SAM WAS ONE of the first dogs I ever walked for money, and his walk was the first one I did on that spring day in 2000. I called Sam “Sambone,” because I had wanted at first to call him “Sambo,” but didn’t want to say such a loaded name aloud. He lived in a little walk-up apartment on Greenwich Street with yellow walls and dark wood furniture. Over the kitchen table hung framed French posters advertising cigarettes and coffee; there were oversized art books on the shelves. When I entered the apartment Sam was stretched out languorously on the window seat, looking like he expected me not to walk him but to fan him with a palmetto. He was black and tan and shaggy, with the moustache and eyebrows of a classic boxcar hobo, but his manner was upper-crust. I was working for him.
“Who’s my Sambone?” I said. I clipped Sam’s leash to the ring on his collar, led him out the door, and locked it using one of the thirty or so keys I carried on a clip attached to the strap of my messenger bag. Sam and I thundered downstairs and into the perfume of the windy April morning. Piles of sycamore pods and pollen-laden flowers, shed from the trees of the West Village, broke up and tumbled down the pavement, coming to rest on the cobblestones and narrow alleys of that neighborhood.
At that time I worked for two women, partners in love as well as business, named Laurel and Lisa. These are not their real names.
Perry Street ends at Greenwich Avenue, where I hung a right and moved closer to 12th Street, Sam gaiting along beside me like a show pony. “You’re a natural,” Lisa had told me during my day or so of training. “You walk fast like that, the dogs will love you. They would like nothing better than to run.” She didn’t say so, but she loved a fast dog walker too: the faster you walk, the more dogs you can take care of in a shorter time, the more money you bring in. Lisa loved to make money, the old-fashioned tyrannical way—she was always talking in business-speak, saying mean, homespun things like, “Employees are like ball-point pens. When one stops working, you can throw it out and reach for another.”
What was I thinking about right then? What did I think about when I walked dogs? They say walking is great for the mind, especially the creative mind, but is it? When I began walking dogs, people told me it would be good for my writing, that I would have great sweeping epiphanies that I would never have had if I hadn’t been walking around, observing things and also increasing the blood flow to my head. But I was twenty-one; almost all my thoughts were about boys and I was so distractible that even a sustained makeout fantasy was a challenge. One morning while walking that same Village route, I had gotten halfway up the block on 12th Street between 5th and 6th, three dogs in hand, without realizing that I was being given the flirty-eyes by actor Ethan Hawke. I guess on the day I’m now talking about, as I traversed that block, I can safely assume I was wondering if I’d ever see Ethan Hawke again. I still wonder that sometimes.
But I had plans for later that afternoon—a Friday—so I’m sure I was also thinking about honing my route’s efficiency. In order to walk a route, you need to draw an ornate map in your brain containing street names, dog names, snapshots of front doors, diagrams explaining where leashes are kept and how to put them on. I didn’t need to know exactly how far away the dogs’ homes were from one another, only how long it would take to get to each home, and how I could get in and out of all the homes by 3:30 PM in order to meet Philip, my great love of that year, at 4 at the Houlihan’s in Penn Station. Philip was a long-distance boyfriend—he lived near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In those days we were trading weekends, and it was my weekend to host.
I called Tate “Tater Tot.” He was very big for a Springer Spaniel, with striking red and white coloring and a designer leather collar. His apartment was the first floor of a townhouse—it had white carpets and tall, narrow windows that opened onto the block. I tied Sam’s leash to a banister in the hallway, then unlocked the door.
“Oh, Tater.” When I walked in, he was on the Turkish rug twitching his stubby tail and gazing up at me with an aspect of extreme guilt. He had been in the garbage. I went to the slick steel-and-marble kitchen, put the strewn papers and takeout boxes in a trash bag, put the trash bag on the counter. I also raided the utility drawer for as many sandwich baggies as I could hold, knowing what would be coming out of Tate very soon.
