In honor of my appearance—as a judge, no less—at the 17th Annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade, I thought I would post, on this blog, an expanded version of my doggie-Halloween story that originally appeared in The Bark magazine in 2003. (Half of this story also appeared in the book version of REX AND THE CITY). But anyway, on to the story.....
Rex and the City: The Curse of the Three-Headed Dog
There’s nothing like Halloween in
At that point in time (1998) we had just started taking Rex to the
When I first saw the sign for this Halloween contest in early October, I felt my entire universe expand. Dogs in costume! At the thought of this, something latent was awakened in me—something ancient and profound. I told Ted in no uncertain terms that we had to go to this contest.
“Are you thinking of dressing Rex in a costume?”
“He’ll hate it.”
“No he won’t.”
Ted and I, by that point had begun to communicate in a really weird, passive way through the dog. We would convey our own wants and needs through Rex. For example, I might say to Ted: “Rex really needs to get away for the weekend. I think he wants to rent a room in a nice B&B.”
Anyway, I managed to convince Ted that Rex wouldn’t mind having to wear a costume. I can’t remember how we came up with the idea, but we had decided to dress him up like a little hiker. I think it all started with this brown wool hippy hat that used to belong to a stoner friend of Ted’s from high school. The hat was handmade in
This opened up a can of worms, of course, that determined much of Rex’s future. For I quickly realized that I got a true and unadulterated pleasure from dressing up my dog. “He looks so cute,” I shouted. “Oh my God. Get the camera.”
“The poor boy,” Ted said. “How humiliating.” But still Ted got the camera.
The rest of Rex’s Halloween costume quickly fell into place. Rex already had his own little backpack, for camping trips, and Ted agreed to donate a pair of ratty hiking shorts he’d had for years. He started to have regrets, however, when I spent $30 on a little wool sweater and cut strategic holes in his cherished shorts to accommodate Rex’s tail and privates, but by then it was too late. The contest was only one day away.
“You’re going overboard,” he said the next morning as I gussied up Rex. “Everyone else will probably show up with their dogs in cat ears and witch hats.”
“So what?” I said. “This is fun. Plus, we’ll win.” that t
of And a photographer from the Times would definitely be at the contest—one came every year. So maybe finally I’d get my picture in that paper. With my award-winning dog. he’s so cute! Will you take a picture of him before we leave? It’s his first party, in his first party suit.”
,” Ted said. “The poor boy.” Admittedly, He kept lifting his eyelids, and twisting his head left to right, trying to figure out what was on top of his head. He also tried to pull off the backpack with his mouth, but he couldn’t quite reach.
shivering nervously the way Chihuahuas do.
“Look at that costume!” Ted said. And there I beheld my nemesis. Across the run, wearing Gucci sunglasses and surrounded by adoring fans, was a man and his golden retriever, whom he had fashioned into a Three Headed Dog. From a distance the two extra heads looked life-like, and they continued to look life like even as we got close. “How did you do that?” someone asked, through a crowd that was three-people deep. “With Styrofoam,” he explained. “I’m a set designer.” And he went on to describe how he had begun constructing the heads back in August, how he had required his dog, Butterscotch, to pose for an hour each evening as he painted her likeness on the busts, and how it had taken him three weeks to find the best “suspension mechanisms” to attach the heads to Butterscotch’s collar. Then of course he had to go out and find the perfect cape to conceal the suspension mechanisms. And the cape had come from Shanghai Tang ( a high-end Asian boutique on Madison Avenue).
“That shawl had to have cost six hundred dollars,” I said to Ted as we slunk away. “And did you see that they eyes on the Styrofoam heads actually blinked?”
“I’m blown away,” Ted said.
“If I had known people were going to spend six months on their costumes, I would have put more effort into Rex’s.” I stared at the three-headed dog’s magnificent cape. “I don’t even have socks from Shanghai Tang.”
“But look our puppy, he’s adorable,” Ted said. “And he’s being such a good boy.” Rex always stayed by our side at the dog run, because he was still intimidated by the presence of so many dogs. “Come on,” Ted said. “Let’s go sign him in.”
