his incessant barking and growling. We might as well have been living next door to a lion, for to me it amounted to the same thing.
On hot summer days on Bondcroft Drive, a quiet street in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, my sister Joanne and I would race through the sprinkler or splash in a small wading pool. But we weren’t entirely carefree, always keeping a wary eye on this seemingly dangerous animal, just thirty feet away.
I would later understand that the source of Strippy’s frustration was being chained up all day. After all, pointers are full of energy and go-power, tireless as hard-driving hunting dogs. They love to gallop and roam.
So it was no wonder that Strippy was so high-strung, lacking freedom and exercise. His owners kept him restrained, they said, to prevent him from running away.
One day, when I was about four years old, I was playing in the hedges behind our house with my sister, then six. In a flash, out of nowhere, Strippy suddenly broke loose and tore out of his yard and into ours, racing over the hedges and straight toward us.
Strippy pushed us down to the ground with his huge paws, bouncing on top of us, though not actually scratching or hurting us in any way. In hindsight, he was probably just being friendly and knocked us down by accident. But tell that to two petrified kids.
My heart was pounding furiously as I felt the horrible weight of that dog on top of me before he raced away from the yard.
My mom saw it all from the bedroom window, and by the time she came rushing outside, we were cowering in the bushes, crying and hysterical. I escaped into a large cardboard box that was nearby on the lawn, shivering inside it, while my sister huddled in Mom’s arms.
This traumatic event would stay with us for years. Thereafter, any time a friendly neighborhood dog trotted by, we froze in our tracks, like statues, paralyzed by fear.
But by the time I was ten, this fear of dogs had miraculously faded away, thanks to “Lady,” a vivacious beagle who became our neighborhood mascot. I never can forget her adorable face, those floppy brown ears, and expressive brown eyes that literally sparkled. True, she was a little chubby, but that didn’t stop her from being the spunkiest dog I’d ever seen.
She’d race us around the yard—her long tail waving back and forth like a windshield wiper—chasing balls, leaping into the air, tagging behind me on bike rides, fetching branches, begging for snacks, and snooping into everything—overjoyed to play with the neighborhood kids and stealing kisses with her long tongue. I loved it when she’d roll over, desperate to have her stomach rubbed.
It wasn’t long before I wanted a dog of my own. But Mom was firmly opposed to it. By now, I had another sister, Debby, and Mom said that raising three kids was enough work—that we weren’t meant to have a dog.
Yet, as a girl, Mom had treasured a white poodle named Sadie, and later, a German shepherd named Duke. Her father, our Papa, was a great dog lover and lobbied on my behalf. The arguments went on for weeks. But the answer was still no.
Not to be dissuaded, my stubborn grandfather forged ahead, and one morning simply showed up at our house with a miniature schnauzer.
Mom was furious. By the time I got home from school, the black puppy, named Herman, was tied to the swing set in the backyard, looking up at me with a plaintive expression that said: “Keep me.”
But inside, Mom and Papa were having a heated “discussion.”
Much as I begged, Mom wouldn’t allow him to stay. Papa took the dog away—and that was it for me and dogs for decades.
Well into adulthood, though, I always kept a to-do list tucked into my date book. It had life goals (and trivia) written out on it: work objectives, hobby ideas, good restaurants, a list of friends and phone numbers, and for twenty-five years running, a three-word note to self: GET A DOG.
I somehow sensed that having a four-legged companion would turn out to be one of the secrets to contentment (and sometimes easier to find than a two-legged one).
Meanwhile, also on my to-do list was the goal of upgrading my living situation. After six years, I couldn’t stand the claustrophobic, dark apartment on the Upper East Side—a cross between a cave and a prison. I was desperate for something better.
In the spring of 1985, after weeks of looking at outrageously priced high-rise apartments, just as an afterthought, my realtor suggested that I check out a brand-new building in Battery Park City. It had unobstructed Hudson River views, a swimming pool, gardens, restaurants, and stores. If it was too good to be true—and a real bargain—that was because not many people back then wanted to live at the southern tip of Manhattan, so far from midtown.
But after I saw the Hudson River rolling by what would be my new living room window, I didn’t care how far out of the way it was.
Once I was settled into Battery Park City, though, my sunny new apartment seemed awfully quiet—and once again, the impulse to get a dog came and went.
That impulse to get a dog was amped up by the sheer power of suggestion. In our complex of 1,720 apartments (spread out in six cement-and-glass buildings, including a trio of thirty-five-story high rises), we had more than 300 dogs.
The Esplanade and dog run were more jam-packed than the LA freeways.
So why was I still tooling along alone?
Admittedly, I’d always been consumed with work and work alone, focused on a career that had often become a blinding obsession.
Two years earlier, I’d had my first book published, a comprehensive biography of Vladimir Horowitz that took three years to write; and after that, between freelancing at a women’s magazine and working a full-time job at a men’s lifestyle publication, I’d found my leisure time limited. And the little of it that I had was somewhat empty.
No matter how much surface excitement I felt meeting celebrity interview subjects—or covering stories like the America’s Cup in Bermuda, a rodeo in Denver, or a Christmas chat at the White House with Nancy Reagan—there was, just underneath, a pervasive sense of loneliness. And nothing could chase it away.
Admittedly, I wasn’t great at establishing intimate relationships—though I did have a wide circle of close friends. Yet it seemed to me that creating a stronger domestic life was key to creating a happier life. Could the prime part of that new life be a canine companion?
Over the next two years, every time I was tempted to get a dog, I pulled back, distracted by yet more work or anxious at confronting a new learning curve. After all, what did I know about owning a dog? What breed to buy? How to train it?
