|On Being Rescued
In August 2001 my parents drove into Manhattan to pick up my dog and me for a trip home to Pennsylvania. Earlier that year—momentarily mortified at my decision to get an animal—they had vowed that my dog Brando and I would never be allowed in their home, but it was only a few weeks later that they broke down. This was typical of my parents. They felt getting a dog was a huge error in judgment, but once it was clear that my mind was made up on the subject, they wanted to be a part of the mistake.
Brando was still a puppy, although a huge one. At sixty pounds he had just begun to lift his leg to pee, and earlier that day he marked each of the entrances to Tompkins Square, as if he knew he wouldn’t be seeing it for a while. He had traveled home often enough that he thought any white van was my parents’ white van, and he would sit down on the sidewalk waiting for a door to open so he could hop inside. He was stubborn, and had otherwise always been reluctant to go anywhere, as if he feared being left behind, but once he had decided to trust people—neighbors, the staff of the hot dog store down the street—he was obsessive about hunting them down. Sometimes, when he had parked himself on a street corner waiting for someone he had seen there the day before, the only way of getting him to move was to carry him, which I did frequently until he reached fifty pounds. My indulgence only made things worse, although it may have been inevitable that he would develop separation anxiety once I had rescued him—and having rescued him, I was willing to put up with any problem he might have in the future.
On this particular trip my parents were also picking up Laurel, an old friend, my babysitter when I was younger, the daughter of a neighbor back home in Pennsylvania in our little one-road town. In New York City she lived just two blocks away, closer, perhaps, than she had back home. Brando thought the more people, the better, but still managed to settle into his spot between my parents’ bucket seats once the car started moving. We anticipated a long trip, a four-hour drive with plenty of bathroom breaks for the dog. We were trying to decide on the fastest way out of town—south to the tunnel or north to the bridge—when the car died in the middle of Great Jones Street near Lafayette. The drivers behind us responded instantly with honking horns. I ran out to the service station on the corner, where I was told that it would be several days before they could look at it.
It was Laurel’s idea to go the fire station. The men came out of Ladder 9/Engine 33 and helped push the car to the side. They brought out water for Brando while we stood outside in the excruciating summer heat. They walked a block farther to another service station, and the owners agreed to fix the car immediately. Laurel and I joined a couple of the men to help push the car down the street, and Brando helped, too, putting his paws up on the back of van as we pushed. He had no idea what we were doing, of course. He just wanted to be near me and involved with the other men.
“I’ve never seen a dog do that before,” Laurel said with a laugh.
I, on the other hand, had never seen people in New York as helpful as this fire department. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it was a possibility. I loved New York, and particularly my neighborhood, but I still clung to the notion that people were too busy to ask questions of them and that the need for help was an unattractive thing to reveal. This is why I had a dog—Brando never hesitated to make his needs known to me. He was completely unafraid of revealing his vulnerabilities. This is what he taught me.
Of course, there was also the separation anxiety, and for most the previous eight months I had been struggling with trying to help him, trying to convince him that every time I went out the door there was no question that I would be coming home. By September he was beginning to believe me, but after the World Trade Center came down, even I wasn’t so sure. We were in the park when one of the planes flew overhead, and there was a noise that I remember, but don’t remember. Although the noise had been deafening, we couldn’t see what had happened from the park, and it was hard to believe that it actually was what it had sounded like—a plane flying that low and then crashing.
When something that big happens so close to you, it takes awhile before you have any perspective. Brando and I walked home and sat together on the bed, staring at the static on the TV screen where a picture had been before we left. My father called immediately to say he was driving in to get us, and I didn’t understand why. Then he called again to tell me that the city had been shut down. My television reception had come from the top of the towers, and after flipping the dial I managed to find one grainy image of the towers in flame. I went outside just in time to see the buildings go down, and even then it took awhile for it to really sink in. Later that night I noticed rims of white dust had formed around Brando’s nostrils, and I realized that we had all been breathing that in, all day and in the days that followed.