When we got to the registration desk, we found out we had to have a name for Rex’s costume. I hadn’t thought of a name. I thought the costume spoke for itself. To me, Rex looked like a little hippie kid, a Bates student, a Trustafarian going off on a hike. “How about Happy Camper?” I said to Ted. And don’t they always say First Thought, Best Thought? Because then, for some reason, I decided that I had needed to have a more literary name. Something more clever and tongue-in-cheek. I thought then of Jon Krakauer, the author of Into The Wild. “No one is going to know what you’re talking about,” Ted said. But I reasoned that we were in the
So we—or rather, I—registered Rex as “Jon Krakauer” and we took our place in line for the parade to begin. Ted gave me one of his looks—one I liked to call “The Crow.”
The contest began by everyone parading their dogs around the perimeter of the run as a group, and then each of the contestants was called one by one. The whole dog run was lined with was lined with giddy onlookers. As each contestant was called forth they hooted and clapped and cheered. The sound of so much applause was uplifting, and I laughing along, but then Rex’s name was called. The MC said: “And here’s Rex the English Setter, and he’s posing as, as, um, Jonathan Kra......Jon Cracker?” The crowd, who had just been cheering madly for the Mastiff-as-ballerina before us, now grew silent.
In this void, I told Rex to heel and we promenaded along. I smiled nervously and fakely, like a beauty contestant finalist who has just found out she was eliminated after just the first round. I tried to make eye contact with Ted, who was out there somewhere with the onlookers, but I couldn’t find him in such a crowd. Then our moment was over. Rex and I returned to our place in line, and then some other dog’s name was called. “That was our fifteen minutes of fame,” I whispered to the dog. “And it sucked!”
The Three-Headed Dog won of course, soon the dog and his costume designer were mobbed by photographers and fans. Dejectedly, I took off Rex’s short and backpack, so that he could go and happily hump the ballerina and bite other dog’s necks. “I should have just called him the Happy Camper,” I said to Ted as I stuffed Rex’s little hiking shorts into my bag. Across the run, I watched people congratulate the set designer. He seemed a bit too proud of his achievements; a bit too smug.
Ted thought the whole thing was hilarious. “Jon Krakauer,” he said over and over again. “Into the Wild!” He trained his video camera onto me and said, “This is Lee pouting because Rex didn’t win the Halloween contest.”
When he saw that I wasn’t laughing, he said. “Let’s go to Veselka’s and get some lunch.” Ted, like all good city boyfriends, knew that certain restaurants could always cheer certain mopey women up. For me, it was Veselka’s: pirogues (steamed, and stuffed with potatoes, cheese and broccoli), French fries, and a cold Pilsner Urquell on tap.
We leashed up Rex and headed off. As we were leaving the park, a nice young woman ran up and touched my shoulder. “I thought yours was the best costume.”
“Really?” I turned to her and smiled.
“He should have won first place.”
This is one of the wonderful things about
“See?” I said to Ted at Veselka’s. “Someone got it. I wasn’t totally out of line.”
“Yes, Lee,” he said. “One in twelve hundred people gets you.” He touched my hand. “Make that two.”
Rex, as if he understood us, turned around at that moment and looked at us with what we call his “treat face.”
“Make that three,” Ted said.
This is not where the story ends, however, because from that day forward, for the next two years I tried to devise schemes to out-do the Three Headed Dog and his set designer man.
It was now the year 2000 and, much to my disappointment, the world had not ended as everyone kept insisting it would. Thus, I had to continue living my drudgery of a life. I started thinking about Rex’s costume in early August. Ted and I would be walking along the beach at
“What?” Ted would say. “What are you talking about?” He was a serious hiker, who always kept his eyes on the trails, and therefore never really listened to me while he was hiking. Perhaps—and I am seriously just realizing this now, as I write: perhaps this is why he liked hiking so much. It was the only time he could legitimately tune me out.
“For Halloween,” I said. “We could put a little skull cap on him, and really baggy jeans that hang low off his butt. He could be a little ghetto dog.”
“I think that might be offensive,” Ted said. “A lot of kids from the projects play basketball in that park.”
“Well then how about
“That’s not very original,” Ted said. “Everyone with a Brittany Spaniel has probably thought of that. Plus, Rex doesn’t even look like enough of a
Up ahead, we could hear that Rex had flushed out a wild turkey. He let out a war cry and took off through the brush.
“It would be hard to keep a thong on him anyway,” I said.
