Katie was destined for greatness during her lifetime and immortality following it. Her breeder recognized it, telling author Glenn Plaskin that Katie was the runt of the litter and, although a purebred cocker spaniel with a beautiful blonde coat, she could never be a show dog. Her body was not properly proportioned, for one thing. Her legs were too long and bowed. And her head was not perfectly shaped. Still . . . there was something special about the little puppy who was clearly the brightest of the litter.
So Glenn, who had never before owned a dog because, as a child, he had been frightened of dogs, took Katie home with him to his high-rise apartment. Glenn lived on the third floor of a seventeen-story building in Battery Park City, a unique, 92-acre planned development at the southwestern end of lower Manhattan. Battery Park City stands adjacent to Battery Park on landfill along the Hudson River — land literally created with soil and rocks excavated when the World Trade Center was erected. Beautiful tree-lined esplanades border a neighborhood comprised of the World Financial Center, as well as retail and residential developments.
Glenn was encouraged to get Katie and initially coached on how to train her by his friend Joe, who owned a striking cocker spaniel of his own. But Joe’s approach was rather stringent, so Glenn sought puppy-training advice from his elderly neighbor, Pearl. Ironically, Pearl and her husband, Arthur, had recently lost their own cocker spaniel. Before long, Glenn and Pearl became good friends, but Katie’s bond with Pearl was even tighter, almost ethereal. Glenn, a journalist and celebrity interviewer, had enlisted the services of dog walkers, but Pearl offered to keep Katie with her while Glenn was away at work. Truth be told, Pearl enjoyed the company, as did Arthur. Before long, Pearl and Arthur had become surrogate parents to Glenn.
Katie, named for Katherine Hepburn, whom Glenn interviewed numerous times, grew up to be a beautiful, well-mannered, and extremely intelligent companion. When Glenn suggested that his friend John consider a move to Battery Park City, it turned out that the only apartment available in the two-thousand unit development was right down the third-story hall from Glenn. Nicknamed “the child,” Katie quickly bonded with new neighbor John and his three-year-old son, Ryan, who became known as “the kid.” The two of them ran up and down the hall of the apartment building, playing together. Pearl and Arthur took Jon and Ryan into their hearts and home, too. Soon the dining room table in Pearl and Arthur’s apartment became “command central” as the neighbors shared their lives and broke bread together, with Katie perched on a chair right next to Arthur. She was, of course, as much a part of this impromptu family as any of the human members.
Like any family, Glenn and company went through both blissfully happy and extremely difficult times. Glenn’s success as an interviewer and writer for the New York Times and New York Daily News gave him his own degree of celebrity status. But when Glenn suddenly lost his position with the Daily News, one of many victims of a mass downsizing, he became depressed. Several years of medical problems contributed to his malaise, but his unlikely family persevered, supporting and assisting each other. When he recovered, Glenn resumed his writing career as a columnist for Family Circle.
Eventually, Jon fell in love and, along with Ryan, moved to an apartment further uptown near Carnegie Hall. By that time, Arthur had passed on, and Pearl, by then in her late 80’s, was devastated. She missed her surrogate grandson and the energy he brought to her life and daily routine. But she still had Katie.
And then there was that fateful Tuesday morning when Glenn heard a noise, but ignored it, thinking it was just a louder-than-normal but quite ordinary sound from a nearby construction project. Pearl soon called and told him to turn on his television, and he watched in horror as the World Trade Center burned. Forced out of their apartments, it would be seven weeks before they could return and attempt to resume their lives. Their apartment building was heavily damaged. Many of their neighbors were employed in the World Trade Center and never returned home from work.
Through it all, the little family — and the extended members in the form of neighbors, friends, doormen — endured, loving each other until Katie’s death at the age of fifteen. Pearl died in 2004, at the age of ninety-two. Having never been able to bear children of her own, Pearl had come to love Glenn as a son, Ryan as a grandson, and little Katie, running up and down the hall, had been the gentle, loving spirit who herded and then held them together.
As one reviewer aptly noted, you don’t have to be a dog lover to love Katie Up and Down the Hall. Because although she graces the cover and is the undisputed star of the story, the book is really about people. More specifically, it is about family — how a family can be formed under the most seemingly-random circumstances in the most unusual place from the most unlikely group of people.
In many ways, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about the story. After all, ask any dog owner and they will tell you that their dog is the smartest, most obedient, beautiful, lovable canine in the world. Katie was no exception, and there are many passages in which Glenn describes her antics to which readers will find themselves responding, “Heck, my dog can do that!”
