By: Harvey Huddleston
He’d been there a few times before, the BARC shelter. It stood for Brooklyn Animal, then whatever starts with an R and Center. The R might be for relocation or reassignment or rehabilitation maybe. He never liked acronyms. Not that it mattered. He went there to walk the dogs.
The shelter was on Grand, the same street he took to the small park on the East River next to the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery. He’d gone there a lot when he first moved to the neighborhood. Sitting on the boulders at the water’s edge, he’d stare across at Manhattan, trying to pick out where the Trade Towers had been. Or imagining the ferries from the last century that used to dock there, carrying the rush hour crowds back and forth, back before the bridges and subways were built.
He took a left off Bedford and began his descent towards the river. A tow service, print shop, electric motor repair, all now defunct. Stuck in between the steel gated doors was a new shop with “Julie’s Jewelry” painted in lilac on the window. It made him think of that other new place a few streets over. The cardboard sign out front said it was “The Free Store” and then went on to explain that everything there was free but you had to leave behind something of value. Inside were racks of shelves, thrift store stuff. But then a brand new pair of hiking boots on the back shelf caught his eye. They fit so he’d taken them, planning to bring back something of value but he still hadn’t figured out what that might be.
He crossed Wythe, a big Avenue running north and south and then approached Kent, the last big Avenue before the river. The shelter was at the corner of Kent and Grand in an old warehouse. There was the door for doing business and then the garage door and loading bay off to the side where you picked up the dogs. He knew the deal. No need to check in at the counter inside. They needed dog walkers and weren’t about to gum up their system with red tape.
His first time there two weeks earlier they’d given him a small dog to walk, what the attendant called a chow mix. Kind of a priggish little guy, he’d strutted along with his nose in the air but then maybe he already knew it would turn out okay for him. On their walk that day more than a few people had seen his orange dog vest with BARC on the side and asked about him. Most already knew about the shelter and some even said they’d check on the chow mix later that day. That’s the thing about small dogs in New York, especially the cute ones who don’t bark a lot. They never had a problem being adopted because they fit so easily into the small apartments most people had. The walker wasn’t worried about that chow mix at all. Plenty of food and fresh water plus two walks a day, he was sure to be adopted, if he wasn’t already.
Then last week they’d brought out another dog. Unlike the chow mix, Ralph had a humble way about him like maybe life hadn’t been that great up to that point. When they’d turned the corner onto Bedford where it got busy with people and other dogs, Ralph stopped and looked back at the walker to see who he was, this guy in charge. Maybe Ralph didn’t have the greatest prospects but he still didn’t want to cash in his chips that day because of some stranger he’d just met. But then the walker said, “Ralphy boy, it’s gonna be alright. Believe me. We’ll be just fine.” And Ralph must have taken his word for it because they then went on to the park and ended up having a nice walk together.
Later that day after returning Ralph to the shelter, the walker began to think about adopting him. They’d fill out the forms right then and there and he was sure Ralph wouldn’t mind. But then what about his wife in Manhattan. There was still the chance they might get back together and it would be tricky enough insinuating himself back into that situation without bringing Ralph into it too. And taking Ralph back to the shelter after adopting him wasn’t an option for him either. Then there were the daily walks. Could he really commit to two walks a day while working temp jobs in the city. He decided to put off the decision until next week when he went to walk Ralph again and could see the situation more clearly.
The same attendant from the week before was in the loading bay, holding the leash of a mid-sized terrier and marking something in his notebook. The attendant wasn’t very likeable but you still had to admire him for taking on such a hard and low paying job. A flash of recognition crossed the attendant’s face at seeing the walker but he didn’t waste time with small talk.
Here to walk a dog?
I am. How about Ralph?
He’s already been out today.
Oh…okay. Any others?
Sure, stick around.
The attendant said something to his helper who then disappeared to the back. As he pushed through the huge swinging door a wave of yelps and howls burst from inside that were then just as quickly muffled when the door swung closed behind him.