I jogged down the elegant townhouse steps. Sam walked on my right, Tate on my left – the dog most recently picked up gets the curb side, to streamline elimination and cleanup. As I’d expected, we walked four steps before Tate flew to the curb in a frenzy of urgency, squatted, and released a puddle of diarrhea the color and consistency of peanut butter. I prayed no one had seen it, because I knew I couldn’t collect the entire pool without some paper towels, which I didn’t have. Instead, I used an extra-large baggie to scoop up what I could, turned the baggie inside out, and minced to the corner holding it at arm’s length between my thumb and middle finger, with the two leashes in my other hand. Two loud beeps exploded from my pocket, and I heard Laurel’s voice: “Amanda? Are you there?”
After placing the unsavory bag safely inside a trash can at the end of the block, I pulled my Nextel two-way from my coat pocket. I pressed a button that made the device chirp, meaning it was my turn to broadcast. “I’m here, Laurel,” I said.
Her voice was sweet; you could always hear the smile in it. “Hiii, honeeey,” she said. “Listen, I need a favor.”
Dreaded words! Only when I had something important going on did Laurel ever need a favor. Walk an extra dog on the other side of town, work at 7 AM on a Saturday, run to the pet store to buy fifty dollars’ worth of dog food and I’ll reimburse you next week. The favors were near-impossible to turn down. This business was Laurel, and for every hour of work I did each day, she was doing at least five. She boarded dogs in her tiny studio on Avenue A, fed and walked them all at night and in the early morning, and drove them around the city in a van during the day. “Sure, what do you need?”
I imagined her taking a deep breath. “Jesse called in sick,” she said, “and he was supposed to do the afternoon walks here at the house. Can you come over after you finish up te-day, pleeeeease?”
I am a pushover. I said yes as I crossed University Place, while NYU students with too much makeup eyed the dogs and the walkie-talkie.
This meant I would have to shorten some of my walks in order to make it to Laurel’s place before 4 PM. There was no doubt that I’d be late to meet Philip.
It was now time to pick up Danny Boy, who lived in the Grace Church apartments on 11th and Broadway, a building with a gold front door and an ancient, kind doorman. “You going to get Danny!” he told me as he let me and Sam and Tate inside. He said this sentence, or a variation on it, every day, and every day he laughed a wheezy and secretive chuckle, like my going to get Danny was the grandest, funniest activity he could ever hope to witness.
Danny Boy was that oddity, a dog that had a walker even though his owner was home all day. John Hurley would answer the door, give treats to the dogs, and ask to be introduced to them, saying, “So, who we got today?” After a minute or so of head-pats on this particular day, John disappeared into the back of his apartment and returned with Danny Boy, a tiny Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. “Well, Danny Boy, you think we can try not to roll in anything today?” John asked him. “Maybe we’ll try not to get leaves stuck in our fur, how’d that be?” Danny Boy made his way slowly, smilingly to the door, his entire rump waving back and forth along with his silky tail. When the door closed, he sniffed Sam and Tate, then traipsed to the elevator. “Ah, he’s going for a walk!” said the doorman when we came to the ground floor. “Hoo! Danny!”
How to explain what it feels like to walk three dogs through Greenwich Village, as your job, on a beautiful spring day in the full flower of your youth? Some people are incredulous when I tell them this was my favorite job, the one I might not have minded having forever—especially when they learn about the dogs that bit me, the bounced paychecks, the “emergency” calls I got that forced me out of meals and bed. I refer them now to the stretch from Danny Boy’s back to Sam’s at noon, jogging to beat the Don’t Walk signs, cruising past stately linen-curtained windows of apartments I wished I could live in, channeling my best friend on the walkie-talkie, watching the three tails wag like metronomes.
My best friend was Gabe. He was also my roommate, and he, too, worked for Laurel and Lisa. Gabe is his real name. Lisa had once screamed at us for tying up our two-way radios for thirty minutes straight, talking to each other instead of leaving the line free. We still talked to each other on the Nextels anyway – it was the turn of the century, neither of us had a cell phone yet, and we found these items fascinating. I transferred all the leashes to one hand now so I could reach in my pocket for mine. Here is what the first bit of our conversation probably sounded like:
Chirp. “Gabe, do you copy?”
