Today, on my way to Gorilla Coffee, where I intended to force myself at gunpoint to write, my eyes fixed on a tiny Pomeranian puppy swaddled in a knit jumper, prancing across the street in my direction. I stopped everything, so I could observe the puppy without distraction. Lately my undivided attention is reserved only for dogs in sweaters, children dressed as super-heroes, frogs in the wild, and homeless people with hand-made signs.
I've noticed my affection for dogs has increased dramatically since I moved to Brooklyn eight-plus years ago. Most of my early experiences with dogs were not positive. When I was about three or four years old my parents briefly adopted a beautiful Siberian Husky named Samantha. That dog's role in our family became complicated almost immediately as I found myself regularly competing with Samantha for my parents' love. I performed tricks to divert attention from the dog, interrupting her grooming by making my father count off jumping jacks, or somersaulting across our living room carpet until I vomited. Behind closed doors I would antagonize Samantha by over-petting her or blowing in her ears, hoping to sabotage her scores in the "congeniality" portion of our unspoken contest.
My parents finally had to let the dog go when they discovered me on the kitchen floor, on all fours, eating dried kibble directly from Samantha's bowl. I was told Samantha was sent to a "dog ranch" where she was allowed to run free with other dogs and unicorns and fairies, though I know of no such ranch in Albany County. That was the party line and my brother, sister and I were young enough to follow it sans contretemps. Were I willing to be more realistic about her fate, I would say Samantha was probably sent to the showers, where she was gassed by two low-ranking German Shepherd officers.
After Samantha was neatly disposed, the Levin household became an exclusive haven for neurotic and overweight cats, and I've extended that tradition to my own home. Cat owners are taught to follow their cats' wishes and hate dogs, which I did dutifully throughout my youth. In fact, before moving to New York City, the only other serious run-in I had with a dog was my grandmother's Irish Setter, Rusty, who nearly took my left eye as a souvenir. Technically, I shouldn't have been trying to ride him bareback, but I was acting under the influence. I was seven years old, I think, and visiting my grandmother after Sunday school. It was Purim and I was pretty hopped-up on grape juice and prunes, so I couldn't be held entirely responsible for my behavior. While my mother and sister visited inside with my grandparents, I stayed in the yard and tried to saddle up. Rusty's response was far from demonstrative; he was like my grandfather in that way. Instead, without as much as a bark, he shook me from his back, knocking my newspaper hat from my head. Then, while I was momentarily incapacitated, he leaned in and bit me, hard, right below my left temple.
The doctor at the emergency room explained that if Rusty's bite had fallen about 1/8th of an inch to the right I would have lost that eye. It was another in a series of small miracles I'd survived in spite of my own insistent stupidity. Rusty was not so lucky. Less than a year later, he died mysteriously, still tethered to the maple tree in my grandparents' yard. The unofficial story was that my grandfather suspected foul play – there was talk of Rusty's Kal-Ken being poisoned. I would be lying if I said there was no small measure of suspicion directed toward me following Rusty's demise. And, though I was too young and too inexperienced to coordinate a professional hit on a dog I still felt partially responsible. Was someone acting in my place? Or were my grandparents' neighbors cold-blooded killers? They were known to hide inside with the curtains drawn and lights out on Halloween, and they were the first family on their block with an aluminum-sided gun tower, so I suppose the evidence is on the table.
If you live in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs where apartments are spacious enough to allow for large pets without requiring they be stored upright like Murphy beds, you simply can't hate dogs. It would be unhealthy to harbor all of that hatred, since you're as good as surrounded. (i've used a similar argument against racism in this city. how can you expend all that energy hating the people who are likely going to be pressed, nose to ass, against you on the subway every single day? you'd explode.) As I began warming up to the idea of canines, my fondness was initially restricted to large dogs of indiscernible breeds; the kind you usually find sleeping on pub floors, stretched out amongst discarded peanut shells. These dogs wear old bandanas that have been softened by years of napping in direct sunlight. While they rest, their front paws grow heavier, and drop back to the floor with a satisfying thud as soon as you let them slip from your hand. In fact, you can molest these dogs all you like while they're passed out, and nothing will wake them except for the subtle movements of their owner. It's a pretty amazing thing to watch, and I've seen it many times. A man or woman will walk into a bar, with his unleashed beast ambling behind him. The owner pulls up a bar stool and the dog slumps to the floor with a sigh. Hours pass and the dog remains still, no matter how many strangers stoop next to him to pat his head or playfully smack his flanks. Then, as soon as the owner kills the last wet taste of his final pint, and pushes away from the bar, the dog will slowly rise to its feet and follow him out exactly as he'd followed him in. I love holding this kind of dog's face and staring directly into its naturally sullen eyes, letting its thick jowls spill off the edges of my palms.
(a few nights ago, i actually saw the feline approximation of these dogs. a man was walking along Houston street with a tremendous cat draped around his shoulders. the cat bounced in time to its owner's strut, and appeared permanently sated. it wore a faded red bandana tied beneath its chin.)
I was initially resistant to smaller dogs, thinking them high-strung and a little bit stuck-up – the aloof jerks of the dog world. My opinion has changed over time, as I've known many upstanding small dogs. More importantly, though, I've begun to understand their capacity to make people laugh. Small dogs are insane, and antic. Due to scale, the slightest misstep of a tiny dog provides an exaggerated pleasure. Have you ever seen a Whippet from behind? Amazingly graceless. There is a Russian man in my neighborhood, a great bear of a person, who I sometimes see walking Kokoshka, his tiny Pomeranian. The dog, small enough to fit on a bagel, is extremely sensitive to weather and sometimes performs a rhythmless dance on the sidewalk, as it tries to avoid making four-on-the-floor contact with the chilled asphalt. If one were to film this dance for an hour, even on a shaky, inexpensive camera, the resultant footage would surely be the highest grossing film in the history of moving images. Once, as scores of people crowded around the achingly sweet Kokoshka in mid-dance, his owner announced loudly to the assembled audience, "Do you see? Do you see what cuteness can do in this world?!"
So today, as the Pomeranian approached, I held my ground. When it reached me, something amazing happened. A woman exited the corner bodega with her nervous Chihuahua mutt. Then, from my opposite side, a man was being pulled along by his squat English bulldog. The three dogs met silently and fearlessly – the dainty Pom, the shivering Chihuahua, and the snorting, drooling Bulldog – and pecked each other with wet snouts. I was standing in the middle of the intersection of cute, crazy, and sweet, and I stayed there forever. In fact, I'm still there now.