The walker waited in the open garage door of the loading bay and looked out at the sunny day, the first really nice one of the year. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t see Ralph and scolded himself again for not getting up earlier. He stared at the baked brick buildings, trying not to think of the cages inside from where the howls had come. It could be worse. BARC was a no-kill shelter, a fact announced by the sign over the counter he’d seen his first time there. Still, he knew that a privately run shelter with limited resources could only keep a dog for so long who wasn’t adopted so he was far from sure the sign was completely believable.
He watched another walker start down the street with that terrier. They’d take the regular route. Grand to Bedford, then left for fourteen blocks to McCarren Park, once or twice around the park, then back down Bedford to Grand and the shelter. You were instructed to take that route because the dogs knew it from having done it before. Kind of like that time he’d gone horseback riding in Montana when the cowgirl guide said that her horses knew the trail better than she did. She’d said it on the edge of a steep drop off after one of her horses had reared up at a rock out of place and scared its rider half to death. “Probably a bear,” the guide explained to the group, making sure they knew just how spooky horses can be.
Some scuffling in the loading bay caught his attention. He saw the helper following behind a big black dog straining at its leash towards the attendant. As the walker approached the attendant called to him with some urgency in his voice, “This is Red,” and then watched for the walker’s reaction.
She’s a little excited.
What is she?
Lab. Pretty strong too. She’s young. Year, year and a half.
The attendant gripped the leash tightly as Red lunged toward her intended walker.
Think you can handle her?
She seems uh… I don’t know. What do you think?
All you have to do is hold on. No matter what happens don’t let go of the leash. She hasn’t been out for a while.
For how long?
All winter. So what do you think?
Well… I’m not sure —
So then no, huh?
At that the attendant motioned for the helper to take back the leash and the walker knew he couldn’t let that happen. That helper was going to take her back to a cage after she thought she’d be going out on this beautiful day that she could already see and smell just outside the door for the first time in months.
No, no, I can do it. I think I can. If you think so.
At that last part the attendant looked at him with something not much better than disgust and paused before handing over the leash.
You know the route.
McCarren Park, then back down Bedford.
Just don’t let go of this leash no matter what. Wait. Gimme your info.
The walker took the leash from the attendant and felt Red’s power surge up through his arm. He held on with both hands as he gave out his name and number and then followed Red out or, more to the point, was pulled out of the garage door into the bright, cool day.
As they started up Grand the tension on the leash was strong but steady. Red’s power and energy didn’t seem fueled by anger, something for which he was extremely grateful. He couldn’t even imagine the damage she could inflict on him if she wanted but that wasn’t her intention. It couldn’t be, he told himself. That attendant had to know that there was nothing mean or malevolent about Red and had taken that into account when he’d handed her over. At least that’s what the walker desperately wanted to believe. He took stock of what was dragging him along.
Red was a solid shiny black at seventy pounds or more. The muscles in her shoulders and haunches rippled with each step, vibrating with a black, oily energy. Around her neck was a bright red leather collar that was especially handsome against all that black and set off even more by the brilliant sun. The collar looked strong but soft enough so that she didn’t seem bothered by it pulling against her neck. The leash was faded red and strong too, the flat type of woven nylon that lifting straps were sometimes made from.
He knew this walk wouldn’t be like the others. Both of those had been relaxing days in the park with other people out enjoying their Saturday. Not today though. This would take work if it could even be done at all. As they approached Bedford, his arms were already burning from holding Red back. He tried talking to her, telling her they’d be at the Park soon enough and that it would still be there but Red wasn’t having it. In fact, when he told her to slow down, she pulled even harder as if his voice only reminded her of the leash and him on the end trying to restrain her. Even so, the walker thought he might get through it. All he had to do was hang on. Gripping the loop on the end, he wrapped the leash twice around his wrist, ignoring that Cowgirl’s warning back in Montana to never do that with the reins of a horse unless you didn’t mind losing a hand.
Taking a left on Bedford he found out that maybe he’d been too optimistic about being able to control Red. Bedford was a major Avenue and, on such a nice spring day, there were suddenly lots of people on the sidewalk. Red went at them like she’d leapt at him upon first seeing him. He quickly learned to pull back with both hands on the leash with enough strength to stop her mid-leap. After the first few times he thought it would let her know that he wasn’t turning loose but then as the next person came towards them Red would lunge even harder. The only thing that seemed to lessen her power was more people coming and the anticipation of her next leap.
