Walking the Dogs of the Rich

by Diana Clarke

The first dog was named Gucci. As Justin, my trainer (as if I were some kind of dog too!), told it, it was because Gucci’s owner wanted to advertise that she’d spent as much on him as on a designer handbag. Gucci was definitely cuter than a handbag, but a lot less practical. Bernese Mountain dogs are built to survive in the Alps, and a high-elevation Financial District apartment in New York City is hardly the same thing. Coaxing Gucci into the elevator, and keeping him from barking long enough to hustle across the marble lobby and out the service entrance, was an act of sheer will that I tried to muster and brute strength that I certainly lacked.

Out on the street hush was neither a worry nor a possibility. Instead, the jangling crowd swarming from the 1 train at Rector Street over to the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial fell heavily, like drowsy smoked bees. Wearing a cute cotton summer dress that I’d bought for two or three euros at an Italian flea market, I was trying to hit the sweet spot between cultivating an air of well-traveled sophistication that the dog-walking agency and its bourgeoise clients desired in their own lives and a free-wheeling, youthful vigor that would keep anyone from questioning why I didn’t have a real job yet.

The truth was, I was 21, stinking, and broke. In an ill-advised attempt at escape from my jobless anxiety, New York City, and hemorrhaging heartbreak, I had blown all my savings on a month of dissatisfying travel around Europe with my best friend, and made it back to the city with a tan, twenty dollars in my bank account, and nowhere to live. At the time, I was sleeping on friends’ couches and hadn’t yet gotten around to washing the bagful of laundry that I’d hauled across the Atlantic and back. I was trying not to hate the wealthier friends I’d met in college, where the elite institution we attended appeared to equalize us. I had learned about lattes and kale, started making offhand jokes about Marx, invited them to see museum exhibits with me. Then we graduated, and the chasm of our origins widened again, though it was my friends’ material comforts, and the meals they shared, that sustained me in those hardest weeks. I wondered if the tourists could smell me.

I shouldn’t have worried. They were transfixed by Gucci and Loki, a lithe greyhound who lived in Gucci’s building, and who I walked at the same time. The dogs really were lovely beasts, and after sitting bored and alone in their air-conditioned apartments all day, it was a joy for them to be out in the colors and wild odors of Manhattan, to have city children smear sticky, affectionate fingers across their snouts while bewildered visitors patted their backs for a firm and muscular reassurance that they weren’t as far from home as they feared. Suited businessmen on their Wall Street lunch breaks complimented me on the dogs’ pedigrees, on how Loki had been trained to piss over the grates.

Before taking the job, I’d never spent more than a few minutes of my life with dogs, and if I wasn’t exactly scared of them, I was jumpy and nervous, and the animals could feel it. My ineptitude only exacerbated how mismatched they were; though both Gucci and Loki were strong and probably heavier than me, Loki fizzed with excess energy where Gucci lumbered; more than once I found myself stretched between them, one arm tugging Gucci’s leash, trying to rouse him from the crosswalk, while the other strained to keep Loki from bolting down the sidewalk and out of sight.

When the streets were relatively quiet, I could convince the dogs to stroll down to the waterfront with me and along the Esplanade north to the marina, where that summer it seemed there was always a jazz festival just gearing up or else being taken down. But in the crowd, I couldn’t get the dogs to listen to me at all. They were either so distracted by their sidewalk fan club that they missed three circuits of the walk light, or they got waylaid by their favorite halal vendor, who had gotten in the habit of tossing them scraps of shawarma. They’d drag to a dead stop in front of his cart, refusing to move until after he’d tossed meat to them high-up through the air, like a circus act, and then slipped a wax-paper packet of roasted lamb to me, to lure them away. The lamb rarely coaxed them more than a few feet, and several times resulted in the near-amputation of my fingers by canine teeth.

On one July day so muggy the sidewalks were steaming, the dogs refused to move out of sight of the halal cart — hoping for another snack, or maybe they were just tired. Whatever the cause, they wouldn’t budge, and I spent ten or twenty minutes tugging and cajoling in total futility. I was ready to give up when a dapper older man turned the corner and, seeing me struggling, asked if the dogs might be thirsty. Without waiting for me to answer, he dashed across the street to the D’Agostino’s and returned with a bottle of Evian water. Evian for dogs! I knew it wasn’t their fault, but I couldn’t help feeling resentful when I was walking miles uptown every morning for a free cup of coffee and a bagel from the cafe where I also worked, since I didn’t have the money to buy food out. As I dribbled the precious nectar over their snouts, a rosy-cheeked older woman, the kind who dresses always in flowing linen and probably works for an arts nonprofit, wished me luck and wafted by.

At that point in my life the $12 an hour I was earning to walk dogs was the most I’d ever been paid for anything, and I wasn’t even good at it. Twelve dollars is what I was earning to sweat in the hell of the subway in July, only to crack and fry my skin in the sun; to walk a bug-eyed chihuahua (horribly named Banksy) near his loft on the border of Little Italy, past gallery women whose powdered and exfoliated skin appeared dry and serene as the paper of a wasp’s nest, despite the heat; to mop up the urine of an incontinent terrier who lived on Wall Street, and deflect the drool from a pair of English bulldogs (“Ten thousand bucks on the end of a leash!” one pedestrian hollered to me) whose kind but awkward owner was always home when I returned them. Every service worker knows the worst moment is when the employer shows up, and you suddenly find yourself an invader in the private space of a person who has paid for you to be there but resents your presence, which is a reminder of what they cannot, or would prefer not, to do.

