Just so we know what we’re talking about, here is the blurb I use for this story:
The Rented Pet is a bittersweet 14,000-word story about two dogs and the humans in their constellation. Set in a specific neighborhood in 1970’s Brooklyn, New York, the story chronicles social change: specifically, gentrification. In so doing, it serves as an elegy for a passing world.
Rex, The Rented Pet. An old German Shepherd trained as a blind dog.
Julia: His female companion.
Mildred Schaap: bookkeeper.
Jerry Kaplan: carpenter.
Joe Bassano: supervisor of a moving van yard.
Charles Miller: a blind poet who operates a newspaper kiosk.
Dr. Matt Brunn: a veterinarian.
Part One: Renting the Pet.
Part Two: The pet is menaced. A romance begins.
Part Three: The romance blossoms. A companion is acquired for Rex, who is also seriously injured.
Part Four: At a party to celebrate Rex’s recovery, his past is revealed.
Epilogue: Both dogs die. The Funeral.
Elegy (written and recited by Charles Miller, after the manner of “Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts, Dec’d,” by Mark Twain):
Let men be bold, let truth be told,
These two were a king and his queen.
Of noble scions, their hearts like lions’,
No bone in their bodies, mean.
To the lonely and the blind, ever were they kind,
These paragons of canine race.
They came, they saw, they overcame,
Leaving Earth a worthier place.
So let’s raise a cup, drink it all up,
Here’s afterlife to Rex and to Julia,
Let’s hope where they are, whether near or far far,
There’s food, water and sex, hallelujah.
Writing about my own story is a bit tricky. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s reply to someone at a reading who asked him what a poem of his meant. To paraphrase, “You want me to explain it in worse English?” There are things I can safely say about “The Pet,” and things that feel less safe. To start with the latter, there is always the matter of influence, which can be a sub-species of the False-Cause fallacy. (A happened, then B happened, so A caused B.)
Okay, I’ve already admitted to a Mark Twain knock-off. I’ll also admit that, as I wrote this small serial, I had grandiose visions of Londoners queuing (in yellow fog) for the latest monthly number of, say, Oliver Twist. Is the story Dickensian? Is the story Gogolesque? Maybe. I love Gogol enough to have written a previous story called “A Nose for a Jacket.” (The conflation in the title will be obvious to fellow Gogol-olators.) Literary influences? People have said my work reminds them of Raymond Carver’s. Really? I haven’t read a word of his. People say a lot of things.
On the safer side is Brooklyn, which provided the time and place for The Rented Pet. But that’s only the beginning: Brooklyn is in the pores of the story. I’ve written other things, poems and stories and essays, all of which are about Brooklyn. Many of these feature the theme of gentrification mentioned in the blurb. Take this poisonous little poem (published in the borough’s own Brooklyn Rail):
Thanks to vegans, yuppies, hipsters, muffies,
the lurid and the florid give way to
“Oh my God, these diaper prices!”
and “Isn’t inflation the poo!”
From “lick my dick,” to “macrobiotic,”
from “asshole,” to “alternative,”
the mother tongue is sucking hind tit:
Brooklynese is lexiconically depleted.
Thank god we still have our immigrants:
性交,, Chinese, for “fuck”; mierda, Spanish, for “shit.”
But mark my words, motherfuckers, at this rate,
how much longer can batty Brooklynites echolocate?
Fucking A! If not for jerk-offs like me and you,
the expletives would all be deleted.
I even wrote a sequel, words that could have been uttered by Joe Bassano or Jerry Kaplan:
A Reply to Mr. Ron Singer’s “Motherfuckerless Brooklyn”
Yo, Ronnie. Say what, illiewhacker!
You gotta lotta shit wit’ you, gavoon.
Do you really know fuck-all about
that of which you speak, you skank ho?
This “poem” of yours takes it up the coolee.
What’s with the baby Spanish and Chinese?
No estes chingando, you mamzer, you!
Or manzo le gausha, perhaps, Mon-soor?
Duh-ta-duh, put it in your pocket, Ron.
“Deplete the lexi-fucking-con”?
I mean, not to give you leather, fuckweed,
but you don’t even know the “lexicon.”
You think you some badass motherfucker,
but I bet you just some poo-sie from The Ci-ty.
(acknowledgment: Many terms are borrowed from “Brooklynisms,” compiled by James Lampos and Michaelle Pearson: http://www.lampos.com/brooklyn.htm)
Those words could have also been uttered by one of several neighbors of mine, when I lived on 14th Street (between 5th and 6th avenues). Two real-life examples:
RS: So, boys, what do you think of the tree [that I had the city plant in front of my house]? It’s doing well, isn’t it?
