I am in a scene from Goodfella’s.
It is 2am and I am in my car outside a warehouse in Queens. The weather has cooperated with the movie like setting with a soft fog and gentle mist. There is the smell of jet fuel in the air as the warehouse is owned by American Airlines. The parking area was empty and dark, the only light coming from a single bulb above the entrance of the building and reminds me of the light play in “Nighthawks” by Hopper. The inside of the car is completely dark as the engine is off. There is little conversation and frequent looking at our watches, as we await the designated hour to make our big move. Every tick of the clock seems to be as loud as a hand clap. Time seems to hang in the air like the mist that surrounds us..
This is a moment that had been in planning for months. Books had been studied in depth. Research had been thoroughly conducted. Endless dialogue had been engaged to make sure that our plans would be executed well and to our liking. I knew, beyond any reasonable doubt, that we had done all we could do to prepare us for this moment. We were ready for all contingencies. We were ready as anyone could be. But, still, doubt creeped in like a ninja ready to assassinate any confidence I had.
I was reminded of the old saw for war planners. “The battle plan disappears with the first shot.” What if all goes wrong. What are the things we have not thought about…? The doubts are an endless loop and I know that only action can replace my fear. Doing is almost always better than doing nothing.
2AM. The appointed hour. I turned to my partner and said “Are you ready.” She nodded yes and simultaneously we emerge from the car, closing the doors gently, and make our way to the Hopper doorway. Anticipation causes each step I take to multiply the butterflies in my stomach logarithmically. I reach for the door and pull hard. It is locked. For a moment of panic, I fear that the plan has gone terribly awry. I search the outside of the door and see a squawk box with a button on it. I press. A buzzer sounds, an electronic lock clicks, and we open the door. Just like that we were inside. Phase 1 complete
After so much time in the dark we are temporally blinded by the fluorescents in the warehouse. Disoriented, I look around. It does not look like a warehouse to me. The ceilings are low. No long rows of shelving packed with merchandise. Just a long booth with a plexiglass window covered with sheets of papers of assorted color attached with scotch tape that is yellow from age. I am a little intimidated by the plexiglass cage, why do they need a bullet proof enclosure, but bravely I walk over to it and push a piece of paper through a slot cut into the plexiglass that is similar to those you see in “token” booths on the subway. A man appears from the recesses of the booth startling me. He had been obscured by the paper covering the glass. Grabbing the sheets of paper, I have place in the slot he reads as if it were the most important document presented to anyone since Moses came down from the mountain.
He disappears back into his booth. I can see nothing but there is the sound of paper being moved, clipboards being removed from hooks and then replaced, and the scuffling of feet on what I imagine is concrete flooring. Eventually he makes it back to the opening, I now see he looks like Steve Schirripa, from the Sopranos, and speaks into a microphone and says in a Brooklyn accent that is so thick that it seems fake “ “License and one other form of id.” My hands are not steady, so I struggle a little pulling my license and a credit card from my wallet and place them in the slot hoping against hope he does not see how unnerved I am. He looks at the picture on the ID and then at me several times before he is reassured that I am who I say I am. He copies down some information onto a sheet attached to a clip board, loudly stamps a piece of paper and hands it, and my id’s, back to me. Pulling a larger microphone down from the roof of his booth he booms out in Brooklynese “Hey Lou. The people are here for da dawg. Bring dem da dawg!”
He smiled a crooked, sweet smile of the type normally reserved for small children and puppies and points to a door adjacent from his plexiglass fiefdom and says. “Go dehr.” We go.
The door leads to the warehouse proper. It is the length of a football field and half as wide, 50 ft ceilings with 5 rows of shelving stacked with merchandise spaced far enough apart so a car could drive down the aisles. But there was no one there. Just silence. My companion and I just look at each other and shrug our shoulders wondering whether or not Brooklyn has directed us here as some sort of a practical joke on people from Manhattan. I resist the impulse to go back and ask him whether we were in the right place. Instead I pace, like the trope of an expectant father, back in front of the door thinking about the events that had brought me to this place.
