Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scatter My Ashes Over the Dog Park

We moved from Times Square, vortex of all that is crazy, crowded and neon, to Riverdale, a lovely part of the Bronx with views of the Hudson River, lush with trees and fresh air.  After six years, we're moving back to Manhattan to be closer to work.  I'll miss the ever-shifting beauty of the trees, moon and stars, and the Hudson grandeur. But most of all, I'll miss the dog park, the place where I met my neighbors and learned to chat.

On my first day in the dog park, just across from our apartment complex, a raging discussion was in progress. The subject? When were they going to bury Anna Nicole Smith's highly contested but rapidly decomposing body. "Why are they fighting over that body anyway?" a woman wearing pin curlers shouted, pointing to a New York Post.  It's just a body - it's not her. When I die, I want my ashes scattered over the dog park."  We roared with laughter.  

It was a varied group - a professor of Russian literature, an admissions officer at a private school, a clerk at a big-chain baby store, a nurse (in the pin curlers), a loud, foul-mouthed but extremely funny artist, a bridge-builder (not the metaphorical one, but a real one), a recovering stockbroker-now-third-grade teacher. There would be more over the years, people came and left, all with varied backgrounds, outlooks, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation.  It was like the set of a play.  Or maybe a sitcom. Every day several of us would get together to watch our dogs run and wrestle, and to chat about things, from the mundane (the healthy texture of dog poop) to the transcendent (symbolic imagery in Buddhist art, the athletic grace of Derek Jeter).  One morning the issue among the ladies was whether or not one had to wear a bra to the dog park in the morning (most voted yes).  Other days I'd argue with the Russian lit teacher over Shakespeare and off-Broadway plays. We talked of work, family, joys and sorrows, and became friends.

Although this kind of easy camaraderie goes on all over, whether it be in dog parks, children's playgrounds, bars or diners, it meant a great deal to me.  I was a loner bordering on the misanthropic. I spent years in academic research and then law, more comfortable with books than light conversation.  And much of that time was at The University of Chicago, known for taking one's blush of youth away and replacing it with book-learning and poor social skills.  I sparkled when teaching students, but was awkward speaking with adults and hated going to dinner parties or other social gatherings.  In New York City, not many people talk with or even know their neighbors in the same apartment building, so it was no problem. But then I moved to Riverdale, got a puppy, and had no choice but to meet, and talk to, the neighbors. I'm so glad I did.

Slowly, day by day, my reluctance to engage with others dropped away.  What was great about the dog park is that I met people I would never have met had I not gotten a dog. They were outside my usual circle of colleagues, and maybe this made it possible for our conversations to be deeper, more joyful and carefree.  It was like having an extended family without the psychodrama, or dropping in for coffee at a neighbor's house as shown in American ads in the '50s.  I recognized the same phenomenon in Roger Ebert's beautiful essay in which he describes the joy of getting to know people outside his circle at AA meetings.  

I needed this.  The reason I got a dog was to ease the unbearable grief from my mother's passing (it helps).  Within a span of three years, two other elders close to me died.  I had relied on these three to watch over and be proud of me (my father died when I was young).  But then I joined the dog park group.  They gave me advice when I got a cold, I rejoiced with them over good job news, we worried together over the awful troubles of the world and cried together when dearly-loved dogs died.  

They were in many ways ordinary people who worked hard every day in demanding jobs to make ends meet while managing households or school study at night.  But once you got to know them better, you discovered how extraordinary they really were.  Some had heavy added burdens such as caring for a paralyzed brother or declining parents, which they did without complaint.
Remarkably, these same people found time for creative pursuits as well.  The owner of the scrappy Boston Terrier/Frenchy mix did lamp working - making gorgeous, translucent colored glass beads that she turned into lovely necklaces and bracelets.  She's Jewish, but crafted a delicate rosary in glass to match the color of family members' birthstones for a Catholic friend when she became gravely ill.  The "mom" of the lovely black and white Papillon had one of the sharpest minds I ever encountered and did amazing, detailed needlepoint work, while the owner of the Katrina rescue German Shepherd-mix (my dog Darwin's best buddy) regaled us with tales of her cooking adventures, most recently Korean cuisine.The construction guy who owns the magnificent, kindly Rottweiler also painted pictures of scenes in Cuba. They all did something to give a flourish to their lives. 

