Over a year ago, I adopted a dog from Zani’s Furry Friends, a heroic rescue organization that takes animals out of the city’s kill shelters and fosters them among their network of volunteers. When I found Rocco on Petfinder, then known as Kobe, he was described as “very sweet, very cute, and phat, not fat.”
Even after three weeks at Animal Care and Control, neutering, and another 10 days in a loving foster home, he was one overweight dog. The prevailing theory at the shelter was that he must have belonged to an elderly person who overfed him or didn’t excercise him, and then perhaps that person passed away or went to a nursing home—and that might be the reason such a smart, well-behaved dog ended up without a collar, wandering the streets of the Bronx. In any case, this dog liked to eat!
Once the newly christened Rocco came home with me, I immediately started him on a diet of no-grain kibble and green beans, which I couldn’t help sautéeing in a tiny bit of olive oil. I began taking him to the dog run and on long walks. The neighborhood opened up to me and suddenly I was met with smiles everywhere I went. It became nearly impossible to walk more than a couple of blocks without someone stopping to pet Rocco, and exchange a few pleasantries.
Washington Heights is home to a big mix of musicians, opera singers, professors, medical students, and large communities of Dominicans and Orthodox Jews. East of Broadway in the heart of the Dominican community, older men relax on lawn chairs chatting, listening to music, or playing dominoes. Rocco loves these men, confirming my theory that he belonged to someone elderly. Often they call him guapo and try to feed him chicken bones. My favorite comment came from a very polite teenage boy who said, “Miss, I like your dog. He looks Dominican!”
Rocco found less acceptance in the Orthodox community west of Broadway where I live. Many Orthodox Jews don’t keep animals as pets because, as it was explained to me, they make it difficult to keep a kosher home. As a result, many people in the community are afraid of dogs since they have had little or no exposure to them. Rocco became beloved by one rabbi, but largely he was avoided and the children in my apartment building would often run away in fear.
Rocco started dropping pounds and was able to run with much more ease. I then began letting him run off-leash in the communal backyard space shared by two apartment buildings. Here, the super tends to his tomato garden, an untended fig tree grows hundreds of sweet figs, and neighbors leave food out for the feral cats. I barely noticed any of this until Rocco ate a tomato off the vine, devoured figs laying on the ground, and gorged himself on stale pizza crusts. Rocco had easily adapted to his new life with me, but one thing he carried over from his old one was his large appetite.
The backyard is also where children can play safely together and Yankees hats are pullled on over yarmulkes for giant games of baseball. Slowly, a few of the kids who had run away from Rocco in fear began to play with him. First, they were fascinated by his retrieval skills and asked to throw his ball. Then they would run along side of him to test their own speed. Eventually, they would sit down in the grass and pet him while taking a breather from all that running. I felt we had all earned mutual trust.
One afternoon, I let Rocco off-leash in our backyard only to notice that a large group of kids were sitting in a circle having a picnic. As soon as they saw Rocco at least half of the kids ran away leaving their paper plates of food on the ground. Rocco, hungry as ever, saw a golden opportunity, rushed over, and within nanoseconds had consumed an entire knish. One of the boys started crying and screamed. “I hate that dog! He ate my knish.” Two days later this same boy walked by Rocco in a huff and said, “I don’t want to play with Rocco anymore. He ate my knish.”
Yet, the incident had an ironic twist. The story of the knish thief spread like wildfire and suddenly the kids in the building that had been afraid of Rocco had their own story to tell about him. Kids would ask me if Rocco ate knishes at home and acted as though they were in on some special secret. Now, instead of running away when we enter the elevator or the backyard, most kids will simply point to Rocco, smile, and say, “that’s the dog that stole Yehuda’s knish.”