This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared on-line at The Broad Street Review, October 4, 2009, misguidedly titled “For the Love of a Dog,” the second of what became an initially unplanned series about growing up in the 1950s.
Until I was three, we lived with my father’s parents in South Philadelphia, at 10th and Baimbridge. My grandfather’s parents had arrived in South Jersey, with a group of Jewish emigres from Russia, for whom the Belgian-born Baron Maurice Hirsch had acquired land to farm in accordance with Socialist principles, though none of the Jews had ever owned land or farmed. My grandfather ran away as a teenager and worked as a machinist, up and down the east coast. (What he thought of the baron’s principles may be divined from his naming his first born, my father, Herbert Spencer Levin.) When my grandfather returned to South Jersey, he married the first girl in the community to have graduated high school.
She had plans for my grandfather and encouraged – some would say forced – him to become a doctor. This was not as difficult as it sounded since, in those days, there were medical schools which advertised on the equivalent of matchbook covers. My grandfather succeeded and established his offices on the first floor of his house. (I remember only its cabinets, whose shelves were enclosed behind glass doors, which folded upwards and which we inherited and two algae-choked fish tanks which returned, occupied often by mutant albino creatures, in my dreams for decades.) His patients, usually first generation Jews, Italians, and Negroes up from the South, whose ranks included Moms Mabley and Peg Leg Bates, paid him in cash or backyard produce or homemade wine. He was also, I learned much later, a drinker, a philanderer, abusive to his wife and children. But I was his first grandchild, and had favored nation status.
My grandfather always had dogs, usually chows or huskies or a mix, and usually mean. (My father spoke with rare respect and awe of Ming, a black chow from before my time, who, if his basic disposition was any indication, had been named for the villain in “Flash Gordon,” not the dynasty.) I grew up among such beasts. My favorite childhood picture is of me in a box, peering over the edge, surrounded by several drooling pups. I was completely at ease with dogs. I petted every one I met on the street or in Rittenhouse Square. And I loved stories about dogs. Dogs who rescued owners from fires and floods. Who fought off wolves and cougars and bears. Who, stolen or lost or cruelly sold, found their way across vast wildernesses to where they belonged.
After my sister Susie was born, we moved into a row house in West Philadelphia, on 46th Street, off Pine. (My grandmother, I also later learned, was to come with us, but she died shortly before the move took place.) When my Uncle Manny came home from World War II, he lived with us. So for a while did my Aunt Esther and Uncle Bernie and their baby daughter Elizabeth. My brother Larry arrived a year after that. One of my earliest correctives to my erroneous thinkings occurred in our first years on 46th Street. Because Susie was blonde, I had reasoned that was what distinguished boys from girls. No one had bothered to correct, but then I met a five-or-six-year-old boy who lived across the street, a Quaker, who was even blonder, so I had to reconsider the issue.
One day, I’m unsure when, my grandfather arrived unexpectedly and announced he had a present for me in his overcoat pocket. I pulled out a squirming, yipping ball of fur. Uncle Bernie, reacting to one of the puppy’s primary proclivities, named it Puddles. Puddles grew into a handsome dog. He had a barrel chest, a thick reddish brown coat, with a white ruff and white paws. He was intelligent, loyal, trustworthy, reverent, clean (within limits), obedient (ditto), and, I am sure, had we only been able to recognize it, as witty as Oscar Wilde. I certainly found him a more valuable addition to the household than my sister or cousin or brother. Then my grandfather arrived to borrow him. (This was not discussed with me at the time either, but Puddles had become old enough to breed.) He put him in his car and off they rode. But when my grandfather opened the door on 10th Street, Puddles, recalling who knows what traumas of his youth, or what confidences his mother may have shared with him, bolted.
There were no tracers-of-lost-dogs then. No one festooned fences with flyers or organized phone banks of inquiry. My parents, exercising the proper standard of care, alerted the pound. My grandfather was remorseful, and I was bereft. “He has tags,” my parents said. “Someone may call.” But when the phone rang, it was only Mrs. Kipper or Mrs. Hartz to discuss ORT with my mother. Then, several days later, the sun not yet risen, Uncle Bernie, readying for work, heard a scratching at the door. A somewhat thinner, somewhat bloodied Puddles, relying on some blend of instinct and intuition and the knowledge gained in his one journey to our house as a six-week old and from it on the occasion of his (to his mind) abduction, had found a street that crossed the Schuylkill and made it the four miles back. He had not crossed the Great Plains or the tundra, but in our lives he loomed heroic.
Puddles lived with us another two or three years. It was a time without leash laws, and urban dogs roamed free to ravage garbage cans, risk crossing Walnut Street, rendevous with one another, and encounter mankind’s varying dispositions. And one day an older, red-headed boy, whom I knew from the Lea School playground, where I was not in attendance, said Puddles had bitten him. Uncle Bernie, Puddles’s greatest champion, could hardly bring himself to think what the boy must have done to have provoked the attack. (For decades, when revisiting the story, he would link it with his walking into the living room and seeing Elizabeth gripping Puddles’s tongue in both hands, seeing how far she could stretch it, and Puddles stoically communicating his wish that this experiment be concluded.) But biting dogs could be gassed upon an unverified accusation and a magistrate’s order.
Somehow, my father brokered a deal. It may have involved payment to the bitten boy’s parents. It may have involved the political capital he had accrued as a Democratic party loyalist. By then Uncle Bernie’s family had moved to Overbrook Park, which was far enough away that Puddles would not endanger the red-headed boy or anyone else within the magistrate’s jurisdiction. It was agreed that if Puddles was banished, charges would dissolve.
I was sorry to see Puddles go, but I recognized the greater good. His new home abutted Cobbs Creek Golf Course, which provided eighteen holes to explore, a rivulet in which to splash, an actual patch of woods with rabbits to chase and skunks by whom he would be saluted. (Hell, at seven or eight, I could have enjoyed such a life myself.) For a time, we visited nearly every weekend, and I believed myself remembered and welcomed. I had other dogs, though none attained his stature. (The most notable was a fox terrier-like mutt who once demonstrated her regard for me by delivering three puppies on my bed without disturbing my sleep.)
Puddles lived a full and happy life. In the end, as with Rocky Raccoon (almost), Jay Gatsby (indirectly), and Stanford White (but without the kinkiness), it was love that did him in. He and a neighboring boxer regularly fought for the affections of a local chippy. On the last occasion, the boxer nearly chewed off one of his ears. After its repair, Puddles developed an infection of the brain. He was old then, and, following the vet’s recommendation, Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther had him put to sleep.
They wished later they hadn’t, but I am certain that Puddles would have told them it was fine. They had made things fine for him for a long time.