Once upon a time, Harlem was considered so unsafe that the only way I would visit it was on a tour bus. And so, one fall day in the '80s, I did. I wanted to see the Apollo Theater, 125th Street, the vintage stores and soul food restaurants. My friend Kim and I signed up and off we went.
About halfway through the tour, we saw a dog in a dumpster. He wasn't much of a dog, scrawny, anxious, homeless, and every color a mutt can be. But I hadn't had a pet since leaving home for college, and apparently I yearned for one. (I say apparently because I hadn't been aware of this gap in my life until that moment.)
Kim and I ditched the tour. I had already bought a cracked Bakelite cocktail shaker and a black silk evening bag missing a few beads, so I was pretty much done with the shopping portion of the trip. We fished the dog from the dumpster and took him out of Harlem on a city bus with an understanding driver. I named him Harley.
My apartment near Union Square wasn't set up for an undomesticated animal, and neither was my life. I couldn't spend a lot of time with Harley and certainly didn't know how to train him. His only skill was recognizing good shoe leather, the way other dogs can locate a duck that's been dropped by a hunter. Harley ate through all my Charles Jourdan heels, leaving the Candie's I hadn't worn since the disco era. He barked a lot. He growled at visitors. He needed to be walked constantly but couldn't get used to a leash. In short, Harley was no Marley. He was "the world's worst dog," but without his own bestseller. Ultimately, he had to go.
Unfortunately there were already too many dogs vying for the title of "worst" in the shelters of New York. I wanted him out, not euthanized. So I developed a plan: I would go to Jamestown, Rhode Island for Thanksgiving to visit my Aunt Joan, who ran a bed and breakfast, the Calico Cat, with her husband, the detested Uncle John. (More on him when the topic turns to hellish Christmases.) I would take Harley with me and turn him in at a no-kill shelter up in relatively sparsely populated New England.
Of course, when you travel with a dog, your options are limited. Goodbye Amtrak! Even Greyhound, ironically enough named after a breed of dog, is out of the question. I enlisted my friend Hope and together we rented a car and headed north, with Harley in the backseat whining, barking, panting and pacing. It was a long drive.
I don't remember how, in those pre-Internet days, I located an animal shelter, but I did. I made sure they didn't kill the dogs that didn't get adopted, since I had a feeling it might take a while for the right person to come along for Harley. I confess I did lie and claim I lived in Rhode Island, but I made a donation and figured my good heart and generosity would outweigh my dishonesty on the karmic scales.
I was dreading Harley's looking back at me as he walked away, but he was so trusting of me and the shelter worker that he went off without a backward glance. They put a little noose-like rope around his neck and, after I had signed my name to my fallacious paperwork, handed me his leash. I got misty and actually thought I was going to cry. But then I thought about the new, unchewed shoes in my future and visualized Harley romping happily in the smallest state in the Union, and I pulled myself together.
On the way back to the rented car I tossed the leash into a trash can.
That Thanksgiving weekend is a blur of my brother Paul hitting on Hope, my Uncle John throwing his weight around and the purchase of new shoes. On the drive back to New York, Hope locked the keys in the rental car, not once but twice. But that didn't even bother me because I knew no matter how late I got home, no one would be waiting for me, drooling bits of patent leather and anxious to drag me around Union Square in the bitter cold.
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