Neighbor: I don’t like it. I can’t see Richie from my front yard anymore.
Richie lived on my side, three or four houses down, and across the street from the speaker. The speaker’s front yard was paved. He had it paved the day after a young passer-by snipped a rose from his bush to give to his girl friend. This neighbor’s open garage had a bar and flashing Bud sign.
Once, the neighbor brought a puppy home, and, when asked why, by his irate wife, he replied, “I had a package on down at the Post.” He meant the local VFW post (and, if it needs translation, he had drunk a six-pack). This anecdote morphed into the “banquet” scene in “The Pet.” When the neighbor died and I asked his friend the cause, the reply was, “He died of Budweiser.”
Culture clash. That’s what “The Pet” is about –and it takes sides, both of them. I should explain that I was right in the middle of this clash. When my wife and I moved back to New York in the mid-70’s, we followed everyone’s advice and chose already gentrified Park Slope. Of course, in those days, it was a good, cheap outpost of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We had a big, beautiful floor-through in a brownstone for $250 a month. By now P.S. is a fairly nice, not-so-cheap outpost of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a silk stocking district for the other leg.
After about ten years, we were evicted by our old-school Italian landlord, who re-possessed our apartment for a son and his wife, refugees from her parents’ home on Staten Island. Park Slope, we found, was now unaffordable for the likes of us. (I was by then a full-time English teacher and part-time writer; my wife, a half-and-half painter and Art teacher). At the advice of an architect-friend on our block, we bought an old frame house seven blocks south of the apartment. We wound up living in this new neighborhood for over a decade. Our daughter, brought up there, ran back when she finished college, and now lives in a blue-collar, no-collar neighborhood of her own, Sunset Park, with her own husband and son.
Neighbor: Uh, Ronnie, you mind if I ask what you, uh, paid for your place?
Ronnie: Thirty thousand, six hundred.
The neighbor and friend almost pissed themselves, having paid about no thousand for their houses, back when. But we all had the last laugh, I suppose (except for the guy who died). Within ten more years, all three of the houses had been sold for large multiples of what we had paid.
Moving those seven rungs down the social ladder, however, gave me a serious case of culture shock. From a tree-lined, fairly quiet street (albeit with a schoolyard behind our building where awful things happened, such as unspeakable gang initiations), we moved onto a block where drugs were dealt openly. Muggings were commonplace, and, every now and then, someone was arrested for doing something like flushing a baby down the toilet or shooting someone dead for a quarter.
This move was probably the biggest influence on my literary oeuvre of those decades. I wrote several long stories that obliquely addressed my excitement and terror… Like “The Rented Pet,” their epicenters are subways, that underground inferno of those days. In “A Dream of Trains,” an architect makes a downward social move similar to mine, though his is prompted by divorce. After a breakdown, he recovers in a chi-chi private clinic, in part by creating imaginative designs for subway cars. Without ruining the end (the story is in Word Riot), it will suffice to say he returns to the source of his breakdown. Here is one scene in which hetransmutes his fears into art:
TWO PLANS FOR THE RELIEF OF SUBWAY CROWDING
In silence and with trembling hands, I hang the drawings from the stainless steel clothespins in front of the whiteboard. The class consists of myself, the young instructor (female), and two other “clients.” There is Frederick M, a tall fat man with sandy hair and a permanent expression of fury on his florid face, and Dorothy S, a thin middle-aged woman whose gray face is a circus of tics and whose fingers incessantly tap out the same tunes which, over the years, I myself have played. The men, Frederick and myself, wear patterned sport shirts, the instructor a dark-green, very becoming, shirt. The instructor and I wear blue jeans and Frederick, brown corduroy trousers. Dorothy wears a plain well-cut navy blue woolen dress.
During one of the morning assemblies, Mason (the Director) had explained to the community (the unlocked members) that he had, “for morale’s sake”, decided to outlaw bathrobes and slippers in public spaces, except, of course, for the physically incapacitated.
While the always pleasant instructor coos encouragement and my two fellow-students stare into space, I announce the title, then begin my lecture. At first my voice is violently tremulous and much too loud, but as I proceed the trembling subsides to a tremor and I am able to modulate the volume.
“The concept behind these fine perspectival pictorials by the [sic] eminent architect Robert G. [no surnames here] is simple. In every subway car, there will be two levels. I note at the outset that the cars themselves will not need to be an inch higher than at present, since all modifications are to be made to their interiors. It should also be acknowledged that these modifications have been inspired by the work of Robert G’s friend, the noted neighborhood contractor, Charles F., whose work with the dropped ceiling, although controversial, has revolutionized the re-design of historic residential townhouses.” At this point, Frederick barks a loud cough and his red face grows even redder. Dorothy, almost imperceptibly, frowns. I try to ignore these reactions.
