It took me about a month to realize that the people sitting in the gleaming white van that parks on my corner most mornings are dogs. About 30 of them, in fact. I’d be the first to admit that my powers of observation aren’t especially strong, but these are some of the most well-behaved mutts I’ve ever seen.
Curiosity eventually compelled me to approach their driver, a fellow in his 40′s with several days’ growth of beard and a T-shirt that said, “It’s my world, babe, you’re just living in it.” I asked him what the canines were doing in the van rather than, say, sitting at home chewing on the furniture or rooting through the garbage, as most dogs of my acquaintance do.
The guy, whose name is Robert but who didn’t want to reveal his last name for fear of attracting undue attention to his business, told me that each morning, starting around 7 A.M., he picks up the pets from some of the Upper East and West Side’s finer addresses, then chauffeurs them crosstown to a dog run in Riverside Park for a couple hours of seriously exhausting fun.
“Get in back,” he growled-not at me but at Henry and Bear, a Great Dane and a golden retriever who had commandeered the front seat in his absence. I went along as human cargo. Henry and Bear joined a veritable kennel of colleagues in the rear of the van, including several black and yellow Labradors, a gaggle of golden retrievers, a bulldog, a standard poodle and Mary, an artist from Stuyvesant Town who is Robert’s second-in-command.
Mary was sitting on the back seat with a Jack Russell terrier who was introduced to me as “Little Barclay.” The “Little” is apparently to distinguish the feisty squirrel-chaser from a second Barclay on board, a blind, deaf, 19-year-old Pomeranian. “Even though he’s blind, he can jump in the van,” said Robert, who, though he doesn’t play favorites, has a soft spot for the senior Barclay. They roomed together for a couple of years when the elder Barclay’s master took a job with a bank in London and refused to subject her dog to England’s barbaric six-month quarantine. “He’s got the height and the smell memorized from when he was younger,” Robert said, noting the old dog’s sensory compensations.
Robert’s been in the dog care business for 14 years, and his unsentimental affection for his clients is palpable. “A lot of the doormen in these different buildings know me,” he explained, rolling down his window and shouting to a uniformed doorman standing in front of a tower on 85th Street and Madison Avenue as we drove by. “That’s where Scooter used to live. He moved to San Francisco. A good ball player. Used to play with Pudgie, an American bulldog.”
Friendships apparently form fast in the van. “Henry and Picasso see each other out in the Hamptons,” Robert noted. “For the whole summer, the owners couldn’t figure out why the dogs got along so well. It’s because they see each other five days a week. Then they get together on weekends.”
Robert became professionally involved with dogs when he dated a woman who ran a dog boarding house back in the early 80′s. The relationship didn’t stick but the dog hair did. It’s an occupational hazard. Hair is everywhere-on the van ceiling, the dashboard, the seats, the air-conditioning ducts, Mary’s olive flannel army shirt (and now my jacket and pants). In fact, it may have been dog hair that broke the spirit of Donald, Robert’s other assistant, who, on this particular day, was interviewing for a job driving a truck.
“He needs a break,” Robert said. “You look like a dog, you smell like a dog, your life’s gone to the dogs, essentially.”
A couple of passengers, Earl, a bulldog, and Sasha, a mutt, joined us up front to check our progress as we crossed Central Park. “Her master is the owner of the Equinox health clubs,” Robert said, singling out Sasha with a little pride. Another celebrity client is Bandit, a Portuguese water dog and heir to the Bagelry chain’s fortune. Restaurateur Warner LeRoy’s yellow Lab rode with the posse for a while but dropped out. “He had some behavior problems the owner wasn’t happy about,” Robert said diplomatically. “Every so often, he’d get in a little squabble.”
Cooperation is essential to the operation’s success and everybody seems to know it. Even though more than two dozen dogs go for the ride most days, none of them infringe on each other’s two or three feet of space. (The day I tagged along, they were short six dogs-five cocker spaniels and Max, Robert’s own pet, who’s at the vet with a mysterious tail ailment that his master tentatively attributes to feeding the dog pizza crusts.)
The passengers display a surreal sense of equilibrium in transit. They seem bolted in place, placidly gazing out the window as Robert zigs in and out of traffic. And when they return to the van, after their outing, they all claim the same spots.
The only discordant note on our voyage came when we approached Riverside Park and one of the sharper hounds let go with several ear-splitting barks. “Willy, shut up!” Robert commanded. Willy had recently relocated to New York from Argentina and may well have mistaken the park for the pampas. “This is where they all go crazy because they see the boys,” he said.
The boys are several locals who, in an operation only slightly less complicated than the invasion of Normandy, help offload the dogs, safely transport them across Riverside Drive and into the park and, perhaps most crucially, clean up their messes. To that end, Robert, who charges their masters between $15 and $20 for the morning’s amusement, supplies his employees with plastic bags he purchases by the thousand roll from Pioneer supermarket. If there was any aspect of Robert’s operation I found debatable, it was his policy of reusing the bags.
“Even though they’re cheap, I learn to be frugal,” he said. “You can get two or three shits to a bag. Why waste?”
A rebuttal of sorts came from Nala, a collie, who paused along the path to the dog run to bless us with a bowel movement for the record books. “Boy, what are they feeding you?” Robert wondered aloud. “It doesn’t look like dog food to me.”
It’s details like that that have caused Robert’s love life to take a dive. He mentions the beautiful model who dropped him when he showed up at her house with the whole pack. He’d left his watch at her apartment and was returning to retrieve it. When he’d told her he was in the pet care business, she’d apparently thought he meant as the majority shareholder of Hartz Mountain Corporation.
“She didn’t think I got my hands dirty,” he lamented. “When she saw me get out of the van, as grubby as I looked, she decided she didn’t want to go out with me.” Fortunately, with more than two dozen dogs under his command, Robert doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity. “Mary, stop!” he shouts. “Barclay’s pooping!”
Mary, with eight dogs to worry about, many of them larger sporting breeds, has lost sight of the little Jack Russell terrier. She eventually brings the pack to a stop, allowing Little Barclay to finish his business.
“Nobody’s going to do your job better than you do,” Robert sighed.