“It's standing room only in there”, the woman at the entrance warned me. She was right. Between an audience that filled the available seating to overflowing, twenty-five or thirty small dogs, their owners, a half dozen photographers, and two television crews, the small theater was packed to overflowing. I hovered at the back end of a line of stage mothers with their four-legged charges, wondering if I could squeeze past to get to where the action was without inadvertently trampling a finalist. My friend R., several kilos of professional photo gear gripped in her hands, emerged from the melee wearing the bewildered grin of a woman who isn't quite sure if she's hallucinating or not.
“Just go for it,” she advised, stepping nimbly over a bulldog wearing a pink tulle skirt and stopping to snap away at a passing bichon frise in a hand-knitted cardigan. I took her advice, and plunged into the fray.
The Barking Beauty Pageant is an annual event that raises money for charity. This year's beneficiaries were Stone Soup Theatre Arts and the Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition. I thought that my previous exposure to dogs in costumes had pretty much prepared me for the experience, but this was of a different order altogether.
For one thing, each dog sported not one but up to three different costumes. If you have ever seen a pug being briskly rolled over on its back so that its handler can remove its cheerleader outfit and trade it in for a ballerina's skirt, you will never again be entirely confident about the exact location of the boundaries between reality and hallucination. And once you have seen a Yorkie slam-dunk a miniature basketball and then trade high-fives with its owner, any tenuous grip you still had on your sanity is likely to evaporate entirely, perhaps never to return.
The whole enterprise appeared to teeter on the knife-edge between order and chaos. One small creature being led into the ring for its moment of glory slipped its leash and leapt gaily into the lap of the photographer from the Gothamist. A thin woman in a black dress brandished a chihuahua overhead as if she were about to throw it lightly into the audience, while the creature, accoutred in a hat, velveteen jacket and rhinestone cravat, preserved an air of unflappable calm. Someone else had a lapful of tiny dogs whose heads popped up and peered in all directions at once, making it look as if she were struggling to restrain a miniature Cerberus. One of the cameramen let slip that he was actually there to shoot part of a documentary on obsession. The dogs came and went, shed parts of their costume, patiently allowed their tiaras and ribbons to be adjusted, and discreetly sniffed each other's back ends when no one was looking.
Their manners, it must be said, were impeccable. No fights broke out, no one ate anyone else's treats, and the silence was practically eerie, all things considered. Clearly, I was in the presence of professionals, who weren't about to blow their chances at the big prize by any amateurish yapping. The dogs, in fact, appeared almost universally calm. An Italian greyhound yawned prodigiously, while a shih tzu simply snuggled further and further down into the depths of its owner's polka-dotted handbag until all that could be seen was the tip of its nose. There's obviously no rattling the old troupers.
In the end, I didn't stay to find out who won the big prize. In the interests of journalism, perhaps I should have stayed to the bitter end. But I could feel the frayed edges of my sanity starting to unravel, so I made my excuses and fled.