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Inwood Hill Park

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It's the last old-growth forest on Manhattan Island.
Some of the trees are so enormous
you can't see the tops of them.
There are footpaths you can follow;
some are long and wide,
some meander so far into the brush that
you really can forget you're in New York City.


I have a love-hate relationship with this place.
I got mugged here in 2001,
not a quarter-mile from my house,
in broad daylight.
I think it was some baby gangster,
an initiate "filling a plate" to show he was down,
since he only grabbed the shoulder of my clothes,
held his itty-bitty knife
about two feet away from my face,
and ran off
with all I had to give up: twelve dollars.
It was the first time in my entire life
I'd been mugged.
A decent record, I think,
for having lived 29 years
in New York City,
Chicago,
Mexico City
and New York City again.
My only scar is
a spookiness about people coming up behind me.
It's also the place where a young woman
was last seen a few summers ago;
where they found her beat-up body.


For those reasons, I no longer go through the forest
alone.
Fortunately, there's no need:
I can usually count on Otto.


Otto and I start out from the fenced-in pebble sea
that is the dog run
and head up into the woods.
We water-ski over to the first hill,
towed by our quasi-twin beagles, Tarney (his)
and Pocha (mine).
The dogs were born two months apart, and share
the markings of the breed,
but that's where the similarities end.
It's absolutely true: dogs and their owners
become more like each other every day.
So, Pocha's gangly energy can barely be contained
in her delight to be with people.
She's affectionate
and seeks to connect all the members
of her pack.
Tarney, on the other hand, takes his time.
Stumpier and shaggier,
acutely aware of everything his senses tell him,
he obeys them above all platitudes
and small talk.
This makes him seem a bit aloof,
but really, he's just taking his job seriously,
having absorbed the wisdom of Otto's years.


In the middle of the first hill, we unleash the hounds.
Pocha races up into the leaves. Tarney starts sniffing things.
Otto and I stroll along, taking in the morning.
Rounding the corner, we follow the dogs up the second hill,
longer than the first,
an embankment on the left and a ravine on the right.
It is late June, already humid and buggy,
but the deep green cools both.
Pocha and I must exude some kind of quickness,
because Otto always asks, "are you in a hurry today?"
I assure him we are not, since I know what will reward my patience:
swarming thickets of red and black raspberries
and memories of Otto's childhood on a farm in Danzig,
or his youth in Canada,
or his life in a New York that passed me by.
My favorites are the ones about trains -
walking the tracks,
jumping from one train to another,
getting on the train that carried him away
from his town forever in order to escape
the advancing Red Army.


At the crest of the second hill, the berries.
We pick and eat; the dogs snuffle and dig.
We continue this way around the bend
Up another hill, along a grassy corridor,
Past a tiny patch of long needle pines that Otto calls
"the little Schwartzwald."
Finally, we veer off to the left and up a final hill
to the cliff that overlooks the highway, the Hudson, and the Palisades.
If you lean out and crane your neck to the right, you can see the bridge.
The dogs run amok in the tall grass of a clearing
where we learn what that little patch of white
on the beagle's tail is for: "It's a flag," says Otto,
and so it is, a beacon bobbing back and forth across the field.


The sun is getting hot, so we try to get the dogs to follow us
back into the shade and down the hill.
Pocha comes bounding over on a good holler or two.
Tarney, however, has fixated on something low in the brush -
a rat, a squirrel, a bird, a grub, it doesn't matter.
He'll stay there until he catches it.
Otto says, "I wanted a dog, but they gave me a beagle instead.
"You'd better go ahead," he adds, "this could take a while."
And so it does, when even after a few more handfuls of berries,
and Pocha's worried forays into the brush to try to flush him out,
Tarney doesn't emerge.


I clip on Pocha's leash,
because she'd never leave those two of her own accord.
Otto gives an "awwwhhh" of sympathy for her,
since on a day like this, a dog shouldn't be on a leash.
"OK, Pochie, OK, OK," he says, as she mugs him for
the cookies she knows he has in his pockets.
He treats her to several, tousling her ears as she bolts them.
"So," Otto says to me, "See you next time."
I have to run and whip Pocha into a frenzy
to help her forget that she's leaving her beloveds behind.
We jog down the hills, through the cool forest
and out onto the blacktop;
reentering the city we never left.

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