Beep-beep. “Yes, I copy. Are you alone?”
Chirp. “Sho’nuff. You?”
Beep-beep. “Good! I just wanted to say: What’s UP, a-hole?”
The conversation would devolve into a shouting match, consisting of pseudo-insults, one-liners, snippets of Monty Python and Simpsons routines, and sung pop songs with the real lyrics taken out and replaced with the word “Gabe.” Sounding like this:
AMANDA: You’re the a-hole! The Ay Aitch!
GABE: That’s where I Effed her! Right in the Ay Aitch!
AMANDA: (Irish brogue) Ah, yeh great a-hole, yeh.
GABE: (Irish brogue) Ah, yiz shower o’ cunts.
AMANDA: (To the tune of Smash Mouth’s “All-Star”) All that glitters is Gabe, only shootin’ stars break the Gabe.
GABE: (To the tune of George Michael’s “Faith”) Because I gotta have Gabe, ooh I gotta have Gabe. Because I gotta have Gabe, a-Gabe, a-Gabe, I gotta have Gabe, a-Gabe, a-Gabe-ahh.
I also must have said something about having to walk the extra dogs at Laurel’s apartment, and I must have mentioned to him that I’d be late picking up Philip at Penn Station. But I have no idea, now, how I would have gotten any of that across.
Gabe walked the Lab puppy Danu three times a day. When he headed to her building for the last walk of the afternoon, he would sing to me, to the tune of “Working My Way Back To You,” I’ve been working my way back to Danu, with a burning love inside. While one of his Dachshund charges was pregnant with just one puppy he had to carry her up and down the stairs. Then one day he radioed me the birth announcement: “Milley had her puppy! It’s so tiny! It’s like a finger!” We used to meet for breakfast at Village Delights, a coffee-and-muffin place on Bleecker Street. “Gabe, do you copy?” I’d ask. “Do you want to meet me at V.D.?” And we’d share the same small, rickety white café table—the aspiring writer and the aspiring actor, nursing buckets of latte for the half-hour before our routes began. We ate and talked, hoping we wouldn’t be interrupted by the beep-beep of Laurel or, worse, Lisa calling us with a change to our comfortable routines.
Back then Gabe and I talked a lot about love—mornings at V.D. saw us commiserating over the musical-theatre girl who had just dumped him, or the crush I had on some pretty-boy star of his recent play. On this day I’m sure we discussed Pennsylvania Philip. I was worried because he was getting mean, saying mean things. He’d berated me on the phone for having slept with a lot of boys, more boys than Philip had had women. At the end of the conversation we were both sobbing, nearly incoherent, and Philip confessed, “It feels like I just beat you up.”
When I told this to Gabe he said, “Christ! What is this guy, a Mormon?”
Gabe is still an actor. He quit the dog life that year, though, to be a production manager on a TV show and now teaches drama to high-school students, whereas I’ve remained in the profession off and on. I wonder why I lasted so much longer as a dog walker than my friend did; I hope it isn’t because I’m better at taking abuse.
(I am suddenly reminded of an afternoon in fall 2007, when my busy day found me faint with hunger at the home of Madison, a Shepherd mix. I opened Madison’s door to see her owners in the kitchen, merrily eating tuna sandwiches for lunch. “Hey, Amanda, do you want some tunafish?” one woman asked; though ravenous, I demurred, saying I was in too much of a rush. Then the other woman took a cracker from the counter and threw it at Madison’s feet as a gift for her. Madison didn’t eat it, so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. After I had shut their door, while waiting for the elevator, I ate the cracker, not knowing if it was a dog biscuit or not.)
