"Willa" by Nancy Soyer

My name is Nancy Soyer and I’m from New York City. My company’s name is Brooklyn Dog Walk. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, a borough of NYC, since 1978. I come from a family of artists and am a painter myself. When I was in my twenties and needed a way to support myself financially while doing my creative work I became a licensed massage therapist. I practiced for many years and desired a change. There was an older woman in my neighborhood, one of the first professional dog walkers, who I used to see regularly walking a golden retriever named Magic. I was probably an annoyance to her because I loved the dog and would run over every time I saw them to give the dog scratches and receive his rambunctious, toddler like affections. She was always very patient and kind. At that time there was at most two or three walkers in my area. Now there are too many to count. So many company names with their riffs on tails and paws. When I began to look for alternatives to doing massage I immediately thought of Linda the dog walker. What could be better than being with dogs all day and getting paid for it? I had always been self employed and knew how to manage that kind of small business, or at least, wasn’t intimidated by the idea. I hired a friend who was a type-setter to design a flyer for me. She designed a template and I brought it in to be color xeroxed. It was so long ago that I had no computer and no cell phone. The flyer only had my name and landline number. It seems hard to believe now. Things have changed so much. Now I have a cell number, email address, website, Yelp and Google reviews, Instagram, Facebook ,Google Maps & Pinterest pages. In Brooklyn, there’s a large public green space called Prospect Park. A group called Fido has worked with the Parks Department to create off leash hours for dogs. It’s a fabulous time for dogs who are social to play, run, enjoy nature and each other throughout all the seasons. I went early one morning and introduced myself to prospective clients and handed out the flyers. Success! Within, a few weeks I was solidly in business.

I’ve always loved animals. Like many children I had begged my parents for a dog. When I was 4 or 5 we got one. I can still remember leaning my forehead against the side of my parents Danish Modern desk. I must have been tiny because that same desk is still in my father’s apartment and only reaches my mid-thigh now. I was earnestly trying to find the right name for her. It came to me in a flash. Sugar. And she was ours. Unfortunately, Sugar found me annoying and preferred my older brother. She slept on his bed nightly and I was jealous of their relationship. Years later when I was a child at summer camp there was a beagle named Phoebe and horses that we tended.I worked at befriending Phoebe and when she took to sleeping with me I was overjoyed. I couldn’t believe my luck; this living, breathing, creature liked me! I daily picked ticks off my body and didn’t care. I was smitten. When a family friend that we were visiting was breeding spaniels in rural Vermont I was equally enamored. All I wanted was to be with those puppies.
To snuggle, to feel their life force and silky fur, to walk and to HOLD the leash was heaven to me. When I look back over my childhood; dogs, nature, physical movement and art were the things that I felt the most passion for. I feel very fortunate to have work that encompasses all of these things. 

When I’m anxious or upset, I want to walk a dog. When I’m happy or excited, I want to walk a dog. There is nothing better than stilling the mind and experiencing the physical world the way a dog does; the camaraderie and confidence of the pack, smells (that we can’t even imagine), sounds that waft in and out of the surrounding atmosphere; pure experience and instinct without all the noise of our human interpretation. And then, there’s the unconditional love and the FUN of dogs. It’s no wonder they are so popular as pets. 

When I first started walking for a living I couldn’t believe my luck. I would see people pouring out of the subway after work, hassled and unhappy as I was entering the park with my canine friends. I used to ride my bicycle there, picking up clients on my way. I would ride with 5 or 6 dogs, their eyes shining, running, perfectly coordinated as a group, into their park. This was OUR time. In the spring, baseball season in the States, we had to ride into the deeper fields and meadows but in the winter the park was ours. I’ve walked in all kinds of weather, ice, sleet storms & beautiful spring days. I remember once, during a hurricane walking into the park where a group of boys were playing soccer, shirtless in the rain The sky was grey, the wind madly tossed the trees and water was pouring out of the sky in buckets. I was out and I was happy. I remember too, being the only one in a field in the dead of winter with one of my all time favorite dogs, Sasha. The air was bitter cold and the snow was deep. I could hear pellets of ice hitting the hood of my jacket. I threw snowballs and sticks for him to chase and it was quiet in a way that the city never is and I was happy. 

