Sunday, October 5th was one of those days that took an unexpected turn. Surely we have all had a day like this. We manage our calendars, make plans, and try to stick to the schedule, but then life throws a wrinkle in the plan and we find ourselves nearly kicked off an Amtrak train in Trenton because we are holding a dog that was not our dog an hour ago, but now, somehow, she belongs to us. Maybe that has never happened to the rest of you, but that is what happened to me yesterday. Here is Penny’s story of luck and love.
Sunday promised from the start to be a big day for me. I woke up at 6am to get a ferry from Shelter Island, NY to Greenport, NY, then a Jitney from Greenport to Manhattan, where I would be catching at 10:52 train to Paoli, Pennsylvania to visit my 90-year-old grandfather, Pop. Pop had had a challenging week in terms of his health, and we just don’t know if or when he will get better. Last Thursday, I decided the best way to visit him as soon as possible would be a day trip on Sunday without my husband, Rich, and our three kids. It meant a lot of travel, but would hopefully afford me some quality time with Pop. With family photos in my backpack and love in my heart, I boarded the Jitney.
We arrived in Manhattan at 9:30, a half hour earlier than expected, and since our family had recently moved out of the city to Rye, NY, I took the opportunity to chose my path carefully across town from 39th and 3rd Avenue to 33rd and 7th Avenue. I wanted to walk past my old building at 244 Madison, the apartment that Rich and I rented just after getting married, where we lived through the birth of our first two children, Robert and Eliza. I passed the building, remembering Robert’s first wobbly steps evolving quickly into speedy laps around the building’s roof deck. With time to kill, I continued to the Starbucks where my mom and I went most mornings of my maternity leave for coffees, pumpkin bread and oatmeal. After living in the city for sixteen years, it was hard not to feel nostalgic as I realized I might never go into this particular Starbucks again, or take a child to Madison Square Park to play on a crisp, fall Sunday morning. With coffee and New York Times in hand, I sat down at a table at Starbucks, planning to use my extra thirty minutes to relax.
After a few minutes or reading the front page, I started to feel anxious and decided I should get to the train station and read there instead. This was a strange decision for me, since I generally spend as little time in Penn Station as possible before a train, considering fifteen minutes to be a more than adequate buffer. Penn Station, with hoards of people staring at the Omega board and then moving like cattle to the appropriate platform, is not what I consider a happy place or a New York haunt from my younger days that I wish to revisit. During my walk there, I kept asking myself, “Don’t I want to go to the Gap? Macy’s? Old Navy? Am I hungry? Should I get something to eat on the train?” I even walked into Old Navy, circumnavigated the first few display tables, noted that black and white stripes seem to be in style this season, and then left. I arrived at Penn Station at about 10:15. By 10:27, I had a dog.
As I entered Penn Station via the escalator on 7th Avenue, I was still wondering why on earth I was choosing to spend a half hour here when I could have done something productive or just sat on a bench in the sun. I stepped off the escalator, and as I walked further into the depths of the station, I noticed a young couple walking toward me holding a pink and black pet carrier. They stopped to talk to the uniformed military personnel, a young man and woman, who were at a booth to my left. I listened to what they were saying as I walked past.
“We have an interesting situation,” the man said. “We found this dog in the bathroom. Someone left her there and no one has come back. We waited for almost an hour and took her outside to look for a cop. We called 311.”
I couldn’t believe it. The carrier was not much bigger than a large shoebox.
“A dog?” I asked, in disbelief.
“Yeah, she is really sweet, but she’s scared. I can’t take her because I’m allergic, and we don’t know what to do. She is scared but so sweet.” The woman continued.
I bent down to peer into the dark little cage and was met with a little black snout poking out and leading up to pleading black eyes set in shaggy, copper-brown fur. Who would leave a dog in Penn Station?
“Do you think it was an accident? What if they forgot her?”
“We waited, and asked the security people, but she has no tags and no food or blanket or anything. There is no name on the carrier. She was left right in the bathroom for someone to see her.” The man answered.
