Bonfire of the Puggle

Photo: Jono Rotman


I live the sort of life I could pretty much only have in New York City. I’m a senior forensic pathologist in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and, in my spare time, I write professionally about food, review video games, and collect Victorian taxidermy. Cricket’s a medical examiner, too: She did fine art at Vassar, then went to medical school. After a residency in anatomic pathology (moles and polyps), she came to my office to train in forensic pathology (gunshot wounds and blunt trauma). Although she now supports herself, Cricket grew up wealthy; my childhood was, if not wealthy, comfortable—in the proud tradition of British education, my parents sent me away to boarding school when I was 11.

We are both, then, a certain type of New Yorker: Manhattan professionals with an artistic bent, our lives filled with work and vaguely obsessional hobbies. We are unmarried and we each live alone. And, like many of our type, we don’t have children, we have pets.

Because I travel a lot and because I’m a little too delicate for the whole spectacle of public stool-handling, I have cats. Cricket has dogs, and her relationship with them is more intense. She got Scout, a rambunctious Chow–black Lab stray, while in medical school. Bean came later, a sweet little puggle—a pug-beagle mix, one of the new semi-pedigreed mutts currently blighting the language with names like “Labradoodle” (Labrador retriever–poodle) and “shit-poo” (Shih Tzu–poodle).

I defy anyone to not love Bean. She’s small, dark around her muzzle and ears, with soft brown eyes and a dizzyingly cute way of cocking her head when curious—a warm tornado of manic tail-wagging and face-licking. When she and Cricket go out walking, people stop to comment freely on just how adorable she is. At night, they sleep together, Bean a cozy little lump snuggled next to her under cotton and cashmere.

II. Tampa

In September, Cricket had to take her board exams in forensic pathology in Tampa, Florida. Although she had flown happily in her dad’s private jet as a child, things changed after 9/11. She was a medical student at the time, and after the towers came down, she went to ground zero to give first aid to responders, rinsing out burning eyes and reminding people to keep up their fluid intake. Over the following months, she worked with us frequently at the medical examiner’s office as we tried to recover and identify the victims of the disaster. By the spring of 2002, she was no longer able to fly.

We decided to drive down and take a little holiday after her test. We’d go to the beach, visit the Everglades, shoot guns at the local range, then have a leisurely drive back to New York. Cricket arranged for the dogs to be cared for by her neighbors, one of whom used the front room of her apartment as a studio where he cut hair.

The drive to Florida was the typical twenty-hour marathon familiar to many New Yorkers: Exxon, Cinnabon, Cracker Barrel, Gas’n’Go, Waffle House, a hotel where the smell of mold was barely hidden behind the scent of room deodorizer. Cricket spent a day studying, then left to take the test, which started at 8 a.m. and would last all day. At about 10 a.m., a friend sent an urgent message: She’d seen a LOST DOG flyer at the Union Square dog run featuring a puggle named Bean.

I called the number on the flyer and got one of Cricket’s dog-sitters. He was terse. The dog had gotten out somehow; workmen had been renovating, a door had been left propped open, she was gone. Vets had been notified, as had the pound. I didn’t ask him when they’d been planning on telling Cricket.

I found her in the hotel bar after the exam. We left immediately; she was too distraught to take the wheel, so I drove, Cricket on her cell throughout, calling her dog-sitters over and over. She had them make new flyers, putting in her contact numbers. And there was to be a reward: $5,000. We argued—she couldn’t afford that. I bullied her into making the reward $1,000. At midnight, we found a motel with Internet access, and she got online and posted notices on Craigslist. She wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping, just smoking. When I woke at 5 a.m., she was still perched on the side of her bed, constantly refreshing her mailbox to see if anyone had responded.

III. $1,000

If you say you’ll pay $1,000 to recover a lost dog, people respond. And not just good people.

As Cricket sped up I-95—she insisted on driving, because I wouldn’t go 90 mph—she leaped to answer her phone each time it rang. The first call came from a man who asked if we’d lost a dog in the Gramercy area. We said we had, and he said, “I know where she is! I know where your dog’s at! She’s … ” and then hung up the phone. When Cricket tried to call back, she found that his number showed as only four digits. She tried to have AT&T trace the call but only managed to confuse the operator. I told her that I thought this was a prank caller and that if he had information, he’d call back. He didn’t.