I returned to the homes of Sam, then Tate, leaving the dogs to their water dishes and placing cheerful, vague notes on the sideboards. (“He was a good boy! Pees and poops both done. Take care!” Smiley face.) Then I brought Danny Boy to pick up Blackjack, better known as BJ, on Fifth Avenue. My plan was to get the aging black Lab, bring him around the corner to Danny Boy’s, and then—conveniently, since BJ’s slow, stiff pace sometimes necessitated a breather on the sidewalk—use part of his walk to stop at a pay phone and call Philip. I was sweating by now, and experiencing a peculiar anxiety all dog walkers know well: the feeling that, in order to save your day from failure, you will need to literally be in at least two places at once.
BJ’s doorman brought me up in the old-fashioned elevator, squeezing the handle on the gate to slide it back when the door opened onto the dim hallway of BJ’s floor. I looped Danny’s leash around my wrist while struggling with the lock, an ancient, stripped thing that needed a delicate touch.
“Oh hey,” said Layne, the teenage son of the dog’s owners, opening the door while my key was still in. “I’m home today. Skipped school. You feel like walking this beast?” He was wearing sweatpants and an undershirt, his curly hair all over the place. At two in the afternoon, I felt certain this was the first time today he’d been out of bed.
BJ tottered out, doing his best to wag his arthritic tail. I took the leash from the boy and said, “I think I can handle him. I took my vitamins.”
Layne laughed theatrically. “Okay, see ya in a little while.” He closed the door to a crack, winked at me through the crack, then shut it. I looked in the hall mirror, saw my own grubby face framed in a baseball cap and down vest, shrugged, waited for the elevator again. At the time, I didn’t know why a seventeen-year-old boy would have any desire to flirt with the twenty-one-year-old girl who walked his dog.
For dog walkers, the Village is the best neighborhood in New York. The Upper West Side, where I worked all through grad school, isn’t bad – I remember crisp Februaries in Riverside Park, snow melting and the puddles reflecting the sky, little windows of blue glass. But the Village is better. The clients are friendlier; the architecture is more fun to look at; the buildings are closer to each other, so you can walk a lucrative route without ever having to get on the subway. If your energy is flagging, you are always near a smoothie parlor. And the people you encounter – tourists, students, doormen – are more fun to interact with; they’re enjoying the beautiful day as much as you are. Me: sweaty, messy-haired, smiling. Ethan Hawke: sweaty, messy-haired, smiling.
Philip lived with his family. When I used my calling card to dial his number from a pay phone on Broadway, I heard only their chipper, grown-up voicemail prompt—no one was home. I left a message, but then called my own voicemail system to change my personal greeting, in case he was already on his way. “Hi, Amanda and Gabe aren’t home. If this is Philip, I’m running late today because I have so many GODDAMN DOGS to walk. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thanks!”
The last leg of my route had begun. I would take BJ to pick up a male spaniel named Chester, and a female spaniel inexplicably named Maxwell, who lived in the same building. Then I would return BJ, and under normal circumstances bring the spaniels to the dog run in Washington Square Park for twenty minutes before taking them home. Today, I planned to skip the dog run and cut their walks short. My plan was contingent upon no one being home at either apartment.
This was a grand high-rise building inhabited almost entirely by very old, papery people who shuffled about the lobby with the help of professional nurses. They liked to yell at me to take the service elevator while I was on my way to it: “Miss, don’t bring your dog in the main elevators! I’ll report you to the board! Your dog is required to use the freight! Miss!”
I opened a small, inconspicuous door, disturbing the integrity of a mural painted on the forty-foot high lobby wall, and led BJ into a little grey corridor. There, I waited for the service elevator, run by whichever of five or so grey-uniform-clad porters was on elevator duty for that hour. They all knew who I was, and my routine; they ran me up to Chester’s floor before I could tell them, “twenty-three, please.”
This building’s hallways were silent and vast, a dreamscape. Red carpet and beige wallpaper framed long rows of identical doors. Once in a great while a withered figure would appear around a corner, its face scowling beneath a pillbox hat, but most days I crept through undetected.
When I began to turn Chester’s key, I knew already that I was in trouble, because I heard his high-pitched bark. Chester barked only when one or both of his owners were home, and now that I knew someone was home, I could never cut the walk short lest the client complain to Lisa, who would then bitch me out drill-sergeant style. I knew now that I would be at Penn Station by five, if I was lucky.