Eventually—I don’t remember how—I came up with the idea of Dogatella Versace. It was the year Jennifer Lopez had worn that infamous, diaphanous, one-button dress to the Grammys. (And if you don’t know what dress I’m talking about, I can’t help you). I like to think that the idea came to me in one great creative burst; a flash in which I saw the complete outfit: Rex in a mini J. Lo dress, with a long blonde Donatella wig, and his white fur tinted to Versace’s creepy shade of tan.
There were two obstacles to expressing my creative inspiration, however. One was convincing Ted that his son needed to be swathed in Versace, and the other was finding someone to make the dress. Fortunately, we lived in
Immediately I called this woman and told her about my Dogatella Versace idea. “How big is your dog?” she asked me. And when I told her Rex weighed seventy pounds she said, “Well, I usually only work with little dogs.” I felt myself getting defensive, and reverting into that hateful “Us and Them” mentality that, as a Buddhist, I try to not maintain: Us being big dog people (they are real dogs, after all) and little dog people. Meanwhile, she was probably thinking I was insane for wanting a Versace dress for a 70-pound spaniel. A male spaniel with no effeminate qualities whatsoever. But because I was the customer, and because I offered to pay her a hundred bucks, we agreed that she would pick out some J. Lo-looking fabric and meet me at my apartment for a fitting the following week. “He’s really cute,” I said added at the end of our conversation, because Little Dog People love to use the word cute.
Ted wanted nothing to do with this. He tried to list all the reasons why I should not dress our dog in drag (i.e.: you’re humiliating him, you have better things to do with your time) but in the end he saw how excited I was about the project and how unwilling I was to back off. “When is she coming?” he finally said in resignation.
“Next Saturday. At three.”
“Well, I’ll just make sure I’m not around Saturday at three,” he said.
When Sheila, the dressmaker, arrived at the appointed hour, we were both relieved to find that we liked each other immediately. You never know with the Internet. She was a theater person, a costume designer, who made clothes for dogs on the side, because it was profitable, and because she loved dogs. “I used to have one,” she said, “but now I travel way too much.” As she talked, she measured Rex’s ankles, and the length of his legs, and the distance from his neck to his tail. “Now, this will be the challenge,” she said, pointing at his privates. “We have to have the plunging neckline to mimic the dress, but it will have to fasten in front of his wee-wee. I’m just not sure it will hang right though.” She stared at Rex thoughtfully, considering how his body would handle the complicated drapes of cloth, and I was glad Ted wasn’t here to witness this. The “wee-wee” comment would have sent him through the roof.
Rex was a perfect fit model. I fed him liver treats throughout the whole process, so that he would stay still, and he didn’t try to lunge at Sheila when she leaned in too close to his head. I was so proud of his behavior, and of his progress as a formerly abused dog, that I started to get teary-eyed. “You’re like the mother of the groom,” Sheila said. “Or the bride, as it were.”
“It’s just that,” I said, wiping my eyes, “he’s a shelter dog, and he was abused, and whenever I see him interact tenderly with new strangers I am just so grateful.” “Now you tell me,” Sheila said. “But he doesn’t seem threatening. It’s usually the little dogs you have to watch out for.”
“Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you when I come back to fit the actual dress?” she said.
We hugged when she showed me the material she’d selected. It was perfect: sheer, green, bold, in a tropical pattern that mimicked the actual dress. Then I showed her the wig I’d bought, which was made of human hair and had cost me $50. “We mustn’t mention costs to my husband,” I said.
“My lips are sealed,” she said.
Then I told her about the Three Headed Dog
“We’ll kick his ass,” she said.
I gave her cash and we arranged to meet for a final fitting in two weeks’ time.
In the meantime, I got a call from one of my mother-in-laws, who said she was going to be coming to
“Sure,” she said. “We can do anything you want.”
Her graciousness did not put me entirely at ease, however. I worried that I was
taking a risk with my reputation with that half of the family. In fact, years later, when Ted and I got divorced, I wondered if that particular weekend continued to come up in conversation, when the family sat around the dinner table discussing “signs.” As in, “we always knew that marriage wouldn’t work out; why, think of the time she forced her dog to enter a Halloween contest....”
Anyway, the big day of the contest arrived and I was nervous. My mother-in-law, had arranged to meet me at
He had to work on St Patrick’s Day, when Rex wore a headband with sparkly shamrock antennae. He had to work on Easter (bunny ears) and the Fourth of July (flag hat). He was a hard worker, Ted, and that morning he apologized to Rex for not being able to spend the day with him. “Someone had to pay for all your food,” he said. “And your clothing.
