I looked down at the floor. It was my last day as a dog runner.
I owned three pairs of running shorts. I ran five days a week. I did laundry, you know. Sometimes. All three pairs were revolting. Two had gotten so bad I'd recently placed them inside a plastic bag as a kind of DON'T WEAR THESE memory cue. The third I'd worn four days in a row.
I searched around for another option. In the back of one drawer I found a pair of faded cotton pajama pants. They'd been left behind in my room by a girl who spent the night months before. I thought it over. I had only three dogs to run that day, and knew none of the owners would be home. It was my last day. I'll be like the senior who wears funky glasses to graduation. That guy's funny, right? Whatever. I put on the shorts.
Catching sight of myself in the mirror in the first dog's apartment, I felt a tiny jolt course through my body. Smiling to yourself as you slip on funny shorts in your bedroom is one thing. Wearing them in Manhattan, stranded, an hour away from home and with no backup plan, is a little different. It now struck me that I looked absolutely ridiculous.
Equity (the dog) and I began our run through Central Park. Some people giggled. One looked to be taking a photo. Others seemed vaguely angry. I smiled and waved to our admirers. After five minutes I forgot about the shorts entirely.
Three hours later, I walked out of an apartment with Zoey, the third and final dog of my day. I heard the door slam shut behind us. I stopped in my tracks.
I'd locked her keys in the apartment. This was not good.
I called my boss and explained the situation.
Boss: Ok, no worries. Brian will come and meet you with the backup set.
Me: Umm. Ok.
Awesome. The last time I'll speak to my boss and I look like the Asian firecracker kid from Boogie Nights.
I walked outside with Zoey and considered my options.
There are a number of bars in the vicinity of Zoey's apartment building. It was a warm day and there were a lot of people sitting at the tables outside.
I made a casual pass of a bar two blocks away. One table in particular looked promising. Six people in their mid-to-late twenties, drinking and laughing boisterously. I decided to make a move.
Six heads turned to look at me.
"Alright, listen. Everything I'm about to tell you is true…"
I proceed to explain to them the pickle I'm in. Before I finish, one of them interjects.
Guy: So, you want to us to swap pants with you.
They laugh at me.
Guy: Ok. But you have to leave us collateral. Your phone.
I sighed. I looked down at my phone.
Me: Aaaagh. See, but my phone is worth more than your jeans…
Guy: Those are my terms.
I considered this. The request was not unreasonable. Still, I really didn't want to leave my phone with these people. I decided just to walk away. Then it hit me.
Me: Wait. I've got it! What if we go up to the bar together, I leave my phone with the bartender and say, "If I don't come back in twenty minutes, give the phone to this guy."
Me: Why not?
Guy: Because then I have to get up, and I really don't care that much.
Me: Fuck it. Here's my phone.
I handed him my phone. And he gave me his pants.
While this exchange took place one of his friends snapped a photo.
I met up with my boss up the street 5 minutes later. He handed me the keys and we stood chatting for a minute.
Boss: Well if you ever want to rejoin the fold, we'd love to have you back. We really appreciated your professionalism.
Me: Brian. I think you need higher standards.
Being a dog runner was, pretty simply, the best job I’ve ever had. Let’s see. I woke up at eleven. I finished at four-thirty. In between, I exercised with dogs in the sunshine. I was in the best shape of my life by a power of ten, and was paid for all the work involved in reaching that point. I was, for the first time in my life I think, not suffering from a serious Vitamin D deficiency. My communication with the office was minimal, nearly nonexistent. Aside from the dogs, I worked alone. I could listen to all the music and podcasts I wanted to during the day, or simply vibe out to Radio Tadhg.
I run each dog, typically, for thirty minutes (a few are forty-five minutes). Ideally, the run goes like so: The dog runs at my speed, in a straight line, stopping only to poop and pee (one time each). I achieve this ideal with one dog and one dog only: Oliver.
Oliver. Ollie. Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. Oh, how I love thee. I’m required to leave a note for each owner after every run, and the notes I leave for Oliver read like fan mail. I once got drunk at a party and started gushing about Oliver to Hazlett. It's a little weird. But he's just so wonderful. So cooperative. Such an athlete. His interest in other dogs is dignified and minimal. When he has to poop, he handles it swiftly and without fuss. He pushes and encourages me when I'm dragging; I do the same for him. If I want him to turn left, I swear I only need to think it. Our runs are perfect. He is perfect.
