I remember the night the helicopter landed, because I was walking on the West Side, by the river, not far south of the heliport, and my heart was breaking. It was November 8, 2008, and I was twenty-one.
Nobody knew what was about to happen. There were a handful of reporters waiting by the landing pad, hoping to witness an interesting hoax, but that was it. And I think it's safe to say that of all the oblivious people in the city before the dogs arrived, I was about to have my life changed more than anyone's.
It fascinates me to think about that, the last few minutes before the helicopter touched down, when those reporters were standing together, probably drinking coffee and talking to one another, and the first faint pulses of rotor blades had just begun to tremble at the edges of their hearing. Before the glaring lights came down on that little group of people and threw their shadows backward against the asphalt, and the wind from the rotors lifted up their hair and tangled it over their heads. When the empty heliport by the water was still and dim, and no one had any idea.
Those things are always amazingthe hour before you meet the person you're going to marry, the last time you speak to someone before they die, even the moment before someone calls you, when they're reaching for the telephone and you don't know it yet. Those currents just beneath the surface of your life, separating and converging, all the time.
But the only thing I was thinking as I came up to the bench near Fourteenth Street was that I was about to cry, and I wanted to be sitting down whenI did it. My boyfriend had left me. We had sublet our apartment that summer and gone to Martha's Vineyard for a vacation, but he'd decided not to come back, and so after living with him for two years I found myself alone in Manhattan. That had been three months earlier, but up until that night I'd managed to keep myself busy with registering for classes and finding a studio and trying to get everything else set up for my senior year at NYU. Living in the city had been manageable before, but that fall the practical problems of eating, paying rent, and being a student became very complicated and seemed to fill up every available minute.
What had happened that evening was the last straw, somehow. John had sent me a bank card, one of mine that I'd left with him, in the mail, just by itself in an envelope addressed to "C. Pira." Not even "Cleo." It wasn't important; I wasn't expecting a note or anything, but I guess I'd been having a hard time keeping myself all in one piece, and when I got that envelope I felt like something was going to come apart.
So I took a walk. I did that a lot during those first months. I would make my face up and fix my hair, and put on a particular narrow jacket with spiky lapels that I thought made me look good, but not soft. I wasn't planning on seeing anyone I knew, but it made me feel better. The not-looking-soft part was important because I lived in a bad neighborhood. Then, just before I went out the door, I'd drop my little laser gun down inside my right boot. This was back when lasers first came out, before everybody had one, and I was very proud of mine.
On that particular night I walked for an hour and a half. It looked like it might rain. There was a phrase from a psalm that I had found once in a Gideon Bible, which I would repeat to myself when I couldn't stand to hear myself think about John anymore, and it was going through my mind as I was walking:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
I had trouble remembering the last part, because something about the rhythm is off. It has melted in the depths of my bowels, melted within my bowels; my heart is like wax and it is melted within me.
As I got near Fourteenth Street, it was suddenly as if someone had pulled the plug out of me, and everything seemed to ache, and I just couldn't go any farther. I had been walking fast, and I hadn't been eating or sleeping enough in the past few months. I thought I was going to cry then, so I sat down on the bench.
To stave off the feeling I leaned back in a defiant way, with my feet planted far apart, and put my elbows up on the back of the bench. I turned my face to the overcast sky. It was a dangerous way to sit, but I could feel my laser pressing against the outside of my right calf, and I could hear everything around me. If a man had moved within a hundred feet of meand there was no place to hide closer than thatI would have been aiming at him before he got two steps closer. I'd made it my business to practice when I'd gotten the gun.
So there I was, leaning back on the bench, feeling partly tough and partly so sad that I never wanted to get up again. I missed John so much. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is melted like wax in the depths of my bowels, in the midst of my bowels, my heart is melted within my bowels, my heart of wax, my heart is wax. I said this to myself over and over until all my other thoughts were drowned out. There was a low thrumming in the air somewhere, and I realized a helicopter was coming up the river.
