Take a walk on the Boardwalk. But carefully, very carefully: 3,718 dogs have been walked here today, from Park Place out toward Ventnor Avenue, right past the signs that say NO DOGS ALLOWED. And let providence protect anyone who spreads his blanket on the Atlantic City beach this fine, warm winter morning. The sand might just as well be so much kitty litter. Here, at Convention Hall, which reminds one of the Hindenburg seen from inside, they choose a new Miss America every September. And that's what the Ninth Annual Boardwalk Kennel Club Show is, what any dog show is—just another beauty contest.
The same equipment, too. Scissors, combs, brushes, Groom 'n' Set, Adorn, Lemon Fresh White Rain Hair Spray, curlers, tweezers, nail files. Add some lipstick, and Miss Arkansas or Miss Ohio could prepare herself with any dog handler's tack kit. Each table has a scaffold attached; each scaffold has a hangman's noose dangling from it to hold the dog still. Beauty is enforced here. The grooming section suggests death row: several hundred dogs ready for execution by strangling. Clip, comb, brush. Dog hair accumulates; by midafternoon it will roll—shoved by the capricious breeze—in tumbleweeds bigger than a Softball, bouncing off your pants cuffs.
It's almost impossible to breathe for the cornstarch in the Old English sheepdog area. Cornstarch will whiten and body-up a coat. Sheepdogs lie on their sides like sheep, submissive. One woman, rushed by the show schedule, dumps a cupful on her dog just as the poor animal happens to yawn. Whomp! Bull's-eye! Half a pound of cornstarch right down its throat. The sheepdog almost dies. Its tongue, now white, full of body, flops out with the desperate choking. It looks the way you feel with a hangover: cotton-mouthed. The lady is somewhat sheepish, yet she continues grooming. Could be she'll take a corpse into the ring, but it'll be a handsome corpse. And, monotonously, over the P. A. system, you hear, "Clean up ring 24. Clean up near the turnstiles. Clean up in front of the refreshment stand."
The dogs are incredibly patient. Man's best friend will put up with just about anything. The poodles, for instance, endure an intimate shaving that's lewd and abhorrent; dogs turned into baboons, mandrills, topiary hedges, whatever, not dogs. They appear embarrassed and nude from the waist down, yet elegant, like high city officials rousted out of a brothel by fire at 4 a.m.
"Clean up ring 8. With a mop."
At the sales counters hi-pro and lo-pro dog snacks are available � la carte or by the cartload; also, cheesy ashtrays and glasses and prints; carriers, cages, personalized welcome mats. One dog-food manufacturer hands out a tongue-in-muzzle astrology chart. The cosmetics department would give Max Factor heartworm. Chew Stop. Tick Stop. Flea Stop. Eye-Tek, a tear-stain remover. "Tacky-Paw, for the surefooted performance." Grooming chalk in all conceivable dog shades. Strictly speaking, the American Kennel Club forbids, say, aerosol hair spray to keep a poodle's coat frizzed up. Strictly speaking, colored chalk is illegal. If the judge pats your Lakeland terrier and, like some puffball mushroom, it blasts brown chalk in his face, then that judge must disqualify at once and without hesitation. The trick is to touch up your terrier, then shake out just enough chalk so no flak bursts occur. But illegal cosmetics are openly sold, openly applied; very few dogs are eliminated. After all, the AKC has a certain gentlemanly image, and disqualifications would be, well, unpleasant.
"Clean up ring 17. Near the judges."
Out in Convention Hall Annex perhaps 200 trucks, buses, trailers, campers and station wagons are parked. Some are large enough to haul a touring company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One huge van lies palpably: HORSES, it says. Peek inside, you see cage after cage stacked on special shelves, 20 or 25 dogs. It could be the big house at Sing Sing in miniature.
You want to know where all those little old ladies in tennis shoes have gone? They're panting, out of breath and sweaty, at dog shows. Seventy-one Boxers, 119 German shepherds, 106 German short-haired pointers. Most of these are owner-operated animals. The judge terrorizes with quiet, bland politeness. She crooks a finger, as you'd call over the ma�tre d', and some nervous man, some nervous woman, begins to run with his or her German shepherd. Round and round the ring they go at a fast canter, Tacky-Paw on sneaker soles. One dog stops, stops again, stops again, to nip at a flea. His owner is distraught. The judge smiles with deadly compassion. A 300-mile drive to Atlantic City, motel room, gas at 60� per gallon, and one lousy flea blows the whole shebang.
These are ordinary folk: mortgages, car payments, the school-tax bill, lawn mowers and barbecue pits. You figure they must be crazy. It takes 15 AKC points to "finish" a dog, to put that precious Ch. in front of Bowser's name. "We have Afghans. Just two dogs." They are a middle-aged couple eating rubber hot dogs on the Boardwalk. "Came 180 miles to this show. It's expensive, sure. Expect it'll run us two, three thousand dollars to finish our bitch. Sure, we have to cut back here and there. We eat at McDonald's a lot." The dog-show game has gone mad. It's no longer the semiexclusive, genteel sport it once was; 3,718 dogs at Atlantic City. Most shows have had to put a limit on entries. Why do people do it? Simple. If you cannot be Ch. John Doe in life, you can always own a champion. Watch the 16 Samoyed bitches in ring 5; even a male Samoyed would have trouble telling them apart. But the judge finally points. That one, that's best. The female owner/handler leaps up, jigging, ecstatic. "I won! I won!" she shouts. "I won!" Who won? She doesn't have white fur and a curlicued tail, how could she win? Yet, by some muddled logic, perhaps she has.