By the time I adopted Chloe in 2004, she had already had at least five homes. Or so I’m told. (One can never be 100 percent sure of a shelter dog’s history.) By the time I adopted Chloe, I myself had had at least five homes, too. More like 50; I can’t say for sure because I honestly haven’t counted. For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll count all the places I’ve lived once I’m actually/permanently settled. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The two years before I adopted Chloe were particularly unsettled (to put it mildly). I left my marriage, left my apartment and left my job all in a span of four weeks. Then our beloved dog Wallace (of Rex and the City fame) died suddenly, and I was so devastated that I left NYC altogether. When a dog leaves your life, it feels as though Pure Love has left as well. It can take eons to recover.
I began what we now affectionately call the “Odd-yssey.” I moved to a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado, where I stayed for six months. There, I felt dislodged, uprooted and confused. I missed my dog and I missed my life. The problem was, I no longer knew what “my life” was.
My teachers said that such chaos was good for me. Chaos, they said, is the place from which stillness is born. Chaos is the precursor to creation.
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It took months to realize they were right because, frankly, chaos sucks. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time with the resident Buddhist dog, a soulful Heeler mix named Maitri (which is defined as the root of compassion manifested as friendship with oneself). Maitri’s presence also brought me to a state of inner peace and stillness. Without all that sucky chaos. But it made me miss having a dog even more.
Anyway, after I left Colorado, I moved back to New York, first to an artist’s colony in Woodstock for a few months, then to Montauk, where I spent the summer at another artist’s colony. I seemed, back then, to be following art and good weather. And this journey toward maitri. After Montauk, I decided I couldn’t spend another winter in Woodstock and returned, at last, to my beloved New York City. Only in NYC have I ever truly felt at home. And yet it drives me nuts. Perhaps that is why I love it.
Once I had unpacked the final box in my new, large faded-beauty of an apartment on the Very Upper West Side, I felt ready to “settle down” again. And settling down, in my opinion, required a dog.
In the previous installment of these “Chloe Chronicles,” I wrote about finding and adopting a new dog over the Internet—sight unseen—and how I discovered Chloe (then named “Buffy from Michigan”) on Petfinder, and what I did to prepare for her arrival at her new home.
Home is the operative word here. I wanted to give this formerly homeless dog a home. The previous installment of the “Chloe Chronicles” ended with meeting Buffy for the first time at the airport in Newark, N.J. A nice volunteer named Pam had escorted the dog from Michigan. I remember how widely I smiled when I saw Pam wheeling a large dog crate toward me across the bright, broad hallway of the airport; I remember how I cried when Pam unlatched the crate and out came a liver-and-white Spaniel (who was also a possible Border Collie mix) wearing a new pink collar. I cried because I was moved by the hugeness of the moment. When you are united with the dog you are meant to have, you know that your life is about to get much, much better.
I could tell right away my Buffy was a sweet and loving dog, but she was clearly stressed. I could see it in the way she paced and panted and shivered. She couldn’t focus; she seemed to want to get away—but what was “away” and where would that be for a dog who knew so little of airports and the human world? She spun in circles, locked in a state of anxiety, her nervous system in overdrive. Chaos.
Some might have looked at this dog, labeled her high-strung and left her at the shelter. According to Pam, at least four people back in Michigan had done so already. But my heart went out to Buffy. I knew her behavior was temporary. And manageable. I knew her only real “problem” was that she hadn’t been loved. No maitri.
I knelt down and tried to hug Buffy, but she wouldn’t stay still. She didn’t even really look at me, or wag her tail, or offer an affectionate kiss. I was a bit hurt by this (for what is better than a doggie kiss?), but I tried to see things from her perspective: in the past month, she had passed through perhaps dozens of human hands—some of them caring and concerned, others not so much. Pam told me that in the past week alone, Buffy had been adopted out twice, then returned unceremoniously to the foster parents, who didn’t really seem to like her; then adopted by me over the phone, like some mail-order bride; then taken to a vet (by a caring volunteer); then drugged, spayed and released with a raw pink scar on her belly. Then she was driven to Detroit, pushed into a crate, stowed in a cargo hold and shipped to … Newark.
Then she met me. And who was I to Buffy’s frightened eyes but another human who may or may not be nice? A human who had had 50 homes?
So, while I was sad that Buffy did not to kiss me on our first “date,” I understood that these things take time. Just like any relationship. In fact, I had already made a solemn vow. I promised Buffy that, with me, she would always be safe, always be fed, always be comfortable, and always be happy and loved. With loving-kindness.
I hadn’t made many vows in this life. I suppose I didn’t trust myself enough. There was my wedding vow, with its until-death-do-us-part component that had proved tough to uphold. Later, I took a Bodhisattva vow, which basically lasts beyond death and which I have, thankfully, managed to uphold. And now there was this vow to Buffy. In a way, I took it more seriously than my wedding vow. Perhaps because I had failed at the marriage and wanted to succeed at something related to the love and care of another being. I think my ex, Ted, having also experienced dog love, would have understood.
“Come on, Buffy,” I said, taking the leash from Pam. “Ready to go to your new home?”
I thanked Pam and we said our goodbyes. Outside, I waited as Buffy peed quickly on a small strip of grass, and then we headed toward my car. Soon the dog and I were on I-95, on our way to NYC. She rode in the back seat; the crate was in the way-back. I thought that, like most dogs, she might enjoy putting her head out the window. Instead, she cowered in the footwell, as though convinced this car ride was going to deliver her to yet another destination of doom. “It’s all right,” I told her. “You’re with me now. I’m going to give you a home. I’m going to give both of us a home.”