The military people were happy to take her and wait for Animal Control to arrive. That is what I probably would have let happen on any other day if presented with this situation. But today was different. I was going to Pennsylvania. My older brother, Sam, and his wife, Deb, love dogs. My mom does, too. I have a good friend, Nuala, from college, who is a vet in Manhattan. Surely this dog didn’t need to go to Animal Control. The dog let out quiet little cries, a siren call tugging at my heartstrings.
“Can I take her out?” Big mistake, if my plan was still to leave the station on a train, dog-free. She was so cute. Snuggly. Warm. Helpless. Adorable. I held her and then put her back in, now confronted with a much harder decision than whether or not to check the sale rack at the Gap.
“Do the trains allow dogs?” I asked the security guards.
“Sure, people bring big dogs on leashes. It’s no big deal.” I believed them. Why wouldn’t I?
“Okay, let me call my parents.” This is exactly what they need from their 37-year-old daughter, I thought. My mom is already tired from helping with her father, this may be my only day to visit them, everything was going according to plan. Then I thought again. Maybe this is exactly what we all need. Or maybe I just didn’t have a choice. I called my dad at 10:27 to tell him of the latest development. My mom was at my grandparents’ house. I would call her after I was on the train. My dad seemed relaxed, but he is always pretty relaxed.
The man’s phone rang, and it was Animal Control, on their way in their truck. “But there’s someone here who might take her, hold on,” I heard him say. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone, convincing them that taking this dog on a train ride to Pennsylvania to stay with my family was a much better outcome than them taking her to the local shelter. They are in this business and did not need much convincing. Off I went, now with a backpack, a New York Times, and a pet carrier with a little dachsund-terrier mix with no name and no identity.
As I waited for the Omega board to post our platform, I was feeling excited. She was going to be okay. We would figure out a plan. I could take her home to the kids. My parents could take her. She could go to the shelter where my sister-in-law volunteers until she is adopted. I just hope she is healthy. At 10:40, our train switched from Standby to All Aboard. A sea of bodies moved toward gate 13E. I guarded this little dog with my life, wrapping both hands around the carrier and holding it tight to my abdomen as I navigated the crowd. As I approached the Amtrak ticket checker at the top of the escalator, I had to rearrange things so that I was holding her crate by the handle with my cell phone in the other hand, displaying my ticket confirmation. Either he didn’t see my dog or he didn’t care. I descended deeper into Penn Station, boarded the train and found a seat next to a young man fiddling with his headphones.
“Do you like dogs?” I asked. I didn’t want to bother my co-rider if he is not an animal lover. An unenthusiastic “sure” escaped from his mouth before he turned on his music and tuned out my story. But the other riders were interested. The women across the aisle and up one row heard me asking the girl across the aisle to take a picture of me and my dog. They turned to look. I told them my story. The one woman has a daughter who is a vet in the Philly area and another one is in vet school at Penn. Now I had another couple phone numbers and an offer to take the dog until she finds another home. My brother, Sam, was now on call and ready to meet me in Paoli with a collar. I texted him a picture, referring to her now as Penny, and he texted right back. “Great name. That’s what I thought it should be.”
Looking at my phone, I saw I had a missed call from Nuala. After hearing the story, she also offered to take Penny temporarily and asked for a picture. She was walking me through the vet visit as our train pulled out of Newark and the ticket collector approached, staring at the tiny canine nestled into my chest.
“Hang on a minute, Nuala. I have to get my ticket.”
“Ma’am, is that your dog?” the ticket collector inquired, stating the obvious.
“Well, not exactly. She was abandoned at Penn Station, so I’m taking her with me. The guy in the station said – “
“There are no pets allowed on the train, ma’am. You have to get off in Trenton.”
“But she is not really my dog. I just couldn’t let her go to a shelter with Animal Control. You have to let me take her. I am going to visit my grandfather. He is really sick. I can’t get off in Trenton. I only did this to help her. I can’t get off the train but I can’t leave her, either. I think these are extenuating circumstances!” I pleaded.
“There are no extenuating circumstances. No dogs of any kind allowed on the train. I’m sorry.”