But then he would anticipate too, tightening his grip and preparing his arms and shoulders to absorb the shock. Sometimes he stayed near the buildings to give a person room to pass on the outside or he pulled Red out to the street to let them go by on the inside. It wasn’t that he was afraid of Red biting anyone. If that was the case, she would’ve already ripped him apart back on Grand. It was the look of terror on these people’s faces as they passed. There were kids out there and young mothers too, pushing babies in strollers. Red could maul them and cause major injury by the sheer force of her weight if he lost control for even a second. It took all of his concentration as they made their way up Bedford towards the more crowded streets at the center of Williamsburg.
They passed the used book store where he’d once found an illustrated copy of “Last of The Mohicans.” Red lunged at a passerby and the sharp pain in his shoulder reminded him to stay focused, that this wasn’t just another lazy walk up Bedford. At North Seventh there was a crowd backed up at the subway entrance. He and Red made it past them but he’d never been more irritated at all the new people moving there for the cheap rent. Some people up ahead on Bedford saw them coming and crossed to the other side.
They passed Tenth and Eleventh and then the Superfund Site where a long gone paint factory had dumped its lead waste into the ground. On the other side of Bedford was the Turkey’s Nest where you could still get a shot for three bucks and listen to the locals bemoan their hometown boy, “Piazza, Piazza,” as he struck out again with runners in place. He could tell Red had been to the Park before as she pulled even harder now for its entrance between some narrowly spaced columns at the northeast corner of Twelfth.
Maybe it was the thought of those three dollar shots or a moment’s relief at having made it this far but as they neared the entrance the walker lost focus just long enough for Red to lunge at a tall guy with a black beard exiting through the columns. This time though the lunge was a full powered leap that brought Red’s jaws to within an inch of the bearded guy’s face before the walker could haul her back. The walker thought he might get punched or at least cussed out for not controlling his dog but then he was sure the bearded guy had gone on quickly, thankful that he still had a face.
McCarren Park was fairly large. It went about four blocks up and stretched east all the way to the next Avenue where the dome of the Russian church hovered over it. There was a paved pathway around the park, wide enough to stay away from other people and dogs, the latter making sure to steer clear of Red but whom she had little interest in anyway. It was the sights and sounds and smells that intrigued Red. Her strainings against the leash became more random as if all the distractions confused her so that she couldn’t decide which was more deserving of her attention. One second a frisbee sailed by and the next a small child toddled across the grass from one parent to the other. Red still jerked at the leash but only until something else this way or that caught her eye.
They made their way around the loop with people stopping to look, making sure Red was leashed but also to admire such a beautiful black creature with her perfect red collar there in their midst. The walker felt their admiration for Red and, by extension, him for being with her. Red didn’t wear an orange vest like the other shelter dogs so he began to think of Red as his dog, the same as these people in the park thought, and allowed himself to share in her glory. When one couple stopped at a short distance, he called to them, “She’s from the BARC shelter. Grand and Kent. You can adopt her there.” But the couple just smiled and went on.
It was after they’d passed the half-way point of the loop at the top of the Park and had started back down the other side that he noticed something different about Red. She wasn’t pulling against the leash nearly as hard. He wondered if it was because they were on their way back. He knew that dogs had as good a sense of direction as humans, if not better. But there was still the rest of the park and the fourteen blocks down Bedford plus the two avenues over. She knew that the walk wasn’t even close to over so that couldn’t wholly account for the change in her. He caught the familiar glimpse of a woman far across the park.
Was that her?
Shielding his hand against the sun, he tried to see her past the crowds of people inside the loop and then tried again after he knew that it wasn’t.
Go on, girl. Keep going.