At that moment, lightning struck the New Jersey shore, across the water, directly in front of me. If you had been watching from the street, the bolt probably would have seemed to go right through my head. And at that exact instantor really just a fraction of a second beforehandmy heart broke. I don't know how to describe it except to say that. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before. Something just burst out and flooded down, all the way to my thighs, and it was exactly like liquid wax. And right then, as I was looking up at the sky and it was cut in half by the lightning bolt and my heart split open, the helicopter entered my field of vision.
You have poured me out like water and unjointed all my bones; my heart is wax; it's melted in my bowels.
That's how it should have gone, I thought.
The helicopter passed in front of me, sending out deep
shock waves of sound that resonated in the center of my chest,
as it headed for West Thirtieth Street.
The pictures came out in the paper the next day. I had gotten up that morning and realized I had no coffee, so I went down to the corner deli to get some. As I stood on line for the cash register, I found myself next to two men who were standing by the newspaper rack, holding a copy of the New York Post and saying something about it in rapid Spanish.
I tried to peer over their shoulders to see what they were looking at, but I couldn't get a good angle to see anything. As I was doing this, one of them glanced over his shoulder at me and smiled.
"What is it?" I asked blurrily, trying to focus on the paper, which had become visible when the man turned toward me.
"A monster," he said, holding it out and pointing to the picture at the bottom of the front page. "What do you think? It came in a helicopter. They don't know where it comes from."
The other man waved his hand dismissively. "It's no monster," he said.
I looked at the photograph. The headline next to it said, "Hoax? or `Monster'?"
The photo showed a dog, standing on its hind legs, being helped from the door of a helicopter by a serious-looking man in a down vest. The dog seemed to stand about the same height as the man, and looked like a Malamute. The strange thing about it, besides its larger-than-average size, was the fact that it was wearing a dark-colored long jacket which looked like part of an old-fashioned military uniform, and a pair of spectacles, and that it appeared to have hands instead of front paws. In one of these gloved hands it held a cane, which was pointed at an awkward angle, probably because of the way the man was holding on to that foreleg just above the elbow. The other hand gripped the side of the helicopter doorway. The expression on the animal's face was one of terror. Its lips were slightly parted, its ears were pointing straight backward, and its eyes were wide.
"Looks like somebody put a dog in a suit," I said, glancing up at the man who was holding the paper. He was smiling at me.
"It's no monster," the second guy said again.
"Okay," the first one replied, taking the paper back. We had gotten up to the cash register, and now the skeptical man was asking for a pack of cigarettes. "I still think it was a movie promo. I didn't say it was a monster," the first one muttered, kind of to himself. He glanced at me again.
As he put the paper down on the counter and reached into his pocket for change, the guy behind the cash register looked down at the picture of the dog and shook his head. "That's crazy," he commented. "'Bye now."
"Yeah," said the man with the paper. He glanced back at me again, and then followed his friend through the front door of the deli, out into the foggy cold.
Later that morning I lay sprawled on my bed, reading the article in the Post.
"MONSTER" ARRIVES IN MANHATTAN
A few reporters who responded to mysterious phone calls yesterday were treated to a weird spectacle.
The caller, who identified himself as James Wilkinson, a mechanic and helicopter pilot from Morristown, New York, said that an "incredible monster" would be arriving at the V.I.P. Heliport in Manhattan. At 11:20 p.m. Wilkinson, piloting the helicopter, and Nick Bantock, a farmer, arrived with the creature in tow. The threesome took a taxi to the Plaza Hotel, where they checked into a suite.
Before boarding the taxi, Wilkinson and Bantock told reporters that the animal was exactly what it appeared to be, a big dog with hands, which walked on its hind legs with the help of a cane. They also said that it talked, though no other witnesses reported hearing it.
According to the two men, the animal showed up, along with about 150 other similar "dog monsters," in one of the pastures on Bantock's dairy farm near Morristown, in upstate New York, on the night of November 2nd. The creature requested that Bantock take it to Manhattan and allow the others to stay in the field until "suitable arrangements" could be made.
