It has been two weeks since the fabled Westminster Dog Show (hereinafter “The Show”) took place New York, and I have not known a moment’s peace of mind during that time. No, it was not the trip to New York, fraught with danger as it always is, that has filled me with anxiety; it has been your notes – the notes from my fans. I know you mean well, but truthfully, the barrage of e-mails, voicemails and now cards through the U.S. Postal Service – I do not jest, actual honest-to-goodness paper cards – have jangled my nerves and put me under such pressure that I can barely write a sentence. Several of you commented that you look forward to my “stinging wit” brought to bear on The Show; others hope that I “sharpened my tongue” for the occasion and express eagerness to hear my “devastating assessment”.
These comments – meant in a complimentary way as they undoubtedly are – have cut to the quick and I sit paralyzed by self-doubt. Do you all think me a monster? – the unnatural love child of Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote but without the drugs and alcohol? How can you imagine that I am the kind of person who would laugh at other people’s foibles and shortcomings – however picturesque they may be? What have I done to deserve this reputation when I am really a soft, gentle observer of mankind? For god’s sake, I am halfway to being French; how could I not love dogs – even the pin-cushion varieties?
As I sit staring blankly at my computer screen, the sandy crunch of cookie crumbs scattered beneath my feet and around my chair, butter stains on the front of my shirt and the tell-tale smell of almond paste in the air, a college friend, Trudy, enters my study and takes stock of the situation. She lets out a faint groan and murmurs, “I thought we had put all this behind us with the last round of treatment.” I am too immobilized to comment as she turns to go downstairs. I can hear her calling the Carbohydrate Abuse Center and know that the ambulance will be here shortly. In the brief time left to me, I will try to write an appreciation of the Westminster Dog Show in order to demonstrate to all of you that I am the kind of person who cherishes diversity, who delights in all sorts of people and, most of all, who loves dogs of all kinds. Then, think how sad you will feel to have pushed me to the brink. As my analyst, Dr. Pischinger, repeatedly tells me “The road to heaven is not paved with recriminations” and counsels that such thoughts impede my therapy. Still, I take solace in the comfort of recrimination, being, as I am, so woefully misunderstood by my friends.
My Day at the Greatest Show on Earth
The morning of February 11th dawns, a clear cool day with the promise of spring after snow. You don’t need to be a New Yorker to feel the excitement and dander in the air. For the past two days the world’s leading canines have been massing in the intimacy of the Hotel Pennsylvania – “the World’s Most Pup-ular Hotel” – awaiting the opening bell of the Westminster Dog Show. New Yorkers of all stripes are itching to get tickets for the event, but it is too late. I am one of the lucky ones courtesy of an old college roommate, Flavio de Chasse (not his real name, but more on that later). I haven’t been this excited since the Ryder Cup came to Brookline several years ago. I still feel giddy remembering my limited-visibility seat on the fourth fairway, the thrill of seeing the golfing greats ride by, their sinewy muscles rippling in the September sun. Actually, the rhododendron bush in which my seat was located limited my view to the backs and rumps of these astounding athletes, but it was still memorable, and now I find myself on the threshold of the canine equivalent.
Not wanting to miss a moment of The Show, I arrive at 7:30 a.m. to find a long line working its way toward the security checkpoint. I take a position at the end of the line embedded in several groups of New York ladies. Their wraith-like thinness, frosted hair and closely-fitted Chanel jackets of pastel hue and wide black piping identify them as habituées of the Upper East Side. They chatter and purr at each other until a distant voice calls out in cheerful greeting, “Mimi!” Three of the ladies turn to respond, but the call is quickly answered by another Mimi and they return to their previous topics. Further ahead in line is a smaller cluster of women whose broad Southern accents are audible above the roar. Their sequined tee shirts and sweatshirts with spangled appliqués sparkle in the fluorescent light as they shift over a bit of extra flesh that makes each look like a close cousin of the Michelin Tire Man. I suspect their home addresses place them within easy commuting distance of a bowl-a-drome and Dunkin’ Donuts from which each has secured the chain’s signature Bucket O’Coffee.