We’ll start with “at my speed.” I had this fear when I first started the job that the dogs were going to run me ragged. I hadn’t done any serious exercise in months. I thought about the chase scene at the end of Sandlot. I would’ve been winded by the movie theater. I imagined a dog firing down the beach after a tennis ball. How could I keep up with that?
Well, it turned out there was nothing to worry about. See, there was something important about these particular dogs I hadn’t considered: They live in the city. They spend 90% of their time locked inside apartments. They’re institutionalized, agoraphobic, unused to exercise. They are, in short, kind of crappy at running.
And that’s when they’re moving at all. When they’re not busy smelling, you know, everything. Oh hey is that a thing? Better go smell it. And of course they all look for places to shit like they’re choosing their undergrad. The potential run interruptions are in good supply.
Then there’s “in a straight line.” You do what you can here, but still. They're dogs. At various points throughout the run their path will inevitably lean in one direction or the other. Usually all this means is that there's something they want that's out of their reach, and so they're leaning away from you to get to it, and you're having to periodically pull them back into formation. No biggie. But some dogs, for some reason, trend to the inside, which means they're occasionally drifting into your path without warning, and you're occasionally looking down and going HOLY SHIT, and having to yank the leash out and away from your body (imagine trying to start a lawn mower that's facing you) and lunge out of the way to keep your foot from landing on their hind leg and snapping it like a freeze pop.
Then there are other dogs. Agh.
I wrote this in October:
“Any attempt to have strange dogs “make friends” inevitably leads to violence. Most dog owners understand this and behave accordingly. But still many do not. I’ve staged enough impromptu revivals of Bad Newz Kennels at this point to know better. No more doggy meet-and-greets.”
That’s not completely true. A lot of the “violence” really is just playing. But still, I hate running into other dogs. First of all, it inevitably interrupts the run, and running feels nice, and having to stop mid-run feels bad. Secondly, if the stranger dog attacks and injures my dog, I will be reprimanded for sure, possibly fired. Ditto if my dog attacks the stranger dog. It's true that 90% of the tussling is harmless. But sometimes it's hard to tell, and sometimes it'll start out harmless and turn ugly without warning. There's just no real upside in these meet-and-greets for me, other than whatever joy I derive from seeing dogs play together (not nothing, but I like my job more). The other owner, meanwhile, whose livelihood in no way depends on the outcome of the playdate, is happy to let the pups tussle.
And even if nothing goes seriously wrong, the dogs are still jumping up over and around each other, which inevitably ties the four of us together in a fucking Windsor knot (the other owner never seems to mind this, either). I generally keep my headphones in and eyes pointed to the ground throughout these encounters, but there usually comes a point where I have to acknowledge and speak to the other owner, something they most likely have been trying to get me to do since our dogs first noticed each other. Dog people will not be deterred from conversation, all outward signs of preoccupation be damned. You could be a fireman pulling a paraplegic from a burning bus, a dog person will try to ask you about your Dalmatian. Well he looks like a handful!
Like I said in October, a lot of owners do try their best to keep their dogs from entering the Octagon with stranger dogs on the sidewalk. But others are astonishingly careless. Some people even feel their dogs are so well-behaved that they eschew leashes altogether, which is like reasoning that you don't have to wear a condom because you don't have an STD. One of my dogs is a pipe-hitting psychopath named Walker. He's muzzled up like Hannibal Lecter and thrashes around like a great white if another dog gets within twenty feet of us. I see leashless dogs when I’m out with him and I just seethe. I don’t care how well that guy responds to commands. If Lassie over there comes near us we're all going to regret it. Put your dog on a leash before Walker goes fucking dire wolf on it.
Yeah, let’s talk about other people for a minute. I do nearly all of my runs in the park or along the river. I choose these spots for the obvious reasons – they’re scenic, have wide lanes, and are (relatively) light on people. But I still have to get to these places.
And hey. I know the sidewalk is meant for walking. I know I’m the only person on it who’s running. With a dog. At work. And I know that because I'm the only person on the sidewalk checking these very silly boxes, that I need to make allowances for the other pedestrians, and not the other way around. I know all that. Nothing could be more obvious.
But listen I'm going to complain about them anyway.
Ugh. Pedestrians. They're old. They're overweight. They're walking four across and at the pace of continental drift. And even if they're none of these things, they all stroll around in a perpetual state of DUHH. To put it in Mel Kiper-ian terms: NO ONE can feel the rush. I could be LTing motherfuckers all day if I wanted to. I don’t mean to be overly critical, but the current crop of New York pedestrians is one of the most disappointing draft classes in recent memory. The number of people with any combination of awareness and agility is distressingly low.
