By Bob Grand
Cats weren’t very popular in our neighborhood. A few old women had them for pets, but there were a lot of strays roaming around, and those were a nuisance. By day they overturned garbage cans to forage for food. At night they converged on the alleyways between buildings and howled, which in turn started the dogs howling. The unwelcome symphony kept a lot of us from sleeping. Some people opened their windows and threw things at the cats- old shoes or other worthless items with some weight to them. A six year-old kid we called “little Benny” used to break their necks or throw them off rooftops.
Dogs were the pets of choice. Sammy Greenstein had a brown boxer. Mimi Feltsker had a beautiful black and tan shepherd named Prince. Burton Hamisch had a nasty, oversized fox terrier named Plato that looked a lot like Burton, right down to a mole on the cheek.
My family had Blackie, a six-pound mutt with black and gray shaggy hair and small, black, alert eyes. She had a nasty temper.
Blackie had come into the family before I was born, while my parents were still living in Brooklyn. Soon after my folks moved to the Bronx, Blackie ran away. My parents combed the neighborhood looking for her and put signs up on lampposts, but to no avail. A week later, a former Brooklyn neighbor called my mother and told her that Blackie was sitting on the kitchen floor in the old, still empty Brooklyn apartment, whimpering. My father wanted to leave her there, but Mom made him drive to Brooklyn to bring her back.
When I was three, Blackie became my dog. No one said, “She’s your dog.” She just took to me. She was only marginally tolerant of others in the family, and altogether hostile toward outsiders.
I started walking Blackie when I was five. Everyone else in the family had walked her without success. For years she’d refused to relieve herself on the street, only doing so when she came back to the apartment. That was frustrating for my parents, especially my mother, who had to clean up after her. When I began to walk her she did just fine, almost as though she sensed the family’s mounting frustration.
Blackie seemed to have decided that I needed her protection. Friends who approached while I was walking her were greeted and scared off by her bared teeth and rumbling growls. I wanted to be with my dog, but I was losing the company of my friends in the process. She was always straining at the leash to get at them. I had to find a way to stop her.
One day I saw Louise, a girl from my building, wheeling a doll carriage in front of our apartment house. A doll carriage might be the answer to my problem. Until then, I hadn’t discussed the situation with my parents. I was afraid they’d give up on Blackie. That night I explained both the problem and my solution to my parents.
“So,” I concluded, “if you get me a doll carriage, the problem will be solved.”
My father, a practical man, said, “Bobby, this might not be the obvious answer you think it is. For one thing, Blackie may be able to jump out of the carriage. For another, she might end up doing her thing in the carriage instead of on the street. Who’d clean up the mess then?”
“Well, Dad, we could get a big doll carriage she couldn’t jump out of. And I’d clean up the mess. Please?”
Mom pointed out the flaw in my plan from her Spartan perspective. “Only little girls get doll carriages. You don’t want people thinking you’re a little girl, do you?”
It seemed that they neither cared about my problem, nor did they appreciate my clever solution.
So, I decided to move into action on my own. There were lots of doll carriages in the neighborhood, and they were mine for the taking. The next day I took some little girl’s carriage.
After I finished walking her, I deposited Blackie in the doll carriage and wheeled her around. She still growled, but she didn’t jump out of the carriage. My friends, while still wary, were back with me. The solution worked so well that I continued to take doll carriages.
I never thought of it as stealing. I was borrowing them. Sometimes I’d borrow as many as four in a single day. Once in a while I used the same carriage all day long. It depended on how many times I took Blackie out, and the availability of carriages that I could safely borrow.
When I finished with a carriage I returned it to the exact place I’d taken it from. I was careful not to be seen. I usually returned them in an improved condition. I oiled squeaky wheels or cleaned off gum that had stuck to them. I cleaned rust stops off metal support rods. I tightened screws that needed tightening.
I never took two carriages in a row from the same street. I had to ask someone to cross me whenever I left my own street, which was to become the fatal flaw in my plan.
For two weeks I continued to borrow one or more doll carriages a day. News spread like wildfire, and a neighborhood alert was put in effect. Mothers for blocks around were vigilant. The notorious doll carriage thief must be caught.
And caught I was. On Grant Avenue. Not while taking a carriage, but after returning one. I’d just asked a woman to help me cross the street. When she held me back by pulling my arm, instead of helping me cross the street, I knew I was in trouble. It was her daughter’s carriage I’d just returned.