“Don’t worry! It’s me!” Chester, a black and white Springer with a droopy face, pendulous ears, and a show-dog haircut, was turning circles around the living room, pausing only to throw his head back and emit a bark that was more like a scream. I knew he’d settle down as soon as I caught him, but catching him was the hard part. Unimpressed by this spectacle, BJ looked up at me with sad eyes.
I got a biscuit out of the cookie tin in Chester’s kitchen, then dropped to my knees and held it out to him. He approached me gingerly, lifted a lip to take the biscuit. The instant it was between his front teeth, before I could loop the choke collar around his neck, he reeled back and ran to the opposite corner of the room, lying down to crunch up his snack. This process was repeated four or five times.
A man’s voice said, “Chester, come on, get outta here!” I had been hoping to avoid this scenario. Chester’s owner, who had been napping in the bedroom, now emerged, wearing nothing on his plump, swarthy body but a pair of tight black briefs that looked like they belonged to an Olympic swimmer. With no apparent shame, he marched into the living room in this state and grabbed his dog by the hips. I thanked him, happy to look him in the eye, and very quickly attached Chester’s collar and leash. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand as he walked back to the bedroom and shut the door.
The porter currently running the service elevator was Chester’s biggest fan. “Chesta-Chest,” he said, when I entered. “Chesta-mah-boy!” He brought me down to my next stop, the fourth floor, while telling me how much he loved Chester. “I know Chester from a puppy,” he was fond of saying.
This stage in the route usually relaxed me; Maxwell was my favorite dog. Her owner responded to my notes, left me little gifts of chocolate and stationery, and had put a photo on the fridge that I had taken of the dog. I liked coming into the warmth of that apartment, seeing the miniature chairs and utensils of the family’s five-year-old girl. Most of all I loved the haughty look Maxy gave me from her spot on the couch, where she lay waiting to be fussed over, sprawled out like an odalisque.
I trudged back to BJ’s building, walking slowly with him, Chester, and Maxy— three magnificent dogs who were all a little past their prime. This was the time of day when my fatigue caused me to philosophize, to stand still for a second on the corner of 8th Street and Fifth Avenue disbelieving that New York was a real place. Why do trees grow through this endless platform of concrete? Why do animals walk on it?
I deposited BJ (Layne was glad to take him, with a head-toss), then spent some time in the dog run on a bench. I wished I didn’t have to walk the extra dogs, wished there was time to wash my hands in the Penn Station ladies’ room rather than just run to see Philip at our meeting place, grimy and out of breath. But, I told myself that there were far worse places I could be right now than in Washington Square Park with dogs.
When I got to Laurel’s place, I realized how right I was. “Y’know, if you’re upset about any aspect of the work, you can always tell me,” she said to me over the din of barking, her blue eyes shimmering. “Don’t I always make myself available to talk to you guys?” She had, sometime in the space of the two hours since I’d changed it, heard my voicemail greeting.
Lisa was huddled in the corner, putting leashes on the four dogs that were milling around the floor. She whirled around, fists clenched, the picture of fury. She shouted at me, “I didn’t know any of my dogs were ‘goddamn dogs’ until I heard your message. Thanks for letting me know. Now, WALK THESE GODDAMN DOGS!” She thrust the leashes into my hand and turned her back to me.
It is surprisingly easy to walk four dogs through the East Village when your eyes are brimming with tears of rage. That’s what I did now, letting my charges pee at curbside, stumbling between skateboards in Tompkins Square Park. I was sorry I’d hurt their feelings, but more than that I was baffled. Had Lisa and Laurel, lesbians in their early forties, never heard anyone use a mild oath to convey frustration? Couldn’t they, who often complained they never got a respite from the dog life, understand my slight annoyance when dog walking – to which I was slavishly devoted – threw a wrench in my weekend plans? I guessed not. I also guessed this wouldn’t be the last time I’d get in trouble for my words, and I was right again – it wouldn’t even be the last time that day.
