by E.M. Broner
I dog-sit on occasion. My grand-dog Tosh (rhymes with Posh) heads towards Madison Park. In front of our loft building I have to restrain him from greeting our newly-planted saplings, Callery Pear Trees, the first trees on our block.
Tosh has no patience. He would pull me into traffic on Fifth Avenue if I were not pulling back on the leash.
We used to have errands on the way to the park in shops that have been gobbled up in the jaws of construction equipment. We no longer chat with the Korean family where we picked up milk and dog food, or walk past the stained- glass maker on Sixth Avenue or stop into the Armenian leather factory on 23rd Street to have a briefcase handle repaired. There are other shops, but they are unwelcoming to dogs, like the gourmet shop on 22nd Street not far from the church where the homeless line up for hot lunches. I still can head downtown to the farmer’s market in Union Square but if I turn east away from the park, Tosh gives me the evil eye; Grandmas are supposed to be more obedient.
Tosh is my first dog experience. Because I write, I extrapolate from this singular fellow into the universal, women and dogs. Since I am part of the literary scene, I contemplate women and literature and dogs.
Accompanying my daughter’s dog I am part of a whole new community, and I have begun to take on its politics. Madison Square Park has changed since Madison Green, a 32-story residence, has sprouted on its southeast corner. What was once forbidden is allowed and what was allowed is now forbidden.
It’s OK to ride a bike, roller skate and play frisbees, as the sign at the park’s entrance once prohibited. But one can no longer romp with one’s dog. Leash rules have been imposed. To impose them is the arm of the law, the hidden park police and even the mounted police who chase our dogs on horseback if they’re frisking with their friends.
The park used to be Doggy Eden. Tosh would meet Suki, an independent female, or Rosie, a brown-and-while male, despite his name. High- born and low-born shared the park: Pomeranians, spitz, terriers, greyhounds, dachshunds, spaniels, poodles, pugs, bull terriers, corgis, pinschers, whippets, all the cuddled, coddled, barbered and trimmed along with the curious shapes and sizes of our sturdy mutts. Tosh is part Canaani, an Israeli breed. In dog politics, the Canaani is recognized by the American Kennel Club but not yet in the United Kingdom. So there Tosh is, half-recognized, halfCanaani, small, peppy, with his oversized ears and corkscrew tail.
The dogs, now leashed, strain towards one another, snapping, barking, biting. Everyone is short-tempered, and the owners are wary and wily, with the issuing of $50 tickets for dogs off the leash. A new underground has developed to elude the park police. Dog owners carry false ID’s and there is a thriving business in fake dog tags.
In former idyllic days we kept the park safe, standing in a circle, talking about this dog’s hysterectomy, that one’s ear infection or a valuable dog’s hip operation. We would quickly break up dog fights, greet one another’s pets, and, with our sandwich bags, New York Times business section, New York Post front page, pick up after our animals. As we would leave the park after our nightly walks, the pushers were doing business with the life insurance or court workers and the park-bench sleepers were settling in.
I am introduced to new dogs, that is, newly-found dogs. One has been discovered tied to a mailbox on 23rd Street, another to a parking meter. Dogs are being abandoned in great number. Margot found her dog, Noosh, tied to a tree in Central Park. Women who never wanted dogs have taken pity. One dog was left in a bar. Others still await their owners outside of supermarkets.
“My dogs taught me to love,” says Margot.
Since my dog-sitting days I have become sentimental. I watch Tosh’s prancy walk and instantly sign all requests to impeach our state legislator who has imposed the leash laws upon us, or boycott cosmetic companies that test their products on animals. I am now an avowed antivivisectionist. One day I could even anticipate vegetarianism.
I begin to think of the relationship in women’s books to animals.
Animals are part of the community in women’s Utopian novels, like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, or Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground. In Gearhart’s book, the women’s community asks permission of the horse before mounting and thanks it courteously afterwards. Language is developed between woman and animal.
In Alma Stone’s Now for the Turbulence, the narrator, one of two elderly sisters living on the Upper West Side, makes forays to the parks. She finds a dead bird and places it in her Channel 13 tote bag to rebury properly in her flower pot. Accidental and domestic animals share the sisters’ lives. A mouse has escaped the sisters’ cats by jumping into the “can.” The mouse is “flashy, with a good breast-stroke and fine coordination…an admiring roach pulls up in the slow lane” to watch this swimmer. From their window ledge the narrator watches pigeons who “kiss almost more than anybody except young people who all but mount on the street.” She answers her Class of 1928 questionnaire: “Ugliest Thing I’ve Seen” — “Seeing a person or animal mistreated or humiliated by one stronger than they. Seeing the unwanted — children, old parents, pets — cast out.” “Beautiful Things”—”The wit and wonder and grace of most animals.”
In the contemporary classic, Elsa Morante’s World War Two epic, History, a Novel, set in Italy, the fate of characters in Rome is snared with their dog, Blitz, “a little brown dog… jumping in a paroxysm of happiness…an animal of slight dimension, round, with crooked legs and a curled up tail…a big head with one ear more erect than the other…a typical homeless dog.” Useppe, the baby, learns the language of dogs in an Edenic time of innocence and pure love amidst the corruption of war. Blitz ends, as his name predicts, to be replaced by the sheep-dog Bella, another mother for little Useppe. Bella is his adviser, saves the child from drowning and tells him, “They’ll never be able to separate us in this world.” In the tragic ending, they are together.
In the genre of mysteries, which women have taken to writing with energy and resourcefulness, villains mistreat dogs, ex-lovers are left for indifference to animals, relationships are re-thought if the male rescues a kitten. Sara Paretsky, founder of Sisters in Crime (SIC), has her PI, V.I. Warshawsky, rescue the labrador retriever of a murderer, and assume responsibility for him. The dog becomes a continuing character in the series.
Women authors do not need a Lassie running over hill and dale on a mission, or a wolf dog in the frozen tundra who is at last domesticated. Women seem to feel that we have more changing to do, rather than the dogs more training. We have to learn communication, for the spoken word cannot convey the emotion of a sharp, clear bark, a noisy meowing or steady purring, from which we can supplement our store of vowels and consonants. How would woman or beast address the homeless who claim a bench as their retreat and a sleeping bag as furniture? The animals find something unfamiliar, unfamilial about these people to avoid them, or Tosh stands at their benches barking.
We are all of us uncomfortable in the park, the dogs on short tether, the homeless becoming snowmen. Their pets are their bags, and, inside each bag, is a memento, or a memento mori: A snapshot that could have fallen from our photo album of a woman, a car, a house, a smile, a dog. When the glue dries in our lives and images fall from their binding, there must be someone to replace them, some bindery where our spines are stiffened and covers renewed.
Perhaps in this Garden of Eden of our nostalgia of our Utopian planning, bags will be declared obsolete, and their owners will blow them up and burst them loudly in unison. Then, the people on the bench will leave these pews to return to their lives, the dog of their album affixed to their hand, the smile to the face.
In the park whippets will lope, spaniels will romp and Tosh will remind me of what it is to unleash the affections.
Prof. E. M. Broner is the author of five books, including Her Mothers and A Weave of Women.