The morning of Sept 11, 2001 had blossomed a perfect day. A clear blue sky, mild temperatures. The type of day that made you wish you were Donald O’Connor singing with Debbie Reynolds “Good Morning.” My exuberance for the new day had propelled me to the office a little earlier than my normal 7am and I was making great progress on getting the work of the day behind me when I was shocked by the arrival of my always late assistant, Michelle, arriving at 8:30 am with coffee in hand to bribe the boss. I like bribes so I accepted and we spent a few minutes chit chatting about nothing more serious than the standings in MLB.
A few minutes into our conversation we heard an airplane going over our building clearly very low and going quite fast. This was highly unusual considering our location in midtown and I commented on it to Michelle “That pilot is going to get fined. You aren’t allowed to fly so low and fast over the city.” What I didn’t know then that plane was about to change the world by being the first plane to plunge into the World Trade Center.
I found that out a few minutes later when someone ran into my office to tell us that the World Trade Center was on fire. We rushed to the floor to ceiling windows on the south side of our 27th floor offices. There we had an unobstructed view of the black smoke gushing from the ruptured tower. It is there that we learned that this was an act of terrorism. It was from there we saw, with our own eyes, the 2nd airplane hit, a flash of orange and then black smoke that we originally thought was a secondary explosion. It was there we saw with unbelieving eyes the first tower crumble and then the second.
I won’t bore you with the details of the abandonment of our offices or my zombie like march home to the Upper West Side. I won’t tell you how my apartment became a lifeboat for some I knew, and some I didn’t, who couldn’t make it home. I don’t need to tell you how many times I saw on CNN the towers being hit and the towers collapsing.
When I fell asleep that night no one knew how many had died. I did not know that my boyhood friend Todd Ranke had died when the second plane wiped out his offices. What I did know that day had indelibly changed my perception of the world. Life is fragile. That you never know when you get up in the morning whether you are going to make it out alive. I fell asleep knowing that there were things in my life that I had not done that I needed to do. That I had left unsaid feelings that needed to be said. That I had postponed what could be postponed no longer.
The next day I did not work. The city, the country, the world was in a fugue state knowing what happened but unable to process all the consequences. I decided, in a sense of meaningless defiance, that I wasn’t going to let those bastards change my life and went for a training run for the Chicago Marathon, which I had foolishly committed to running and was less than a month away. My route took me from my apartment at 76th and Riverside through Riverside Park to the Hudson River Greenway. The West Side Highway directly adjacent to the Greenway was free of traffic, until I got to the Chelsea Piers where a que of ambulances began and continued the nearly three miles to ground zero. When I got within a half mile of the pile the path was blocked but the smoke rising from the collapsed building hung in the blue sky of the new day, testimony to the largest ever funeral pyre of US citizens.
As I made my way back home I once again wondered how the terrorist attacks of the day before were going to affect me. What changes did I need to make in my life? If there is no tomorrow what do I need to do today? My thoughts were scrambled and fleeting. So many things in my life were not the way that I wanted them to be. So many things had been put off as I try to steer my life to a path I thought I wanted that my inner dialogue became more white noise than cogent thoughts.
My run ended at the stairs that lead from the Greenway’s bike path to 72nd St. Sometimes, when I felt physically strong, I would run up these steps but that day I had nothing left in the tank so I plodded up the stairs and crossed under the West Side Highway. There I paused, as I often did, to look at the dogs playing in the dog park. 5 years earlier I had moved back to New York and had been forced through unfortunate circumstance to leave my German Shepherd Dog, Suki, in Massachusetts. As a consequence I had become one of those New Yorkers who greeted every dog who looked at him. Watching the dogs at joyful play in the dog park was one way that I could get what I called my vitamin K9. My girlfriend at the time had been more succinct, she had said “You need a dog.”
Suddenly, out of the many scrambled fleeting thoughts came one. I need a dog. I had postponed it long enough. For the next few months, I searched to find the perfect type of dog for me. While many had recommended a shelter dog, I decided not to go that route even though very admirable, but because I wanted a clearer understanding into what I was getting myself into. Books were read. Videos watched. Friends were consulted. And still I could not figure out what breed of puppy I wanted. I became obsessed with the subject and I am sure that I became quite a bore on the subject to friends and family alike.
