Midnight the Dog, a noble, slobbering beast, trotted down Bethune Street in the West Village one morning this week with a plastic grocery bag clenched in his teeth, cargo swinging inches above the sidewalk. He moved with a sureness of step that suggested his canine ancestors might have been let off the ark by Noah at the first D’Agostino’s they saw.
That skill came in handy after the storm, when Midnight was a link in a one-dog, multiperson bucket brigade, fetching bottles of water across Washington Street to carry to people marooned in the Westbeth complex, an apartment block that had gone dry as a desert.
In the daze after Hurricane Sandy, Midnight was a memorable sight, said Roger Hays, who lives on the block.
“Walking down Bethune Street, I’ve seen this black dog over here, Midnight, actually carrying food, a bag of food, in his mouth and walking down to Westbeth to help contribute,” Mr. Hays said. “He’s quite a dog.”
The storm has skinned layers of film from city life, and in this little corner of New York, you could follow Midnight’s trot backward through decades.
Born in Louisiana in 2005, Midnight was brought north as a refugee from Hurricane Katrina and adopted as a puppy by Peter Marrero, the superintendent of a building on Greenwich Street in Manhattan.
This brought him into the realm of Riley Fitzsimmons, who has lived on the corner of Bethune and Washington since 1968, when his family moved into a four-bedroom walk-up apartment. Then and now, the Fitzsimmons clan played by its own rules. They had room enough for four children, as well as dogs, cats, turtles, rabbits. One brother kept Capuchin monkeys. “The male monkey we called Monkey,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said. “Monkey would never bite you as long as you shared a joint with him the first time you met him.” One day, he said, he came home to find Monkey in a state of unmoving bliss; he had discovered a cache of hashish in a light fixture.
Time and tide have reduced the Fitzsimmons household to two: Riley and his younger brother Stacy. Unvarnished and unmoneyed, pickled in the elixir of rent control, they pay $250 a month for the apartment. On the same street, a condominium has sold for $31 million and a town house for $20 million.
“We had no heat, electricity or water for four years,” Riley Fitzsimmons said. In the 1980s, he said, “There was a fire and the landlord wanted us out. I got electricity by hanging an extension cord out the window and getting it from my neighbor, Stefan Brecht. He was the son of Bertolt Brecht.”
At 60, Mr. Fitzsimmons, a professional musician since he was a teenager, resembles the musician David Crosby, walrus-mustached and flowing gray hair. These days he is making up for an early life lived extremely fast by moving a bit slower than you might expect. He had a heart attack in 2009.
“I was walking home from the hospital, carrying a bag with my clothes, and Midnight saw me from the alleyway,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said. They were delighted to see each other: the brothers often looked after Midnight.
“He just took the bag right out of my hand,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said, and trotted down Bethune, then up two steep flights. He deposited the bag on Mr. Fitzsimmons’s bed. Since then, the dog has spent many nights Chez Fitzsimmons, bringing his foster master his sack of prescription drugs first thing in the morning, and carrying grocery bags from the corner supermarket.
On the night of the storm, the Hudson River splayed its banks. Power vanished. The 19th-century Fitzsimmons building still had water pressure. Their neighbors across the street in Westbeth, which was set up as housing for artists in 1970, were dry. About 1,000 people live there. Once upon a time, the Westbeth buildings were the Manhattan outpost of Bell Laboratories, among the most productive vineyards of invention ever cultivated by humans. Among its fruits, wholly or in part, are television transmission, digital computing, radar, and telephone communications above the earth by satellite and under the sea by transoceanic cable.
All well and good, but legacy genius doesn’t flush the toilets.
The Fitzsimmons brothers finagled a ground-floor restaurateur to run a hose to the street. On the second floor of Westbeth, Brandy Penn, alone in her apartment, heard a knock.
“It was Riley and Midnight,” she said. “They’re why we had any water at all.”
Mr. Fitzsimmons said Midnight carried water bottles up dark staircases. “It was a game,” he said.
“The dog was among our first responders,” said Rena Gill, the widow of Stefan Brecht (he had been the purveyor of moonshine electricity in the Fitzsimmonses’ hour of need).
During the Westbeth blackout, Jane Lazarus bunked with friends, so she didn’t see Midnight on any water runs. When she returned home, though, Riley and Midnight were on the street. “I was walking up the block with the carry-on bag,” she said, “and Midnight ran up and took it. A great dog.
She paused, then stated what could not have been more obvious:
“Riley’s not the Greenwich Village of $20 million town houses.”
~ Courtesy of The New York Times
Tags: dog fetching water, Hurricane Sandy