A Bear is Born

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Anyone who lives in New York City is bound to see a celebrity at some point.  Being incredibly unobservant, I went five years without a single sighting.  Then, within just a few months, my little section of Brooklyn was transformed from a quiet, family neighborhood into a star-studded, hipster playground.  Believe me, this part of Greenpoint was not fancy.  But because there were numerous abandoned warehouses scattered along West Avenue, a litter-filled, broken strip of pavement on the East River that boasted a frightening amount of alley cats and a gorgeous view of Manhattan, quite a few television networks moved in: Boardwalk Empire built their 1920’s New Jersey boardwalk two blocks away, Lena Dunham and her girls with great hair yet no self-esteem moved in three blocks southward, and CBS took over a warehouse down the street to film their Broadway-meets-television flop Smash.  Our peaceful corner of the world had been discovered.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this hubbub wasn’t glamorous or exciting.  In fact, it sucked.  Whereas we once always found a parking spot right outside our building, we suddenly had to park a ten-minute walk away because trailers and equipment needed the street instead.  Crew members yelled at us for walking our dogs through their set, also known as the public sidewalk, and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of so-and-so clogged the delis, whose owners jacked up the price of a Modelo six-pack from six to nine dollars (for cans, mind you, not even bottles).

But this was our home – a rent-stabilized home with a yard, no less. My husband and our dogs, a mixed breed named Basil and a Boxer named Bear, loved that yard.  So, in order to keep it and to swallow the neighborhood transformation a little more easily, I devised a plan to turn us into super stars.  Or, more exactly, a plan to turn Bear into a super star, fulfilling the rags-to-riches dream I felt she so deserved.

— ◊ —

A few years before this transformation began, Dave and I enjoyed a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda.  Overflowing with giddy love the night we returned home, we visited our local bar and, drunk on beer, marriage vows, and personal pinball records, ran into our neighbor, Adam, standing on the corner with two big dogs, his Rottweiler named Zeus and Sarah the Boxer.

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“Why do you have Sarah?” Dave slurred.  She belonged to another neighbor of ours, a Polish man we often saw walking on West Avenue, and we’d never seen her with anyone else.

In his typical bro manner, Adam replied, “Well, dude, I hate to lay this on you, but her owner died this morning.”

As we pet sweet, stinky Sarah, Adam explained how her owner had been an alcoholic who lived in his broken-down car in the lot behind Adam’s house.  He’d get drunk and wrestle with her, to the point that they’d both draw blood on one another, then pass out in a pile in the backseat.  Adam discovered the man’s body earlier that day because Sarah, sitting on the pavement beside the open passenger door, was barking nonstop; her owner had died from alcohol poisoning that morning and his seemingly final act was to let his dog out of the car.  This was all shocking news to us.

“She’s a good girl, but I can’t keep her,” Adam said, gesturing at his already 100-pound Rotty who was only a year old.  “I don’t know what to do, man.  I just can’t have both dogs at my place.  This breeder in New Jersey was supposed to pick her up thirty minutes ago, but now he’s not even answering his phone.”

“No, no, we know this dog!” Dave exclaimed.  “You can’t give her to a breeder.  We’ll take her for the weekend, find someone who will spay her and be good to her.  Right, honey?”

“Yes, definitely,” I replied, knowing it was a question with only one answer.  But even if I’d had a choice, I still would have agreed.  Sure, she stank, she jumped, she licked, and, to be honest, I thought she was ugly, but, as Dave said, we knew this dog.  We could take a weekend out of our lives to find her a loving home.  Plus, little Basil would go nuts over a house guest.

I should have known what I was getting into when I first saw the look on Dave’s face as he listened to Sarah’s story, but I’d never “fostered” a dog before and honestly believed it would be a two-day commitment.  By the end of the weekend, our decision to keep her came down to a moment when Dave and Basil were both looking at me with pleading eyes, and I just couldn’t say no.  I blame it on the honeymoon vibes.