“Note that our plan is to lower the first ceilings to six feet, leaving two-feet-four-inches above. Ladders, either permanent ones extending vertically at either end of every car, or removable ones slanting up from the station platforms through the large custom windows, will provide access to the upper level.” I pause to drain half the water in my large Styrofoam cup, an appendage for most of us who suffer from constant thirst, a side effect of many of our medications.
“You will also note,” I resume, aiming my pointer at the first drawing, “that PLAN A calls for people who are six feet or taller to ride lying down on the upper level.” By now, Dorothy has begun to peek shyly at me, and Frederick, to pace the room. For obvious reasons, moving around is permitted during classes.
I drone on. “PLAN B, on the other hand, adds to the design of PLAN A intermittent vertical compartments wide enough to contain a single person, exact number to be calculated by demographic survey, and reaching from the floor of the car through to the ceiling of the upper level. Passengers six feet and taller will be directed to these compartments. The upper level will now be reserved for those passengers who elect to lie down and are willing to purchase a special gold transit pass for that priv … ”
At that point, Frederick startles us all by interrupting, in his usual booming voice: “… privilege, the theory being that many harried commuters already look as though they would gladly pay a surcharge for a seat, so how much more willing would they be to pay to lie down? Conceivable, but admittedly problematic, are two additional dimensions.”
I cannot help noticing how well he has caught my tone. The instructor watches uneasily for signs of impending violence, but since class participation is encouraged (and often hard to come by), she allows the interrupter to continue. Dorothy is still studying either her feet or the floor.
“The first addition,” thunders the intruder, “will be to subcontract the upper levels to the subway prostitution firm, Darlene’s Rush Hour Services for Gentlemen, of which I happen myself to be founder and C.E.O. You may recall,” he digresses from his own digression, “that it was one of our gals who wrote the best-selling memoir, Tightly Packed Pants. The second ancillary dimension will be the employment of jobless youth to awaken passengers in time for their stops, recompense to take the form of gratuities.”
“Those sure are problematic dimensions,” Dorothy finally mutters, licking her chapped lips.
My best course is to humor him. “Thank you, Frederick,” I say before he can continue. “That presentation displayed the crisp succinctness we have all come to expect from you.” He nods brusquely, smashes a fist into a palm, then sets off around the room again.
“It will be apparent,” I drone on, “that PLAN A is the more egalitarian, although I will be the first to admit that even it is open to allegations of height-ism, which, as we all know, in this city is often tantamount to racism. Nevertheless, I feel certain that the more fundamental issue for the city council will prove to be space utilization versus revenue return. Let me close with a caveat: I plead with the authorities not to regard the plan –whichever version is ultimately selected—as a panacea for the city’s future fiscal ills. Such a misuse, such a misjudgment, would lead inevitably to gross overcrowding of the new facilities, making a mockery of the initial rationale for redesign. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.”
Frederick, without interrupting his circumambulation, smashes his hands together twice; Dorothy, expressionless, rapidly and silently taps her fingers together several times. The instructor smiles (widely) and nods (vigorously).
“Very good, Bob,” she says. And since this has been my first class presentation and I have been at the clinic for barely a month, she adds, “Welcome aboard.”
“The Rented Pet” is a softer-edged, sweeter, much more gentle product of my seven-block move. If “A Dream of Trains” was cathartic, “The Pet” was probably homeopathic, since it made the rough characters and fierce dogs of my new neighborhood cuddly and admirable. This story is also the most local story I ever wrote. All the scenes are set on the corner of Prospect and Fifth avenues, or within a few blocks of there. I dreamed “The Pet” as I passed the corner on my way to and from the “R” train every morning and evening. The cover painting for the book, by my wife, Elizabeth Yamin, is called “The ‘R’ Train.”
The culture clash is epitomized by gunslinger Kaplan’s mot when a tall, lean jogger they encounter reminds him and Mildred to clean up after Rex and Julia: “Don’t you snoopy yuppies like our puppies’ poopies?” The light irony of having a lumberman so witty and poetic permeates the story. When Mildred initially rents Rex, the proprietor of the AARF Guard Dog store is honest enough to admit that the dog is well on in years. “That’s okay,” replies Mildred, “I like an older dog.” Which, to me, echoes all sorts of cliches from old-time Hollywood romantic movies.
Well then, “I could tell you more about it, but it ain’t no use.” (“Everyday Dirt,” Old-Time Country Music, New Lost City Ramblers). In other words, if you’re hooked, why not read The Pet yourself?