There seemed to be a somberness now in Red’s step. She still pulled to the left and right but not with that single minded ferocity of earlier. As they neared the exit, he steeled himself for another meeting with the bearded guy or someone like him and made sure it was clear before allowing Red through. But then they made it between the columns easily and continued out of the park. At the corner they crossed North Twelfth and began the walk south back down Bedford.
He dreaded the crowded sidewalk as he could see down the Avenue that even more people had come out for this beautiful Saturday. He took a cue from Red and began swinging his head side to side in time with her pace. That somberness he’d noticed in her now came in on him. Maybe it was the finality of it, this slow walk back to the shelter and her stoic acceptance. There wasn’t any option but back to the cage. For how long this time? Next fall, a year maybe, or for so long that it didn’t matter until one day she’d be taken out with her muscles so atrophied she couldn’t walk. Maybe it was the marching back in time along this proscribed route, back down Bedford, then back down Grand and then back to her cage, never to be out on this beautiful day again, that caused him to pull back on the leash at the corner of Eleventh and stop. Red stopped too without looking back.
Hey girl, wanna go another way?
She didn’t say no so they crossed Bedford and continued in that same direction down North Eleventh, going west now towards the river. He watched to see how she would react but she kept on in front like it was the most natural thing in the world. They weren’t breaking any laws but it felt like it to him since they were definitely breaking a hard and fast rule. Over and over at the shelter they’d told him to stay on Bedford both going and coming because the dogs knew that way and if anything happened they might be able to find their own way back. And he’d planned on doing just that until a few seconds earlier.
But he wanted something new for Red, something that might extend her world out from its boundaries so that this day wouldn’t be just another glimpse of the sun and air and life that other creatures took for granted and could have whenever they wanted. Even if it was only stepping off into the wrong direction, it might promise something new for her next time out. Fuck that shelter! Fuck them and their rules too! This wasn’t about them. It was about Red, he told himself, and they continued down North Eleventh towards something she’d never seen before.
He planned on taking her to that little park on the river next to the Domino Refinery but when they reached Wythe he had second thoughts. With the weather so nice the park would be crammed with people and dogs. And being a Lab, the river might be too much for her to resist. If she tried jumping in he’d never be able to control her from those boulders along the shore. Here on Wythe she was calm as she scanned the Avenue, not hurried or bothered. He decided to not press their luck and stick with the desolation of Wythe. Besides, he wouldn’t have to decide about the river for another ten blocks so they crossed Eleventh heading south and began the walk down.
Wythe was so different from Bedford. Deserted warehouse after deserted warehouse and devoid of traffic except for an occasional car. He studied the loading docks and thought of the once busy warehouses behind those steel doors. He imagined the hand trucks, dollies, two wheelers and forklifts that used to zip around under the control of teenagers, working alongside the older guys who never fit in anywhere, loading and unloading trucks. Then there were the dock managers and shipping clerks with their clipboards and harsh words for anyone sneaking a cig break. These were the low docks of distribution warehouses, those at the tailgate level of the ten or twenty ton trucks that used to back up to them. At North Fourth he saw one of those low docks about twenty feet off the Avenue with some cement steps leading up to it. He tugged Red towards it to see what she’d do and she went right up. So he followed after.
He then decided to try something that would have been impossible back on Bedford or in McCarren Park. Tightening his grip, he sat down slowly on the dock with his legs crossed yoga style. He was afraid that dropping down below her level like that would startle or scare her into running but then, even if it did, he was sure he could hold on in the same way he’d done all day. She watched him sit there, confused by it but no panic to be seen. He told her that she could sit down too, not really expecting her to but just so that she could hear by the sound of his voice that nothing had changed. But then she did sit, continuing to stare at him and waiting to see what outlandish thing he might do next.
He marvelled at where the walk had taken them after such a tough start. Here they were on a loading dock that neither of them had seen before, sitting there together in the afternoon sun. He imagined that it was their personal dock, their own private patio where they could have some time away from the crowds and rules and whims of others. Then Red surprised him again by stretching out with her chin on her paws while keeping a wary eye out. “What a good girl,” he said, and she blinked, relaxing for the first time that day. But even though Red had relaxed he knew that he couldn’t. There was always the chance that something might send her running before he could react. But it was quiet and still there and, while maintaining a tight grip on the leash, he began to drift with his thoughts, the same ones that always obsessed him, just as they would have earlier if he’d gone on to the river by himself instead of stopping at the shelter.