She cocked her ears (in that intelligent canine way), which suggested that she was at least considering the possibility of something good coming.
Soon we were crossing the George Washington Bridge. The sight of that bridge and the Manhattan skyline along the Hudson River always fills me with a sense of renewal and hope—New York, New York! The famous Frank Sinatra song came to mind, and I sang to Buffy. “We’re going to be a part of it, New York, New York.”
I felt a certain camaraderie with the dog: two transients coming together, both of us nervous, both of us reeling from the past. Both of us craving the same thing: safety; comfort; enough food to sustain us; and a warm, soft place to sleep. Personally, I also wanted fame and fortune and a great wardrobe. But when I narrowed it down to basic needs, to those cravings for survival, it came to me: I can do this.
Slowly, Buffy crawled onto the seat and looked out the window. Perhaps she smelled the river. Or perhaps she sensed my optimism and decided to join me.
We pulled onto Riverside Drive at 156th and found a parking space right in front of our building. I took this to be a good sign. Realtors call my neighborhood Audubon Terrace, but it is basically the northernmost slice of Harlem. A bafflingly beautiful neighborhood, it features elegant, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings; wide, curved streets; stately plane trees, and a cluster of historical Beaux-Arts buildings that house museums and cultural institutions. Yet there is an air of desolation and disappointment about the place: built in glory, destined for stardom, yet over and forgotten before it had even really begun.
The good news is that Audubon Terrace is a great dog neighborhood. In fact, I had researched the area and made sure it had dog perks before I chose that apartment. Riverside Park was within walking distance, and NYC’s largest and most wonderful dog run—George’s Run at Fort Tryon Park—was within driving distance.
I walked Buffy around the historic district to see if she needed to pee again. The limestone buildings of the museum complex took on a sepia tone at night, which always made me nostalgic for an earlier era, but in a good way. Plus, I had a dog now.
This particular route led us past an historic cemetery (where the famous painter of birds, John James Audubon, is buried and which offers plenty of sidewalk grass). Buffy did not pee on this grass as I thought she might. Instead, the first thing she did when I brought her into my apartment was pee on my bed. She looked nervous while she was doing it, and guilty and confused, but I didn’t punish her. I’m all about positive reinforcement. No raised voices, no violence, no “corrections.” Instead, I turned my body away (to show I wasn’t a threat) and waited until she hopped off the bed herself on her own time.
It’s not that I was thrilled that my new dog had peed on my thermapedic mattress. But it was replaceable. What was important was that my new dog felt safe and that we bond. (For the record: I clicker-trained her to relieve herself outside within 24 hours. So there.)
It was almost midnight at that point, and I was tired. I filled Buffy’s water dish and gave her a bit of food (which I had made earlier that day), but she ignored both. I understood; chaos kills the appetite.
That night, neither of us slept. Buffy paced and whined and panted—all signs of extreme anxiety—and I couldn’t get her to settle down. She rushed around the apartment, inspecting doors and windows as though looking for a way out. I tried to hug her, but she kept squirming out of my arms. I tried to distract her with treats and toys, but she couldn’t focus, couldn’t calm down.
Around 2 am, I started to get anxious myself. What had I done, adopting such an anxious, troubled dog? For the second time. Was I a masochist when it came to doggie relationships? I kept reminding myself that although Wallace had been troubled at first, Ted and I had helped him become a happy, loving, trusting dog through patience, training, conditioning and love. I reminded myself that Buffy’s anxious behavior was perfectly reasonable and logical given her history. All we needed was time.
At 4 am, I started feeling spacey from lack of sleep. Buffy was still pacing and panting, her nails clicking on the wooden floor, so I got up and put her in her crate. I’m not a fan of crates per se, but I needed some rest. Plus, there was a chance she might see the crate as her safe haven, as some dogs do. But Buffy became even more agitated, throwing her body against the crate and whining. It was almost 5 by then, so I figured I might as well get up and start a new day.
I got dressed and picked up the leash and the keys. I remembered that these two gestures, plus the sounds that accompanied them, were enough to send Wallace into a frenzy of excitement. But Buffy took no notice, because these gestures and sounds weren’t yet cues for her. This made me sad—no one had walked her.
“We’re going on our first walk!” I said in that singsong voice we always use with our dogs. “Our first morning together in New York City.” I clipped the leash onto her collar. “See? A new leash on life.”
We took the same route we had walked the night before—around the beautiful four-block museum complex. I would continue this for weeks to help Buffy orient herself and establish a routine. She turned out to be a very fine leash-walker, mostly because I had one of those 20-foot retractable leashes and she was slow.
She relieved herself near the cemetery and looked, well, relieved. I took this as another good sign. And—here’s the best part—when we approached our building, she turned and looked at me as if to say, This is the place, right?
“You smart dog!” I said. “What a smartie.”
When we got upstairs, Buffy went immediately to her water dish—she remembered—and lapped it up. That sound! It’s so sweet to us dog-lovers, isn’t it? A thirsty dog quenching her thirst. A basic need, simply met. Yet it felt profound.
I had a dog again. After all that Odd-ysseying.
My friend Melissa always says: “We get the dog we need. And dogs get the people they need.”
And just like that, Buffy and I found a home.