Bear&Basil

— ◊ —

My love vibes had vanished by the time the neighborhood usurpers moved in.  The TV assholes seemed to multiply by the week, and they did not seem to care one bit about us residents.  One afternoon, I was late picking up the kid I babysat for because a Girls’ crew member was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, arms and legs spread out as he aggressively repeated that no one was allowed through until the scene was over.  Yet another crew member yelled at me when I took an orange traffic cone off the top of my car so that I could move said car to make way for their trailer.  And, soon enough, every local business owner followed the delis’ lead and upped their prices.  Dave and I would pass buffets of bagels, muffins, tiny sandwiches, fruit salads, and sodas set out for actors who made triple our income as we walked to the supermarket where we could barely afford groceries.  We even grew tired of the Boardwalk Empire extras in satin-trimmed suits and bowler hats texting on their iPhones outside our building.  While they were a novelty at first, they quickly came to represent the consumerism and materialism that had taken over.

Sunbathing in our yard with our dogs made this takeover feel somewhat better.  But our road to laid-back afternoons with Sarah had been long and hard.  Basil, who took treats in this hilariously ginger way, who gave kisses by nudging us with his tiny wet nose, who learned new commands in minutes and then obeyed them every single time, who housebroke himself at three-months-old by watching other dogs in the shelter, was my first dog.  He was perfect.  Therefore, I had no idea what it was like to own a normal dog.

Bear&Frida

And Sarah was by no means a normal dog; she was what you might call a special-needs dog.  Because of her upbringing on the streets, she had worms and urinary crystals, was malnourished yet overweight.  She ate random things off the sidewalk (like napkins, rocks, and pieces of broken glass), and tried to kill our cats (we suspect some of those West Avenue alley cats ended up as meals during her homeless years). She pooped inside the apartment then peed herself when we reprimanded her, greeted me when I came home by jumping with such force that she busted my lip and bruised my chin, slurped up our drinks the moment we set them down, and was incapable of simply being near us; every time we interacted with her, she would climb on top of our chests and lick our faces.  Oh, and because her old owner was a Polish immigrant, she didn’t know English.

It took two months, but I did finally fall in love with her.  I clearly remember the moment when I first thought of her as my dog.  I was washing dishes in the kitchen sink – the only sink in the entire apartment because the bathroom was that small – when she trotted in and licked the back of my calf.  I turned around and there she was, big ol’ head cocked to the side, jowls gaping, one ear perked, a multitude of wrinkles in her forehead.  I knelt down and pet her, and she melted into me.  I even kind of enjoyed the face lick that inevitably followed.

“Well girl, there’s no use in trying to predict your future.  I never would have guessed as a sixteen-year-old in Kentucky that I’d be sitting in my Brooklyn kitchen one day, petting my 75-pound bear of a Boxer dog.”  I started calling her SarahBear after that, and the name stuck.  She was Bear to us ever since.

— ◊ —

By the time our street became infiltrated with flapper girls, hipsters, and Broadway wannabes, Bear had grown into a healthy, well-behaved dog who knew a lot of tricks (in English, no less).  And, unlike skittish Basil, she loved people.  Considering her story and everything she’d been through, I thought she deserved the cushy life of the rich and famous.  She was a star at heart and had just needed a little training for it to shine through.  Besides, the neighborhood truly belonged to her people, the Polish immigrants who’d settled Greenpoint over a century ago.  And, of course, there was some selfishness involved: if Bear brought in an income, I could keep my yard.

I began my research on how to break your dog into show business and was not pleased with what I discovered.  She needed a portfolio of photographs, a video showing off her routine, possibly an agent.  But I had a better idea that would spare us the agent-hunting and take advantage of our neighborhood’s current climate.  Smash had just brought on Uma Thurman to play Rebecca Duval, a self-absorbed movie star who couldn’t sing but was nonetheless making her Broadway debut as Marilyn Monroe; I’d always thought Uma was awesome and wanted to meet her more than any of the other celebrities now working in Greenpoint.  The perfect, rags-to-riches plan I’d devised would go like this:

Bear, Basil, and I would be walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful summer day.  Bear would be fresh off a bath and a tooth-brushing, preferably near the end of a short walk so that she’d be a little tired but still energetic.  Uma Thurman would be strutting towards us in all her blonde glory.  She’d lock eyes with Bear, who would tilt her head at that perfect angle and wrinkle her forehead in all the right places.  While Basil waited patiently on the curb, I would show off Bear’s tricks (paw, other paw, roll over, catch it), and Uma would laugh in delight.  She’d rush over and scratch Bear’s head, falling in such instant love that she’d have no other choice but to offer Bear a role on Smash then and there.  After impressing the director and all of the producers, Bear would be the new it-dog at CBS, and Dave and I would be fielding calls for the rest of her life.

I looked out for Uma every walk.  And then, one day, it happened.

The dogs and I had just left the apartment.  We were a few minutes into our walk when Bear pulled toward the curb, tripping both Basil and me over her leash.  She began her poop dance, a few frantic circles while positioning her hind legs into a squat.  This dance is a typical dog thing, but the atypical part of Bear’s dance was that it didn’t stop while she pooped; if we weren’t vigilant enough, she’d step right in her fresh turds.  As she turned in circles, I held her leash taut, forcing her to step around her falling poop, and cooed praise at her.  “Good girl, Bear.  Don’t step in your shit.  That’s a good dog.”

With plastic bag spread over my hand, I bent down and picked up her pile, continuing the praise as she wagged her little nub.  When I straightened up, there she was: Uma Thurman, blonde hair bouncing, sunlight glittering off her glasses.  Rather than wrapping up the bag and salvaging the milliseconds I had before she passed, I froze, open palm filled with fresh dog poop, as Bear tugged toward her.  I stumbled forward and Uma jerked away, shielding herself with her large leather bag, disgust scrunched up in her face as she hurried past us.  Basil, sitting patiently on the sidewalk, was the only one who played his part.  I hung my head, Bear’s cue to jump and lick my face.

And with that, our moment, just like the neighborhood, was lost.

Bear on Couch

— ◊ —

Dave and I clung to our increasingly unaffordable yard for another year after my Uma encounter, but eventually, the semi-functioning radiators, the “repaired” leak in our living room, the roaches who crawled up from the basement through the cracks in our kitchen floor, and the busy, trendy strip we no longer recognized as our block, took their toll.  I shed some tears over the unfairness of it all (we both worked forty hours a week – how could we no longer afford our home?), while also developing a deeper understanding of – and hatred for – the cyclical nature of the NYC rental scam: I had displaced someone who couldn’t afford the Greenpoint I’d moved into five years before, and I was now being displaced by someone with more money, only to move to a different neighborhood and displace someone else, most likely with darker skin than mine. And all so the rich could get richer.

Aided by our dogs and their unwavering, oblivious joy, we persevered through the apartment hunt and traded in our yard for a larger place in better condition near Prospect Park.  The rents in our new neighborhood did, of course, skyrocket in just a few years, but we were wiser and tougher by then. After what had felt like a traumatic, forced move, we’d found happiness – especially when we stood on our rooftop under six, twinkling real stars that were infinitely more interesting to ogle than the super stars we’d left behind.

Old Bear & Baz

— ◊ —

Update: Since writing this piece four years ago, we were yet again displaced in a similar fashion and moved to an apartment that ended up being an illegal conversion. After two months of fighting with the landlords, we settled out-of-court and moved much farther south to our current apartment. We are privileged in many ways that a large number of New Yorkers are not, and therefore have been able to advocate for ourselves and secure a stable housing situation despite these challenges. The housing crisis in NYC is real and must be addressed. In order to help, please consider donating to IMPACCT, a Brooklyn-based organization that provides free legal advice, financial counseling, and other services for tenants. And when you vote in our next election, make sure you choose candidates who are willing to fight for tenants’ rights by standing up against developers and passing legislation that holds landlords accountable for their exploitative actions.

— ◊ —

This essay was originally shared in 2015 with No, YOU Tell It!, a switched-up story-telling series featuring non-fiction essays told by other writers. For the show I participated in, the theme was “Stargazing.”

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