I was out in the neighborhood a few days ago when I saw a lady coming with a graying Scotty dog. She’s an older lady who walks dogs for people, not lots of dogs all at once, but one dog at a time. I’ve known her from the neighborhood forever. For years now, when I see her, I sometimes stop and chat with her and pet whoever she has in her charge. Having had a dog myself for a long time, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who also had dogs, and for the most part I would know the names of the dogs but not the people, and that’s just the way it always was and is.
This lady’s name I do know because at some point I heard somebody call her Gloria, but I don’t think she knows my name, although she knew my dog Pilar. Once I came upon Gloria sitting on a stoop with an elderly dog, and somehow we got on the subject of the neighborhood and how fast it has changed in recent years. She grew up in the neighborhood and raised her kids in it. She told me that back in the Sixties, when 8th Avenue ran both ways, there was an old Italian man who came down from way uptown in a horse-drawn wagon piled with produce to sell to the grocers. Sometimes I see Gloria on a stoop with an old lady whose voice sounds as if she’s swallowed helium, and for a long time that lady had a little tiny dog who always barked at the big ones going by, and the lady would say in her funny voice, “He tinks he da bossa da block!”
There’s a very old Afghan hound on 22nd Street who I always say hello to when I go by. He’s getting very rickety but he’s still elegant. He’s a male dog, but he’s always reminded me of the actress Sally Kellerman. I told that once to the man who stands with him in their place on the sidewalk, and he said, “Yeah, I can see that.” I got to know another neighborhood lady because of her dogs, Jerry and Daisy. For years I enjoyed chatting with her on the street corner when I’d run into her while walking Pilar. I didn’t know her name for a long time either and I don’t recall how I came to know it but I did—it’s Michele—and she’s become one of my dearest friends. Her dog Jerry passed away not too long ago and I still miss seeing him. Once I took Daisy to stay with me while Michele was on a trip for a few days. Daisy was a perfect guest in every way, although I did have to take her to pee in front of the Chelsea Hotel or she wouldn’t go.
When I saw Gloria coming the other day, I thought of another lady with a dog who I haven’t seen in a while, and the day that I found a big book of limericks by the trash. I was reminded of my father, who always liked risqué limericks, and I opened it and read the first one:
There was a young girl of Aberystwyth
Who took grain to the mill to get grist with
The Miller’s son Jack
Laid her flat on her back
And united the organs they pissed with.
It made me laugh, as I thought of my dad and felt a pang. Up above me on a stoop was sitting this familiar neighborhood lady, all covered in paint as usual, with her shiny black dog. “I just found a book of limericks,” I said to her, and she replied, in her old-style accent, “Oh yeah? Is it Ogden Nash?”
I never learned her name and I’m sure she didn’t know mine, but there comes a point, I think, when it is too late to ask. Some time ago I was surprised to see her somewhere over on the East Side. When she saw me she said, “Get back to the neighborhood!” And when she did—and I’m not sure how this works—it gave me the coziest feeling. She didn’t even stop, but the little comment felt full of affection, of a kind there is between familiars on the block.
The neighborhoods of Manhattan have always felt to me like individual little towns. And even though that is diminishing with so many huge new buildings and so many less businesses owned by regular people, the neighborhoods still have that feeling. I realized that I haven’t seen the lady with the black dog since the day she told me to get myself back to the neighborhood. I’ve wondered about her, because people get priced out very often these days, so I stopped to ask Gloria if she had seen her. And she put her hand on her heart and told me the lady had passed away. She didn’t know her name either. “I know her like I know you,” she said. We stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes feeling very sad, and then we parted.
I wish I had known the lady’s name. She was wonderful. She always wore blue overalls covered with paint and a blue or red kerchief tied over her hair. She talked just like a friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn and went to Erasmus High School. She looked Irish. She must have liked limericks or she wouldn’t have asked, “Is it Ogden Nash?” I kept the book, and I’ll always associate it with her. Walking home, I thought of another neighborhood lady who looked just like Anne Bancroft. She was crippled and I would see her resting against parking meters. Once I told her what I thought and she said, “Oh, Anne Bancroft was a wonderful actress.” It’s been years now since I’ve seen that lady, and come to think of it, all the parking meters have disappeared too.
September 27, 2013
Copyright Romy Ashby