After Houlihan’s, when we were home, Philip said, “I’m disappointed in you.” He frowned, but wouldn’t bring his eyes away.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said. “I was working. I couldn’t help it.”
“No, not that!” He leaned over and looked exasperated, desperate. “The poems.”
“Oh!” I almost laughed, relieved that we could talk about anything besides work. Pending the release of an anthology that contained a couple of my poems, I had given him a Xeroxed chapbook with a hundred short pieces in it. Most of them were crude, if not filthy, like almost all of my work of that era. Here’s one:
I am the writer here
And you are the actor.
I don’t remember putting anything
About sucking your balls
In the stage directions.
I was proud to have written a hundred poems, unashamed that I’d written them as fast as I could. “You didn’t like the poems?”
“Of course not!” he whined. “I have to assume these are about you, don’t I?”
“Well,” I told him, “that’s how I like to write.”
“Everything you write is dirty! It’s so weird!” I thought he was going to do something crazy, maybe throw a punch at the wall. But he didn’t.
I tried to tell him that this is who I am: I’m dirty, I’m weird. I didn’t understand how he couldn’t see it just by looking at me. My fingernails rimmed with street gunk, my hair a windblown tangle, the sleeves of my shirt covered in dog fur, my face still tear-stained. Laurel would call me later in the evening and I would apologize, and she would accept my apology. (“It wasn’t a bad thing that you said,” I remember her telling me. “It was angry and human. It was a very human thing to say.”) Philip, however, wouldn’t accept my apology for being myself.
Philip was as confused as any twenty-two-year-old is, and dating a self-revealing writer was painful for him; I understood that even then. Still, I’d like to say that I told Philip to fuck off that night, that I sent him straight back to Princeton Junction with the print of an Adidas sole on the seat of his khakis. I didn’t, though. We ate dinner and came back to my room, and I fell asleep while he was still lecturing me. The dog life makes you accept things, for better or worse.
That happened a long time ago, and I’m still accepting—only by now, I’ve learned to identify the right things to accept. The reason why I later quit a high-paying advertising job, why I entered grad school for creative writing, and why I eventually dumped Philip (these events are not listed in chronological order) is that I accept my lifestyle as something good and true about me that I’d rather not change. Circumstances may take me elsewhere, but for thirteen years my opinion went, Of course I won’t stop walking these goddamn dogs. Why should I? It was a gritty, tiring thing I did every day—but I have learned that all jobs are gritty and tiring to some extent, in some sense. Maybe, when the moments of cuteness fade into the background, I love this one for being literally so.
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Beautiful essay! I saw it excerpted on Andrew Sullivan. Especially liked the interweaving of your match with the dogs and your mismatch with Philip.
Thanks for reading, Martha! How lovely to hear from you.
Pack leader! Do you find as you get clients that their dogs get along and join the fun with the pack? I recommend ‘My talks with Dean Spanley’ and the movie which
is just Dean Spanley (2008). Book by Baron Dunsany (1937). Lot of great actors and the story is about dogs and their masters.
I rarely walk more than one at a time anymore, but yes, the “new” dogs almost always acclimated to the pack and came to love their new routine and friends. It was the “older” ones I’d have to worry about who didn’t always appreciate having a new addition forced on them. But it’s nice to see that they tend to get along with each other eventually, especially young dogs.
I’ll add that the most important thing to be careful of is bringing a strange newcomer into a dog’s home, regardless of who’s new and who’s old; dog walkers try to do this very gently (leashes tied in the hallway or on the doorknob) if they have to.
A beautiful piece of writing. You let me, a total stranger, experience a rich slice of your unique life, not an easy thing to do well.
walking dogs makes more sense than being the one millionth person to enter grad school for creative writing.
Such good writing. Love it. And so happy to finally get to it and read it. Had my big hometown book signing yesterday. It went really well. Merissa was there. Congrats on publishing from your life, Judy
Thanks, Judy, and congratulations to YOU on the book coming out to such great praise! I’m happy to hear from you and that you read this. xo