Friday, August 15; another hot, steamy late summer day in Manhattan, complete with a light but steady drizzle that only added to everyone’s stickiness and discomfort. As I charged out of work as a graphic designer on after meeting another incredible deadline and getting through a particularly harrowing week, I looked longingly at Grace Church, a block from my office at the corner of East 10th Street and Broadway. It's the place where I’ve often sought quietude. In fact, it may be the best place to gain resurgent energy before I head up town to catch my train home at Grand Central Station.
But on that Friday, I wanted to get home faster than usual. Both of my children arrived home from sleep away camp, my husband was fixing dinner and blessed full home air conditioning and my Jacuzzi bath awaited me to comfort my overtired body and mind. I watched the people pass me going the opposite way. Some looked reasonably starched and less wilted by the weather while others looked like they were pushing too hard on overused legs.
I still felt I could just about make it to the subway stop, knowing I’d have to stand in the crowded subway car until I got to Grand Central. With a raincoat over my arm, umbrella in hand and my purse and briefcase in the other, I gradually got into a comfortable stride as my body stretched with every step.
A young woman with an English bulldog in tow walked toward me and I inadvertently grinned at them as I love the breed like no other. My own bulldog, Leicester, pronounced Lester, was waiting for me at home with the rest of my family. There is nothing more comforting that kissing his flat face and getting a kiss in return that extended from my chin to my forehead. But at the very same moment that I envisioned his kiss, her bulldog fell flat in front of me; arms and legs akimbo. The thumping noise he made as the dog hit the concrete was a terrifying sound. The owner stood facing me, looking up then down, then side to side, not knowing what to do. The shocked woman immediately dropped to the pavement, pulled the face of her bully close and looked into its eyes. At that very same moment, she knew her darling the dog was dead. Just seconds before, we both were owners of these lovely dogs. Now her baby was gone. There was no doubt about it. The dog’s eyes were stationary in their orbits. Its limbs were limp and motionless as the woman called her name. “Dilly, Dilly, get up, Dilly!” I’ve heard that familiar wail of grief; in fact my family and I been the people who have cried in the agony of loss, but I had never been so close to another dog owner in this kind of anguish.
Without thought, I opened my umbrella and poised it over the dog, to give it the dignity of privacy. I rolled my raincoat off my arm and wrapped it around the dog’s little body and her owner molded the coat to its sides and drew the dog up to her chest, keening for its loss. I reached for my cell phone and asked her if she wanted me to call anyone. She looked me in the eye for the second time in minutes and I inadvertently seized her sorrow as if it was mine.
There was pain in my heart too. She didn’t plant it there; it was the natural reaction to a panic stricken person who has just experienced a loss—not even her own.The young woman’s head shook back and forth, as she clearly could not fathom her next step. So I asked her if I should call her vet. Her eyes truly met mine for the first time and as she focused on me, she nodded, crying out the phone number of the vet by rote. Anyone who has a bulldog knows the phone number of their veterinary clinic by heart. Bulldogs are known to have many physical anomalies and our family has made planned and unplanned stops at our veterinary clinic with Leicester for routine, as well as emergency visits.
I punched in the numbers and handed the phone to her. Instantly, she started babbling that Dilly was dead on the street, repeating the horror of her reality, over and over, to whomever was at the other end of the line. Apparently the vet tech who answered the phone knew them well, because the woman never once uttered her own name; only the name of her dog.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said and dropped the phone to the ground, as she drew the dog closer to her. I picked up my phone and instantly realized that the next step was to hail a cab so she could get to her vet.
Getting a cab to stop was hardly easy on any day in Manhattan. In the rain, the heat and the steam of a late summer Friday afternoon, it became a colossal feat of will. For some reason, the first cab I hailed stopped and I yelled to the woman to pick up her dog and the umbrella and join me. She managed to do all of this as she stumbled on the curb to reach the cab. Until then, I didn’t know how hard she was trembling. But nonetheless, she held the dead dog tightly against her as she buried her had in her dog’s neck. My coat had become a sling and my umbrella was bent out of shape.
“Where to, Ladies?” yelled the cabbie without turning his head. She mumbled the address and he yelled it back to her to be sure he heard her correctly.” I didn’t think she was listening to him so I interjected: “Yes, yes, that’s right.”
Although the address was just blocks away, the cab driver had more to contend with than red lights. Cars swerved as the rain picked up and the incessant honking became even more pronounced and urgent. It felt as though the other drivers knew about the insanity of our situation. How else can you feel but insane, when a loved one dies? And I had been unintentionally drawn into her pain.