Bean's Journey: From Gramercy Park to the Bronx.

The next call was from a nice guy who said he’d seen Bean the day before sitting under scaffolding on the building next to Cricket’s, but he had been too busy walking his own dogs to intervene. He was filled with guilt and insisted on looking for her. A while later, he called to say he’d gone back, searched the block and the park nearby, but hadn’t seen any sign of her.

The next caller had a southern accent and the can-do phone manner of a TV Realtor. He introduced himself as a pet detective, saying he’d just come in from successfully resolving a case up north when his secretary had informed him of our loss. He spelled out his Web-page address. I told Cricket very little about him, just that he sounded like a grifter.

IV. New York

We got back into Manhattan in the early evening, stashed the car, and went out looking for Bean. We moved block by block, calling down into darkened stairwells, looking under Dumpsters in the rain. Then I slept for a bit, but Cricket couldn’t, so she got up and designed a new flyer, uploading it to her Web page so that her friends could print it out, then went to Kinko’s to make copies.

The calls continued. One man barked on her answering machine for two full minutes. A woman called to say she’d seen Bean running through traffic down Union Square East and across 14th Street but that she “looked really happy.” A young guy, dreamy and drunk, left a message at 1 a.m., saying he’d only recently moved to the city but he was sure everything would be cool, that people might seem mean in New York, but they’re actually good and they look out for you.

And it was true: As we went door-to-door, I was surprised by the number of doormen who took a flyer to post. Cricket met a girl out walking her own puggle who spread the word to her online puggle group. The people at Halstead Property e-mailed her flyer agencywide.

In the early afternoon, Cricket got a phone call from a man named Roberto. He asked her if the reward was for real, and when she said it was, he said he knew where Bean was. He’d spotted her running along 14th Street the day before and thought she was a pretty dog, so he chased her and caught her, took her to Petco, bought her a collar and lead, and decided to name her Queenie. But when he brought her home, his mother said he couldn’t keep her, so he gave her to his neighbor. He would try to get her back and would call Cricket later.

Then a girl called to say that she’d seen someone trying to sell Bean on Second Avenue and 11th Street. We rushed over and searched the neighborhood; the guys who sell battered J. G. Ballard paperbacks on St. Marks Place had seen a Hispanic kid trying to sell a small dog, but we never found him. We moved along St. Marks toward Alphabet City, posting flyers as we went. It was now well past dark, and we were nearing collapse. In Tompkins Square Park, approaching a trio of drunks with the flyer, I ended up locked in a beery embrace and had to endure a few seconds of waltzing before I could escape.

They were nice at the police precinct, and they were polite at the Sanitation Department when they told us that they didn’t keep records of the dead pets they find. Then Cricket got a confusing call from a young man, a girl talking behind him. He had a dog, and he wanted to know how Cricket could prove it was her dog, and was it true that she’d gone to Roberto’s job with the cops. Cricket had no clue what he was talking about; suspicious, he said he’d call back, and hung up.

Roberto called, claiming he knew where Bean was, and asked her to come to him in the projects to get her back. He described Bean as looking as if she’d recently had babies and as having long nails, details Cricket found compelling. Then he said Bean was really timid one moment and really friendly the next, which was all Cricket needed to believe—that was just how Bean would act with strangers, she thought. I was more skeptical. She said she wouldn’t meet him alone, which he said was smart of her; he agreed to come to my house to discuss things face-to-face.

Roberto showed up on the steps of my building at about 10 p.m., a wiry, muscular Hispanic man in his late thirties with a graying Caesar haircut and jailhouse ink on his arms and legs. As backup, he’d brought Cliff, a gangly black guy in his late forties who played the chorus to Roberto’s plaintive protagonist, amplifying various lines of Roberto’s pitch to underscore his sincerity.

Cricket and Bean.Photo: Jono Rotman

And the more Roberto talked, the more his credibility needed shoring up. His speech was an urgent, wheedling patter, wide-eyed and gesticulatory. He announced that he was an ex-con, just out of Rahway after a nine-year bit for armed robbery, but that he was now reformed and had a job and was keeping his nose clean. “Truly!” said Cliff. “We work together!” Roberto showed us his I.D., told us we could trust him.

