May 13, 2010

Driving the Pack

Posted in Profile Writing at 10:02 pm by shhville

Class: Profile Writing

Instructors: Karen Weintraub and Billy Baker

Driving the Pack
Elke Blackstone
When Nora Meiners arrives in Cambridge on a warm Friday morning in March, she already has two dogs in the van. One is a fifteen-year-old Chow mix, indistinguishable from a puppy except for visible cataracts, and the other is a Boston Terrier with a bunched up face like a sack of plums. Meiners is the owner of Dog Day Afternoons Country Day Prep, a high-end daycare service for a sizable contingent of Boston’s most pampered canines, and this is the morning school bus.

Meiners started the business ten years ago, at twenty-five, with her partner, Jeff Walker. Back then, she says, there were no other dog care facilities that offered what Dog Day Afternoon’s website refers to as “limo service.” Meiners explains that offering door-to-door service for no extra charge was part of a calculated cultivation of a specific clientele – namely, the top tier of Boston’s wealthy dog owners.

“It turned out to be a smart choice at the time, because honestly, many of our clients have money that is not going to be affected by the economy,” she recalls. “We actively said, ‘We need to be in these neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Back Bay. We need to establish ourselves there because those people aren’t going anywhere and most of them don’t have back yards.’ You can’t really do dog daycare five days a week and not have a decent amount of money to spend. There are certainly people who sacrifice for it, and we are cognizant of that, but ultimately it’s a luxury. It’s a lot of money. I mean, it’s a lot of money per month to spend on your dog.”

On our way to Brookline, Meiners tells me that were I not taking up the front seat, she could fit ten to twelve dogs in the van. This seems unlikely. Between one large crate containing Simon, the Chow mix, and a child’s car seat (for her two-year-old son, Wheeler, who has already been dropped off at person daycare), the van already looks full with only two dogs aboard. Unaware of my skepticism, Meiners throws back coffee and navigates traffic.

If Meiners were a dog, she’d be an Afghan. She has rangy limbs, a long, expressive face, and a tendency to under-react to stress, which, during this era of her life, is helpful. In addition to being her business partner, Walker is also Wheeler’s father. Although he and Meiners have separated, Walker still lives in the Cambridge home that Meiners owns, while she and Wheeler live in a cramped apartment three blocks away, near Central Square. The apartment feels transitional, with bad lighting and bare walls. Meiners tells me that the lease is up in September, when she hopes to be back in her own house, without Walker. Meanwhile, they work together daily and the tension is grinding away at her love for the business.

In Brookline, we pick up a drooling Collie from a home with vaulted ceilings and a shy maid, then head to Brighton where a wiggly chocolate Lab waits in a small, but comfortable basement apartment. It’s not a dump, but it doesn’t look as though the person who lives there could afford a lot of money for daily dog pampering. Asked, Meiners explains that the Lab’s owner is her Pilates instructor. After that, we hit the Back Bay to pick up a carmel-colored whirlwind named Sigmund Freud from an extravagant brownstone overlooking Boston Common. Matthew, the handsome doorman, comes up in the elevator and asks Meiners, “You know you’re picking Siggy up Saturday and Sunday, right?”

Now that the relationship is over, working with Walker has become an exercise in diplomacy. Lately, Meiners has been pondering a career change. I ask her if she’s afraid of losing her business, her income, her stability. She’s not.

“I have failed so many times in my life and lost so much money, that none of that scares me,” she says. “I’ll always find something to do to make money. I just will. I don’t have a lot of ego – I’ll do anything as long as it will cover my bills. My identity is not tied up in what I do for a living, although it is tied up in owning my own business. As a way of life, as a philosophy, my identity is pretty wrapped up in freedom and not being told what to do.”

On Commonwealth Avenue, Meiners double-parks in front of another brownstone and gets out. Sigmund Freud is in my lap, pressing a wet nose into my neck. I stay in the van. She returns with a tiny Havanese that looks like a mop without a handle and a grey-muzzled Vizsla, which immediately sits in the car seat. The van is definitely at capacity, but there’s one more brownstone to stop at. She leaves the engine running and sprints up the steps where she is handed a leash attached to an enormous Doberman. The Doberman calmly folds herself into the last available space – an impossibly small pocket directly behind the driver’s seat – and we’re off to school.

At Dog Day Afternoons a merry band of ragtag employees sport tattoos, shy smiles, and ironic t-shirts. Roughly 30 goofy, gambolling dogs chase and wrestle each other in an outdoor enclosure the size of a city block. Walker, in crumpled jeans and shades, is visibly tense. The friction between him and Meiners is palpable. When he calls her cell phone later, her voice is quiet, but determined.

“I will walk away from that business instantly, that’s fine,” she tells him. “I’m not signing over the house. I will sign over the business tomorrow. Why? Because it’s Not. Your. House.”

On our way back to Cambridge, Meiners, who minored in photography at Emerson College, says that she has always wanted to do a photographic series on feral dogs. She recalls seeing an old female Rottweiler drinking out of a puddle in Worcester four years earlier.

“I thought, I don’t want to go anywhere near that dog, she looks Dane-Ger-Ous. But she was totally on her own. There was nobody around, it wasn’t even really near a house and I was like, ‘Huh. Somebody just let her go. She’s totally surviving, she’s good.'”

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