The rest of the line is made up of ill-assorted individuals. There are two men, apparently unrelated, of waxen complexion and nervous glance in whose company I would probably not leave a child. Occasionally, one of The Show’s judges breezes by us to gain preferential entry. As they pass, the line falls into reverential silence except for one small voice that can be heard telling a friend which of the many famous judges we have just seen. I finally make my way to the front of the line where a security guard makes eye contact not with me but with the remnants of my $6.00 latte. “Not in here buddy,” she says, her voice relieved of any sign of human intonation. I bid good-bye to my latte and its remaining $3.50 worth of coffee by throwing the cup into a large barrel containing so many other spilled hopes. Oddly, the guard does not ask to see my rucksack, so she remains ignorant of my computer, camera, and the weaponry that I find necessary in New York.
Once inside, I begin the long climb up to the floor of the hall. Altogether, the rigorous security has cost me nearly thirty-five minutes and I arrive in time only to hear the end of the National Anthem from the corridor. I curse not having started earlier as the delay has cost me the opportunity of seeing the opening ceremony with its synchronized barking and honor guard of dogs dressed in Old Glory capes. I overhear two women whose voices are at the edge of cracking with emotion from the spectacle. I promise myself that next year I will get there at 7:00 a.m. just to be on the safe side.
Television is a poor substitute for reality, and broadcasts of The Show have not prepared me for its scale – now sprawling from Madison Square Garden to the West Side Piers. Some of the rings are large for real dogs; others are small for smaller dogs although some of creatures being shown look suspiciously like dust balls or ambitious rodents seeking to move up in the world. As I enter, a dozen whippets are being shown in one of the two large rings. They stand attentively in their bulimic splendor as the judge puts them through their individual paces. Like so many other men who mill around the floor of The Show, the judge has passed with regret out of his thirties and struggles to remain dapper – the effort showing a bit more than it should. Although the dissimulation of Cole Porter and Noel Coward in the 1930s could not have been first-hand memories for these men, they have modeled themselves after this ambiguous generation with smoothly flattened hair, blazers sprouting silk handkerchiefs from breast pockets and raffish expressions that lead the obtuse to conclude “Ralph is quite the ladies’ man,” when, in reality, Ralph is fooling no one under the age of forty. Morbid curiosity bids me stay to see if the whippets have enough strength for a walk around the ring, but I must get on to Flavio who would not forgive me if I missed the showing of his dog.
I wend my way through the backstage, first through the cubicles in which “meet-and-greet” sessions will be conducted with the dogs after they have been shown. From there, I wander past the concessions that sell doggie treats and canine couture until I come to the grooming area where the contestants are washed, fluffed, trimmed and blown dry for their moment of glory under the Klieg lights.
As I arrive, Aki, a Japanese groomer, has just finished depriving a Shar Pei of both its dignity and privacy. Flavio’s dog, a beagle named Great Spotted Hope of Stud Fee Farm, is next in line for grooming. He looks surprisingly normal by comparison to his fellow competitors. I have the urge to ask him what a nice dog like him is doing in a place like this, but I stifle the urge and say instead, “How much grooming can a beagle need?” Flavio looks at me with pity, Aki with contempt. Turning back to his work, Aki brings out a small razor knife and trims the stray ends of short strands of fur that are sticking up 1/8 inch above the otherwise uniform coat. Spot endures the trimming as well as the washing, blow-drying and brushing that follow. He never flinches. Flavio looks over with a stage mother’s pride and says, “He really wants it – you can see it in his eyes.” I look more closely and am a bit frightened because he is right. Spot has a gritty look of determination and focus. He has stopped seeing the world around him and he has turned inward to visualize winning.
Here I should explain Flavio. When he and I first met as freshmen in college, he was Francis Hunter from one of a narrow band of towns that struggle to be genteel despite their proximity to northern New Jersey and lack of proximity to Princeton. During his first semester, the then-Frank was unremarkable, a solid B student who worked hard, comprehended a bit and longed to get a job with a pension. Economics 101 changed his life in the second semester with the revelation of the theory of “maximum return for minimum input”. Within a week, he restructured his life on a more efficient model - stopped studying, found “people” to “handle” his academic career and started to rebuild his personal image at the gym. Along the way, one of his girlfriends was infatuated with the Italian supermodel, Fabio, who together with Hulk Hogan, has inspired Flavio’s current name and look. Even at The Show he stands out with his snakeskin boots, blue jeans, suede blazer and long streaked-blond hair that spreads across his back, the outer edges pulled toward the center with a barrette. It is an arresting look.
