Slow is the path of love.
Fast is a highway of fear.
Kookie Morrison does everything fast. She talks fast, laughs fast, dances fast, cries fast. But tonight, Kookie is determined. She will be slow. Tonight is the final birthday for Innocent, Kookie’s old beloved dog. The party will feature a DJ, hot catered food, 150 of Kookie’s best friends, and 30 of her favorite dogs. The dogs will ride to the party in three white limousines. The people will ride in a parade of 22 cars. The parade will consume two city blocks. It will arrive in downtown Englewood at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday, the busiest hour of the week.
This plan makes Englewood police officer Brian Havlicek nervous. He has been assigned to escort the parade from Morrison’s house to the party downtown in a raggedy old cop car. He stands in Morrison’s driveway and looks at the white limousines. They are very long. He fidgets. Officer Havlicek has been a member of the police department for just two years, but he knows the town well. This parade will make some people very angry.
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“You all ready to go?” Havlicek says. “This is a lot of cars. I’ll do the best I can.”
He walks to his cruiser, turns on the lights, and drives forward.
Nobody follows. This nervous cop is not in charge. The limo drivers and everybody else stand in Kookie’s yard, awaiting her word.
Tonight, love is in charge.
“Slow! Drive real slow, y’all!” Kookie yells to her friends. “Make this cop take his time!”
‘My baby has a soul’
Let’s follow Kookie’s lead. Let’s pause a moment here and review the basic facts. Kookie Morrison is 71 years old, and very popular. She is known to people from New Hope Baptist Church in Hackensack, and from the church’s camp, where she served for years as the assistant director. Other people know Kookie as a former janitor at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Teaneck, where she also helped run the after-school program.
“She treated my kids like they were her kids,” said Andre Dunnell, who played music at Innocent’s party under the stage name DJ Omega. “So if Miss Kookie tells me she’s gonna have a dog birthday party and she need a DJ? I’m gonna be there in two seconds.”
More friends come from the east side of Englewood, where everyone with a dog meets Kookie eventually. She is the neighborhood’s go-to dog walker, dog sitter and backup veterinarian.
“When Koko is feeling bad, Kookie comes over with Pedialyte and Bayer aspirin,” said Jeline Lawton, Kookie’s neighbor, whose beige Schnauzer arrived at the party wearing a dress of pink taffeta. “She saves me a $150 trip to the vet.”
Kookie loves every dog she meets. But her love for Innocent is something different. She bought a Burberry baby stroller to take Innocent shopping at ShopRite. The dog’s wardrobe includes outfits by Gucci and Chanel. Kookie trained Innocent to serve as a therapy dog for patients in hospitals, hospice centers and nursing homes.
Innocent is happiest when he’s splayed across Kookie’s bed, wind running across his face. So Kookie spends winter nights under a stack of blankets, an air conditioner and a fan running full blast.
“Innocent breathes better when the air is flowing. I’m in there freezing. But Innocent is so happy!” Kookie says. “My baby has a soul. Trust me. When he looks into my eyes, we connect.”
At 14 years old, Innocent is at least as famous as his mother. He has the face of a miniature Schnauzer with the eyebrows of a Yorkie. The idea of throwing him a birthday party originated from Kookie’s elementary school students. Every year, the event grew a little bigger. The first, when Innocent was 7, featured him riding around Englewood in a friend’s Mercedes. After that came a Hummer. In 2018, Innocent brought traffic in downtown Englewood to a standstill by arriving to his party at the Splish Splash Doggie Daycare and Salon in a white Rolls Royce limousine that has carried Yoko Ono, Liberace and the Jackson Five.
“It’s bigger than my birthday party!” Tara Stillman, the salon’s owner, said during that event three years ago.
Innocent’s gray fur masks his advancing age. But the last three years have taken a toll. Innocent and Kookie both look a little smaller now. They move a little slower. Innocent still runs around and barks at the mailman, but medications and congestive heart failure leave him feeling tired.
Antoinette Bush has been Innocent’s vet since he was a puppy. Last summer, she believed Innocent would die before Christmas.
“We didn’t think he would live six months,” Bush said.