When we reached the vet’s office, she opened the cab door, bolted the vehicle and ran to the partially opened door in a split second. The vet tech held the door of the office open for her and she disappeared from sight as the clinic door closed. The cabbie actually turned around this time to look at me and he arched his eyebrows. “Lady? Where are we going now and are you going to pay the full fare?” I nodded yes and sat back to relax for a moment. The woman and her dead dog were gone with my raincoat and cab fare.
Without another thought, I realized that I would need to take the cab to Grand Central. There was no reason to get out now and board the subway. I didn’t think my shaking legs were strong enough to make it to the platform and stand firm to wait for a train. Once at Grand Central, I felt more in control of my body and paid the cabbie and awarding him a big tip for non-interference on his part.
The walk to the boarding platform for my train back to Dobbs Ferry was a short one although my legs felt leaden as if each had gym sized weights attached. Finally seated on the side of the train that ran parallel to the Hudson River, I first allowed myself to cry. Who was I crying for? The woman, the bulldog or me? I guess it was for us all. Sitting there, I realized that the whole episode with the woman and her dog took less than twenty New York minutes, although it felt like hours.
On the short drive home from the station, my tears began to flow in earnest and came out full force when I got to my front door and hugged my own bulldog with kisses that rewarded him simply for being alive. He had no clue, as if he ever did, as to what I had encountered in the hours I was away from him.
My family after giving me much needed hugs were uniformly shocked that I gave away my coat. I explained that I didn’t exactly do that. I didn’t intend to give it away, but it disappeared with the woman and her dog. At least, I told them, it wasn’t a new coat or an expensive one anyway. I knew that I could call the vet clinic, as I remembered the address and ask for the coat that Dilly came wrapped in late Friday. But I couldn’t do it. That coat had been on a specific mission and had served a purpose more important than protecting me from the rain. The coat left me to care for a dead dog and a grieving woman; a remembrance that I’d never shake. Chalk it up to yet another unusual life experience, I told myself.
I also thought about the fact that I didn’t stop at Grace Church before going home. Had I done that, Dilly would have died in front of other strangers. Would they have helped the woman to deal with her loss as I had? I convinced myself that other people would have done the very same thing. Cooperation among New Yorkers, done without fanfare, is fairly common in the city.
Less than one week later, a UPS package was left at my door. I knew I hadn’t ordered anything online or from a department store in ages and didn’t have a clue as to what the package contained. The sender’s name in the return box was unknown to me. I had a brief moment of paranoia. If I didn’t know the sender, should I open the package? Would someone other than a person who experienced 9/11 up close as our family had, ever not consider the dire possibilities?
I felt the package and it was soft and giving. No harsh edges inside. So I opened the wrapping. Inside, I found my raincoat—dry cleaned and folded in the small bubbles of plastic wrap. I looked at the name on the outside wrapper again that read, “Wendy Shelton.” She lived just two blocks from where we met on that hot, horrible steamy sad day. Inside the folds of the raincoat was an envelope. Without concern, I opened it to find a crisp twenty dollar bill and the following message on a simple note card:
Just My Way of Thanking You
After I left Dilly—her full name was Piccadilly— at the vet’s for cremation, I realized I had taken your coat without knowing it. It really upset me that I did not get your name to send it back to you along with the cab fare. But luckily, some of your business cards and other papers (also in this envelope) were in the coat pocket with your name and address and I was so glad that I could return it all to you with my gratitude.
I can only say that when I think about my beloved baby dog, who happened to die on her third birthday, I can attach my feelings to a native New Yorker who helped me without even giving it a second thought. I smiled and thought about her assumption.I’m from Lincoln, Nebraska and have only been in New York for four years. When people talk to me about the insensitivity, rudeness, ruthless and calculated behavior of New Yorkers, I will be able to tell them about you.
Please accept my most sincere thank you for being…well just being there when I needed you the most.
All best,Wendy Shelton
Wendy included her e-mail so I could contact her. I ran to my computer to thank her and let her know that I received the coat, the money and her note and I attached a few pictures of Leicester to the mail. My bulldog also had a brindle coat and he looked a lot like Dilly.
Since that time, some months ago, Wendy has adopted another bully whom she loves beyond distraction. I have pictures that Wendy regularly sends me in my computer’s picture file. Sometimes her baby bully graces my computer desktop.I don’t know if I will ever make plans to see Wendy again, even though she lives so close to my office and has invited me to meet her for lunch at a nearby bistro. I think it may be too tough for me to let the heart wrenching moments I spent with her and Dilly reemerge. I’m also not sure if will correct her presumption: I am NOT a native New Yorker. I think people do what comes naturally to them, no matter where they grew up, settled down or just live.
Actually, I’m from rural Pennsylvania