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FRITZ IS BACK, AND A NEIGHBORHOOD FEELS INTACT AGAIN

Fritz disappeared two weeks ago.

A piece of the neighborhood went with him.

So did a chunk of Bob Petrik's heart.

For 23 years, Petrik has owned a store on Elmwood Avenue. He is a neighborhood fixture who lives a few blocks from his shop. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. A year ago, he got Fritz.

Soon, Fritz was the unofficial neighborhood pet. He roamed the sidewalk in front of the store, licking kids' faces, accepting the pats and rubs of passers-by. A rare breed called a Vizsla, he stands about 30 inches high, with a trim brown coat, yellow-green eyes and a pink nose.

There are invisible seams that hold any neighborhood together. That make people feel good about where they live. They add to the quality of life, are part of a shared experience. Fritz was one of those seams.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Petrik waited on a customer while Fritz basked outside in the sun. A moment later, Fritz was gone.

It wasn't like Fritz to stray. Petrik jumped in his truck and scoured the neighborhood. Nothing. The sinking feeling hit him like a sledgehammer to the chest. His dog had been stolen.

In subsequent days, he posted hundreds of fliers with the dog's picture. He searched nearby neighborhoods in his truck, stopping people on the street.

A funny thing happened. The people in his neighborhood didn't just sympathize. They got involved.

He had seen, with the dognapping, the worst side of human nature. Now he would see the best.

Some people, upon learning what happened, got in their cars and searched nearby streets and parks.

Two boys who walked Fritz wrote up a "Missing Dog" flier. They spent their savings -- a dollar -- to make five copies of it. Other neighborhood kids made him sympathy cards.

The news of the dog's disappearance was relayed from the pulpit of the Unitarian Church.

"People would come in the shop and ask, 'Where's Fritz?' " he said. (For security reasons, he asked that the store's name not be used.) "When I told them, they'd get enraged."

This was not just about one man, one dog. In a sense, it was an affront to the community, an attack on its order and civility. In a small but disheartening way, the neighborhood became a colder place. An air of vulnerability and suspicion crept in.

The shared mission was to get Fritz back -- and restore the intangible sense of well-being that vanished with him.

To Petrik, it was personal. Unmarried and with no kids, his bond with his dog is particularly strong.

"I felt beaten," he said. "I wasn't sleeping. The thought he was out there somewhere just haunted me."

Within days, he had leads. People on the West Side told him they'd seen the dog. One saw a man trying to sell him for $50. Another said he was being kept by a crackhead in an abandoned house -- leading Bob to canvass the West Side's mean streets.

"At first, people were suspicious -- why is this guy riding up and down the street? Once I talked to them, there were no problems. Some invited me into their homes, asked me to leave a flier so they could help look."

The break came four days after the dognapping. An anonymous caller, after seeing a posted flier, spotted a Vizsla in a truck -- and took down the license number.

The truck was registered to a suburban construction company. Working off-hours, sheriff's deputies went to the work site.

There was Fritz.

An Amherst man told them he'd bought the dog for $20 in a Lower West Side bar.

Five days after Fritz was taken, the deputies brought him back to the store.

"People converged from all the businesses on the street," said Petrik. "Horns were honking. Fritz was jumping up and down. The deputies couldn't believe it -- a welcoming committee for a dog."

The celebration, of course, went deeper than that.

"Humanity isn't as bad as we think it is," he said. "People were just so determined to help me. It reinstates your faith in how kind people are."

Fritz is back.

He brought a piece of the neighborhood back with him.

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