I'm moving to a high-rise in Manhattan in a couple of days and do not expect to strike up close friendships among my neighbors.  But I leave the Bronx transformed.  

Thank you, my friends.  


  1. Really beautiful. And a blessing that you discovered the confidence to share yourself, discover that people have all kinds of different ways of being interesting and sharing.

    They've got dog parks in Manhattan too!

  2. Lovely post. I'm so glad to have discovered your blog - I really enjoy your writing.

    I've often thought there should be a television show called "Dog Park Diaries." I'd actually love to see it animated in the style of Waking Life. Anyone who reads this, you have my blessing to take this idea and run with it! ... just let me know, so I can watch :)

  3. So beatiful, you made me cry!!! The lovely black and white Papillon amd his Mom are going to miss you so very much!

  4. Very nice post. Well done. And this from a misanthropic cat owner.

  5. If you ever come to Boston and need some dog park fun my dobie and I would be more than happy to show you two around these parts. :)

  6. So happy to have discovered your blog. Your words
    painted pictures and, I saw you and your friends
    and the black and white Papillon. I saw the lady
    with rollers in her hair, and I heard all of you laughing and felt the genuineness of it all!

  7. I was trying to tell my son about your writing piece here, it's so meaningful, and richly layered ... and, I could not, for the tears it brought. I loved reading it. Thank you for sharing.

    Last time I was in NYC, outside of the Museum of Natural History (not sure which entrance), there is/was, I think, ~ a dog park... and as serendipity would have it also, for me, there was a wonderful Spring street art show going was several years ago. Maybe, this dog park is still there, and close enough for Darwin and you to visit...

  8. This is such a beautiful post! When I lived in New York and was dog-less, I'd spend countless hours watching dogs play.

    I hope you find a good dog park in Manhattan. The Washington Square Park and Carl Schurz Park were my favorites!

  9. I so appreciate all of you taking time to comment. Thanks for reading.

  10. Thanks to Roger Ebert for bringing me to your blog. I was just talking with a friend about the complex dynamics (human and canine) at my and my dog's favorite dog park here in Long Beach, CA when his tweet came through.

    I hope you and Darwin enjoy Manhattan's dog parks.

  11. Very, very nice. But "learned to chat"? When I knew you, you seemed quite gifted in that particular area.

  12. We must have been talking about the Cubs then, and not at a dinner party!

  13. Very nice piece! I wonder if this is something like my fascination and love of Twitter? A place to connect with people I would not have met otherwise, and - because of the electronic medium - allow me the opportunity to 'chat' when I am in the mood, but also allows me to be a fly on the wall if that's all I've got. I don't know, but I love this post, it really spoke to me. Thanks!

  14. This is such a lovely post. My dog died over a year ago (I still can't bear to get another yet), and among the many things I miss about her the social interaction with other dog owners. I tend to withdraw when I'm out of my ever-shrinking comfort zone, but I came to really enjoy chatting with my fellow owners. The dog liked it too.

    Here's hoping you find the perfect Dog Park in Manhattan.

  15. I too find comfort in the dog park... We have 2 lovely parks in Northern New Jersey and fellow dog owners are probably similar here as in New York, always great conversation and insight with other owners.
    Candice, if you read this post, thank you for bringing it to my attention!
    There is a story to tell!

  16. It's been an honor to call you my neighbor and friend. You're an amazing person and I am blessed to have you in my life. We will miss you and Darwin, Mr. Hudsonette also :-) and hope you'll enjoy your new life in Manhattan. Karma will of course miss all of you.

    PS - I still think it's ok to go to the dog park without a bra :-)

  17. I just came across this now, and I wanted to echo my own thoughts on how beautiful this piece was. I solidly agree with you on the amazing healing powers of dog companionship. I think, it is great how you were able to form strong and lasting friendship from your visits to the dog park. It is amazing where you can find friends, and how certain scenarios allow you to bond with people you would otherwise never talk to. It was a great, heartwarming tale.

  18. Ah, so Ebert has tweeted your posts before. I must have missed them. No matter: better late than never, and now I have read all of your posts. :-)