Then one afternoon my sister called “I have found the perfect dog for you. I just met one on the elevator. Soooo cute. He is a golden doodle. So friendly. And his owner says he is super smart and get this. They don’t shed. Look them up. You’ll see.”
I looked them up. I found out that Labradoodles were originally bred in Australia because two friends were lamenting the fact that their recently blinded friend could not get a seeing eye dog as he was allergic. They applied to the Australian government for a grant to breed a dog that was non allergenic and smart and sweet enough to be a seeing eye dog. After years of research, and likely a few beers, they came up with the Labradoodle, a true breeding cross between a Labrador and a poodle. The breed clicked everyone of my boxes. I was sold.
The challenge was finding someone to sell me a dog. I checked with every breeder in the United States and apparently, I was not the first person to hear about the breed because not only didn’t they have any puppies, but their waiting lists were filled up for years. In desperation, I contacted one of the original Australian breeders and asked if they had any recommendations on where I could find a puppy. Her response surprised me. “How about one from us? We ship worldwide.” After a little research into how they shipped their dogs…better than first class…I gave them a deposit for a dog and for months heard nothing from them. I would love to say I was not obsessed with puppies during this time. That my focus remained on things that were in front of me such as my job, family, friends and relationships. However, that would be less than the truth. I was obsessed with learning about dog training and feeding. I watched Cesar Milan until I could predict his next sentences. I fantasized about dog names including Shamsky (Jewish Player on the ’69 Mets,) Fenway (after my favorite ball park) and even Summit (after my home and a cheer in high school S-U-M-M-I_T, Summits the best.) But nothing stuck.
On the evening of July 4, 2002, I received an email as I step off an airplane in Seattle. It was from my breeder and included a picture of what was probably the cutest puppy who had ever been born. I wrote her back immediately thanking her for the photo and note but also enquiring if my puppy had been born on July 4 as Australia was 12 hours ahead. Her response came back quickly, yes, and I realized the puppy’s name had been decided for me. A “doodle” born on the 4th of July needed to be named Yankee. Even if the dogs owner is a Red Sox fan.
That summer was one of anticipation. Not only was the Carly Simon song on an endless loop in my head but everyday seem to drag. Yankees arrival date seemed not to grow closer. I filled the time with re reading such classics as “The Art of Raising A Puppy” and “How To Be Your Dogs Best Friend” by the Monks of New Skeet and about a half dozen other books all relating to how I could be a better human to Yankee. I watched endless shows on dogs on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.
One of the books recommended I interview vets before puppy came home. As a consequence, I made an appointment with a highly touted vet. It did not go well. Not only was she confused and insulted as to why she was being interviewed about the position of being my dog’s vets but when I told her of his breed (Labradoodles were not well known at the time) she became indignant. Why was I bringing a “mutt” all the way over from Australia when there plenty of dogs for adoption in shelters here in the USA. I tried to explain to her that this was a “new” breed that reproduced true and had been developed by the Australian Government, but she kept on referring to Yankee as a mutt. Needless to say, she was not hired on but taught me about the “petinista” culture in City. A name I coined for those people who had such narrow views of pet ownership that they could tolerate no others except their own. For example, the Mercedes Vet. A woman vet who did not have an office but traveled to people’s home in her chauffeur driven Mercedes to treat those animals trusted to her golden care. And their was the heiress who came to your home to wash your dog while wearing her diamonds and rolex.
By the end of the summer, I had managed to find a dog concierge (yes, they exist) who would arrange everything from dog walking and sitting to any other needs your puppy could want. And a doggy day care that would come a pickup your hound from you in the morning and deliver him home to you in the evening. I was ready.
So, why was I so nervous standing here on the loading dock of a warehouse in the middle of the night at JFK? Everything was ready for his arrival. Perhaps some of it was the same sort of anticipation that new parents have after waiting 9 months to meet their child. I had only waited 6 months but some of the fears were exactly the same. Will the puppy know me (I had sent a worn t-shirt to Australia 6 weeks ago) so that he would have scent memory of me?) Will I love the puppy…what if he is a disappointment? What if the puppy is sick or ailing from the trip?