All of it seemed overwhelming—until 1987, when I finally took the plunge.
One hot summer day, I was out shopping for clothes with a longtime friend, Michael, an architect and designer who had moved into our apartment building on my suggestion. He had an unerring eye and had helped me get my Battery Park City apartment in order.
That humid day, as we browsed around in Bloomingdale’s, I was looking for bathing suits—not puppies.
But afterward, as we were taking a walk up Lexington Avenue, we came upon a pet store on East 77th Street. The front windows were filled with frolicking pups.
“Oh, look!” Michael exclaimed, spotting just the one he liked. “There’s an incredibly cute pug.”
In the front was a tiny tan dog with a wrinkly face and a pushed-in nose, contentedly biting a toy mouse.
I was only half-listening to Michael as he went on: “I love all the Chinese dogs,” he said (perhaps viewing them as much as décor-enhancers as pets). “There are the Pekingeses, the Japanese chins, Shih tzus, Chinese cresteds….” And having accessorized rooms with dogs in sculptural form, he joked, “And they make wonderful porcelains too.”
Yikes. I was beginning to get worried by that excited smile on Michael’s face. I’d seen it before, when he’d suggested buying a dining table that was well beyond my means.
So, staring at the little pug, I muttered, “He’s cute.” Michael practically yanked me into the store, and the rest of what happened is a blur.
Within fifteen minutes of being down on the floor playing inside a metal pen with the pug, Michael, no stranger to high-end retail, announced to the clerk, “Wrap him up… we’ll take him,” as if we were buying a couch. We, of course, meant me.
I pulled out my credit card to cover the price, which didn’t include his crate, toys, pillows, food and water bowls, blankets, deodorizers, shampoo, conditioner, and baby gate.
The taxi ride home was surreal, me holding my shopping bags, Michael holding “Baby,” the name he’d instantly given the pug.
Back at my apartment, we set up the puppy’s new headquarters in my kitchen, and I can still see Michael dancing with him, holding Baby up by his front paws while the back paws strutted away. Well, at least they were happy.
A few hours later Michael said good night and went back upstairs to the twenty-third floor. There I was, left alone on the third floor with my purchase.
Baby was in his crate, snoring away in the kitchen, and I was lying in my crate in a panic, nearly hyperventilating—sweating and anxious. I felt trapped by the consequences of my rash decision. It reminded me of the time I got arrested for speeding. I started calling up friends, “I’ve made a real mistake… what was I thinking?”
I knew, instinctively, that Baby was the wrong dog for me. I didn’t want a breed this small, didn’t want a male, and didn’t want a dog that snored either. Other than that, Baby was perfect.
“You’re in shock,” said Michael. “Just give yourself a chance. Don’t make any quick decisions.” But I already had.
I called him at the crack of dawn the next day and said, “I can’t do it. The dog is going back…”
And off I went, back to the pet store. I felt really guilty about it as Baby had a rather worried expression on his face, maybe sensing that he was heading back to the store window. But because he was such a beautiful dog, I reasoned that someone would come along and buy him.
And so it was that Baby was in my life for less than twenty-four hours.
After that false start, a year passed, though I hadn’t given up on the idea of getting a dog. I was just stalled.
What I really needed and luckily found was a mentor, someone who could calmly and wisely lead me in the right dog direction.
Fortuitously, in the spring of 1988, I became friendly with Joe, an extroverted long-time resident of my building who worked as a bartender across the street at the Marriott Hotel. Loquacious and curious, Joe could talk to anybody—while he also had a great talent turning a house into a home with a beautiful apartment on the twenty-third floor. He was a meticulous caretaker as well, completely devoted to his three-year-old cocker spaniel named Dinah.
Like most classically groomed cocker spaniels, Dinah had a “full skirt,” long blond hair that flowed from her torso to the ground, which reminded me of a carpet sweeper. She had a plaintive oval face (a canine Modigliani), melancholy brown eyes, and a submissive disposition—nothing like the lusty personality of Lady, but sweet and demure.
Joe was admittedly a tough taskmaster. He had trained Dinah to obey his every command—no pulling on the leash, no stealing treats from the table, no snooping on the ground (keeping her long ears clean), and no accidents on the carpet. She even had to face uphill when relieving herself, so that her fur would not get wet!
Joe would erupt with a harsh rebuke and a swat on Dinah’s butt if she committed any such infractions.
Because he was such a disciplinarian, Dinah, I noticed, seemed a little afraid of him, not wanting to disappoint. She’d look up at him with a worried nervous expression and I felt sorry for her. Like some dog owners (not the kind I turned out to be!), Joe was the commander, deeply caring but strict—and Dinah was his servant.
Joe could be affectionate too—kissing Dinah, rewarding her with treats, patting her on the head for excellent behavior, and grooming her to the nth degree.
I’d often find him showcasing his talents outside on the Esplanade, brushing out Dinah’s ears and expertly trimming her coat with an electric clipper as she sat perfectly still on a park bench.
One day, something stirred inside me as I watched Joe perfecting Dinah’s pendulous ears. I was so taken by those ears, which, in the end, turned out to be the key to moving forward.
Joe noticed. “You ought to get a cocker spaniel,” he told me, stroking Dinah’s back with a wiry brush and then putting the final touches on her coat with a portable hair dryer. “You’ve got to get one. It would be good for you.” Continues...
Excerpted from Katie Up and Down the Hall by Plaskin, Glenn Copyright © 2010 by Plaskin, Glenn. Excerpted by permission.
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