My last stop of the day was in a glassy high-rise building full of new condos, facing the Hudson. First I gathered the shaky, ailing poodle Lulu, who shat so slowly and painfully that a woman in Tribeca paused to chastise me: “Pull it out, pull it out!” And I did, with a plastic-gloved hand, because I was so cowed by her casual knowledge and directness regarding my job, for which I was so poorly equipped. Lulu seemed to have swallowed some long human hairs, and they had bound up her intestines. Everything came out slowly, like clogged toothpaste. I bagged it and flung it in a trash can. I felt so bad for Tess, the quiet pit bull or boxer who was Lulu’s walking companion. Unlike the rest of the dogs I walked she was not a purebred. Tess shook, skittish like a rescue, hid behind me and tucked herself into the cavity of my knees when she was afraid, licked my face in happiness, strode long-legged and supple. She was the first dog I ever felt like I could love, but she wasn’t enough.

You know when you’re dating a lot, and you suddenly find yourself spending a lot of time in the homes of people you barely know — studying their bookcases, peeking in the fridge, trying to deduce something about the person whose genitals you’ve just seen? Now imagine that, but replace genitals with expensive dog breeds. I loved getting to peer into apartments, especially the apartments of the kind of rich and busy people who pay to have a premium service walk their dogs for them. Or I thought I would. It was scary, how many of the apartments were bare, almost unlived in, identical, decorated by crappy framed prints of the Manhattan skyline and throw pillows embroidered with the word LOVE. The only exception was Banksy’s owner, who lived in a loft above the delivery entrance of an Italian restaurant, and filled his glossy red-lit living room with thrones made of heavy wood and burbling fish tanks, swinging plush seats and threatening armor.

In every apartment there was a magnetic QR code on the fridge for me to scan with my phone on entering and again before I left, logging the GPS-tracked route I’d taken and digitally stamping my timesheet for the walking agency so that I could make sure to hop the train — if I was lucky enough to have an unlimited MetroCard — or walk — and save money but show up late — to my next half-hour appointment. My walking routes, which appeared overlayed on Google Maps and were emailed to the dogs’ owners, along with the little notes I was required to write about the performance of their pets, took me too close to places I had known very differently. Tess and Lulu lived blocks from the avant-garde performance space where I’d helped run a book launch (by which I mean as an unpaid intern I trotted around with a little cigarette-girl tray full of encyclopedias of performance art on my chest, and nobody bought one because almost every single person at the launch was a contributor, work that had been more glamorous and boozier than dog-walking, though perhaps equally exploitative, come to think of it). Banksy’s apartment was just down the street from the Village Voice offices, where I’d been an intern and freelancer until the day Voice Media Group fired three of the paper’s oldest and most iconic writers and my faith in print journalism crumbled watching Michael Musto weep into his hamburger. The bulldogs’ route took me practically past the front door of the ex-boyfriend — a finance worker who had started taking me to swank restaurants I couldn’t afford in the final months we were together — I had left New York to forget.

Cleaning up shit is something parents and pet-owners do every day for free and, it’s often expected, for pleasure, or at least something like love. Caretakers of all kinds do the same for money, which is hardly seems the same thing. To manage dogs of different ages and sizes and needs all at once I should have been an expert, or at least experienced, but my hourly earnings wouldn’t have attracted anyone more qualified than a skilled amateur. There’s an assumption that service work comes naturally to an emotional (and especially female) human being, but that’s just not the case. I pitied the dogs for being walked by me, and hated them for not walking faster.

I don’t mean to devalue the service work I did, or the other people who do it. I only mean to say that as an untrained, emotionally uninvolved employee earning less than the price of a movie ticket for an hour of labor, I was given an enormous amount of access to the lives of busy, powerful people — their phone numbers, their home addresses, keys to their apartments and crucial face recognition with their doormen, not to mention the well-being of other living beings, even if they were only animals. The agency I worked for was housed in a steel-and-chrome West Village warehouse full of startups and boutiques, and the owners promised their clients that we offered individualized attention — no group walks like most of the harried dog-walking agencies — and a holistic puppy-training program. I never saw any evidence of this. What I saw was other young, low-wage workers more aimless than me: a kid in a gnarly mesh top who had dropped out of college and moved back into his parents’ apartment in the Village, and Justin, a writer and researcher with holes in the collar of his T-shirt who felt like he couldn’t get together enough money to make a change. I was trying to earn time to write and the money to get out of Manhattan for good. None of us were being paid enough to care as much as the owners wanted us to. We never wiped the dogs’ paws after a walk as instructed. Maybe we remembered to give them a treat before rushing to the next appointment that we were already late for.

The night after the woman in Tribeca told me to yank out Lulu’s poop, I received an email from my boss, asking me to pick up an extra shift, and the throttling hate seizing my body told me I was done. I’m no believer in only doing what you love, but as Melissa Gira Grant said recently, “until you’ve had that kind of service job you don’t understand that the being nice is the job,” and I was in the position to know that I was doing no one any favors, so I quit.

My situation didn’t improve right away. I spend another month mooching space from friends, and saving every tip from my part-time job as a barista (also service work, and more poorly paid than the dog-walking gig, but infinitely more pleasurable to me), then picked up a gig from a customer at the cafe, who paid me $25 an hour to edit her memoir about joining the Moonies and getting married to a stranger in a 30,000-person wedding in Seoul. In the free time I’d bought by quitting, I kept sending out cover letters.

In mid-August I got hired in for a full-time position in West Virginia, and in September I left New York. My friends here own dogs, and there’s wide-open space for the animals to run. Sometimes I play with them. I’ve even started to like it.

Diana Clarke still hasn’t figured out that walking-the-dog trick with a yo-yo. She is a writer who tweets at @dclarkwithane.

Photo: Cristina Valencia P.

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