Buster, Buddy, Blondie, The Bronx and Me
etting the stray dog to follow me home from P.S. 104 on an afternoon sometime in the springof 1948 was an effort. He needed a lot coaxing, especially when coming from Shakespeare Avenue and crossing the very wide University Avenue with its trolley cars and heavy traffic.
Heading right, past the Chinese laundry, the deli, the candy store and the corner drug store, we headed up to 175th Street, took a left, then up the hill past Montgomery Avenue and finally arrived at Popham Avenue, and home.
We entered the lobby of the sixty-family apartment building at number 1634. After ringing for the elevator (we lived on the sixth and topmost floor), the dog refused to enter, so we took to the stairs. He needed some encouragement at each landing but we finally arrived at the top floor.
Opening the door to my apartment, number 6E, we cautiously entered the small foyer to my home. Mom was home so there was no way to sneak my new-found friend into my bedroom, which was shared with my older by three and a half years, sister, Barbara. Besides, my sister would have snitched on me. She was interested mostly in boys, not dogs, and wouldn’t have looked very kindly at admitting another roommate. As it was, I was barely tolerable.
As soon as Mom saw the dog, I was questioned about his origins and how he came to be in our apartment. “He followed me home from school,” was my weak and un-believed answer.
“We can’t have a pet.” Mom said. “You’ll have to take him back to the place where you found him.”
At eight years old, I wasn’t about to argue with my mother, since I couldn’t recall ever having won one with her. So, off we headed, back through the streets to Plimptom Avenue where I first found this poor, nameless pooch. My first experience of “owning” a dog was over… in less than forty-five minutes.
I had always had an affinity for animals, dogs being at the top of my list. I had read all the Albert Peyson Terhune books about his many Collies with “Lad of Sunnybank” being my favorite. Later, Roy Rogers and his German Shepherd, “Bullet” replaced the Collie as my favorite dog.
I longed for the relationship that Terhune and Rogers apparently had with their animals. I read any book on dogs and other animals and decided that being a veterinarian was for me. (Alas, I never achieved that goal, instead somehow ending up with a career in computers!) Since owning a dog was not a realistic goal, I was determined to have a dog in my life, even if it wasn’t mine.
The nearest candidate was Buster, a large, brown, mixed-breed dog, possibly of shepherd and sheep dog ancestry. He belonged to the super of our building and was feared by all us kids.
We never went near Buster, and always entered the basement of the building slowly and with trepidation, fearing that Buster would as soon devour us as he would his dog food. Since Mr. Dudek, the superintendent and owner of Buster, lived in the basement apartment, one never knew when Buster was roaming around in the dark reaches of 1634's underground. .
It was probably after a year that I decided to approach this ferocious animal. He was often chained on a long lead in the back of the apartment building, and we kids always avoided entering through the back way when Buster was present.
Making sure no one was around, I slowly approached “the Beast of Popham Avenue”. Buster was wary of most people, especially kids. Who knew what harassment he may have suffered from children less enamored of animals than I?
Buster, on four legs, was straining at his leash, but oddly not barking at me, as he always did when my friends and I scurried out of his reach. I inched closer. I have very little fear of animals and have often approached dogs, cats and horses with never a sense of trepidation. They always seemed to sense that I was not a threat.
Buster strained at his chain as I slowly approached. I reached out my hand. Buster sniffed, then licked. That’s all I needed. My pal, Buster! He was a pussycat. We became close and I never passed by him again without petting him, to the amazement of my friends, who thought I was crazy.
That relationship was good, but not good enough for me. I needed more dog-contact.
Who else had a dog? In our building there was only one tenant with a dog, and she was a widow who never took the dog out and was rarely even seen (the dog, that is).
A couple across the street in 1635 Popham Avenue had a cocker spaniel. I had often seen them sitting on the street in the summer evenings, smoking and chatting with the other tenants. In those years, just after World War II, most of the people living in my neighborhood were a mix of middle-income and white- and blue-collar workers who enjoyed sitting in front of their apartment buildings, talking, smoking and watching the kids playing.
