The young man throws a nervous glance over his shoulder as he pours a couple of cocktails at the open bar. He furrows his brow.
"How 'bout fights?" he asks. "Have there been any fights?" I chuckle, but the barman doesn't join me. He looks over his shoulder again. Either he's seriously concerned, or his delivery is drier than a yacht club martini.
"I've never been around this many dogs inside a building like this," he says. "It doesn't seem natural, now does it? I mean, why ... aren't ... they ... barking?"
He smiles at last, and a waitress passes by with a silver tray of bone-shaped biscuits. She pauses in front of a smartly dressed woman who helps herself to one. There is a rustle of taffeta as the biscuit disappears into Lucille's wet, wrinkled maw. The woman smiles and adjusts the pink ruffle on the taffeta skirt. For an English bulldog, Lucille looks quite fetching in pink.
"She only dresses for parties," explains Kathy Edwards, who rescued Lucille from a shelter before plunging her into the lap of luxury. "But she does have other talents: She flies."
It's an age-old fairy tale: Poor, bedraggled bulldog turns out to be a magical princess who flies, but even with her jeweled leash and her lace ruff, Lucille is not the belle of this ball. At Petchitecture, an annual benefit for PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), during which well-known architects and design firms build animal habitats, the competition for hottest bitch is fierce.
"When I got home from work this evening, she was all made up and ready to go," says Winston Vaughan, flicking the purple boas draped around his own neck. "She said, "Put that on, honey, because we are going out to-night!' I was tired, but there's no arguing with her when she gets like that."
Frida, Vaughan's 9-year-old Rottweiler, looks me up and down and raises her tawny eyebrows. She wears a purple satin cape draped over her shoulders. I guess that it is not the only sequined mantle in her closet.
"She dresses like Aretha Franklin because she's my big, black, beautiful girl!" bellows Vaughan, as if an explanation were necessary.
With a wave and a wag, the regal pair saunters over to the dog lounge, where Frida refreshes herself in the lapping bowls between two comparatively dowdy canines. While admiring a group of elegant doghouses, among them the Muttreon and the Paramutt designed by W. Wynn Wong, "barkitect" at Arf Deco Designworks, something skitters across my field of vision. Hoover, a fast-moving, bristly, piggy-ferrety sort of thing, is actually, I learn, a 12-year-old wire-haired dachshund of distinct lineage and affable personality. His owner -- a dog-show regular named Michael Brenner -- wears complementary shades of faded black and a dog collar.
"There are dog people, and there are cat people," says Nathan Schurr, admiring a hanging scratching post designed in the shape of a stocking-clad mannequin leg by IDEO's Pontos Wahlgren. "Dog people require slavish adoration in order to feel loved, while cat people prefer a slightly more balanced relationship. Thankfully, PAWS understands that there's more to pets than dogs."
While the opinions expressed by Mr. Schurr do not necessarily reflect those of the international product design firm IDEO, its entries are decidedly feline-centric, including Cathmandu, a multitiered bookshelf-bed designed by Andy Deakin, which has been named this year's "Best Cat Habitat"; the Vrrr Prrr, a custom DVD player with a body-shaped depression included, designed by Joanne Oliver; Katrin Wegener's Litter Mail, a quaintly covered cat box that flags humans when a "package" has been dropped off; and Rico Zorkendorfer's ribbon-winning Aquarama, a tremendous fish tank standing on gold-gilt legs with a large glass bubble rising out of the tank floor, for passing cats who might enjoy the fish-eye view without getting wet. Among IDEO's few nods to canines are a microwaveable puppy pillow with a built-in heartbeat created by Paul Bennett, and the very popular Pet Co-Sleeper, a foldout bed that can attach to your own, inspired by the baby co-sleeper and created by Litter Mail's Wegener.
"Oh Shalimar would love this," says Grace McKinney, placing a trembling cotton ball on the pillow. I look at the overstimulated, well-brushed, and evidently blow-dried bichon frisé.
"Isn't she precious?" asks McKinney.
Perhaps. But the precious quotient is difficult to establish here. There's Jacquet, an English cocker spaniel with a coat that looks a bit like an Oreo cookie milkshake, and Sultan, a fine-boned, aristocratic Saluki adorned with ribbons, and Tank, a 20-month-old royal standard poodle who bounds up to every person he sees to wag his tail and rub the top of his head on the target's leg -- either because he's such a happy happy happy dog or because his braids are bothering him. After a few minutes, I determine Tank is just a happy happy happy dog.
"He plays ball by himself," says Steve Schultz, a regular donator to PAWS. "He actually bounces the ball and catches it in his mouth and bounces it again. He's happy to play by himself when you're busy, totally self-sufficient."
"At dinnertime, he carries one nugget of food at a time over to the table so he can eat with us," says Michelle Schultz. "He likes to eat with us, but he's very dainty."
"My dog likes to eat disgusting shit and lay on my head," says George Feazell, "but he's my buddy."
Feazell's buddy licks my hand and places his head across his owner's chest, which is possible since Feazell is lying on the steps, watching Mongoloid, the Bay Area's one and only lounge-style Devo cover band. I examine the cat bed contributed by Loid Mongoloid: But for the heat lamp and the velvet pillow, it is a super-size replica of the conical hats worn by the masters of "de-evolution" on their album Freedom of Choice. I'm impressed. Certainly, it captures my attention in a way that the Puss in Boots-meets-Cinderella pumpkin coach by Marc Lindsell cannot, but I'm no judge of pet couture. Joseph Hsu's De Idool, a bird perch inspired by the cubism of Piet Mondrian, raises $1,100 at auction, but I'm quite certain my own bird would turn up her beak at the cool planes and sleek Plexiglas edges, preferring instead the rim of my breakfast bowl.
Feeling slightly outclassed, I join a group of contented mutts salivating near the bar. I order biscuits and head pats for all my friends and watch the glass elevators rise and fall overhead. The auctioneer rattles off numbers at an alarming speed: the "Best in Show" -- Pet-a-Porter, a très chic rolling pet carrier designed by Garcia + Francica to look like a 1970s airline travel bag -- garners $850, while the Huntsman Architectural Group's rolling office-cart pet habitat goes for a miserly $250; I miss the surf-board chaise lounge on wheels, but can only imagine. By the close of the auction, I begin to notice the sound of one overwhelmed dog barking and barking. I can relate. The glitz, the glamour, the fur, the foolishness -- it's all too much.
How happy I am to discover the ill-mannered barker is none other than Dancer, the Doberman companion of Huckleberry and Philo Northrup, demanding order in her Teutonic way. We all pile into Northrup's car, the Buick of Unconditional Love, a rolling monument to Fungus, the best damn husky-shepherd mix who ever lived. The Buick, which is unrecognizable as such, is adorned with dog sculptures, pictures, memorabilia, and chew toys, like the dried fish Northrup and Gus found washed up on the shore of the Salton Sea. It also flashes.
"That dog was my soulmate," says Northrup, referring to the canine whose ashes sit in the rear window. "Gus helped me meet my wife. When we moved to France, he provided the social grease. Even in a dog-crazy country, he was special." I smile as Huckleberry tries to take over the driver's seat.
"On the layover between Paris and Lyon, I took Gus out for a walk, and there were zillions of bunnies. It was like dog paradise. He chased them for an hour and a half in complete bliss. In all the restaurants and bars, he was the star. I love these dogs, but they lack Gus' social acumen."
I smile and nod, thinking I might relate.