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Little Dog, Big City

A dog loose on the streets of New York.

Stiva sitting on an empty street in the dark harnessed to a red leash.

The duality of Stiva. (Photo: Max Rivlin-Nadler)

As the sun began to set on Friday evening, I was out of breath, screaming at the top of my lungs, and about to get absolutely demolished by a car exiting the Williamsburg Bridge as I ran across Delancey Street. In my hand, I held my dog's leash, and at the end of that, his empty harness. I was feeling extremely miserable, and everyone who looked my way knew exactly why.

Ten minutes before this moment, it really was all going so well.

For the past two months, I have been the owner of a beautiful dog, the bouncing Stiva, who is so well-behaved, so even-keeled, and so generally delightful that I sometimes forget to mention that I got a dog when someone asks me what’s new. A terrier mix from Baja, Mexico, he settled in immediately to the New York City lifestyle—waiting patiently on train platforms, hopping into my backpack for bike rides, and joyously greeting all who showed even the most mild interest in him on the sidewalk. Simply put, Stiva is a "VGB" (a very good boy).

As a growing puppy, Stiva likes to sleep a lot, and burn off his energy at the Tompkins Square Dog Park (little dog section), where his favorite activity is to drag his Dachshund friends around by their ears (apparently they like this?). He is a simple fellow, with simple pleasures, who sleeps through the night, was housebroken when we got him, and does that funny and pathetic thing dogs do where they fall asleep while trying to look intently at you.

Nothing bad had ever happened to Stiva, and honestly, nothing really bad has ever happened to me either. What a good thing we had going!

Stiva sitting on the sidewalk with a red harness.
A dog for all seasons
A dog for all seasons

Early on Friday evening, I decided to take Stiva for a walk from our pandemic-deal apartment in the East Village, towards the Brooklyn Bridge, to meet my wife after work and catch the sunset. Friday was so nice out—the city was buzzing, playgrounds were packed, and even the habitual car backup on Houston and Delancey couldn't dampen the seething humanity on city streets. Stiva, his yellow-white hair ruffling in the no-longer-frigid breeze, happily trotted alongside me, taking in the scene, chomping on any twigs he encountered, and cautiously lifting a leg to pee on things every hundred yards (he's still getting the hang of it). After crossing Grand, I decided to sit on a bench and watch the handball players and their game of ferocious starts and stops. Stiva, I believed, would enjoy this—sharing with handball players an acute interest in small rubber balls.

But Stiva was distracted, chewing something he'd found in the park. And when I bent down to grab it out of his mouth, he reared back and ducked his head. In an instant, he had somehow freed his front legs, squeezed his head out of the harness, and broken free from my hold.

Without hesitation, Stiva ran out of the park and into the traffic of Grand Street, a twelve-pound lightweight, suddenly surrounded by giant heaps of quickly-moving metal and rubber.

I don't have a kid, and I have generally avoided custodial experiences with my niece and nephew, but let me tell you: when you see your little dude running across Grand Street at full tilt during Friday rush hour, dodging cars, it feels bad. You need to do something about this, but you are also in that dream where you can’t move fast enough, except this is all real, and holy shit that SUV on Delancey almost rammed into you (with a tinted license plate cover, for shame!) and oh God, I've lost him, and I'm wheezing, and fuck, this little dog is fast.

I was running, blindly calling out "Stiva!" panic-yelling, "My dog, anyone seen my dog!" holding onto his leash and empty harness, absolutely just ruining everyone's extremely pleasant Friday evenings. I last caught a glimpse of him screaming north on Forsyth Street, but that was it—he was gone. I run for exercise, but sprinting is not running, especially in Vans and a jean jacket.

As I ran, I was choking back the insane fear of turning a corner and seeing the crumpled body of my little dog with onlookers covering their mouths and his little final yelps battling it out with the cacophony of car horns. One woman, north of Delancey, reported that yes, she had seen the dog, and pointed again uptown. Then another person said they too had seen him. Almost on every corner was another person pointing the way, but I knew that the time between them seeing him and me asking them was growing longer with each block.

What kept me going and not just collapsing into a curbside mound of trash (which is where I belong, having lost my little dog in New York City), was a waiter who bolted out from a sidewalk shed and took off ahead of me, saying he saw the dog run past him two minutes ago, and that he had turned on Rivington, heading west. This guy, this hero in a green shirt and jeans with a white towel hanging out of his back pocket, cut the distance to Stiva, enough to see him take a right on Chrystie, and then another right turn on Houston. There, hands on knees, he gave up, but not before pointing across Houston on First. "I'm sorry," he wheezed, having not quite saved the day, but importantly prolonging the chase. Thanks to this man, I had at least an idea of maybe where he was heading now. I survived another headlong dash across a busy arterial street and found myself on 1st and First, but again, with no idea where the dog was. A woman on a scooter volunteered to join the chase, and from ahead on 4th she pointed east—towards our apartment.

At a playground on 4th, I again appealed to horrified kids and parents, beseeching them to know if they'd seen my dog. "Yeah, bro, we did," one parent told me, "but that had to be a few minutes ago at this point."

I ran past our apartment, still screaming about my lost dog, when a guy on roller blades almost crashed into me, "Tompkins!" he told me, and he began blading back up Avenue A. I loped towards Tompkins (loped? lurched? My legs were dead at this point, but adrenaline was sustaining me), and a few of the long-term residents of the park pointed towards the back… near the dog park.

As I approached the dog park's fence, having just had the most chaotic fifteen minutes of my life (again, a very good life!), I started shouting, involuntarily, “No fucking way, no fucking way.”

And it was there, seated on the bench next to the fence, where I found a rather sheepish, but mostly shameless, Stiva.

Stiva in the dog park with his eyes peaking over a fence.
"Oh hey, what's up? Why so out-of-breath and screaming?"
"Oh hey, what's up? Why so out-of-breath and screaming?"

I was informed by the fellow dog owners that he had waited until someone let him in through the double doors of the dog park, then hopped over the shorter fence into the little dog section. He then went around and greeted the people there, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and that he was just taking a nice trip to see his good friends, the people at the dog park.

He gave me a short, polite greeting, as I squeezed him close and kept telling people "This motherfucker ran here from below Delancey, can you believe this motherfucker?" (I don't know why I kept calling my dog a "motherfucker," the insanity of adrenaline and relief, I guess). And then I carried him back towards home, making sure to stop at the playground and let the kids and parents know that he had been safely found. I then locked him in his crate in our apartment before I collapsed feeling like a completely insane person on our couch.

Stiva, extremely pretentiously, is named after Prince Stepan "Stiva" Arkadyevich Oblonsky, a character from Anna Karenina. We were part of an Anna Karenina reading group during quarantine, where after finishing the book, people named dogs they then adopted after characters. While Stiva-the-character's infidelity sets the events of the book in motion, he is, above all else, about having a "good time," and never actually faces repercussions for his actions. He enjoys life, simply, and can't be bothered to deal with any of its complications. Like a dog completely ignorant of just how close to vehicular-related death it came, Stiva glides through life, happy to see everyone, and joyous about the pleasures one can derive during existence. For Stiva-the-dog, a more apt name we could not have chosen.

A map of Stiva's 1.26-mile journey.
Stiva's journey (estimated)
Stiva's journey (estimated)

We bought a new, tighter harness on Saturday. That night on our walk, he effortlessly lifted his foot out of it, mid-stride. I carried him home the rest of the way.

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