Duke, the English Bulldog who took taxis

Alice Outwater

Finally, our family was getting a dog! Father scoured the papers for weeks and spotted an ad: “Greatly loved English bulldog needs a good home due to the arrival of a third child. Trained and housebroken, one year old, gentle temperament. Championship papers.”

Late that afternoon Father and my older brother, Sidney, walked in with a beautiful tawny-colored English bulldog. Donning his new collar, he was formally introduced to each of us. Our new family member was properly bowlegged, had a curly tail and an engaging creased face: rows of wrinkles were covered with soft hair. It wasn’t too flattened or too pugnacious with those frightening teeth protruding over the lip like so many of his breed.

In this unfamiliar situation, he held back as if looking us over, but I knew immediately that he would be my dog even if I had to share him with Father. After all, I was the oldest child at home and known for being responsible. I doubted Louise, the youngest, would walk him regularly.

Father and I soon fell into an easy routine sharing Duke’s walks. I took him out for a 10-minute stroll before school; then afternoons I hurried home from Packer to exercise him. Father walked Duke following dinner, just before turning in for the night. I was touched by his willingness to do this after a long day at his Wall Street office; he seemed calmer as he returned. Bending down to unsnap Duke’s leash, then patting his forehead, he would lead him to his basement room.

Accompanying them both one night, I noticed that he waited until Duke was settled on his blanket before switching off the light, then, quietly shutting the door, he murmured, only half to himself, “Sleep tight, old fellow, see you in the morning.”

It was through Duke I came to know Father, especially his devotion to Brooklyn Heights, the quiet streets with colorful names such as Cranberry and Pineapple, the abundant trees and the houses with their 19th century  architecture. Father often said, “It’s a remarkable place to raise a family, and I can reach Wall Street by foot, or in poor weather it’s only a few subway stops away.”

But most of all he loved the bridge, built by the Roeblings and opened with tremendous fanfare in 1883. Its soaring towers and cables spanned the East River connecting us to New York. To out-of-town guests he often recited the story of the difficulties of blasting the rock and filling the towers. There was a toll in human lives from the bends, then called Caisson disease. The bridge was looked upon as a major feat of the time.

One morning Father decided Duke should accompany him on his walk to work, so both could get their exercise. Duke’s return posed a problem . . .until Father realized he could send him home in a taxi. Everything was timed accordingly. Father and Duke would leave the house at 7:15 a.m., meeting up with colleagues on the way. Arriving at Wall Street, Father would hail a cab, give directions to the driver as Duke eagerly climbed in, positioning himself like a four-star general in the back seat. He looked out the window and sniffed the breeze as his little ears flapped. I would watch for his return, run down the front stoop and pay the cab driver. Then I would open the door and take Duke’s leash while he reluctantly stepped down onto the curb. Duke seemed to sense the taxi rides were above the usual doggy pleasures.

This was an agreeable arrangement because I could still gather my books and arrive at Packer on time. But I was bothered by Father’s extravagance. My allowance was 15 cents a week, which Father ceremoniously gave me, yet he paid far more to transport Duke home daily. As a family, we never took taxis; we took buses or subways for trips around the city. Two cars were kept in the garage but taken out only for special trips. Father often said, “Money was earned through hard work and therefore to be treated accordingly.” We lived well, we had maids, and we went to private schools, but extra expenditures in the luxury category were carefully examined.    

One morning during WWII the fare was $10, and Mother told the driver he must have driven Duke all over New York and she wouldn’t pay that shocking amount.

Duke was a remarkable companion. He knew when I was sad or troubled and let me gently place my arms abound his thick neck and bury my face in his fur. Sometimes I cried and cried, leaving his fur damp; when I whispered my secrets to him, his big head slightly nodded in agreement.

Duke became a member of the family and was on good terms with everyone. Mother said, “We look like Duke and belong to the same family, and will eventually all have his wrinkles.”

Duke brought out a concealed sweetness in Father, and I was grateful to have been privy to this quality. It made me feel close to this formal man who fumbled about expressing affectionate feelings toward his daughter. I treasured this spring and fall morning ritual around Duke and the taxi rides. Father continued his daily strolls across the Brooklyn Bridge with his colleagues and had had a phenomenal 45-year record. Even The New Yorker wrote a short piece about them. Duke probably could boast the most number of crossings for an English bulldog.