Other Dogtown is populated with purebred mutts and bassets in boardrooms
Scandal! After four days of strolling in Montreal last spring, I did not see a single dog on the streets. Granted, 90 per cent of the time, the skies were passing water like a Great Dane who’d been locked up for a day. But coming from the ultimate Dog City, New York, it was still a shocker.
New York is not the American (or Canadian) Kennel Club. Officially, according to the Department of Health, which issues dog licenses (permitting them to become dogs), the most popular breed is not the shih tzu, Mexican chihuahua or Labrador retriever. They rate second, third and fourth.
The most popular dog is the mixed dog, a.k.a. the mutt. The mongrel, the runt of the litter. And downtown, where I live, I haven’t found a single person who buys from a pet shop. Our mutts are taken from rescue centres.
Doglessness is not an option. I’ve seen them prancing down Park Ave., barking on Broadway, growling in Greenwich Village, trotting up Times Square and wagging their way along Wall St. CEOs take their bassets to board meetings, and one poet I know will not perform unless the venue gives an up-front chair to his terrier at the table.
Dogs might have been brought to New York by Spanish galleons, since canine bones were found at five-century-old Manhattan burial sites. They hunted beaver and deer in downtown New York where today brokers hunt bulls and bears. General George Washington bred hunting dogs in Virginia, but brought them to Brooklyn, guarding against British interlopers.
After the Civil War, immigrants smuggled in pugs, spaniels, dachshunds and the iconic Dalmatians. And New York—if you need some Montreal cocktail-party trivia—was where Dalmatians sat up front in the horse-drawn engines, nipping horses to make them go faster.
The 1870s Gilded Age brought castles and palaces, robbing Europe of its old treasures. They were moated, so their purebreds didn’t share the streets with low-class mutts, many of which were imported for the vile sport of dog fighting. The Gilded Age inspired class warfare in many directions. Uptown Manhattan dogs stayed in their mansions or promenaded down Fifth Ave. wearing the popular hairstyle of Princess Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. Other tycoon dogs would be shaved, perfumed, draped in satin bows and ribbons, their fur dyed red, green or purple.
Rich New Yorkers clamoured for decorative collars or pet wardrobes, including traveling cloaks, evening cloaks, jackets and rubber boots. Bells, buttons and complex stitching were all the rage in New York, as in Paris and London. But the Downtown Dog was the dog of literature.
New York’s great writer O. Henry penned one of his most charming stories, Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, in which the narrator was a dog. Absolutely downtown. Today, after many a revolution in canine-culture, New York dogs form an ever moving mosaic on the streets and in the parks. The famed annual Westminster Dog Show in Madison Square Garden is amusing enough. But native New Yorkers are more intrigued by the plethora of miniature poodles, pit bulls, terriers, beagles, bulldogs, Madagascar Cotons de Tuléar and Siberian huskies, all making silly noises, catching silly balls, offering a kind of three-ring canine circus.
The Uptown-Downtown syndrome continues with my rescue part-spaniel, Coco T. Dawg, who has unveiled many a Manhattan mystery.
The canard is that New Yorkers never speak to their neighbours (true), but they all speak to their neighbours’ dogs. Bounding down East Village streets or bouncing in any of the dog-runs with Coco, I hear endless shouts of, “Hey, beautiful!” or “Wow! Where’dja get da dawg?” Kids shyly ask to pet him, senior citizens smile, hip-hop singers and porno-publishers have time for a brief talk and a quick ball-throw.
Meryl Streep introduced Coco to her terrier. (They were both bored.) Meg Ryan would take her dog to Washington Square Park. Nicole Kidman was making a movie near my home and Coco sat by her side. Coco’s natural lustrous eyes gazed into her made-up luscious eyes.
“’Ow adawrable,” she said Australianly.
“Hey, he’s a fan,” I told her.
She smiled. I smiled. Coco offered her the slimy muddy yucky ball he had been holding his mouth. She politely refused. He politely shrugged his fur. We moved on. While Coco is decidedly downtown, he can spot a pet shop like his forebears spotted turkeys in the straw. New York has about 1,000 pet shops, and each has a story. Besides the chain stores (which we call MuttDonald’s), Coco spots the best. One dog bakery—a kind of Paw-tisserie—specializes in a literary circle (books about dogs) and pastries served on a balcony garden. They, alas, went out of business. Whiskers, a few blocks away, is a “holistic” dog shop. Owner Phil Klein never gives medicines for calming troublesome dogs. He takes the time to examine owners. Relationships, “leash manners” and sometimes sells anodynes, as well as excellent dog foods and collars.
Those rare times when we bring him Uptown, Coco has visited—and been quite appalled by—dog accessory shops that belong to the Veddy Veddy Wealthy. Canine Fashion was the first of the “posh” dog shops, on the Upper East Side. They import St. Moritz leather collars that sell for a few hundred dollars, and their tulle dog-beds can cost up to $300. They consider themselves a “neighbourhood” shop. But the ultimate shop is Le Chien (French for “dawg”), in fashionable Trump Towers. Dog cologne or dog perfume, concocted from sandalwood/bergamot or jasmine/tuberose, sells for around $50 a bottle. Handcrafted tables from which My Doggie can dine are $300, while a rhinestone-studded soft Italian-leather lead is a mere $165.
Coco opens his hunting eyes wide with dismay, but Le Chien has more. Should Madame Poodle wish to be conveyed in her own chariot, she may choose from a faux-mink carrier for $400 or a Fifi-Romeo carrier for $550. Is Herr Doberman Pinscher a bit fatigued? Perhaps he may purchase a dog-sofa for $410. And should Mademoiselle Pit Bull wish to catch up on her dreams, she may be outfitted with the ultimate dream furniture: Le Chien Bed Royale. Made from the finest Italian leather, it resembles a miniature Arabic tent. But the cost is a lot more than what your ordinary Bedouin can afford: $2,500 plus tax.
Uptown dog-owners also shun the usual transport. (Buses and subway allow only the very tiny.) Pet Chauffeur has limousines with their own kennels, stretchers, air-conditioning, muzzles and gloves. One holiday-maker missed his dog so much that he paid $1,400 for Pet Chauffeur to drive his dog to Miami Beach.
Walking dogs is the great leveler and a recession-proof industry. Like socialites who hire wet-nurses and nannies, New Yorkers hire dog-walkers. A few are full-time professionals; most are out-of-work painters, poets and actors. The latter are uneasily spotted by Coco, who shies away as they leap down untrodden paths, reciting, singing and—at times—using their temporary animal as a sounding board for Shakespearean utterances. In fact, he once almost growled when a thespian practiced the condescending line from Two Gentlemen of Verona:
“Ask my dog: if he say ay, it will! if he say no, it will; if he shake his tail and say nothing, it will.”