He said we could go to the project where he lived in downtown Manhattan and talk to the neighbor he gave Queenie to. The dog, though, wouldn’t be there; the kid had given her to his girlfriend, and she’d taken her to Staten Island. It was the first solid-seeming lead we had, and we were too tired to fight it. I called a cop friend who lived nearby; if we were going to get into this, I wanted backup. But he was at a wedding; he suggested we call the nearest precinct.

So Cricket, Roberto, Cliff, and I got into a cab and headed to the precinct—a dead end, since it didn’t cover this particular project. We decided to keep going; it was late, and getting the dog back would become impossible if everyone had gone to bed.

We walked farther downtown, Roberto talking a mile a minute, as if any conversational gap would allow doubt to come pouring back in. The topic he seemed most comfortable discussing was his life of crime; he’d had multiple convictions for violent offenses and had spent most of his adult life in maximum- security prisons. He held forth on the subject of prisoner rape in Sing-Sing and pointed out that the fact that his face was still handsome proved how good he was with his fists. The guards, he said, were worse than the prisoners.

I recognized some of his tattoos and asked if he was a member of a particular gang. He had been but swore that was in his past. Then he rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of a barbed-wire-bound fist clutching a .45; he said he’d earned it as a gang enforcer.

We talked about how violent Alphabet City used to be, and I unthinkingly mentioned a killing that had struck me as particularly brutal. Roberto’s face flooded with horror; he crossed himself, plucked his cross from inside his Knicks jersey, and pressed it to his lips; it turned out I had handled the body of one of his friends. This epiphany quieted him down, and we walked on a considerably less chatty group.

Nearing the projects, I was struck by how he seemed to know everyone—just about every person we passed greeted him warily, casting a quick eye over Cricket and me. There was a police post not far from the project; I talked with the officer inside, and he radioed the precinct for someone to go in with us. I was encouraged that Roberto seemed to want a police presence, then a little worried about exactly why that was.

V. The Projects

It was about 11 p.m. when we reached Roberto’s building, where Ricky, the neighbor to whom Roberto had given the dog, also lived. As we waited outside for the cops, Roberto grew more and more jumpy. He explained that, no disrespect, but being seen with us was bad for his reputation. People like him, he said, have as little to do with cops as possible, and for him to bring us, whom he saw as extensions of the NYPD, into the projects was an ethically compromised act. He told us there was no way of knowing when, or even if, the police would show up, that the week before there’d been gunfire—“big guns, automatic weapons!”—and the police hadn’t bothered showing up for two hours.

Eventually, he announced he was going inside to get water; too tired to stir from our bench, we declined his invitation to meet his mother. We called our friend Russ to meet us; Russ would be fresh, plus he’s ex-Army. The air was misty, softening the light from the lamps around the fenced-in lawns, and the temperature had eased down into the seventies.

When Russ arrived, we’d been waiting there for an hour, with no sign of the police. It was nearing midnight, and Roberto came out to announce that we should go in now or else risk losing forever our chance to recover Bean. We all crowded into the elevator, where Roberto announced that, for greater leverage, he’d told Ricky we were cops and had shown up at his workplace and forced him to tell the truth about the dog. Before we could address this revelation, the door opened, and we were in front of Ricky’s door.

It was, as it turned out, Ricky’s 17th-birthday party, and friends and family began to fill the hall. Ricky’s mother, a blonde with a massive lip piercing, came out and demanded I.D.’s. We produced our I.D. badges, explaining that we were not cops but forensic pathologists, then explaining what forensic pathologists were. The discovery triggered a wave of giggly ewwws.

Roberto, bless him, argued our case to Ricky and his mother, his voice rising. Ricky’s mother declared that even without the money, it was right that the dog should be returned to Cricket, but checked to confirm the reward.