Just as I was pulling out the cards that my kids made for my grandfather and fighting back tears, he called the conductor on his walkie talkie for “passenger assistance.” I began to realize I looked and sounded like a con artist who was part of some train-based dog smuggling ring. If that were the case, I was pretty convincing. The conductor arrived, a calm and smiling woman, and motioned to me to come closer to her. In the back corner of the train car, she explained that my dog is a service dog in training should anyone ask, and that I am to keep her as quiet as possible INSIDE her crate. Oh, and I should never do this again under any circumstances. Done. Blood pressure decreasing. Tears drying up. Penny and I are okay. The ticket man kindly came back through a few minutes later to check on me. Surely not all Amtrak employees would have been that sympathetic. Luck was on our side.
Our new plan was set. My brother and mom would both be coming to pick me up. Sam would watch Penny at his house while we visited Pop, and then we’d switch. My mom was surprisingly relaxed when she heard I had acquired a dog along my journey, too. It amazed me how people were warming up to the idea of this animal suddenly entering their lives with only a couple hours’ notice. As Nuala said, in 40 minutes we had a complete plan for Penny’s care that was a few levels deep.
As we sat in a quiet and dark train in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, waiting to depart for all stops toward Harrisburg, I felt a wave of calm come over me. It had been an interesting morning. I pulled out my camera to take a couple selfies of Penny and me. It suddenly occurred to me that there was someone I had not told about my new pet. My husband, Rich.
Quick text at 11:57: “You know how people say you move to Rye and get a dog? Well, I have a dog. She was abandoned at Penn Station. Sammy will take her for the week and we can figure out what to do. Taking her to the vet today. Don’t tell the kids. What is wrong with people?”
His response, moments later: “Wow. Definitely not telling the kids. Hope we can find a solution for it. Not really ready for that.” After a flurry of texts, he had a clearer sense of what had happened but still thought I was crazy. He encouraged us to be relatives with frequent visiting rights rather than take the shared custody approach I proposed.
It turned out we didn’t need Rich’s buy-in on the plan, at least not yet. When I arrived in Paoli, Sammy took Penny from me, leashed her and walked her around the grassy area at one end of the parking lot. We stopped to get her some food and treats at the grocery store, drove to his house, and he took over. The weekend vet said to wait to see his regular vet tomorrow, as long as she looked healthy. She looked healthy, happy and loved as her new family took turns holding her and watching her play. Penny’s day had definitely improved in the last four hours, from train station abandonment to loving home.
My mom and I left Sammy and Penny at their house and went to visit Pop. The story of Penny had preceded me, and everyone – Pop, my grandmother, by younger brother, Kevin and his wife, Carrie – wanted to know what was going on with this dog. We all laughed about Penny, and Pop asked to see pictures of her. The story of her surprise arrival and the pictures of her little face seemed to brighten his mood, too. She had introduced an element of joy and spontaneity into an otherwise discouraging time. Suddenly this day was not marked by sadness but by warmth, love and family. As we took turns throughout the day sitting in Pop’s bedroom, we listened to his poignant stories of World War II and meeting my grandmother, and how their life together unfolded. We saw my 94-year-old grandmother in a different light, too. Sitting in the other room, trying to rest because she was exhausted, overwhelmed and fighting to maintain her own strength while she cared for her husband, my grandmother did not hear Pop’s words of adoration and love at first sight as he reflected on what a good life they had together all these years. The day was surprising in more ways that one, as I listened intently and tried to memorize details of Pop’s stories to keep them alive.
After a long afternoon of visiting Pop and taking shifts with Penny, who had spent the early evening napping in my mom’s arms, we picked up a couple pizzas and ate a quick family dinner in my parents’ kitchen. Penny moved from person to person, gazing up at each of us with a look that I know was a plea for pizza but I like to think showed a deep affection for her knew family. When Sam, Deb and Penny dropped me off at Paoli station again at 8:15pm, Deb said, “Thanks for the pizza, Ali. Oh, and thanks for the dog!”