Every single morning, my alarm shrieks me awake at 7:30 A.M. If it’s summer, I roll out of bed in whatever piecemeal pajama outfit I’ve got on, leash my dog Ghost, and walk out the door. If it’s winter, I undergo a time-consuming dance of dressing for the freezing morning temperatures: underlayers, socks, gloves, beanie, more socks, another layer of clothing, my down jacket, a scarf. I usually have this outfit laid out the night before, ready to go, maximizing the efficiency in my morning routine like some sort of dog-owning military commander. I grab a bag by the door that has treats, a squeaky orange ball, and nowadays, some hand sanitizer.
I do this routine in a hypnotic trance, on autopilot. That’s because this is the precursor to the main event of my mornings every single day for the last three years of my life, and counting. A scene that repeats itself with consistency through the full spectrum of weather conditions—both out in the world and in my own emotional and personal existence. Rain, hail, shine, snow. Exhausted, grateful, sleepy, angry.
When the first stirrings of desire to adopt a dog came up, they were primarily centered around the self: of what my life would be like with a dog, what it would feel like for me to finally have an animal to smother with love. The concerns were also self-centered in nature: How would I cope with the responsibility? What would I have to sacrifice to be a good dog owner?
“Our dog park friends have made it impossible for me to leave this neighborhood. They may have made it impossible for me to leave this city.”
What my brain failed to even consider in the complex mental math of deciding to own a dog was the adoption of myself into a community after the adoption of a dog into my life. The routines, I expected. The revolving cast of neighborhood characters—both human and animal—that revolve around the routines, I did not.
When you get a dog, you’re suddenly ushered into a club of neighborhood dog ownership, given an ID card the moment your hand is around a leash. There are only a limited amount of daily walk routes you can take before you run out. The monotony of these walking routes and parks frequented are punctuated by the same familiar faces of others doing the same. The endless quest to get your dog exercise in the city, an army of solo flaneurs and their dogs.
When I first adopted my dog, Ghost, my partner and I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Although there was no consistent dog park routine, there was inexplicably a dog park on the rooftop of our building (as you do in a gentrified Bushwick apartment), and we quickly got to know the characters that would appear in the hallways and on the rooftop. Quick hellos turned into short conversations revolving around the same topics: our dogs.
There was Maia and her Pomeranian Izumi, the first duo with whom I remember doing the dog playdate friendship dance. It was partly because my dog, Ghost, has the social intelligence of an aggressive goat, and Izumi was the first dog that Ghost truly liked. A desire for companionship and convenience led to a shy invite which turned into Maia’s number in my phone, and scheduled play dates for all four of us.
When it was time for us to move, one of the main things I grieved was this loss of Ghost’s first real dog friend. I worried about her ability to make new friends, and for that matter, my ability to make new friends in our new neighborhood. The mundane responsibility of getting exercise for my dog had become an opportunity for human connection, and I was hooked.
We ended up moving to Greenpoint, about four miles from Bushwick, and on one of our first dog walks to McCarren Park, I saw what would become the beginning of a new routine for the next three years: the off-leash dog community at McCarren Park between the hours of 8 A.M. and 9 A.M.
Ghost met Pete, a handsome stereotype of an all-American family dog, the type you’d see on a ’90s sitcom. Through Pete, I met Jane and Brandon, an architect and an editor with two charming children who live a block away from me. Jane and Brandon have loaned me books with contactless drop-off. They have driven us to Prospect Park for a bigger off-leash hour at 7.30 A.M. in the morning. They’ve given me an example of stable, long-term life as a family in Brooklyn that I don’t normally get to see as a 20-something-year-old
Ghost also met Falkor, named after the dog-like Luck Dragon of the same name from the film, The NeverEnding Story. Through Falkor, I met John, a man in his 40s who quickly became one of my closest friends. We spent a Christmas together. John also has keys to my apartment, and has become one of the first people I call during moments of distress. John helped us bring couches home from Craigslist and put up with Ghost peeing on his bed when we’re away on vacation. Our friendship has taught me the joys of getting to know somebody who is the complete opposite of yourself.
There’s Jeremy, a heavily tattooed tech guy with Indy, a spotted Dachshund, with whom I started going to the gym once we realized we were lifting weights at the same place. There’s Richard and Talulah, an interior designer and an English Setter—Ghost and I bump into them every other day. I first bumped into Sarah at my local yoga studio, and then I met her partner Mike and their pit bull Bida. Emerald is a young actress who attended and supported me at one of my events, with her dog, Tibido. Julio and his two toy poodles, Siouxie and Mo, moved into my former apartment. Brittany owns a local vintage store that I frequent, which is where I met her dog, Tucker.
There is an endless list of people who live within a one-mile radius of my house. These strangers have slowly become friends through the repetition of time spent simply standing next to each other at the park and making conversation. Admittedly, our dogs don’t all get along with each other. And yet, we may not have ever known each other, if not for the sheer dumb luck of standing next to each other in a city park.
When my partner and I go on vacation, we can most likely count on a dog park friend to help take care of Ghost for us.
After six years of living here as a transplant from Australia, I have a real sense of community for the first time in my adult life. To find that in a city that is known for being as lonely as it is crowded, this feels like a revelation. It feels like home.
Our dog park friends have made it impossible for me to leave this neighborhood. They may have made it impossible for me to leave this city.
These days, during this pandemic, I still try to go to the park in the mornings, but we don’t congregate where we used to be, and most of us have taken to aimlessly walking by ourselves, or not coming at all. It strikes me how much I took for granted. I miss the banter, I miss the arguments. I miss the drama with the park police. Out of all the adjustments I’ve had to make with this pandemic (including being laid off and being confined to my home like everybody else), this is one of the hardest.
I still go for walks, and I still see my dog park friends from time to time, waving to them across the street as we amble alone around the emptied streets of our neighborhood, masked and gloved, trying our best to shield ourselves from the virus. In time, we will return to the park from 8 A.M. to 9 A.M., and we will laugh and bitch and make small talk to pass the time as our dogs get their allotted amount of exercise. Until then, it comforts me to know that just down the road, there are countless people who know and care about me, who have keys to my house, my number in their phones.
New York is a harsh city in which to own a dog. There is barely any green space, you cannot bring your dog anywhere, and the dogs make do with owners who live in tiny apartments and long work hours. The non-stop sirens and foot-slash-street traffic make it a distracting place to even walk your dog.
But this hostile environment to pet ownership is also one of incredible serendipity and connection, one of the limited ways to build a sense of community. I would have never thought that adopting a dog in New York would completely change the way I see this city, and the way I see my neighbors. In due time, Ghost and I are looking forward to seeing them again.
Header photography by Tayler Smith