Friday, March 2, 2012
February 27, 2012 Issue
One of the pleasures of reading a new piece by a favorite New Yorker writer is the recognition of certain echoes from his or her earlier work. Such was my experience when I read Burkhard Bilger’s superb “Beware of the Dogs” in this week’s issue. It’s about New York City’s police dogs, the way canine police think about them (they describe them as tools or technology), and “build” them through the use of operant conditioning. In the opening section of the piece, Bilger says, “I’ve never been much good around dogs.” In the course of describing being chased by dogs when he was a kid, he says, “In the town where I grew up, about an hour north of Oklahoma City, every other house seemed to be patrolled by some bawling bluetick or excitable Irish setter, and the locals liked to leave them unchained.” His mention of “bawling bluetick” reminded me of the wonderful piece he wrote about coonhounds (“Send in the Hounds,” collected in his Noodling for Flatheads, 2000), in which expert coon hunter, Sondra Beck, is quoted as saying: “Those old black and tans and blueticks, they might pick a trail three days old and howl and boohoo over it for hours. I don’t have any time for that. I need my dog to move that track.”
Another passage in “Beware of the Dogs” that triggered an association with a previous Bilger piece is the description of the bluegrass band Ebony Hillbillies playing a tune in the Times Square subway station as the canine squad files through: “The bass and banjo lines skittered from run to run while the washboard chattered underneath, mimicking the commuters around us.” I smiled when I read that, recalling with pleasure Bilger’s great blues piece “The Last Verse” (The New Yorker, April 28, 2008), which contains this memorable description of folk revivalist Art Rosenbaum singing and playing the banjo:
Rosenbaum sang it in his usual, oddly endearing bray. Then he grabbed a banjo from beside the couch and played a ballad about a shipwreck. With his hat off, he looked like a figure out of Melville: bald pate, hooked nose, long, shaggy sideburns. He played in the clawhammer style, whanging the bottom string with his thumb, and strumming or plucking the other strings with his forefinger.
That “oddly endearing bray” is very good, and “whanging” is inspired.
“Beware of the Dogs” contains some inspired lines, too. This one, for example: “A leash can be like a faulty phone line.” And it brims with interesting details (e.g., “At Auburn, a dog that can’t cut it as a bomb detector could find work as a fungus hound, sniffing out growths that attack and kill the roots of pine trees in the Southeast”). I think my favorite passage in the piece is the description of a black Lab named Ray, trained as a Vapor Wake, trailing a decoy who's carrying “seven pounds of ammonium nitrate, wrapped in black panty hose and stuffed in a backpack” through crowded Grand Central Terminal:
The decoy walked beneath the arch and down the corridor, heading toward a set of stairs that led to the subway. Ray cut zigzags across his trail, zeroing in on the scent. Soon, she was only about ten feet away, pulling so hard on the leash that her legs were splayed like a lizard’s, claws scrabbling on the tile. She was about to catch up when a middle-aged woman sauntered by with three toy dogs on a leash beside her. Ray stopped and glanced at them – a little hungrily, I thought – then shook her head and continued. But by then the trail had drifted, and the decoy was down the stairs.
I find that “pulling so hard on the leash that her legs were splayed like a lizard’s, claws scrabbling on the tile” marvelously evocative. And Bilger's reading of Ray's glance (“a little hungrily, I thought”) is a neat touch. For a guy who’s “never been much good around dogs,” Bilger sure writes beautifully and perceptively about them. I enjoyed "Beware of the Dogs" immensely.