Finding respite in the familiar is a common tactic for navigating the existential problem posed by life in any major metropolitan landscape. In a city with the schizophrenic density of New York, one need not look far for a karmic outlet. The bar you most frequent specializes in the brand of hooch and spins the genre of music that best contextualizes your life. The lighting design at your regular café seems to reflect the ember of your soul. You seek the places better stocked with soul mates than sitting space.
Which is why New York City dog runs are the most interesting sites of social interaction in all of Gotham.
For suburbanites unfamiliar with this civic necessity, a dog run is a gated areas where dogs can run free, usually located in a city park. The strength of the New York City dog run subculture is proof that the commitment New Yorkers invest in new staples of their urban existence is uncommonly fierce, possessed of the vigor capable of erecting overnight institutions. Though dog runs are relatively new to New York City, they seem as entrenched in Gotham’s lifeblood as scarce real estate and overtaxed cigarettes.
Which is not to say that New Yorkers are turning out in droves to volunteer at their local dog run, afterwards sipping hot cider in celebration of a hard day’s work. Commitment to a place in New York City is more hardheaded and atomized-an attempt to configure one’s surroundings to one’s liking by sheer force of will. Perhaps this behavior is engendered by the collective experience of commuting by means of the world’s most efficient sardine tin (the New York City subway), but in any venue within Gotham where the ambiance doesn’t come prepackaged, it’s fought for and won. Who can sigh with deeper exasperation, dish out the dirtier look?
So when I first took my beagle Charlie to the Morningside Park Dog Run, I did so with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I’d mastered bagel shop etiquette, called up considerable bodega chutzpah. But this situation included an uncertain variable: a new dog. Would Charlie, whose principal preoccupations thus far seemed limited to napping and licking himself, suddenly turn wild and unpredictable, reveal a predilection towards peeing on sandaled feet?
Luckily, Charlie turned out to be so socially adroit that once unleashed he required little attention, thus freeing me to do what New Yorkers do best: people watch and judge mercilessly.
New York City dog runs are a petri dish into which the city’s archetypal specimens are thrown. People who would otherwise find no reason to intermingle are suddenly thrust together, united by a single purpose: to afford their dogs a recreational alternative to chasing a tennis ball through a railroad apartment. But while the dogs may romp with abandon, few owners seem completely at ease. Instead, they appear vaguely cognizant of an ever-present judgment that permeates the dog run.
This is why the people who probably have the most right to be at the dog run achieve the most unsettling presence. I’m talking about those dog enthusiasts who can not only readily identify every breed of the canine family, but insist on engaging you in the most involved dog talk this side of Westminister, conversation peppered casually with arcane facts about your dog’s breed you’ve never even considered. Sure they can refer you to the best vet in the city, but they also leave you feeling more negligent than a weekend-custody father faking sick from happy hour.
More demonstrative in their disapproval are the dog park debutants, those prissy dog owners who become incensed when a rogue pooch excavates a hole, intercepts a ball, or engages in any behavior one might expect a dog to engage in. Clearly, they reason, such (mis)behavior is a sign of owner malfeasance, rather than instinct developed throughout 15,000 years of domestication. Look for the terrier in the Burberry shawl and you’ll know it’s time to remind Fido of his finishing school lessons.
Which is not to say a little order goes unappreciated. Those with the most potent ability to affect the atmosphere of the dog park are not necessarily attempting to do so. They’re simply negligent.
It’s a difficult position to be placed in: chaperoning a sprightly, good-natured pup eager to make friends while a schnauzer-eating psychopath stalks the dog run. While I’m not keen on being lumped in with the helicopter owners, assuring that Charlie’s more delicate extremities remain in tact usually trumps politesse.
I’ve personally come across one owner with a pair of toadies reminiscent of a couple of backwoods brothers from Deliverance County. If they fail to bait another unsuspecting dog, they keep it in the family, gnashing at one another rabidly. Adorable little buggers, they are.
And then there are those dog run menaces who lurk in the confines of hearsay, like the enigmatic Warlock, who I’ve been told is accompanied by a maniacal wolf dog. When first warned about this gentleman, I thanked the conscientious dog-owner half-heartedly-as if I really needed to be tipped off to the psychological fortitude of a man who clearly divided his teenage years between absorbing body checks at school and earning his seventh-level magic-user status in a dank basement to the soundtrack of Megadeath.
Less predictable are the dog walkers. My interactions with them have mostly been pleasant. Most dog walkers are young, friendly, and knowledgeable about the last episode of Heroes. Barring the somewhat incestuous, teen melodrama vibe they give off, they’re quite easy to talk to.
But their fraternity has its drawbacks. Occasionally one encounters a dog walker too embroiled in his or her socializing to pay attention to the dogs. On one occasion, I broke down and confronted a group of dog walkers after having had to repeatedly peel a frisky labradoodle off of Charlie (I only know it was a labradoodle because the guilty walker proudly announced its breed when I asked whose black dog had been humping my beagle with impunity for the last twenty minutes.).
I’ve since streamlined my dog run experience by plugging into one of the regular groups that meets on the hour, but Charlie’s indomitable spirit (and possible case of doggy ADD) still necessitates midday trips to Morningside Park, thus exposing me to a rotating cast of characters. But despite a few awkward encounters, I’ve come to appreciate what Paul Auster once said about living in New York: it’s the daily interactions at your neighborhood institutions that keep you sane in a city that should otherwise strip you of your sanity.
Then again, I can’t really picture Paul Auster, with his pensive gaze and writerly presence, scraping dog mess from his sneakers.