Weekend Edition: A dog’s life

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

It’s my guess that no other region of Manhattan has more professional dog-walkers than the Upper East Side.

They are very common sights in our neighborhood, virtually all young men, chaperoning their clients, usually in groups of three to six. All breeds, mixtures and sizes are represented and, to me, the most notable feature of these assortments of canines is their obvious camaraderie. I imagine these jaunts are something akin to human pub crawls with the city’s groaning banquet table of interesting smells substituting for beers.

Many years ago I read a book, “The Hidden Life of Dogs,” a non-scientific observational treatise in which the author took careful note of the interactions her dog had with other neighboring dogs. As I recall, her main conclusion was that what dogs liked to do best was hang out with other dogs.

While this hardly seems like a stunning discovery, let alone worth a book-long set of ruminations, it was a bestseller in the mid-1990s. (For the millionth time, I said to myself: Why didn’t I think of that? Of course I hadn’t had a dog since childhood but even if I had one and had come up with the same idea, I would have nipped it the bud by immediately convincing myself that no publisher would touch it with a 10-foot pole. Thus, my bookless career flourishes.)

I suppose there are dogs that do not fare well in such dog-walking packs, and assume they quickly show themselves to be antisocial and are promptly blackballed by the dog-walking community. There is a bulldog, George, in the apartment above us that cannot abide another dog in the elevator. George looks and walks as though he is 15, but to our surprise he’s only four. George is a born grump and one wonders what enjoyment his owners derive from his presence.

The young Latino man I often encounter in the elevator seems to have cornered the dog-walking business on our side of the building. We usually chat, but his heavily accented English is rendered unintelligible whenever he is wearing his very elaborate dental appliance. Fortunately these encounters are usually a short elevator ride to the lobby so I have to fake my responses for much less than a minute.

To my delight, he often has Iris in his charge. Iris is the polar opposite of George. I’m pretty sure she is a Welsh terrier, on the small side, and probably the most popular dog on our elevator line. She is very poised, not a nuzzler, and seems wholly conscious of the sway she has over humans. For me, the name is everything. I cannot imagine any other dog possibly measuring up to “Iris.” Like Yastrzemski’s number, it should simply be retired from the dog-naming lexicon.

Unless we wind up living out our days on the Island, there is almost no chance of our ever having a dog. Other than Iris, I am not a fan of small dogs, and if we somehow elected the Island route, I would push hard for a chocolate Lab. My wife thinks chocolate Labs are mutants, which makes them even more attractive to me. But let’s say, hypothetically, that, through some strange twist of fate, Iris becomes ours.

That would make me very happy indeed. Such is the power of Iris.

In my lifetime, smoking has gone from a cool James Dean affectation to a deeply scorned, body-ravaging addiction. While it does not have the public health impacts of the antismoking offensive, getting New Yorkers to pick up after their dogs seems to me to be a behavioral change that can only be considered profound. To spy an untended dog dropping in our neighborhood is a very rare sight indeed, but smudges where droppings have been tended to are everywhere.

My boyhood dog days were in suburban St. Louis so this issue was nonexistent. I do not know when the dropping pick-up campaign started in Manhattan, but it re-wired millions of brains. I have never had the pleasure of performing the act and would happily shuffle off the coil with never having to, but I guess that after the first few queasy times it becomes part of one’s urban life: You walk the dog, you take the baggie.

But the near universality of the practice amazes me.

Which reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon. There is a man, his dog and, nearby, an extraterrestrial in the prototypical space suit with the transparent globe over its head and the mandatory antennae poking out. The man is picking up after his dog, which is looking intently at the alien. The caption: “Captain, I have discovered the master race on this planet!”