Flavio’s introduction to dog shows came through his last girlfriend, Sandra, whose six-figure income from breeding and showing dogs caught his full attention in a way that her limited personal charm could not. Ever since, Flavio has been breeding beagles and cryo-banking their sperm in the belief that one Best-in-Show win will produce fees which will finally allow him to become “a really happening fifty” – thirty and forty having passed with nothing of note happening. Displaying a complete disregard for law of probabilities, Flavio takes the 2008 Best in Show winning by a beagle as a sign that the breed’s and Spot’s time for victory has come. He sees no obstacle to a second win by a breed that cannot be gracefully accessorized.
The time comes for the beagles and I go out to watch. The handlers bring them into the ring and do one run around with those mincing wussy steps that would be the kiss of social death in a schoolyard. The judge is a woman of ample girth upholstered in a tweed pantsuit. Her hands clasped behind her back, she marches up and down the row of beagles eyeing each one and staring down the handlers who fidget nervously as supplicants. A table is brought out, and one by one, the dogs are lifted onto it for examination. The judge stands back to size up each dog’s overall appearance and stance, then she moves in closer for a look at the ears, face, mouth. She strokes the back and then, without warning, gives a solid grab to the crotch. The dogs stoically endure their lot except for one young dog who yelps and urinates. The crowd gasps. The offending dog and his handler are led from the ring by security guards and begin their descent into the underworld as lackeys bring a basin of hot water and pressed linen towels for the judge to wash her hands.
The remaining dogs make another run around the ring after which they line up with their handlers who keep adjusting their postures. Some of the dogs – the dogs who want victory so badly they can taste it and it tastes of liver treats – stand attentively without moving. The judge walks back and forth along the line. The tension and suspense of the moment are unbearable. The owner of one of the dogs is sitting next to me. She snaps suddenly into gulping sobs as she chews down a few more Valium. Then, with an almost imperceptible movement of the hand, the judge points to five dogs in quick succession. They step forward knowing they have won a place in The Show. The remainder, including Spot, are hustled out of the ring. I guess he didn’t want it badly enough. As the victorious receive their ribbons and photos are taken, I move through the crowd back to the meet-and-greet area to offer my consolations to Flavio. He does not seem particularly upset and is counting through a pile of cash. When I ask the whereabouts of Spot, I learn that he has just been sold to a family from Tennessee who actually plan to take him hunting. I suppose he will be happier chasing the plentiful vermin of a red state. As to Flavio, he has accepted that probabilities are against beagles for the next generation, so he has made arrangements to move on to Afghan hounds which he considers both a winning choice and potential “babe magnet.”
Finding myself quite wrung-out by the morning, I head home after Spot’s defeat. In the days following The Show, I am obsessed with video clips of the event that can be viewed in a continuous loop at its website. I ponder its meaning and elusive emotional power. It has slowly dawned on me that The Show is not about winning or losing, nor is it about licensing and product sales, important as these are. It is a story of dreaming big and rooting for the underdog, although the Westminster Kennel Club officially looks down on that turn of phrase. It is the American Dream of people coming together to spend money and share something they all love, including a few antihistamines.
From the sensitive hand and caring heart of your sincere correspondent,
Brian Pfeiffer is a free-lance architectural historian who works on historic preservation projects in Nantucket and throughout New England. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brian spends much of his time on islands - Nantucket, Mt. Desert, Maine and the Île de France, specifically Paris, where he has developed an embarrassing infatuation with all things French. In his more serious moments, he is advises non-profit institutions on the care of their historic buildings and is a contributing writer to Apollo Magazine in London. In his less serious moments, he wanders with his camera to see as much of the world as he can by foot.