Our neighborhood, below 14th Street, was blocked off from within the city as well. There was no traffic for days, but in the distance there was the constant sound of police and medical sirens. There was no newspaper delivery, no food on store shelves. Even though there were people—and friends—all around us, it seemed as if Brando and I were on our own. For months after, there were mornings when Brando woke up whining in the morning, and I would know that soon I would be able to smell it too—the fires that were still burning downtown. For the following year that I lived in the city, I was reluctant to travel too far from home. I was particularly suspicious of crossing that boundary that had been established at 14th Street, as if I might cross over that line and never return. When I did, I experienced a palpable fear that something might happen, and I wouldn’t be allowed back home again, and Brando, locked inside the apartment, would never know where I had been all that time or that I hadn’t broken the promise I’d made when I rescued him, that I would always return home.
My parents and I talked a lot by phone during those first days—sometimes calling to let me know what was being reported about things just down the street from where I stood at the time—and my mother said she couldn’t stop thinking of the men from the firehouse, and wondering if any of them had been harmed. I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t know for sure, but the general rule of thumb was that the farther downtown a house was, the more men it was likely to have lost. I was on the street with Brando as we spoke, because being on the street in those days after the attacks felt strangely safer than ever: Everyone was out there together, and all the traffic was shut down. Better than staying inside, watching the endless loop of disaster as it replayed on the news.
“We can go over there,” I told my mom. “We can bring them something.” On the corner there was a deli that had only recently replenished its supply of flowers. I remember the surprise at the end of the week of walking in to get coffee and seeing bread and newspapers on the shelves for the first time in days. It seemed longer.
I picked two clusters of sunflowers. They looked sturdy and huge among the more delicate ones that surrounded them. Brando tried to grab them out of my hand.
“Don’t even think of it,” I told him. “This is serious.” He walked at my side to the station house, where a table was set up outside the doors, overflowing with flowers and notes. I found room in one of the vases to add our sunflowers to the mix and was ready to leave. Brando sat on the sidewalk staring at all the flowers. He didn’t want to move. I knelt next to him and put an arm around him. He didn’t look at me, just the flowers and tributes that were before us.
Finally I heard a voice say, “Do you want to come in?” I looked up and saw one of the men standing in the open door. I don’t think I answered. I don’t think I could. He waved us in, and we followed.
There was already a framed tribute set up on an easel inside the door. I looked at the photos of the ten men they had lost, while the fireman fed Brando biscuits. I tried to recognize the men, to figure out if any of them had been the people who had rescued us that day, in our stalled van, on Great Jones Street, but the truth was I hadn’t been paying that much attention. Meanwhile, Brando kept asking for another biscuit.
“Sorry,” I said, apologizing for Brando, and everything else. “He’ll never leave if you keep letting him have those biscuits.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s no trouble.”
For months afterward, Brando would lead me back to there, zigzagging through the streets whenever we got within range. I began trying to lead him around any of the obvious routes there, but he always outsmarted me by making a couple of surprise turns. And, of course, I let him. Brando would sit respectfully in front of the flowers, and the men would call us inside, and Brando would have biscuits, and everything would, strangely, feel normal and right for a few minutes again. I watched other people come by, with flowers and contributions, and I realized that how funny it was that we all thought we were coming to check in on them, when the truth was, even then, that the men of the firehouse were inviting us in because they knew it would make us feel better, not them.
It was sometime after that that I began finding dogs, and wanting to rescue them. But each time I do, I find myself having that same puzzling epiphany, wondering if I’m doing it for them or whether in rescuing them, I’m actually doing something for myself.
Ken Foster is the author of a collection of stories, The Kind I'm Likely to Get, and the editor of two anthologies, including Dog Culture. His work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Village Voice, Paper Magazine, McSweeney's, The Believer and elsewhere. His memoir, The Dogs Who Found Me, was published this year by Lyons Press. He lives in New Orleans with his dogs, Brando, Zephyr and Sula. His handsome dog Brando just celebrated his sixth birthday and his majestic visage graces the cover of this issue of Urban Dog Magazine.
Excerpted from "The Dogs who Found Me: What I’ve Learned from the Dogs Who Were Left Behind" published by Lyons Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.