New Yorkers love dogs and you always see them, otherwise grounded men and women, cooing, emitting coloratura snippets to leashed Havanese and Yorkies and walking sideways. I enjoy them–canines and partners–for their barmy incapacities. I follow with my guide dog Nira, my $45,000 pal, my yellow Lab trained for traffic and wonder where these people and dogs should live?
Ahead of us a man with a miniature poodle scolds it for being alive. “You shouldn’t do that, you know,” he says dropping the question mark–and though I can’t see what the dog has done I know it wasn’t a matter of conscience. I don’t have time to think however because Nira has stopped. There’s a problem. Our path isn’t clear. We’ve hit a construction site with jackhammers. The noise precludes speaking. We stand in threatening air. We can’t ask strangers where in the hell we are. The blind have to ask passersby lots of things–what street is this? Are we near a subway? Can you help me find a cab? You can’t be shy. Meanwhile Nira isn’t fazed by construction and backs up, turns, deftly finds the detour and follows corrugated boards until we’re back on the sidewalk. She’s a pro.
That’s the thing about Manhattan–its dog owners and dogs are amateurs. The poor things are like stilt walkers on day one, hurtling all rickety up sixth avenue, headed for the park. If Nira could talk she’d say how sad it is, tens of thousands of half-decorticated dogs dizzied without purpose. “Dogs,” she’d say, “are meant to have purpose beyond enduring moist speech, all lovey-dovey–”does Snookems want to go walky? Kiss kiss.””
And so we decide, guide dog and man to relate the abjections of New York dogs, recording what we’ve heard. This isn’t hard as the dog owners of New York City are verbally expulsive and prove Kierkegaard’s assertion that “people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” For instance the woman on Amsterdam Avenue near 81st Street who was dragging her Pomeranian. “You’ve had enough,” she said. “You’ve had enough and enough is enough!” Nira was wearing her harness, all business, guiding me. We stopped. Nira sat.
I asked the woman what she meant. I said: “Excuse me, but is there something on the ground that your dog was eating?”
“What?” she said.
“Eating,” I said. “Was your dog eating something?”
“Oh no,” she said, “We’ve had enough of staring at nothing! This stupid Pomeranian just stares at nothing. I’ve had enough of nothing!”
I nodded. I inherited this trait from my father, a Finn. I thought of Wallace Stevens famous poem “The Snowman”–”the nothing that is not there/and the nothing that is.” We were having Amsterdam Avenue metaphysics. I thought how if I had world enough and time I could tell the woman what dogs see, tell her that the Pomeranian is really a Cubist of colors and movements with a much wider visual field than humans and that its entirely possible the street is dazzling the dog who has hit the brakes out of instinct. But I was a coward, fearing a conversation that would become a bolus, a chewy lump of bread you can never swallow. She went away, dragging her rust colored and vaguely frightened dog and I felt remorse as if I could have saved the poor creature with instructions for her owner–”Take it from a blind guy, you can’t stare at nothing.” “Your dog is having an allergic reaction to motion. Talk to her, a little cajoling and reassurance would be good for both of you, yes?” “Personally, I get by on cajoling and reassurance Lady.” This is no joke.
Successful guide dog work depends on cajoling. Or if not quite cajoling, elaborate praise. You’re taught to say “Good dog!” with musical sincerity and to say it throughout the working day. You say it when your dog stops at a curb. When she stops at the stairs. Or when she passes around a dropped bicycle or ignores a fallen pizza slice. “Good Dog!” You say it as if you’re learning Swedish–putting some musicality into it. Working dogs love praise. And you give praise all day. Perhaps a hundred times during a 24 hour period. She absorbs the rolling nightmare of trains and skateboarders and staggering drunks and buses running red lights and you sing to her in cartoon Swedish, “Good Girl!” In turn this reassurance flows backwards, fills you. You’re a competent blind guy sailing through crowded streets or down the tunnels of Grand Central Station. This competency has everything to do with letting your dog be a dog; “follow your dog” they say at the guide dog school–she knows what she’s seeing, knows what to do. Your job is to know where you want to go. Hers is to get your there. We get by on mutual instruction and tandem praise. When Nira is good I’m good. And vice versa.
In Central Park we met a German Shepherd dragging its man to a dog run. Because I could see just a tiny bit I understood the man was too thin for his dog–he was in danger of getting hurt. The guy was skating and the dog surged like a locomotive and it panted like a locomotive and the man cried: “Dolly, Dolly! You’re gonna break my sandwich!” The sandwich was the least of the man’s problems. He raced by, crying against fortune, his sandwich, the volition of Miss Dolly, his shoes slapping pavement. I decided to sit and listen to the dog run people and give Nira a biscuit or two. Right away a woman asked if I wanted to let Nira run. I said no. “We’re just stopping for a second,” I said.
“Well you ought to let her run, poor thing, she gives up her life for you.” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “we live in a Boolean equation, where my life is X and hers is X minus 2.”
“What does that mean?” said the woman.
“It means,” I said, “our lives are running down in equal measure. Why hell, we’ll probably die at the same time. We’re all giving up our lives in algebraic co-efficients.”
“You’re pulling my leg,” said the woman. I shrugged. I asked her what her dog’s name was.
“His name is Jasper,” she said.
“Let me guess,” I said, “he’s a Dalmatian.”
“How’d you know?” she asked.
“Because Jasper is generally spotty.” I said.
“Tell me,” I asked, “what does Jasper do for you?”
“He doesn’t have to do anything,” she said. “He’s free to be a real dog.”
“I see,” I said. “So a working dog like Nira isn’t real in your view?”
“That’s right,” she said, “your dog is a slave.”
Then there was pandemonium. Jasper evidently swiped a nanny’s iPhone and was running in cursive and onlookers shouted as he chewed it, the dog eluding middle aged men in suits and loafers. Jasper was unfettered and alive and the incitement for a fight–the nanny and Mrs. Jasper got straight into it–who was going to pay for the phone? Not Mrs. Jasper. Her dog was a free spirit. Nanny, you see, should have kept her phone in her purse. Nanny disagreed but made the mistake–the big mistake of characterizing Jasper’s “freedom” as “uncontrolled” –a charge that Mrs. Jasper equated with apostasy, for Jasper, like all untrained dogs, stands for “the Id” and you’re a pretty sorry specimen if you don’t understand it. You shouldn’t bring your super-ego to the dog run. Its the wild west. Etcetera. Nira and I got out of there.
We walked east toward Fifth Avenue. Wasn’t it Auden who said the roses really want to grow? “Dogs,” I thought, “really want to work.” And working dogs get plenty of play time. In Nira’s case she swims, plays tug of war with a Shih Tzu named Harley, inveigles everyone she meets for belly rubs, and gets to go everywhere I go–none of that dolorous waiting around the dark apartment for hours on end that marks Jasper’s life. No wonder the poor sonofabitch steals iPhones–he’s pure Id–he’d eat the daylight if he could. And that’s the thing about Mrs. Jasper: she exemplifies the cosseted, ingrown anthropomorphism of New York City’s dog owners, a thing beyond “love me, love my dog” for the impulse, the relieving projection of straightened circumstances onto animals is darker, tangled up in the blankets of capitalist misery and so in turn your silly dog gets to be a wolf. Or like the Pomeranian, just an ambient stuffed toy.