2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
“Grizzly: A Social Medium”
There is something about a dog that speaks a universal language in a multi-cultural, multi-language neighborhood like Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Grizzly, our social medium, first spoke that language to me.
Two years ago my husband Mike and I moved into a one bedroom apartment on the garden floor of an old limestone building in Sunset Park. It had recently been gutted and remodeled with brand new floors, fresh paint, shiny kitchen appliances, and a bathroom with an actual linen closet. Mike and I agreed it was the fanciest place we had ever lived. The best part was the backyard. True, it was a concrete pit –but it was our concrete pit. It was a private backyard space all our own, and we had the landlord’s promise that a small dog would be welcomed.
On Craigslist, an ad featured a scrawny rust-colored Pomeranian named “Prince Harry.” The pup was offered by a small, non-profit, animal rescue group in Connecticut. We applied to adopt this dog, who, we learned, had been abandoned and found wandering the streets. Two ladies from the rescue group drove all the way down to Sunset Park on their own dime to check us out. They interviewed us as prospective caregivers, and we all watched in wonder as the dog systematically sniffed out every inch and corner of the apartment.
We must have passed their test because when they left, they didn’t take Prince Harry back with them. He had a new home, with us, and a new given name: Grizzly. He was so hairy and fuzzy that he looked like a miniature grizzly bear.
All that hair turned out to be a camouflage for a very skinny body. However, it didn’t take long for the scrawny pup to fill out to a healthy, fit, seventeen pound dog, and it took even less time for Grizzly to completely take over our apartment and our lives.
On the down side, we no longer buy nice things. Also, we cannot allow guests to put their shoes or purses on the floor because Grizzly will chew on them and “bury” his treasures in between the couch cushions and under the pillows on our bed.
On the positive side, Grizzly can dance on his hind legs, has a lot of energy, loves people, and wants attention and a close cuddle at all times. He appears to fly from one end of the apartment, leaps to the couch, lands on my lap, places his little front paws on my shoulders, and licks my cheek repeatedly. He actually prefers to do this to Mike’s face because of his scratchy stubble.
When we first moved to Sunset Park, Mike and I met a number of people. For instance, we were soon on a first name basis with guys working at the bodega down the block which sells the best selection of craft beers.
But it is Grizzly who really gets the credit for opening up the neighborhood to us. Our area has a mixed population, but it is predominantly home to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Chinese individuals. It is in this busy, bustling diversity that we have found a common denominator, a fluffy pup who just adores being adored.
The humanity and humility that a small dog can extract from the most random and complete strangers has been overwhelming and completely heartening to Mike and me. We often see children and adults alike looking at Grizzly with small smiles starting at the corner of their mouths when we pass them. Some of them have commented:
“¡Perrito, perrito!” said a little girl while pointing at Grizzly, which was followed by, “¡Ay, que linda!” from her mom.
“I like your dog. Huskies are my third favorite dog,” said a little boy. We aren’t sure if he thought Grizzly was a husky or if he was just sharing a general opinion with us.
“Hey man, that is one cool ass dog,” said a tough-looking Latino man with big muscles and tattoos to Mike.
“That’s a baby wolf,” explained a preschooler with scientific certainty to his classmate while on a walk through the park with his class.
Other times, people will stop to have more of a conversation so they can interact with Grizzly a bit more and maybe give him a pat or receive an appreciative lick in return.
“Does he bite?”
I say, “No, do you want to meet him?” while five Latino children crouch down in a circle around Grizzly and begin rapid fire questions and comments.
“Oh, he is so soft. What’s his name?”
“His name is Grizzly.”
“Is he a boy or a girl?”
“Is his tongue black?”
“I don’t think so, let’s see.”
“Can he do tricks? Paw…paw…paw…”
“Grizzly, shake. Shake hands.”
At another street corner I hear: “Your puppy looks just like Bailey!
I ask, “Is Bailey your dog?”
“Yes,” she replies, “but Bailey is 12 years old now and can’t come to the park. He can’t walk down stairs because, because Bailey is old now. He’s 12.”