So the farmer contacted Wilkinson, who owned a helicopter, and arranged the trip. Bantock says the dog gave him several large finely cut diamonds as payment for the trip. He sold them to a local jeweler yesterday, before leaving for New York, for an undisclosed sum.
New York City authorities, while skeptical of the two men's claims, are baffled by the creature's arrival in the city. Spokespeople at the New York City Police Department and the Mayor's Office declined to comment on the night's events, beyond saying that they had no information about the creature or its origins.
The Sheriff's Office of Morristown, in St. Lawrence County, was unable to investigate Bantock's claim about the 150 other monsters pending permission from the property's owner. There were no grounds for a search warrant at this time, a representative said.
The desk clerk at the Plaza, Jill Torres, declined to comment on the hotel's guests, but agreed that the creature "appeared to be a dog." "It doesn't conflict with hotel policy," she added. "The Plaza has always allowed dogs."
What held my attention was the photograph, the way the antique jacket and spectacles made the Malamute look as if it had just stepped out of a storybook and was surprised and frightened to find itself in the bright light of the heliport. I supposed that it was just a regular trained dog with fake hands stuck onto its front paws, but that didn't make it any less compelling or sad to me.
Everyone thought it was a hoax in the morning, but it became difficult to imagine who could perpetrate such an elaborate practical joke when the rest of the dogs came to the city that afternoon.
I still have the first article about it from The New York Times, because I collected nearly everything that was written about the dogs that year.
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY `MONSTER DOGS'
ARRIVE IN MANHATTAN
Take Rooms at Plaza Hotel
Three to Grant Interviews Tomorrow
Four chartered planes from Morristown, N.Y., carrying a total of 150 creatures that appeared to be large, trained dogs walking on their hind legs and wearing antique military jackets or long dresses, landed at LaGuardia Airport early this afternoon. The "monsters," as some called them, were then whisked by a fleet of waiting limousines to the Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Spokespersons say the dogs plan to reside at the Plaza indefinitely.
The dogs, specimens of several different large breeds including German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes, stand upright at a height of about six feet and have human-like "hands" in place of front paws. Many observers claim to have heard them speak, but the animals refuse to talk to the press at present, according to their self-appointed spokesmen, James Wilkinson and Nicholas Bantock of Ellisville, N.Y.
The two men say that the creatures are "monster dogs " refugees from a previously unheard-of town in northern Canada where they had lived as slaves to the humans who had endowed them with mechanical hands and powers of speech. They revolted against the town's human inhabitants several years ago and began a long journey by foot to upstate New York, where they chartered the four planes that took them to LaGuardia.
Although the claims are fantastic, to say the least, police and F.B.I. agents investigating the situation have found no other explanation for the animals' appearance at LaGuardia. "It's just plain bizarre, that's all," says Police Chief Bob Whitehall of St. Lawrence County, N.Y. "I can't tell you a damn thing about it." F.B.I. spokesperson Jay McLaney concurs that there is, as yet, no satisfactory explanation of where the "monster dogs" came from.
The dogs' planned arrival in New York today was announced Monday night by way of a first dog, a Malamute, who flew in by helicopter and landed at Manhattan's V.I.P. Heliport at 11:20 P.M. The Malamute was accompanied by Nick Bantock, owner of a dairy farm, and James Wilkinson, the pilot of the craft. Mr. Wilkinson said that the dog's name was Klaue Lutz and that it intended to scout out a "suitable temporary residence" in the city for the 150 other dogs, who were waiting in one of Bantock's pastures in St. Lawrence County. The two humans and the dog got into a cab and were driven to the Plaza, where they shared a suite of rooms Monday night.
At 9:30 this morning, Mr. Bantock, Mr. Wilkinson and the dog, Klaue Lutz, arrived at Wiley's Coins on West 47th Street, where Lutz sold approximately $70,000 worth of 19th-century German five-mark pieces to store manager Barbara Wiley. The three then returned to the hotel, where they reserved 50 rooms and suites for the other 150 monsters.
