New York, where the angels gather at dog shows


Many times, over the years, I’ve thought that if anything good has come from 35 years of intensive travel, it’s that I think — and hope — that I’ve shaken off some of my native New York attitude. That New York reputation for rudeness? It’s well-earned. There is an aggressiveness to lots of New Yorkers that I never recognized until I had spent a long time — years — around the more pleasant people just about any place else. New Yorkers are a special breed. Eleanor Roosevelt was the last of the greats.

We’re in New York now, after driving 420 miles from West Virginia. The last time we were here and we stopped for gas, I went inside the station for a coffee or something. As I was leaving, there was guy leaving, too, but he was at least 20 feet behind me — way beyond the cut-off distance for holding a door open for someone, especially someone 35 years your junior. The door could have opened and closed three times by the time he got there.

“Hey, asshole!” he shouted at me. “You don’t know how to hold a fuckin’ door or something?”

A little later, we stopped at a town park somewhere so Roo could stretch her legs and go for a swim in the pond. There was a huge, empty parking lot there. While I got Roo leashed up, a shiny convertible with five young guys in it pulled up. White guys, designer tank tops, jewelry, gold sunglasses.

“What the fuck is this?” one of them said, motioning at the camper.

“What the fuck is what?” I said. The New York groove was all too easy to find myself getting back into. “What the fuck is this?” I said, motioning at them. “Sopranos night at junior high?”

“Listen to this asshole,” one of the boys said to the rest.

“Ah, fuck him,” another one said. “Just some fucking asshole.”

Today, after the long drive and as the sun went down, I crosschecked the several apps I use to look for a place to camp. There was a place not far away and we pulled in. It’s a municipal campground in a cute town called Bainbridge, situated on the Susquehanna River. Other than one colossal fifth wheel camper with a fenced-in area set up outside with five standard poodles barking their heads off at Roo as she drove by, the whole campground was empty. I gave the owner of the poodles the usual friendly campground wave as we passed. She glared at me and didn’t respond.

I picked a spot far from her and backed the camper in and took Roo for a walk. I looked all over for the pay station, but couldn’t find it.

At one end of the park a loud knocking coming from inside a barnyard shed frightened Roo.

“That’s nothing to worry about, Chig,” I said. “That’s not a noise.” She believed me and relaxed.

A woman looked out from the shed and said, “Oh, what a pretty dog.”

‘Thanks,” I said.

“Hang on a minute,” she said. She was putting her goats away for the night. A couple of them bouncing off the walls was what scared Roo. 

She came over and said, “Are you part of the dog show?”

“No — this is a shelter dog, not a show dog. Is there a dog show?”

“Oh, yes. They usually have the whole campground reserved. But if they kick you out, don’t worry, you’re welcome to camp in my driveway.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s really generous of you. Thank you.”

We talked for a while and she told me about a 44-year-old horse she had who was killed last winter by a German shepherd who attacked him and tore his neck open. She found her horse and lay in the ice with him — it was nine degrees — for four hours while the horse died. The dog belonged to the brother of the town supervisor, so there were no repercussions for the murder.

“Typical small town stuff,” she said. “Forty-four years old. I had to feed him by hand every four hours. Lost all his teeth.”

You could see how much this hurt, even though she was tough and wasn’t letting on. No one could ever hide how much something like that would hurt, though.

When we got back to the campground I noticed a man in a pink and blue plaid shirt setting up a big yellow commercial tent. I went over to ask him if he worked there. 

“No,” he said. “I’m with the Saratoga Kennel Club.”

“Do you know who I can pay for a night’s camping?” I asked.

“Didn’t you just pass us down there a little while ago?” he said.

It was true. There was another camper parked in another part of the field, also with a fenced-in area with half a dozen pristinely-coiffed dogs of various breeds, representing all the sizes of the dog scale. When Roo and I walked past them the dogs went nuts jumping up against the chicken wire and barking at Roo. I told Roo that they simply had no manners, they were obviously New York dogs and not worth barking back at, and she didn’t. She strode past them with her tail held high and a little of her fur up between the shoulder blades. She made one pouncing jump to let them know what to expect should they broach their enclosure. I gave the two people sitting there — the man in the plaid shirt and a squat woman — the old campground wave, but they just glared back at me like the poodle woman did.

“Oh, yes,” I said, “that was me.”

“Well, you can’t stay here,” the guy said. “This campground is reserved.”

“Tonight? It’s stark raving empty.”

He told me to go talk to the woman he had been sitting with. Roo and I got in the car and drove down there. I got out of the car. The woman was standing way back by her camper on the other side of her dog camp, in which all the inmates were barking like fringe lunatics.

“May I?” I said, gesturing to ask if it was okay to come speak to her.

“May you what?” she said. She was about 65 and had a porkpie hat pulled down low over her face. She had dogs in every size, probably intending to compete in every possible category, or however it is they run those things. I don’t know the first thing about dog shows and have always been inclined to feel sorry for show dogs.

“May I ask you about camping? Your friend told me to come speak to you.”

“You can’t camp here!” she shouted at me. “YOU CAN NOT CAMP HERE!” She was ramping up quickly.

“Why not? The whole place is empty.”

She was horrified. “We have it reserved!” she shouted at me.

“Well, there’s no one there now. Are they coming in tonight?”

She hated being asked this question. She tried to lie that they were, but she wasn’t quick enough on the uptake.

“You’ll have to get out of here by 10 AM.”

“Fine, fine,” I said. “Where shall I pay?”

“Put twenty-five dollars in that box,” she said, pointing at a shed.

“It’d be twelve-fifty,” I said. I have a discount card that gets half off some campgrounds. I pulled this one off their app.

“Did you reserve through them?” she said.

The old New Yorker in me was running out of patience.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “You don’t have to reserve through them.”

“Yes you do! You have to reserve through them!”

“Lady, do you work here?”

“I do not! I — " she raised her head up to look down her nose at me " — am with the Saratoga Kennel Club!” she said. “And we have the whole campground reserved! Twenty-five dollars! In the box!”

The woman who had invited us to camp in her driveway had told me to pay down at the town clerk’s office. She even gave me directions, specifying which insurance office and bank I would pass on the way.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll go get a check.’

“For twenty-five dollars!” she screamed.

“Twelve-fifty,” I said.

“Not if you didn’t reserve, it isn’t! It’s twenty-five dollars!” she screamed at me.

As is my custom when dealing with incendiary personalities, I had been backing away throughout this exchange, but I stopped and said, “Lady, is there some reason you’re being so aggressive?”

“I’m just trying to help you!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “People are nuts these days!”

Her dogs were in a frenzy. Roo looked at them with a mix of deep pity and cold blood. She knew that every last one of them would trade the rest of their lives of being carted around in crates to be held on a noose and trotted around a ring for one day of being Roo.

I got back in the car.

The good old Saratoga Kennel Club. A gathering of angels.