I’m not quite sure, but I seem to recall that different buildings’ tenants didn’t mix much with other buildings’ tenants. . If you were from 1634, that’s where you set up your chair, although any adult from any building felt free to tell any child to behave - and we listened.
I crossed the street to 1635 and approached the couple with the dog named “Blondie”, whose name I knew but whose master and mistress’ names I can no longer recall. I asked if I could walk their dog. They agreed I could take her as long as I promised to always keep her on the leash, which I happily promised to do.
Blondie was a sweet-natured lady who had two endearing abilities. The first, but not he best by far, was her amazing agility when catching moths and flies! She would leap at a bug and almost always catch it, on the fly, so to speak. The other was her “cigarette trick”. No, not the smoking of one, but her ability to stamp out a lit cigarette. Drop a butt near Blondie and she would bat it to and fro with her paws till the ash was out. People never tired of watching Blondie perform this stunt, least of all me. She was also the first dog I knew of who could distinguish her left from her right paw, a trick I later taught to my dogs.
Remember that widow I mentioned earlier, Mrs. Marden? Her dog’s name was Buddy. Buddy was not a particularly friendly canine. He was not one who warmed up to people, and I didn’t have any illusions that he would become my “pal” either. But, he was special!
Mrs. Marden and Buddy lived in a small, one-room apartment on the ground floor. The only window she had faced onto Popham Avenue. There, she and Buddy held court in the evenings, with Mrs. Marden, hovering at the window and overseeing all while Buddy, paws on the sill, watched the action.
Emma, as the adults called her, was the neighborhood “Grand Dame” and her common sense and love of everyone made her the favorite among all the neighbors. She always had fresh-baked sugar cookies for the kids and watched out for us like a second mother.
Buddy, on the other hand, could have cared less if we kids disappeared forever. Whenever I entered Emma’s apartment, Buddy slid under the bed. I don’t think I ever petted or touched Buddy in the eight or ten years that I knew him. But Buddy was interesting. In the summer, when the Bungalow Bar ice cream truck came around, ringing his chimes, Buddy was at his window, waiting for his mistress to purchase his ice cream. Mrs. Marden would ask Buddy, “Do you want chocolate?” A bark meant yes, silence meant no. “Do you want vanilla?” was the query if no response to chocolate was issued.Which ever selection Buddy chose, Emma would purchase…but, and here is where it got interesting. If Buddy indicated vanilla as his choice, and Emma gave him chocolate, he would turn away from it, and refuse to eat it! Some nights he chose chocolate, some vanilla. Give him what he didn’t select and he would not touch it.
Buddy was rarely, if ever, walked. I never saw him on the street in all the years I lived at number 1634. How did the dog relieve himself, one might ask? Here’s the story as told to me by Mrs. Marden.
When Buddy arrived at her home, he was very tiny, probably three or four weeks old. He needed a lot of care and attention because of his small size and young age. He was not very healthy, but Mrs. Marden had a magic touch when it came to helping animals, be they dogs, cats or birds. She nursed Buddy constantly and eventually he grew healthy. He was always at her feet, following and watching everything she did. One day Mrs. Marden saw Buddy on the toilet seat rim, relieving himself. She claims she never taught him to do that, he just figured it out on his own! Whether he flushed or not, is regrettably not known.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Buddy had one more trick up his paw, or more accurately, in his mouth. Buddy could talk! I heard him speak, as did my mom, sister and many other people living in our building. He wouldn’t do it often, and only with a limited audience. Too many people, and Buddy crawled under the bed and out of sight. His vocabulary was not extensive, but what he said was clear enough for us to understand, and quite appropriate for the close relationship he had with his mistress, Emma.
Buddy’s one and only line was “I love you, Mama”. And that’s the truth.