It was still up in the air whether he and his wife would get back together. But when he was honest with himself, he had to admit that it was probably over. There was something so different about her now when they met up for coffee. Her attention was somewhere else and then there were her sharp little comments that didn’t speak so much of anger but impatience. With him for sure, but more with her own life that couldn’t move forward so long as she was with him. And that was so different from how he felt during those same times and how alone it made him feel afterwards. She was trying to move on and he knew that he had to too, even while trying to get back with her.
He needed to turn one of those computer temp jobs into something permanent, a job with a pension or 401K that he could use to make a down payment on a house outside the city, one like she’d always wanted. He had to end once and for all trying to make a living in the theatre, the same theatre that had once saved his life but then had never taken him further. He had to lay the foundation for a future that didn’t yet exist but he could almost imagine.
He was past fifty now and still bumping along. Not much had turned out like he’d thought. He knew now that a big part of getting older was accepting his limitations and that was the hardest part of all. He told himself again that he had to get a handle on the physical stuff before it made moving forward impossible. He already couldn’t read without glasses. And then there were other things coming like losing his strength and looks, both of which were already in question. He didn’t enjoy these somber projections but he’d come to see them as bulwarks against making the same mistakes again. He didn’t have time anymore for that stuff from the past.
So much had changed in New York since he’d moved there. He remembered the East Village from twenty five years earlier. That fifth floor tenement walkup he’d paid forty dollars a month for in the seventies, the same one that, when he’d moved to Chelsea with his wife in the nineties, had been taken off rent control and re-rented for over two thousand a month.
His first day there, getting keys from the slumlord sitting behind his desk in a dirt-floor basement office on East Fourth, glimpsing the pistol strapped to his boot, and then handing over forty dollars without even seeing the place. Walking up Second Avenue to East Tenth with the sirens wailing as St. Mark’s Church, which had stood at the corner for three centuries, burned. Watching its roof collapse into the flames and thinking, not a good sign, not good at all. The homeless guy who lived under the first floor stairwell and took dumps on the steps above it. The pigeons nesting in the kitchen cabinets that he’d chased out the window. The layers of dirt and guano he’d mucked from the floor and then sleeping on that same floor during those first weeks with the biggest butcher knife he could find gripped at his side.
It was a different world then. His way had been to roll with the punches and take what was given. One shitty job after another was okay so long as he could keep doing theatre in an empty commercial space or the back room of some bar when they’d turn down the jukebox. He’d been able to get by then, back when everything was cheap and he didn’t worry so much about money as there would always be time for that later. He found a place there among the hustlers, transvestites, street musicians, panhandlers, whores and misfits. He learned how to avoid the criminals waiting to pounce at any sign of weakness. And when he couldn’t avoid them he could always outrun them. He even made peace with those pigeons he’d exiled into the airshaft, learning to emulate their soft trills, for which in return each spring, they’d leave a perfect turquoise egg there on the ledge of the kitchen window.
There was the Hispanic guy he’d watched from his fire escape, slashing the air with a machete in the middle of East Tenth, raving about some real or imagined slight while his family and neighbors gathered round, moving closer and then drawing back at his slashes, begging him to stop before the Police came. Which they never did. And another time when NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association, marched in a circle around that same spot. Six old guys carrying signs and chanting feebly for their Constitutional right to distribute pornography and screw young boys without government interference. The same crowd that had once implored Hector to put down his machete gathered round again, this time with Ukrainians and Poles from the neighborhood mixed in, wishing the sad old men would just go away. Which they did eventually. Just two times out of the hundreds that had imprinted themselves in his memory, as if any of it had meaning.
He’d come to distrust those memories. Not that he was disgusted by them or fond of them either but because they seemed from so long ago. Just fragments of that last century before it stumbled to its Y2K ending; before his marriage with its baby wars and money problems, made worse by the prices in Manhattan tripling, had ended; before the towers came crashing down three months later and only a month after he’d moved out to Williamsburg to start again; before this dark and cold winter had set in and still wasn’t quite over. Until today maybe. Maybe today.