Innocent’s regimen of care is complex. First Kookie grinds his medications to dust in a crucible. She adds vitamin paste and chunks of pumpkin. Then she delivers the mixture in tiny doses so Innocent doesn’t vomit it back up. This ritual takes 45 minutes. Kookie performs it four times a day. Two slow walks around the neighborhood consume at least another hour.
Bush believes all this love is the only thing keeping Innocent alive.
“I’ve learned that if you take your time and go slow, you can put off euthanasia and have fewer hospital runs,” Bush said. “But how many pet owners are willing to take that kind of time?”
‘Kookie! You do it to death, honey!’
Three white limos crawl down Dean Street. They make their slow advance on Palisades Avenue and downtown Englewood. Officer Havlicek lunges ahead, but the limousine drivers lay off the gas. They will not be rushed. Behind them, 22 cars drive with their blinkers on, looking like the slowest funeral procession since the age of horses. A woman in a black Range Rover gives her horn a long honk of rage. Other drivers throw up their hands and curse.
There is nothing to be done. Eventually the lead limousine arrives outside Splish Splash spa. Innocent stands on the sill of the car with his head out the window. Dozens of people shoot videos with their phones. Innocent gets so excited by all the attention, he shakes his head till his black top hat falls off.
“He knows!” says Bush. “Oh my God. Innocent knows this is all about him!”
His parade duties done, Officer Havlicek guns it and speeds away. Kookie retrieves Innocent from the limo and places him on the red carpet beside his friend Nola, a black Havanese who wears a dress of black taffeta, black satin, white rhinestones and a necklace of pearls. The dogs walk in a tight circle and smell each others’ bottoms, their customary greeting. Dozens of people cheer.
“Kookie! You do it to death, honey!” Betty Godette of Teaneck yells over the crowd.
Dogs and people pack inside. Phyllis Wright uses a cordless microphone to address the crowd.
“I got on a Jet Blue plane from Miami at 7 a.m. to be here today,” says Wright, who became church friends with Kookie in Hackensack before moving to Florida a few years ago. “I made time because this is important.”
Pets and people agree. A cameraman from New York’s NBC Channel 4 walks with people to the back of the salon for TV interviews. Curly Girl, a white Bichon Frise, and Sabrina, a brown Yorkie, wear matching white taffeta dresses by Dolce & Gabbana. DJ Omega plays an airy Afrobeat track called “Drogba.” Bush and Wright hit the dance floor, Bush with heavily syncopated stomps of her thigh-high leather boots, Wright swinging circular sways of her brown kaftan.
“This is amazing!” shouts Tanikquaa Foye of Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like it! I didn’t expect any of this.”
Church friends, neighborhood friends, camp friends, school friends, shopping friends, all kinds of friends wait turns to give Kookie a hug.
“This is crazy! Look out there!” Keeshun Peterkin, 47, gestures Kookie toward the sidewalk, where the crowd continues to grow. “Can you throw a party for me next year?”
It’s a rager. By 9 p.m., Stillman is feeling sleepy. She announces she’s going home, then asks Kookie to look after the shop.
“You’re lucky I have keys to this place!” Kookie says.
Nothing disturbs Innocent. He walks around. He touches wet noses with his friends. People pick him up, give him a hug, set him down. He gets lost in a crowd of little dogs. Erica Patterson notices him suddenly, when Innocent starts to raise his left hind leg.
“Oh no! Innocent is going to tinkle on the DJ booth again!” Patterson shouts. She jumps from her seat, takes the little dog in her arms, and carries him out to the sidewalk.
The party is still going when Kookie takes a seat and pulls Innocent into her lap. People bend over to give Kookie a hug, and Innocent a scratch. Neither seems to mind, but they both need rest. Their eyes sag. Innocent wasn’t supposed to live past Christmas. Ten months later, he’s spent a whole day sniffing and running.
His mother knows. This is his last party. Kookie sits in a white folding chair, cradling her dog. Soon she must start cleaning up. Just hold on. There is time. Innocent’s head falls against his mother’s chest. Kookie leans down and gives her dog a kiss.
Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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