“What’s your name?”
“Bobby? Bobby what?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered.
“Where do you live?”
Tears had begun to roll down my cheeks and I was sobbing. I couldn’t answer.
“You’d better be scared after what you’ve done. Now, where do you live?”
“I…, I… don’t know.”
“Take me to your mother, you little thief!”
“No,” I managed defiantly, between sobs.
“Take me to your mother or I’ll take you to the police station.” If all the cops were as tough as Lonigan, the beat cop, the police station was the last place I wanted to be.
“1348 Sheridan Avenue. Bobby Grand,” I blurted out.
Carriage mother now had the information she needed. My cooperation no longer necessary, she showed her true colors. Dragging me behind her, fingernails dug into my arm, she marched me across the street and around the block to my mother.
The sight of a distraught, wild-eyed lady pulling Mrs. Grand’s little boy behind her elicited questioning stares from the women on my block. Mom, who’d been sitting in front of our building speaking with neighbors, jumped out of her chair and ran toward us. She looked down at me, then stared at my captor.
“What did you do to my son’s arm? Look at his arm. It’s bleeding!”
“Never mind his arm. The little thief will survive.”
“Get away from him before I call the police.”
“Do you know what your son has been doing?”
My mother’s voice took on the sound of a lioness whose cub was in danger. “I don’t care what he’s been doing. Let go of his arm.” She pried the woman’s hand from my arm and pulled me toward her. I freed myself from my mother’s grip and went over to the entryway of my building and slouched against the glass doors.
The woman’s tone became conciliatory. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t want anyone holding my daughter like that. It’s just that your son has me, has several of us, very upset.
“For the last couple of weeks there have been a number of missing doll carriages. They were always returned on the same day, but our daughters have been hysterical and none of us could figure out what was happening. We started watching out for one another, if you know what I mean. This morning I came downstairs and saw that my daughter’s carriage was missing. Sandra was in tears. It was hours before I could get her calmed down. What made matters worse is that she’s asthmatic. She had a lot of trouble with her breathing because of this.
“I kept looking out the window all day. When I saw your son returning Sandra’s carriage, I rushed downstairs. I thought I’d be too late to grab him, but there he was on the corner of 169th Street waiting for someone to cross him. The rest you know.”
“I’m sorry he caused you such problems. Is your daughter all right now?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll take care of this. You can count on that.”
“Please,” the woman said. “I’m sure your son doesn’t realize what trouble his actions could cause.”
The woman turned and headed down the street. She’d forgotten to thank me for oiling the wheels and getting rid of the squeak.
That night my parents, or more precisely my mother (Dad just watched and nodded his accord), laced into me for almost two hours.
The remarks directed at me contained three themes, all of which were designed to evoke guilt. (I should explain that they weren’t designed specifically for this occasion. Guilt-provoking remarks were part of my mother’s cultural and genetic heritage. My ancestors didn’t have any property to hand down, so they passed along their expertise in making others miserable).
The themes were: “I’m so disappointed in you,” “I thought you were smart enough to know better,” and “See…, see what pain you caused that little girl. She could have died because of you.”
The following Saturday my parents, probably afraid that I’d become the next Dillinger unless they took immediate steps to placate me, bought a doll carriage. For the next two years or so, until I became too embarrassed to be seen with it, that was how I took Blackie out. After that, Blackie mellowed and achieved self-control. She became a dignified pet.
For years, whenever I came home from school, Blackie got excited. She’d jump up at me yipping, and licking at my hands when I bent over to pet her. By the time I was eight, she’d begun to show the signs of age. When I was ten, she was fifteen, lame and almost blind. Despite her infirmities and the pain they must have caused her, she still came to the door to greet me when I returned home from school. She never greeted anyone else like that.
One day in April, Blackie wasn’t there to greet me. My mother had taken her to the vet’s and had her put out of her pain.
I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’ve never had a dog I loved as much.
About Bob Grand:
Bob Grand was born in the Bronx in 1938. He lived at 1348 Sheridan Avenue until 1959. For the outlandish rental of $ 65 per month they had a three bedroom one bath apartment in which, for the first ten years of his life, Bob lived with six other people – his Mom’s two sisters, his mom and dad, his older brother, and his widowed grandfather.
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