Everyday I woke up at 6 am, practiced some yoga and meditation, painted for 6 hours and was out the door to see my friends. I used to walk sometimes as many as 27 dogs a day! When I came home at night I had no trouble sleeping. Sometimes I couldn’t even make it into bed and would fall asleep flat on my back on the floor at 7 or 8pm. Happy. 

In the late 1990s I was commissioned to paint a landscape for a friend who was buying a house. I took some time off to work on it. I told clients what I was up to and, as a result, got my first dog painting commission, Redman, the greyhound. My family has a house on Long Island near the beach where I now board dogs seasonally. I went out there armed with my brushes, paints and a small canvas. I used my grandfather’s easel and I was terrified by the blank canvas. I had never been paid to paint before and I had never worked from a photograph. As I began to work my body was shaking and the image emerged, sliding out quickly, an easy delivery. It was awesome. I loved dogs and I loved painting and I couldn’t believe that people would pay me to paint dogs! I had the painting professionally photographed, and again, made color xeroxes that I passed around. At a mutual friend’s house a New York Times editor saw the image and wanted to use it for a story they were running about Bill Clinton. Apparently, he had commissioned someone to do a dog portrait while he was at the White House. Included in the article was a paragraph about me and my dog portraits. Then, another friend (also a client) offered to write an article about me to pitch to magazines. It ended up in Traditional Home, Oprah, Domino and Bark Magazines. Later I was written up in Gay City News and was a finalist winner in the Animal Art Category in the Artist Magazine. More commissions followed- I was on cloud nine! 

In the aftermath of our 1999 presidential election, when the Supreme Court announced its decision against Al Gore in favor of George Bush, the mood darkened in NYC. NYC is very liberal and many of us felt like our democracy was letting us down and that Bush, with his family’s wealth and privilege had stolen the election. I kept doggedly walking and painting. And then came Sept 11th 2001. I had started painting at 6am, radio and telephone unplugged, determined to keep my focus. Finally, hours later, I plugged the landline back in and there quickly came a call from a friend and then my father, brother and sister in law. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center. The city and  nation were thrown into grief and chaos and it felt like there were no adults in charge. I was confused. Would I be walking dogs that day? Should I go to work? I left my apartment with my keys, ready to walk. The sky was a perfect cerulean blue, the air cool and dry. it was the kind of day where your body can’t help but feel happy. But there was a smell. The smell was of burning plastics, building materials and bodies. It was blowing directly over Brooklyn from downtown Manhattan. Ash and cream colored file folders floated downwind for miles over our heads, like migrating birds, shimmering in the sun. A friend’s niece left her elementary school to find photos of a child’s birthday party, blown from the towers and strewn on the sidewalk outside. NYC was plunged into sadness and gloom. In the months following, we all tried to find our footing, to return to a new normal. The awful smell continued through out the winter and I kept walking dogs. More and more people started adopting puppies, I think to deal with the deep sadness and insecurity  of the world around us. 

My work got busier and busier. Friends were suggesting that I hire other walkers but I resisted the idea. I wanted to keep my life simple and the business small. About 7 years ago a young friend of a friend decided to shadow me to see if she’d like to be a dog walker. I think it was overwhelming to her. At one point, after quickly buying a spinach pie (from Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Ave) that I was planning to eat while riding my bicycle to my next group of dogs, she declared that dog walking was like an Extreme Sport. Needless to say, she didn’t continue but she inspired me to consider hiring. I liked her and felt that if I liked the people who worked with me that it could turn out well. These years later I can say that it has. I keep walking though. I wouldn’t want it any other way