“I’m sor-” “MOMMMMM! COME SEE THE PUPPY!” “-ry to hear about Bailey.”
“Mom, doesn’t this dog look just like Bailey? Bailey likes it when I do this.” She bends down next to Grizzly and scrunches up his ears and face. Grizzly pants, smiles, and gives her a lick as she giggles.
“Bailey sometimes eats my Mom’s underwear from the laundry basket.”
Her mom gives me a panicked look and I smile at her. We both shake our heads a bit and the moment of embarrassment passes as I respond, “Grizzly does crazy things like that sometimes too.”
On our way to Sunset Park, the park for which the neighborhood is named, we pass a car service establishment. A man who works there enjoys his cup of coffee on the sidewalk while waiting for his next customer; he would always shout after me and Grizzly. At first, I was refused to acknowledge his calls of, “Hey baby, hey baby!” I then realized he was directing these statements to Grizzly. These days, on our way to the park, I will spot him on the street at the car service and say to Grizzly, “Hey, who is that? Who is that over there?” Grizzly gets riled up, looks around and then ahead. He spots his friend and hears “hey baby!” and sprints forward to get his morning pat.
Sometimes, people just don’t want to have a conversation. They are simply interested in interacting with Grizzly himself. There was one young boy, maybe four or five years old, who had been following us for a while in the park. I could tell he wanted to meet the pup. We stopped and I asked him if he wanted to say hello to Grizzly. The boy immediately got down on his knees to quietly pet Grizzly lovingly and whispered to no one in particular, “Oh, he is so fluffy. You almost can’t see his ears because they are the same color as his fur. Ohhhh, he is so fluffy.”
Grizzly has made other, non-human friends during the early morning off-leash time in the park. Dog owners have introduced Grizzly to Cupie and Momo, Ralph, Ginger, Kiwi and Snowball, Marley, Kaya, Gizmo, Bruce the husky, and Porky, to name a few.
I know these dogs and their behaviors by sight and experience. I don’t know their owners as well. But we have been in Sunset Park long enough now to start recognizing individuals in the grocery store and entering or exiting the subway stop on 45th Street to realize we know these people from somewhere…..ah, yes, the dog park! These are Grizzly’s friends’ people.
There was an older woman using a walker to slowly make her way up the block. Her eyes lit up when she saw Grizzly and I watched her track his every movement as we got closer and closer to her. She stopped walking altogether to just stare at him. I was in a rush to get home, but I had to stop. I asked her if she wanted to pet him, she nodded at me. I picked Grizzly up and held him close to her. While she steadied herself with one hand on her walker, she stroked Grizzly’s head. She leaned in and Grizzly started licking her cheek and forehead. She just kept stroking Grizzly’s head and started murmuring, “God bless you. God bless you.”
We see an older man who seems to have hit a very rough patch usually sitting on the ground near the entrance of the park every morning. Sometimes he is alone. Other times he is hanging out with other men. We don’t know if he has a home to return to at night. Certain signs indicate that he is likely an alcoholic who has suffered from this disease for many years. We say good morning to him every time we see him.
Sometimes it takes him a moment to register our greeting, but he always returns it with his own warm “good morning, good morning.” He also almost always follows it up with “you have a beautiful dog.” We’ve shared this exchange dozens of times. One morning we watched him get picked up in an ambulance and we didn’t see him for a number of days. We thought about him every morning on our way into the park when he wasn’t there. I hope we will share our good morning exchange again tomorrow.
On our way home from the park, we steer our leashed dog away from the ready to be picked up garbage bags on the street curb.
“Pomeranians. You just never know their attitude,” a young, perhaps eight-year-old, girl remarks astutely as she gives Grizzly a gentle head pat, turns, and opens the gate to her brownstone walk-up.
I respond, “You are absolutely right! You just never know.” We walk on, a few steps later looking out the corners of our eyes at one another and giggling as our fluffy social medium trots on down the sidewalk.