Whatever meaning that stuff had, he knew that whether he wanted it to or not, it was slowly but surely being left behind. It surprised him there on the loading dock that it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. Maybe he truly was moving past it.
Red’s eyes were now closed. On the top floor of the warehouse across the Avenue he saw a bed sheet hanging in a window. New people there trying to carve out a life from one of these ancient warehouse spaces. He thought about the other sheets that would soon hang in more and more windows and then the speculators and boutiques, the art galleries and bars and restaurants up and down the Avenue that would follow. The same as always happens when old and useless things are left behind for other people to come along and make something new of them.
Looking at Red stretched out there he wondered if someone had picked out that red collar for her because of her name or if it was the other way around, that the shelter called her Red because she had that collar on when she got there. He thought about earlier when she’d leapt with all her might against the leash. He wondered what would have happened if he’d just let her go to run wild in the street. He would have never done that but it still might’ve been worth it to let her go for just once in her life to find what she wanted, whatever that might be. Maybe it was to have the freedom to touch all those people on Bedford. Or to see if any of them would touch her back. Whatever, it would’ve been something of her own that no one could take away because going after it with such fierce determination would be proof in itself that it existed, even if only inside her. And who could blame her for that?
Just then one of Red’s eyes opened. “Is that what you wanted, girl? To say hi to all those people back on Bedford? Or maybe you just wanted some payback, huh?”
He thought about the towers coming down and all those people gone forever. He wondered if downtown Manhattan would ever come back. He knew that it would eventually but as something changed and different and new. He wondered if Red would ever find a home. Small chance of that unless by some crazy luck someone with a chunk of land in the country happened to find out about her and took her there to live with them. It was possible. Anything was possible. It could happen. But, then again, it probably wouldn’t.
That’s just how it is for some dogs and some people. A long struggle interspersed with moments so incredible that they need to be remembered. Those times that change people, that speak of the past and hold hints of the future, a future that won’t be recognized until it happens. He wondered if Red knew this in her primal brain as she lay there. He thought about touching her but then thought better of it. He remembered that he wasn’t her friend or her companion either. He was just her walker that day, for that one moment in time.
A cool breeze blew over them and he noticed that it had begun to shift towards evening. Winter wasn’t over yet and Red started to stir.
Guess you’re ready, huh girl? Me too.
He got up slowly from the loading dock, unlocking his knees. Red got up too, not even bothering with the customary shake of an older dog. Ah youth. They went down the steps and began the last leg of their walk back to the shelter.
The shadows had lengthened as they started again down Wythe. He recognized this stretch of Avenue as the kind of place where he wouldn’t want to be caught after dark. He wondered if there were any of those old style New York criminals hanging around there, as lost as he was, looking for an easy mark. If there were, he thought, they’d better have nothing less than a sawed-off shotgun before coming at them with Red in the lead. It made him laugh to think that during all those years on the streets of New York this was maybe the first time ever when he wasn’t worried about being mugged.
Red began to walk faster and pull harder on the leash as they got close to the shelter. It occurred to him that maybe she was looking forward to getting back and it made him rethink an earlier assumption. Just because she’d been so excited when they left didn’t necessarily mean it was bad for her there. Maybe she got some time out of her cage in some space set aside for the dogs to play in, even on rainy days. Maybe she had a friend there among the other dogs, or even the attendant for that matter who would talk to her sweetly when he brought her food, unlike how he’d spoken to him. It was possible. Anything was possible.
As they rounded the garage door and entered the loading bay, the attendant came at them.
Where’ve you been?
She wanted to rest.
The attendant looked at him with that same disgust from earlier and something else he couldn’t make out. It didn’t matter though because the attendant then took the leash, his full attention now on Red. Life would go on. He watched the attendant and Red disappear through the door leading back to the chorus of yelps and howls. Red didn’t look back and he didn’t either as he made his way east back up Grand to his apartment.