Your Best Investment: A Dog Walk with Ava and Michael Seidenberg
This is the first in a sporadic TFT Nonfiction Books series in which Liza Monroy goes on dog walks with book people and then writes about it.
Ava is a three-legged white pit bull who gained recognition as the title character in Jonathan Lethem’s “Ava’s Apartment,” a story that ran in The New Yorker last May, and an expanded version of which appears in Lethem’s new novel Chronic City. Lumbering and smiling along the sidewalks of the Upper East Side between First and Second Avenues, she gives new meaning to the term “local celebrity.” When The New Yorker came out, people would stop her owner, Michael Seidenberg, to ask if she was “the dog from the story,” a fact that tells as much about the neighborhood as it does anything. “I’m not mobile,” Michael, the native New Yorker, says. “It’s easier to get me to Europe than the West Side.” And so, on a warm but windy November afternoon, I head uptown to meet him and Ava for an Election Day dog walk.
We depart from Michael’s book-filled ground-floor apartment on 80th Street, where he lives with his wife, Nicky, and their other dog, the greyhound Jack. Jack has appeared neither in a short story nor a novel, yet demonstrates a dignified attitude toward Ava’s literary success. Michael has sold books everywhere from his first Brazen Head shop on Atlantic Avenue (where a fourteen-year-old Jonathan Lethem worked in exchange for books) to a street-stand to the latest incarnation of Brazen Head, a “secret bookstore” and something of a cultural speakeasy on the Upper East Side. He is a longtime friend of Lethem’s, and pieces of his expansive personality hide in plain sight in several of Lethem’s works.
Out on Second Avenue, Ava is quick on those three legs, pulling at the leash, sniffing the sidewalk, and lunging at every possible snacking opportunity. The opportunities are many: Because it’s Election Day, the garbage is backed up. Pedestrians either smile and look on in adoration at this muscular torpedo, or step aside in trepidation. Yet while Ava may take over the sidewalk, she is nothing if not a gentle beast. “If Ava killed him it would be accidental, in seeking to staunch her emotional hungers,” Lethem writes of her character in Chronic City.
On that note, if references to Michael’s personality are veiled in Lethem’s work, references to Ava are not. Chronic City’s disclaimer reads: “Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead…is entirely coincidental.” Notice no mention of dogs. Ava the Three-Legged Pit Bull appears, non-pseudonymously and in complete and accurate detail, as caretaker to the increasingly addled protagonist Perkus Tooth.
We arrive at a polling place and Michael ducks inside to vote while I stand outside with a yelping Ava. She misses her dad. A man in a long black coat stops to pet her and she jumps on him; I’m afraid she’ll knock him over, but he seems okay with the prospect. A policeman eyes us as Ava continues to howl, then lies down and rolls over. When Michael emerges, the man jokes he thought Ava had been kidnapped. I imagine someone snatching such a distinctive-looking pit bull and am skeptical.
We are walking again. He mentions the book space where we have to stop off to pick something up. In this incarnation of Brazen Head, friends organize small wine-and-book parties in the dimly-lit, creaky-floored, book-scented rooms as Michael charms potential customers and sells books.
Ava doesn’t do stairs, so when we arrive at the store she and I sit on the steps outside. We notice a piece of de la Vega public art sitting beside a pile of garbage on the sidewalk. It’s a sink and toilet that de la Vega has decorated with his signature fish sketch and the words “You Are Your Best Investment” around the sink’s drain. When he returns, Michael tells me de la Vega trolls the Upper East Side, and that if you look around you’ll see his work here more so than in other neighborhoods. I speculate that perhaps he can be more socially symbolic up here, whereas in the East Village, where his gallery is located, he’s just another subversive artist. “Maybe we just have better garbage,” Michael says.
We keep walking. I think of how Michael is a person who has a unique ability to fill empty spaces in people’s lives—he fills them with books, with talk, with laughter. Today I realize he and Ava both have that ability. Every few minutes, Ava lies down on the sidewalk and plays dead. Either that or she is just resting, genuinely tired from bouncing along on three legs. People either stop to ask us if the dog is okay, or else us shoot a glance as if we are unaware of the suffering dog at our feet. This is Ava’s version, Michael says, of “performance art.”
Passing Jackson Hole, the burger restaurant which features prominently in Chronic City, we wonder aloud if anyone there has read the novel and knows the restaurant’s tragic fictional end. On 81st Street near First Avenue, Ava lies down again. This time, it’s an elderly woman dressed to the nines, and sporting sunglasses and a cane, who stops to make sure she is okay. Unlike other concerned citizens, this woman shares a story: her Yorkshire terrier once fell off a rocking chair, broke a leg, and had to learn to walk on three legs while the broken one was healing in a cast.
“Bless your heart,” she says to Ava.
Michael tugs Ava back to her feet and we amble on. “People are always saying that,” he says, “like I’m doing a good deed or something.”
After just a few minutes around Ava the missing limb is forgotten and she’s just another dog in the dog town that is the Upper East Side. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to admire Ava’s attitude as she walks and lies down to rest, walks and lies down to rest, grinning all along. Returning to the apartment, a post-Halloween chill is in the air and Ava spirits are still high: “It’s good to be around a living thing that has every reason to whine, but just keeps smiling,” Michael says.
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