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Take Your Licks—From a Dog


For the past five summers, I’ve ridden my bike to work every morning. On third avenue and ninth street, I pull into a deli, exchange marhaba’s with Akhmed and grab a coffee. I pass through the projects and park inside the barbed-wire fence of the kennel. Deb and Britta, my bosses, are usually dressing their kids for camp, so I open up the kennel, feed the dogs, spray down the yard, and feel the pulse of red hook: the emphatic honks of departing cruise ships, the constant bustle of the criminal processing station across the street, and the rumble of semi-trucks thundering down Van Brunt. Brooklyn moves.

I met Sadie for the first time when she was barely a year old. She had soft brown hair and an ASPCA ad-worthy whimper. Even in her youth, her eyes were sad. By five she was ready to give in, ready to lie down and call the game. She has cancer now; a small tumor has attached itself to her liver, ferociously reproducing, slowly killing her from the inside out. She has no idea. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what cancer is. After all, Sadie is a dog.

Sadie was the third stop on my route. The other two dogs inside the hulking van—as I had been warned earlier—were incessant barkers. I had a headache within fifteen minutes of starting my shift. Sadie lived on the top floor of a four-story brownstone on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights. I left the barking van by a hydrant, prayed I wouldn’t get a ticket, trudged up the stairs, beaten and broken, painted a wide smile on my face, and unlocked the solid door, expecting the classic, worried thirty-something, fretting over their Pomeranian as I quickly introduce myself and get the hell out. The apartment was dark; clothes and papers littered the floor. Hidden in the corner of the living room was a dog bed. Sadie was curled up in a ball fast asleep. I tucked her under my arm and as I walked out, the door to a bathroom opened. It’s important to understand that a dog kennel worker is an anonymous person—it’s rare to meet your client’s owner, and surprisingly, your dogs don’t rave about you once they’re home.

So, I’m leaving the apartment, when this woman steps out of the bathroom in a towel and screams. I mean just screams her head off. I try and calm her down, showing her that I’m just there for the dog, that she scheduled a pick-up that day, that she had given my boss a key. But she kept on screaming. Finally, I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. She stopped screaming. Her name was Darby.

After two months, we had set a routine—she would bring Sadie downstairs in the morning, I’d try very hard to make more than small talk, she would feign interest for a while, and then she’d jokingly remind me that I had other dogs to pick up. Every evening, while she was still at work, I’d walk Sadie up to the apartment, open the door wide enough for just Sadie to fit through, and leave. I like to snoop. A lot. I let Darby have some privacy.

Deb changed my shift at Dog Abby, took me off pick-up and drop-off and moved me to the daytime shift out in the yards (6AM-12:30PM). On most summer days, we’d reach up to sixty dogs out in the heat. I’d set up sprinklers and hoses for the dogs, while Sadie slept in my lap all morning.

At first, I only worked at Dog Abby for two summers, but the summer job quickly became a steady year-round gig (working late nights during the week and the morning shift on Sundays), and five years later, graduating high school, I helped Deb and Britta pack up Dog Abby and move upstate for a larger property.

This summer, a couple of weeks after Dog Abby had moved, Darby called. I assumed it was a butt dial, so I missed the call and kept riding my bike. It rang again, so I picked up, and Darby’s parents were on the other line, frantic as hell. Sadie wasn’t getting up and Darby was on a business trip in London. Sadie wouldn’t get up. Apparently, she had left my number with them to call if they had questions regarding taking care of Sadie. When I got to the apartment, the grandparents were with Darby’s babies watching T.V, while Sadie lay in the corner. She looked up at me, then closed her eyes as if to say, ‘I’m done.’ I picked her up and carried her to the vet on the next block. They did an MRI and found her body full of cancer. Tumors on their way to organ size;, bones were cavities. We had had no ideaShe had slowed down quite a bit, but no one had any idea.

The doctor said that he had to put her down. I said ok and waited with Sadie while she heaved her last breaths.

I kissed Sadie on the nose as she went. Darby rushed home from London when her heard. Her children are too young to remember Sadie later, and are too young to care now. The kennel teaches you about loss—some customers stop coming, and soon you realize it’s because they have no dog to bring anymore. But losing Sadie was different, for me, for Darby. She lost part of her life—losing the connection to her twenties, to her independence, to reckless behavior because the only one watching was a Vizlu. She had Sadie before she had a husband, before she had kids, and that whole history, captured through the eyes of a dog, is gone.

The dog kennel is not generally a rewarding place. Owners are rude. Dogs bite and fight and piss. But sometimes dogs can touch your life. I didn’t realize it was ok not to work at Dog Abby until Sadie died. She closed Dog Abby for me better than any move could have.

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