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First They Came for the Dogs, But I Was Not a Dog
By Albert Stern

I heard the dog howling downstairs on one of those sticky midsummer nights in New York City that feels like an air conditioner is in your window backwards. If you happen to be too stubborn or, like me and most of my neighbors on West 107th Street back in the mid-1980s, too poor to cool your apartment, home is where the hot is. On that type of summer night in that type of neighborhood, tempers flare, tepid grievances boil over, and the only response to a new affront that might seem to make sense was a decisive spasm of violence. It was the kind of night that a person might decide he'd had enough of that goddamn dog, trick it into thinking it was being taken for a walk, and then leave its sorry ass outside to fend for itself.

At least that was my theory of what happened to the obviously large animal out on the street six floors below my bedroom window. At about three in the morning, its cries -- as determined as they were distressed -- roused me from fitful summer slumber. The dog seemed fixed on the entrance to my building, perhaps because it was accustomed to that door always opening. Now the door would not open, and the dog did not know enough about the world to go anywhere else, say, to a friend's apartment. Really, where else would a dog think to go except home?

After less than a minute of nonstop barking, I heard the first canine rejoinders, the ululations of outraged yip dogs. Then the bigger dogs chimed in. Within minutes, seemingly every dog on the block -- and there were dozens -- was at a window and howling. Then, the first shouted obscenity, indicating that my neighbors had been roused to action. Now we had a situation.

Back then, West 107th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue was gentrifying out of its incarnation as a largely Hispanic enclave. If you took the long view, it wasn't hard to see the promise -- the Upper West Side was moving uptown, Columbia University was moving downtown, and Riverside Drive to the west was solidly affluent. But there were problems from the east. Around the corner from me, Amsterdam Avenue was dotted with storefronts that openly sold nickel and dime bags of marijuana, marked outside by signs that read "School Supplies" and lined inside by black light posters depicting the signs of the zodiac and positions of gymnastic Afro-love. The illegal betting parlors operating on the avenue for some reason all had hair dryers and other grooming products in the windows. There were at least two red-and-yellow awning bodegas per block doing brisk business selling big bottles of cheap, strong beer and sub-Hostess quality snack cakes.

Things started to change after a turf war arson attack left the biggest (and, truth be told, the best) marijuana shop a burnt out shell, and two murders were committed on West 109th Street. In one night, the police raided all the pot shops, part of a larger effort to isolate the crack bazaar that had started to flourish two avenues east on West 107th near Manhattan Avenue (a corner given the moniker "Crack Street" in the CBS Reports documentary that alerted the nation to the burgeoning rock cocaine menace). With this type of action a part of daily life, a denizen of West 107th Street could not help but become accustomed to small and ugly "situations" like the one unfolding downstairs with the dog.

The economic, social, educational, ethnic, and psychopharmacological barriers that divided the residents of my block made intermingling problematic. The closest thing to a block party was the Fourth of July, always the biggest night of the year, when the locals would conduct their own explosives show that made children weep and sent dogs and cats scurrying under beds and into closets. Even the cops passing by knew to keep their windows rolled up tight to deflect the M-80s hurled at them from inside the buildings.

It was a sign of how downtrodden the area had become that my sallow white face could have been construed, as I was told it was by some, as a harbinger of better days. I moved to the block because Columbia University, New York's third largest landlord, refused to provide housing to transfer students, effectively exiling me from the student life that I needed to immerse myself into, as it was also one year after my mother died. I did not have the money, heart, or imagination to decorate a big one-bedroom apartment, and after a point, only the absence of a hanging tire swing distinguished it from a zoo monkey's habitat. I would abandon it as soon as I could imagine the existence of a life unbounded by claustrophobic bleakness. I would put down no roots. I would not become part of a community. I would gentrify nothing. I would even have disappointed a dog.

Case in point, the dog howling downstairs. Although its cries were becoming increasingly desperate as the din of barking and shouting intensified, the thought of trying to help never entered my mind. The next day, the excuses I formulated revolved around the late hour, the abruptness of the incident, and my feeling that I've always been more of a cat person. But the real reason was the New Yorker's reflexive cop out -- the dog was none of my business and someone else would take care of it, or someone wouldn't, but whatever happened, the unfortunate situation unfolding below my window would soon be over and, in that case, all's well that ends. For most of us living in this city, squandering opportunities to advance one's karmic standing is a matter of habit and self-preservation, to some a point of pride. So maybe it wasn't realistic to expect more compassion from the residents of West 107th Street on a hot summer night, though unto us a dog was barking.

For the most part, the people living on my block simply coexisted, protected by the great walls New Yorkers erect to prevent sensory and emotional overload, and practiced in pretending that hosts of human beings existed only hypothetically. Just because we were indifferent, however, did not mean we were not alert and ready to act. Consider the time I had a Swedish houseguest, a woman who would later go on to become one of Key West's most popular ecdysiasts. A take-it-all-off sort even then, she walked naked into the living room, and I went into the bedroom she had just left. The shades were wide open, and I noticed four men in the building across the street at their windows - one was watering his plants, another shaking out a mat, one was having a smoke, and the last just enjoying a breath of fresh air. As I came into view, all four heads snapped toward me and then simultaneously turned away when it was clear I wasn't the naked blonde.

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