So I usually spend the first and last five minutes of the run shuffling between and behind people, and it’s TORTURE.
Alright now we’re going to talk about Zoey.
Zoey is my last dog of the day. Every day. I don’t run her – she’s my one walk.
Every day I spend with Zoey, a piece of my soul dies. Just a tiny scrap -- I imagine it the size and shape of a postage stamp. We start out the walk fine. And then, over the half hour, that piece withers, blackens, releases a tiny scream -- and dies.
Fucking hell, this fucking dog. During a typical walk with Zoey, I experience enough boredom frustration and pointlessness to write a Diving Bell and the Butterfly sequel. As I said before, my hope with every dog is that they move by my side, at my pace, in a straight line. Well, Zoey moves at the speed of toenail growth, and only walks “in a straight line” if that leads her in the direction of garbage. Yes, Zoey likes eating garbage. Loves it, really. It is her great passion. And since I don’t want her to eat garbage, and try my best to lead her away from any garbage she can eat, she doesn’t often walk by my side. Most dogs rebel against your lead to some degree, but all of them defer to your authority eventually. Zoey is different. Zoey does not. give. a. shit. If there’s a disgusting piece of trash ten feet to the right of us, she will fight for it like it's her first born child. So yes, Zoey fails the “in a straight line” test. Very, very much so. If I drew Zoey's path on a piece of paper, it’d look like a methhead’s EKG.
So we crawl along, interminably, me urging, begging her forward, and her straining to lick some stain on the sidewalk nine paces behind us. I really meant that about my soul above. Maybe it doesn’t die every day, but this same routine, every day, for months – I promise you. Something inside is gone.
I lose my patience with Zoey sometimes, and on those occasions I become extra aware of the other people on the street. It’s not uncommon for runners to be snitched out for their bad behavior by neighbors of the owner and other witnesses, and though this has never happened to me, I have been approached by onlookers on many occasions. Ninety-nine percent of the time these people are friendly and well-meaning. Still, they’re annoying, because their input is uninvited, they’re interrupting our run or walk, and, more importantly, they are always utterly without context.
It happens to me most often when I’m urging a dog to keep moving after they’ve decided, for whatever reason, to park ass on the ground. "Aww he doesn't want to run anymore, does he?" Well, we've been running for 40 seconds. I sense he has more in the tank than that. Dogs unfortunately fall into the dreaded "cute but annoying" category, which means they exasperate all who work with them, and delight all who don't. I faced just the same problem as a kindergarten teacher. One of my students (we'll call him "J", because his name was J) would act like a little monster for an hour, and drive me to the point of dropkicking him through the ceiling, only to have some woman from the front office spot him from the hallway, swoon, and shower him nine tons of affection. YOU’VE BEEN HAD YOU HARPY. TRY GETTING THIS ASSHOLE TO MAKE A LOWER CASE H AND THEN WE SHALL DISCUSS HIS CUTENESS. Imagine your computer were malfunctioning. Then imagine I went over to it, started rubbing the monitor and said, "Aw, it doesn't want to load that page does it?" You'd punch me in the penis, and I'd richly deserve it.
One time, while I was playing my daily game tug of war with Zoey, dragging her down the street and away from, I don't know, some Dunkin Donuts bag she wanted to eat, a woman approached us. All she'd seen was a dog struggling against its leash, fighting to stay in place. "He's old!" she shrieked. "He can't move that fast!" Well, actually *she* is only a year old, and *she* is just being a red ballsack, as usual. But thank you for your input, random fucking lady.
Another time Zoey was planted in front of a pet store we pass along our route. I was trying my best to get her to back walking, when a women exited the shop. She sees Zoey sitting there, grabs some treats from the bowl on the floor, and feeds them to her. "They stop here because they know there are treats inside." Oh well, gee, by all means, please encourage that behavior. You’d also be astonished by the number of people on the street who just happen to HAVE treats on them already. Dog people are really weird.
Everything I said about this job at the front is true. I loved my time with the dogs. But I did quit.
The reasons aren’t interesting. I quit because I’m spending too much time on the subway every day, and because the company I work through skims a hefty amount off the top, and I figured out convenient ways to compensate for the lost income. And, let's be honest: because of Zoey.
It was a great experience overall. Now I'll stop teasing you: Say hi to the pups.