But Katie is the heart and soul of the story because she was the impetus for Glenn’s fateful knock upon Pearl’s door. He needed advice. He had never housebroken a puppy, and he did not have a clue about how to train Katie. He could not have known then, of course, that Katie would soon become Pearl and Arthur’s dog as much as she was his. And, eventually, John and Ryan’s, too. Plaskin would soon learn that the love of a faithful pet is pure, unconditional, and devoid of ulterior motives. Except, that is, for the desire for more belly rubs, ear scratching, and food. With a pet, of course, it’s always about food.
Glenn had never before experienced the pure, innocent joy of owning a dog, and he explains how Katie’s presence in his life gradually changed him. Previously obsessed with his career, Glenn soon found his priorities were shifting. Katie and their new-found friends became his focus, and he was less, as he describes it, “high-strung.” Katie transformed him into a family man who enjoyed spending time around the dining room table visiting, laughing, and enjoying the company of Pearl, et al. She was more effective at grounding him than a therapist.
Glenn graphically details his experiences on September 11, 2001, including their escape from the thick black dust that rained down upon them as they evacuated their apartment building. Katie stopped breathing, at one point. But, fortunately, a firefighter responded to Glenn’s desperate plea for help, cleaning out Katie nostrils with water pressure so that she could dislodge the soot she had breathed in, clearing her airway. Glenn lost track of Pearl as they emerged from the building, but she serendipitously found her way to a new friend that day, Lee, who made sure that she was safely delivered into the arms of family. Glenn’s account of his escape from Manhattan to New Jersey, concern for his elderly friend, and the weeks they spent displaced from their home is gripping. Particularly sobering is his description of what they found when they were at last allowed to return to their neighborhood some several weeks later.
We were a group of people down the hall, each fulfilling the need of the other. . . . I had been so self-consumed about my work and my career, and I realized that the thing I had been looking for was right down the hall from me. It was the warmth and comfort of these people.~ Author Glenn Plaskin
Katie Up and Down the Hall is unapologetically sentimental, yet poignant, punctuated by Glenn’s remembrances of the small moments in the life of his family that characterized their days together. He writes with an open, exposed heart about how he became attached to and dependent upon Pearl for advice, comfort, assistance, and her famous plum tarts. He fondly recalls the evening races between Ryan and Katie up and down the hall, as well as the evenings he spent babysitting Ryan, who would fall asleep next to Katie. In their early years together, Glenn was busy interviewing celebrities such as Peter Jennings, Katherine Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor, just to name a few. He frequently took Katie with him, describing how her presence often broke the ice and softened the heart of the most unwilling participant. For instance, he recalls fondly the day he interviewed the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, who held Katie on her lap, stroking her soft fur, throughout their entire conversation.
Ultimately, Plaskin says the lesson of Katie Up and Down the Hall is simple: Love remains. In heart-breaking detail, he describes how Katie was ravaged by old age, eventually becoming blind, deaf, and in unrelenting pain from arthritis. He was forced to make the agonizing decision about her future with which readers who have loved a senior dog can sadly relate. He second-guessed his decision for years afterward as he mourned his beloved companion. Glenn also lost Pearl several years later, although she lived a wonderful life that spanned ninety-two years, fifty-nine of which were spent with her beloved husband, Arthur. As with any family, Glenn’s “could not survive the inevitability of death and changing circumstances,” but the love they shared lives on in the memories Glenn has now generously imparted to readers of Katie Up and Down the Hall.
So the book is really a quintessentially American story that just happened to unfold in New York City in a high-rise apartment building overlooking the Hudson River. But it could have taken place on any street in any town where one neighbor opens his/her door to a neighbor. As Glenn notes, “It’s amazing what can happen when that door opens. So I’m hoping this book will remind people that we’re surrounded by those whose lives we can enhance immeasurably, and vice-versa.” Glenn’s reconciliation of his experiences is decidedly spiritual. He writes that he believes the events he has detailed in Katie Up and Down the Hall were “not just random or coincidental, but rather somehow guided by a higher, providential force. I don’t pretend to understand it — but I do feel it all around me.” Ultimately then, his tale is also one of gratitude — he was blessed to have known the love of the family that was forged there on the third floor, where he still resides, now surrounded by new neighbors who have become his friends. “I realize I have already had plenty. God has been good to me.” Katie Up and Down the Hall is a sweet, uplifting, frequently humorous, and very moving story that can be read and enjoyed by your whole family. Don’t miss it.
I read Katie Up and Down the Hall in conjunction with the 2011 Read ‘n’ Review, Outdo Yourself, Just for Fun and Books Won Reading Challenges. I won a copy of Katie Up and Down the Hall as part of the National Adopt-a-Dog Month Five Book Giveaway at Bookin’ with Bingo and the audio book at A Sea of Books.