It's hard for me to remember now why my mom brought George home. Why she
chose a dog cut out for hunting--a Basset hound--to live a life of carpets and
furniture in our Manhattan apartment.
It may have been the fact that George was stocky and stayed close to the
ground. Our first pet, Margaret the cat, liked acrobatics and had fallen
one dismal day from our terrace 20 stories above the sidewalks of 16th
Street and Seventh Avenue. Fortunate cats have been known to survive such
falls--you can look this up--but Margaret was not one of the lucky ones, and
my mom could see that we missed her.
George kept low, sniffing and sniffing, although most of the smells in my
neighborhood were not fit for a Basset's nose. Unless you counted exhaust
from a bus, or clouds of steam that rose out of manhole covers whenever Con
Edison went to work.
And there were no holes to dig--unless a dog liked scraping around in some
unused flower boxes my dad had rigged up long ago.
But though bred to his very bones for following the muddy footsteps of foxes
and rabbits, George the Basset hound became the pet of three city kids. And
at first, all was well.
In fact, George did enjoy the rotting flower boxes and buried his Milk Bones
in them among the pebbles and pieces of old brick. That was fun. And it
was even more fun to throw a tennis ball from one end of the terrace to the
other, clapping as he retrieved it, skidded on the sun-baked tiles, and
barreled into you. (If the ball occasionally bounced over the railing, so
much the better.)
But soon George began itching to cover more turf in his lightning runs.
Somehow he pried the fire door open and escaped down the stairs to the
floors and apartments below. I'll never forget the sound of baying echoing
up the stairwell as my brother and I frantically chased him down to the 11th
floor, where he had cornered an elegantly dressed neighbor with two shopping
bags full of succulent meats and cheeses from a gourmet grocery.
I am sure there are those who will swear that, properly trained, Basset
hounds and country dogs of all kinds can live peacefully in the city. But
the keenness of George's sense of smell, his surprisingly effective floppy
ears, and his record-breaking appetite made our pleading commands a poor
second to the shouts of any stray pizza crust that happened to be calling
out to him from a few blocks away.
Even when we had all pretty much given up on saying "no" and swatting his behind
with a rolled magazine, my mom made sure we took George on walks in the morning,
and after we got back from City & Country School in the afternoon.
In fact, George walked us. Neither my brother nor I was strong enough to prevent
our squat, rocket-shaped pet from blasting off after whatever food item or fellow canine
he took a fancy to.
One winter morning, I was dragged for three blocks, over curbs and through
herds of pedestrians in wool coats, because George had sighted another
Basset hound and wanted to sniff its rear end. Another time George
recognized a vendor of Sabrett hot dogs, wrestled free from his leash, leapt
up and snagged an industrial-size wrapped package of frankfurter buns while
the man was busy making change.
That was the thing. No matter how many cans of Alpo we fed him, George was
perpetually and violently hungry. He ate hardcover books, cushions, bathtub
toys, part of a football, a wicker wastebasket, two towels, and--until he
barfed--the handle of a metal bicycle pump. We tried everything to stop him
from chewing and swallowing non-food items, but failed.
My sister took to heating his Purina Special Cuts in her E-Z Bake Oven to enhance
their flavor. We brought home foil-lined doggy-bags full of steamed
dumplings from Shun-Lee's restaurant every Sunday night for months on end.
Still, something was missing. Something we couldn't feed George from a can,
a Chinese restaurant, or a Sabrett cart. Something we couldn't toss for him
in our romps on the terrace or walk to in our hasty promenades past Barney's
department store down on Seventh Avenue.
One September, when my brother and I got back from summer camp, George was
We cried at the dinner table when my mom explained that New York hadn't been
fair to a Basset hound. That we hadn't been fair. And that she had decided
to give George to friends who owned a farm out on Long Island.
I'm not sure whether we cried that night for ourselves or for George. But I
do know this: When my brother, sister and I thought of George in the years
after that, we thought of him running free.
Not on sidewalks or terraces, but in fields full of wet grass where he could
burrow and flop over and follow fragrant smells. Where he could search for
careless squirrels or rabbits.
Where a country dog can find everything he needs.
* * *
Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).