Volume 78 - Number 37 / February 18 - 24 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Mayday! Dog down in a high-rise construction zone

By Michele Herman

Everything was fine one minute. It was midday Wednesday, and my dachshund and I returned from a visit to his dachshund girlfriend down the hall, who was recuperating from a pinched nerve. We came back to our apartment and, being the healthy ones, went off to our respective work — I to the desk to write and he to the kitchen to sniff.

A second later I heard a big messy-sounding clatter in the kitchen, a mix of jingling tags, puppy toenails slipping on the floor and a crablike scrabbling. I sat there for a minute, stupid with warring hypotheses. Hysteria said, You’ve always feared it and now it’s happened — there’s an enormous rat in the apartment, and it’s attacking the puppy. Reason said, Don’t be ridiculous, to which hysteria replied, If you’re so smart, explain that clatter. Without much conviction, reason said, Obviously a plastic bag has fallen off the counter and he somehow got trapped in it and is trying to get away.

My body finally stopped wasting time with these two clowns and ran in to see for itself. What it found was a very sick dog quaking all over and trying repeatedly to get to his feet, which wouldn’t support him. We’d seen this condition a couple of times before, and I knew it wasn’t necessarily as terrifying as it appeared; when a dog is very small — ours is 11.4 pounds on a good day — any disturbance to his system tends to be dramatic.

I carefully lifted him and brought him to his piddle pad, where he promptly vomited three times and then had a little diarrhea. I settled down with him to wait for the shaking to stop, singing the song I used to sing my boys when they needed calming, “Mockingbird.” I’ve always meant to look up the lyrics, which in my version take a wrong turn somewhere in the middle so that I end up with the line, weirdly appropriate now: “If that dog named Rover falls down.” 

He didn’t calm down for a while, so I called the vet. The vet was in surgery and the first available appointment was in two hours. I’ll call you back to cancel if he gets better before then, I said, sure that this is what would happen, on the principle of carrying an umbrella to prevent a storm.

In the meantime I replayed the recent past for possible explanations, and sure enough one presented itself: Early that morning when I took the dog out, he sniffed out something on the sidewalk, something so small I didn’t even see it, and scarfed it down with two crunches. I should say that our sidewalk has developed a clear demarcation over the past couple of years: There’s the normal part leading up to our building entrance, and then to the west there’s the part he strains at his leash to get to every morning, the scuzzy, no man’s land of the Related Companies’ construction site.

Above us there’s scaffolding serving no apparent function for the humans, but making an exemplary coop for the burgeoning pigeon population. They poop through the gaps in the boards onto our ramp, which is covered anew every day with huge glistening green-and-white coils, like the palette of an artist who can afford only cheap acrylics in ugly greens, chalk white and black.

The sidewalk itself terminates in a ragged plywood fence, from which the billboards for last season’s Showtime pilots have peeled off. When the cars are parked tightly along the curb, you can get trapped in that cul-de-sac of bagged trash, discarded Christmas trees and construction-worker leavings — eggshells, chicken bones, the top of an aluminum can, sometimes an entire takeout container with lo mein noodles or deli meat turning hard and purple inside. 

The dog got worse. I was now cradling his snout with one hand and holding the top of his head with the other to try to still his quaking. Occasionally he would lift his head at an odd angle and look at me, his eyes glassy but imploring. “Rest your little keppe,” I found myself saying, which is what my parents used to say to me when I was sick. I called the vet’s office back, and when the vet himself answered, I grew stupid again. “But, but aren’t you supposed to be in surgery until 3:20?” I stammered. “Come over now,” he answered when I described what was happening.

The worst part of an emergency is that you have no idea what its structure is. Were we reaching the denouement or were we still in the prologue? When I put the dog in his carry case, he poked his head out through the opening, and seemed to be perking up. My worry hormones, already called to action and ready to work, gnawed for a while on petty social concerns: Maybe I was making a fool of myself by overreacting. But then when we were a block away from the vet, I poked my head in and found the dog lying on his side, awake but listless, looking up at me with the whites of his eyes showing. I ran the last block.

Our vet always strikes me as someone more likely to have a rock band than a veterinary practice. In a word, he’s very cool, in all the right ways. When he used the words “convulsions” and “toxic shock,” I knew he meant business. He made it clear the dog had been poisoned, most likely by rotten food or a bone, and might not have made it through on his own. He said he needed to keep him for a few hours to pump his stomach and put in an IV. He said to call in a couple of hours.

I walked home alone down Hudson Street, a land I traverse nearly every day with the dog. With the empty carry case banging against my side, I was as lonely and heartsick as I’ve been in years. As I thought of having to tell the story, with its still-unknown ending, to my husband and kids, I also felt a heavy responsibility fall on me, and the what-ifs began to assert themselves: What if I had been out doing something frivolous? What if I’d been home but my judgment had skewed ever so slightly toward waiting it out?

An hour and a half later, the vet called and told me my dog was doing much better. He’s wagging his tail, he said, and walking around, and he’s acting a little goofballish from the Valium. We rushed to get him, had our faces licked all over, and carried him home with the bandage and IV still on his paw, on the off chance he should get sick again during the night. The bill was large.

This was two days ago. He’s fine now, sleeping on a towel beside me. It snowed yesterday, which means the sidewalks are treacherous with rock salt, which can burn paws, so we haven’t been out much. Our walks now will require an extra level of vigilance; dachshunds have talented noses, are low to the ground and very fast, and you’d be surprised how many chicken bones they sniff out, even in this city rich in public trash cans.

Early on when the construction workers started leaving their messes on our sidewalk, I complained once or twice to the foreman. I’ll get right on it, he said, but not a thing changed. One day I walked past a couple of workers on their lunch break and a bruised green apple rolled across the sidewalk right in front of me. Did one of you just chuck that? I asked. They both looked at me as if I was imagining things. I wondered whether it’s one of those cultural differences I just don’t understand, like the matrons in French movie theaters who insist on lighting your way to a seat and then demand a tip. Is it some kind of badge of honor for men building luxury condos to be pigs? Is it a calling card they leave to let people know they resent not being able to live in the kinds of buildings they build for a living?

I gave up, the way I’ve given up on the chemical perfume smell of dryer sheets that wafts into our apartment from another building’s laundry-room vents. These are just minor nuisances. Everything’s fine, I tell myself, until it isn’t.

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