Just as my litany of doubts was reaching fever pitch, I hear the sound of a forklift’s tires screeching on the polished concrete floors of the warehouse. I turn in the direction of the sound as I do it appears, forks laden with a palette about 6 feet above the ground, and on the palette a dog shipping crate with a little black nose sticking out from it. I was smitten.
The forklift came to rest in front of us and lowered its cargo to the ground. The black nose was joined by a raspberry pink tongue and barks that sounded a little Australian (no, really) and a bit squeaky. The case was vibrating from what I can only imagine was wagging. Be still my beating heart. But before I could even look through the grill of the crate, the driver of the lift hands me a clipboard and says, “Sign this.” I don’t even look at what I am signing and manage to scribble something resembling my signature. Paperwork complete, the driver, who resembles Joe Pantalone and speaks with a very distinct Queens accent says “Cute little motherfucker” before driving away.
We decide against opening the crate inside the warehouse as I want our first meeting to be in private. Call me sentimental and old fashioned. At the car, I place his crate on the ground, and unhook the latch that holds the grilled front closed, and out bursts this beautiful apricot colored fluff ball who first runs around in a circle a couple of times before launching himself into my arms his whole body wagging. It is a singular moment of bonding that is sealed with many licks from him and girlish giggles from me.
The ride back to Manhattan is spent with more time spent looking at this precious new creature in my life than on the road. Thank god it is the early hours of the morning with little traffic or we might not have made it home.
The walk from the car park to our apartment is dotted with two firsts. One of which you could bronze if you really wanted to and another that just disappears in the gutter. But that does not make me less proud. Yankee has made his mark on New York.
We are exhausted. It has been a long day and a very emotional night. We decide that as much as we would like to play all night with the puppy that sleep is our first order of business. In preparation for slumber, we place Yankee in his new crate along with a well-worn t-shirt of mine and an old-fashioned water bottle for comforting warmth. The puppy easily goes into his crate but the minute I slip under the sheets, and when he could no longer see me, he begins to whine. I try to be patient, (what is the dog equivalent of Ferberization) but he does not stop, and my heart is to frail to resist him. Eventually, I lay down on the floor next to the crate and place my fingers through its wire sides so Yankee can smell them. He quiets and eventually both of us fall asleep.
The next morning, after an early walk, I am in the bathroom to take a well needed shower. Yankee follows me in and had the tub rim been lower he would have followed me into the spray. I decide to serenade him.
You are the puppy that I’ve always dreamed of
I knew it from the start
I saw your face and that’s the last I’ve seen of my heart
It’s not so much the things you bark to me
It’s not the things you do
It’s how I feel each time you’re close to me
That keeps me close to you
Yankee does not bark his approval, but I can tell from the way he licks my leg when I get out of the shower how much he appreciated my song stylings.
“You know that you have told me this story a thousand times.”
“And you know that Yankee is the first dog I ever loved, and he is forever special in my heart.”
“So why are you telling me this story again. It is late don’t you think we should go to sleep?”
“Yes, we should go to sleep but there was a reason I was telling you the story.”
“Well, part of Yankee’s story is that the idea of him was born out of a time when we realized that there are no guarantees in this world. That we are never promised tomorrow. Only today. That it is up to us to seize every bit of happiness and joy out of every moment of every day.”
“Look how well Yankee turned out….and right now with all the talk of death and horror that the Covid 19 virus has produced and with Richard’s death….”
“You are not going to make it easy on me are you. I thought…I thought…it might be a good time for us to get another puppy. It would be our affirmation of life.”
“You know we have talked about this before. How difficult it would be to get another dog with the amount we travel and often live in other places.”
“I know but just think of the puppy smell. And the sweet licks and cuddles.”
“My love, you know how hard it would be for us to have a puppy right now.”
“But I have a thought on that…. perhaps we could get a miniature labradoodle. One who could ride on the airplane with me when we are in Rio.”
“We could get a black puppy with a little white star on his chest.”
“And since he had the right coloring, we could name him after your favorite football team “Botafogo”, or Bota for short. How cute would that be? “
“My darlingo…don’t you think it is time to fall asleep.”
“Okay, but can we talk about this tomorrow?.”
“Good night my darling. Sleep well.”