first person

The Pet-Store Owner Who Made Me Want to Be a Good Person

Lena Dunham in Brooklyn, 2003. Photo: Laurie Simmons

This piece originally appeared in New York’s 50th anniversary issue, My New York – a special edition that attempts to capture the city’s voice through first-person stories, spoken and written, about how our disparate lives intertwine. Read them all here.

When I was in seventh grade, we moved to Brooklyn and got a dog, two signs of domestication my father had sworn he’d never partake of. Despite having sired two young, clumsy daughters, he was convinced we could remain forever in an industrial building with condemned stairs and no certificate of occupancy, and that the pressure to wash your jeans was a conspiracy by Big Downy. But there we were, on our Sesame Street–perfect block of carriage houses with a terrier who rode in the back of a gray Volvo. “This is fucking humiliating,” my father muttered as he loaded us in for a drive to brunch. Rage, rage against the changing of the boroughs.

But I took to our new neighborhood like Liza Minnelli to a broke gay man — it was as if I’d been waiting my whole life for the chipper sitcom that is Brooklyn Heights. “Good morning, Mr. Construction Worker Leering at my non-breasts! Pleasure to see you, Old Lady With Substantial Day-Drinking Problem!” I worked part-time at the video store. I had friends at the diner, the dog park, and Talbots, where I’d stop to peruse discount lady’s separates. And I tacked my business cards up in Pet’s Emporium. “EXPERIENCED PET GROOMER,” they said, though experience simply meant a pair of clippers purchased at sale prices and a relentless will not to be bitten. I was too scared to actually use the razor, so I gently trimmed dog bangs. I was never hired twice.

But to build a business, you need a champion, and mine was Sammy, an affable Palestinian man who spent most of the day outside his shop, the aforementioned Pet’s Emporium, greeting the neighbors, giving dating tips to unmarried female customers, and ordering around the sons (four out of his eight) who worked for him in what was actually a stunning parlor floor apartment, though it was far too stuffed with bird seed and hamster wheels for the classic architectural details to matter.

I was quickly fired from the video store (turns out the customer is really, actually, and totally always right, even if it’s about gang-bang porn). I was 70 percent friendless and the market for an untrained 15-year-old dog groomer is niche, so I had a good amount of time on my hands and that time was spent with Sammy. Sometimes he let me stack and organize product in exchange for a small store credit. Other times I passed out flyers on special deals. Often we just read quietly, what my mom would call parallel play. “My beautiful Lena!” he would cry when I appeared in the doorway, in the least-sleazy singsong a 55-year-old man can direct at a 15-year-old girl.

I really don’t know what my parents thought was going on. “Where’s Lena?” “Oh, she’s spending Saturday at the pet store with her best friend and mentor Sammy, stacking litter boxes in exchange for organic rabbit pellets!” Sammy let me bring my actual rabbit, first name Chester, last name Hadley, who would sit behind the register in a cardboard box chewing on Timothy Hay. Once, Sammy sent me to cut the nails of an elderly blind woman’s cat, and she paid me with a brooch I still have, a fake ruby in a gold-plated filigreed heart. Sammy marveled at it. “What a treasure!”

When it was time to go to college, Sammy and I had an emotional farewell. I promised to be studious, responsible, and kind — and I promised to visit. But I never visited. My parents moved. My obsession with small-animal husbandry faded. I instead became obsessed with what I ate, what I wore, and whom I fucked (or more accurately, who was refusing to fuck me). Eight years later, I moved back to the neighborhood, but I avoided Sammy’s block. Despite certain successes, it was hard to imagine that I had fulfilled Sammy’s order to “be good.” I had HPV, there were whole neighborhoods I was scared to walk through for fear of a yelling match with a tattooed landscaper, and sometimes I went to the bodega at 4 a.m. and ate six to seven packaged croissants then threw them up. I had no pets.

But one day, having turned 31 and celebrated my five-year anniversary with someone I considered to be the embodiment of good, my feet walked me where my mind had refused to go. It was a Sunday. Would the store even be open? Did Sammy still run Pet’s Emporium or would one of his sons stare at me blankly, wondering who this woman with unbrushed hair and daytime pajamas asking for his dad was?

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” I told my boyfriend as the door creaked open. But there behind the counter was Sammy, in his old spot nestled between the leashes and the dog-breath neutralizers. “My beautiful Lena!” he said without a beat. I grinned. It quickly became apparent that he had no idea what I’d been up to for a dozen years — he hadn’t read about me in “Page Six.” He didn’t believe I had caused Hillary Clinton to lose the presidency. He had not seen my nipples and bush on TV. He was simply happy I’d kept up with this whole being-alive thing. I told him which of our family pets were still living and which one had died after taking a huge shit on my mom’s color printer. I told him I was “a writer, for real now.” I presented my boyfriend like a trophy.

“Look at you!” said Sammy, who had kept a strong business rocking through the financial crisis, the Starbucks-ification of Montague Street, and the challenges of being a human on this earth. No. Look at us.

Lena Dunham on Visiting Her Old Friend Sammy