Over the next few weeks, we waited for an explanation, but none was ever offered that was more plausible than the one they had given themselves. And they did give it themselves; some of them sat for radio and TV interviews and repeated what the farmer and pilot had said about them on the first day. Most of them could speak only German, but a few, most notably. Klaue Lutz, had a good command of English. They spoke quietly and carefully, as if to deemphasize their accents and the faint mechanical whir made by their voice boxes. Of course, people had theories about kings and billionaires and secret organizations that might have the resources and inclination to play such a huge, strange trick on the world, but these were nearly as unlikely as the dogs' own story and usually not as interesting. And so for practical purposes we all began to talk about the dogs as if they were exactly what they claimed to be.
Very soon after they arrived, everyone had a neighbor or acquaintance who had worked as a security guard for them, been the cameraman for one of their TV appearances, brought them takeout food, pushed an elevator button, recommended a computer, sold them a painting. The dogs loved New York and they were all over the place, buying things, seeing sights, asking questions. They had brought large amounts of jewels, old Prussian gold, and antiques with them. Their wealth quickly multiplied, as everyone was willing to pay for movie rights to their stories, public appearances, almost anything that had to do with them. They were always surrounded by guards, but whenever the dogs had a reason to talk to someone, a museum guide or a waiter, they were endlessly curious, innocent, and delighted by everything they learned. So people began to feel that even if a practical joke was being played on the world, all the residents of New York were in on it somehow, and we began to feel a certain possessive affection for the dogs.
We enjoyed playing alongwhich was not exactly the same thing as believing. There was no plausible explanation for the monster dogs, but we were certain that there eventually would be. So we went along for the time being and talked about them the way you talk about Santa Claus when there are children around. There was no point in ruining the illusion. It even seemed it would be in vaguely bad taste, and anyone who tried was gently silenced.
I suppose this was also the reason that no one pried too deeply into the dogs' own story. They adamantly refused to give the location of the town in Canada they had come from, and were vague when asked for details about their uprising against its human inhabitants. One had to assume that there had been bloodshed, but to most of us, who couldn't fully believe in the town or its people to begin with, there seemed little point in pestering the dogs with questions they clearly didn't want to answer. The few people who did, like those who ventured into the northern wilderness in search of Rankstadt, came up empty-handed. But most people weren't very interested in cracking open the story; we wanted to enjoy the dogs while we could. It would all be over soon enough, we thought.
But months passed, and the dogs stayed with us.
We got used to them. They were always on the news and everyone wanted to know where they ate and which designers they allowed to dress themalways in the dogs' own style, which was that of Prussia in the 1880s, but with interesting embellishments; a pared-down silhouette, maybe, and here and there a quilted vinyl belt or a ruffle of gunmetal-colored mesh. Reporters followed them everywhere, we saw and heard about them every day, and they became an accepted part of the city.
I followed the stories of the dogs, too, and daydreamed during my classes at NYU that they would come to find me somehow, driving down my potholed, littered street in the gilded horse-drawn carriages hung with lanterns in which they sometimes liked to explore the city. I lived at the edge of the East Village, on a block that would never be gentrified because of the complex of housing projects next to it and the small, tough gang that owned the immediate neighborhood. My education was being paid for by a trust fund from my grandmother, but when I graduated it would be gone, and I saw myself stranded on that block, struggling to pay my rent, forever afterward. It seemed there was no other realistic way to imagine my future, so to cheer myself up I thought about things that weren't realistic, and that year the dogs were mostly what I ended up dreaming about.
They were celebrities and they were rich, and their lives seemed elegant and charmed. They inhabited a New York of marble lobbies, potted palms, brass-trimmed elevators, and chandeliers, a city completely different from the one I lived in. I imagined walking from a gilded carriage, across a polished floor, and into one of those silent, well-oiled elevators and rising above the desperate future that lay in front of me. The dogs seemed to live in a world not ruled by the laws of probability, and I thought that any kind of happiness might be possible there. But of course no one except the dogs themselves knew what their lives were really like.