Finally, Ricky spoke up. A handsome kid in a black doo-rag and oversize Jay-Z T-shirt, he explained that Bean (the well of our skepticism had by now run dry, and we were embracing as fact the notion that this dog was, in fact, Bean) had been a special gift to his pregnant girlfriend. They’d renamed her Star, and Jeannie, the girlfriend, had taken Star to Staten Island, then up to the Bronx. Ricky called her cell, but she wouldn’t answer; she was upset and didn’t want to give up Star. She’d had Star for two days now and loved her; she didn’t want the reward. Maybe she could just pay Cricket to keep her and that would be that.

There was some debate, then we left Roberto and Cliff behind (Roberto having decided that his reputation could take no more shellacking) and bundled into the car to drive up to the Bronx to reason with Jeannie. In the car, Ricky entertained Cricket with stories about how, when they first got Star, she was “mad scared”; Cricket lapped it up. Yes, Bean would be mad scared! It would be so like Bean to be mad scared!

VI. The Bronx

It was well after 1 a.m. when we arrived at the Bronx project. Where the Manhattan complex had been tidy and almost familiar, this project had a much tougher feel, enhanced by Ricky’s announcement that it scared him to go there. When we parked, we spotted an unmarked police car, and squad cars and foot patrols swept the perimeter regularly.

Ricky glumly climbed out and went into the main building. We waited by the car with his mom for what felt like an interminably long time, watching the building entrance for signs of Ricky or puggles. The cops eyed us but didn’t approach, probably figuring we were there to score drugs. Indeed, no one hassled us at all, although a tossed bottle shattered near the car.

Finally, two girls came out, each with a small dog; they started to run, disappearing into the warren of buildings and lawns. Ricky came out gesturing that he’d lost Jeannie; we all pointed in her direction, and he chased after her. Cricket—who had by now been awake for three days, consuming nothing but coffee and Marlboro Lights—was on the verge of collapse.

About half an hour later, Ricky came toward us with Jeannie, a lovely girl with hair in wavy ringlets. She’d been crying, but she handed over the dog and said sweetly, “You should have her. She’s yours.”

And there was Bean.

She was half-hidden behind Jeannie, peering out as we waited for her to come to us. She hesitated, but when she heard Cricket’s voice, she sidled over, ducking her head to be stroked, wriggling as Cricket picked her up, then licking her face.

We tried to thank Jeannie and give her back the pink collar and lead with rhinestones that she’d bought for Bean, but she walked away sobbing, shoulders hunched. She crossed the plaza toward two men I could make out only as beefy silhouettes in white muscle shirts; Ricky said they were her uncles. I figured we should get back to Manhattan as quickly as possible.

In the car, Bean was subdued, shaking in Cricket’s lap as the bridge lights flashed by. We stopped at the bank and gave Ricky his thousand, then dropped Cricket at home with Bean and took Ricky and his mother back to their place.

An hour or so later, Ricky called Cricket to say that Jeannie’s uncles had come to his house and taken the $1,000; later, though, they worked out a fair way to share the money. The next day, Cricket paid Roberto a $500 finders’ fee, throwing in an extra $40 for Cliff.

VII. The Aftermath

It took a little while for the crisis-related epiphenomena to die down. The next day, Cricket bumped into a grandmotherly type she’d met while looking for Bean. The woman was happy she’d gotten Bean back but said that Cricket really should protect her skin, because her freckles meant she was a setup for a melanoma; later, she called to scold Cricket, telling her to take down all the flyers immediately because she’d met many people who were upset over Bean’s loss. Altogether, we’d put up over 500 flyers; we took down most, leaving some up with the word found! written across them.

And life has pretty much returned to normal. Cricket passed her boards; she’s agreed to help Ricky adopt a puppy. Bean is happy. I don’t know that she’d ever try to run away again, but the point is moot: I doubt Cricket will ever give her the opportunity.

I suspect that some people with whom I’ve shared this whole odyssey must privately find it rather absurd; after all, this was only a dog, and what is the loss of one small animal compared with the crushing burden of daily human loss and tragedy in this city? But to us, who have so much and who have lost so little, this was an instructive experience of just how small a town New York can be, if only for a moment.

In some instances, names, specific sites of imprisonment, and gang-related body art have been altered to protect the identity of certain individuals in this story.

Bonfire of the Puggle