I was busy combing Rex’s wig out. Then I combed my own hair.
When Rex and I got to the park, the sky was overcast and the day was humid—an uncommon phenomenon for October. I was wearing a turquoise vinyl jacket to match Rex’s costume, and the vinyl made me sweat. This for some reason made me cranky, and it was a mood I couldn’t shake. The whole vibe of the contest was off that year. Maybe it was the humidity, maybe it was me, but the dog run seemed less festive; less crowded. “There’s another doggie parade this year over in
But then I got a good look at some of the costumes and felt better again. There was a Corgi transformed into a
Two years had passed since The Happy Camper had faced the Three-Headed Dog. And Rex was a completely different dog by this point. He was happier, and better adjusted, and the dog run no longer meant “defend thyself” to him; it meant Play. So the minute I took his leash off inside the dog run, he took off after a Border Collie and the two of them ran like mad. “Rex!” I shouted. “Your dress! You’re ruining your dress!” I told him to come but he wouldn’t listen to me. It took fifteen minutes to finally cornered Rex and put him back on his leash. “Now stay still,” I said to him. “Sit!” His wig had been thoroughly dragged across the ground and was now tangled with woodchips and leaves. I told Rex he was the worst dog in the world.
My mother-in-law showed up just as the registration was about to begin. She waved to me from beyond the fence. Only dogs and their guardians were allowed in the run. I blew her a kiss and smiled. Rex’s wig kept slipping off, and every time he moved his dress would shift sideways, and he’d step on the hem with his back paws. “Stay still!” I snapped at him. “When I tell you to sit, you sit!” There was irritation in my voice, and I looked around to see if anyone had heard. Butterscotch and his guardian sat placidly in line, both confident that they would win the contest. Meanwhile, the Border Collie kept running up to us and biting at Rex’s wig. “Go away!” I said to her, and to Rex: “Stay still! When I tell you to sit, you sit!” But poor Rex wanted to play with the Border Collie. He wanted to stalk squirrels. But I was convinced the whole “effect” of his dress would be ruined if he even lifted his leg to pee. So every time he tried to get up from his sit, I’d apply pressure on his shoulders and push him back down.
Years ago, I’d worked at a children’s fashion magazine and one of my jobs was to assist the art director on photo shoots. Once a month, stage mothers would arrive with their stiffly coiffed sons and daughters. I remember my shock the first time I saw a toddler girl wearing makeup and four-inch heels. Her hair had been curled a la Shirley Temple, and she was unhappy that day—perhaps because of the shoes. But her mother was even unhappier. She kept insisting to me that Kelly normally didn’t act so ornery, that Kelly knew how to be a good girl. “She’s just being very bad today,” the mother kept saying loudly and bitterly “Very bad.”
Now the line of dog-contestants moved, and Rex stood up without permission and stepped on the hem of his dress. “Sit!” I snapped at him.
Then, suddenly, I saw myself: angry, snappy, perfectionist, dissatisfied.
I had become a stage mother. I had put my own needs before my child’s. When the beginning of the contest line-up was announced, I couldn’t even look at my mother-in-law. I thought she might see the shame on my face and I didn’t want to see it on her face too.
The crowd roared with laughter when Rex was introduced as Dogatella Versace, and they cheered madly when, later, he won first prize. Last year first prize had been a six-month supply of California Natural and a CD player; this year it was a $40 gift certificate to a new pet store. When we went up to the stage to take the prize, the judge hung a “Best in Show” medal around Rex’s neck. It was brass with a red white and blue ribbon that made him look like an Olympian. As the crowd clapped and cheered, a newspaper reporter snapped our photograph, but I refused to tell him my name. I, who for years had told myself I had sought the spotlight, was suddenly ashamed.
As soon as the contest was over I took the medal off Rex’s neck. Then I took off the dress, and the wig. “You were such a good boy today,” I told him, and then I knelt down and apologized for the beastly way I had behaved. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I told him. “I won’t even make you wear a birthday hat if you don’t want to.”
And so far, my promise has been good.
The medal still hangs on Rex’s bulletin board, which hangs above his “feeding station.” I’d like to think he notices this medal every time the bowl of ground turkey and boiled potatoes is set down before him, and that he somehow feels wistful, or proud, but mostly he just gobbles his food rapidly. Grateful, perhaps, that he isn’t being forced to wear a wig.