by Marc Charbonnet
"Growl... yip!" says Magi.
"Shush!" I respond.
"Bark! Bark!" retorts Gomez.
"Oh, now don't you start too!" I say in vain.
"Yip! Bark! Yip!" Magi responds.
"Boys... now you stop all that noise!" I holler.
"Yip! Yip!" they both add at top volume.
"You're going to get me evicted!" I continue as the doorbell keeps ringing and my third, Benny, runs underfoot to join them.
Gomez, Magi and Benny. They're my boys and I love them. They're The Three Musketeers or, to be precise, the three Chihuahuas.
I part the sea of loud, leaping goblins that have stormed my front door. I turn the latch, and open the door in order to see what tasty morsels has arrived first. Is it the brownie with vanilla ice cream? Or the BLT with extra crispy bacon and mayo on white toast? I always order the sandwich and the dessert from two separate diners, hoping that they arrive simultaneously. PK's is opened until two and has fantastic bacon, but lousy brownies. Teresa's has great brownies, but chewy, limp bacon. A single meal purchased at two separate markets; oh, how European.
I greet the delivery man with as smile, standing there, holding the door open with one arm, wearing just my Brooks Bothers boxers and pocket tee-shirt. I say "Hello!" as my three boys continue with their yelping right behind me, almost like backup singers. The delivery man has the same expression that everyone else always does when they see my boys: a mix of affection and apprehension.
The whole situation takes me back to another time, another yapping dog at another person's door. It was my friend Pat who inspired my passion for Chihuahuas. They don't make them like Pat anymore. He was an incredibly gifted lampshade maker–a fantastic one, and a true friend. He made the most exquisite lampshades and, all the while, delightfully maintained a rhapsodical personality. Being divinely creative was just second nature to him. In getting to know him, I learned a whole lot about custom lampshades. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Whenever I needed to pick up a shade, drop off dimensions, or to select a swatch for a client in need of a custom made one, I had to visit Pat.
We'd meet for lunch at J G Melon, and he'd walk up with his very effeminate, sashaying waltz–so funny. We'd sit down to have a delicious burger at a table on the sidewalk in nice weather (or inside if bad), and would have tête-à-têtes about anyone and everything. After lunch we'd stroll up the avenue to his Upper East Side tenement apartment. And that's when I'd get to experience Coco.
Yap, yap, yap. She would bark her little deer-shaped head off, announcing each and every visitor to the Roquefort home. When you rang the doorbell and entered the vestibule, you could hear a loud "Woof woof woof!" She had such a heavy, echoed bark. Then you would look up and be surprised to see this bright, little tan spot on the top of the landing, in all her glory. The most amazing little thing you've ever seen in your life! She was literally the size of a bratwurst wiener–so tiny in fact, that the first few times I saw her I just couldn't believe she was real. But she was used to that reaction in people, and knew the importance of first impressions. She was ferocious and devoted, with wide eyes that showed great purpose towards Pat. He eventually crowned her with the name Coco.
After one or two of my visits, the ferociousness Coco exhibited towards me changed from being protective of Pat to being mere excitement at my presence as she became rather fond of me. I attract friendly dogs. I sometimes think I have that St. Francis thing going on when it comes to animals; they all seem to like me. I've always thought it was interesting, the way people and animals are able to understand one another. Frankly, I've never understood when people don't like them, and don't attempt to. There's something deeply unattractive about someone who doesn't like a dog.
Coco would sometimes curl and nap right in the palm of my hand, which is something she could literally do. When she would sit on my lap, she exuded warmth and tenderness. I could feel her little heartbeat as I would pet her temple with the tip of my index finger. And that's how it happened. Who would have ever imagined that I would want to own a Chihuahua? All because of my association with Mr. Roquefort, and my friendship with his beloved little Coco.
Growing up in New Orleans, I had always either owned or been around big dogs; Mutts, pedigrees, Labradors, Collies. Friends of mine usually had Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, German Shepherds and large-sized mixed. These dogs did what big dogs do. They were always jumping hedges in one great leap, or running lawns in several sprinted stretches. Little dogs? Never had 'em (well, except for Louis, about whom I'll explain later).
When I interacted with Coco I realized that all the things you thought you had to have in a large dog, and that lacked in a small dog, were really irrelevant when you got to the fact that a dog is indeed a dog despite regard to its size. Whether it fits in a purse or needs the back of a pickup truck, a dog is a dog.
Soon I was calling and asking around, looking for a small dog of my own. People would ask, "Why a Chihuahua?" and I would answer, "I need an apartment-sized dog," which they thought always made sense.
Then later, when people asked why I wanted a Chihuahua, I'd respond, "Because his name will be Gomez."
"How do you know his name will be Gomez?" they'd ask.
"Because I've already named him. His name is Gomez," I'd say.
"Gomez? Why would you need to name a dog Gomez?" people would laugh.
"Because he's a Chihuahua!" I'd conclude. “See?”
So I searched and searched, trying to find the perfect Gomez. I'd heard that one shouldn't buy a dog from a pet shop in New York because they come from horrific puppy mills where they spit puppies out of poor bitches that are locked in tiny cages. I remember someone had actually heard about the Gomez story–that I wanted to own a dog named Gomez. So they sent me a postcard from Santa Barbara that showed a billboard ad that read, "Where's Gomez?" with a picture of a little Chihuahua. It was one of those Chihuahuas that everyone knows from the Taco Bell ads. Fawn colored, deer-faced, which was what I wanted. That's what everyone thinks they want if they're looking for a Chihuahua.
But finding one wasn't easy. I couldn't find one in New York City. Then I couldn't find one from a private breeder in the area. So I eventually decided to buy a copy Dog World magazine. Yes, Dog World. I looked in the back and was amazed to find that it was like the yellow pages! Breeders were listed under each breed alphabetically. In the C's, of course, were the Chihuahuas.
I made several phone calls to various breeders in different states, which opened a window into an entire subculture I never knew existed. Every call was answered by what seemed like the same person: a throaty, heavy, smoky female voice, choking on a cigarette, with the yap yap yap of several animals behind her. You envisioned a greasy, pony-tailed woman in a polyester sleeveless shirt, with flip-flops on and long, ungroomed toenails, answering the phone and touting the virtues of the Chihuahua. I made phone calls upon phone calls, getting the same type again and again.
After what felt like my millionth inquiry, a gentleman answered the phone. Soon, all of this fascinating information just poured out of the phone in this wonderful voice. He told me the history of Chihuahuas. He told me that that they were originally nocturnal hunting dogs and wild pack animals. Their breeding originally began in China, where they were captured in the wild by the Spanish and brought to America through the Chihuahua province of Mexico (hence their name), where they were domesticated and proudly kept by the Mexican nobility as pets. I just love that story–who knows how true it is.
He told me that his particular Chihuahuas were show dogs. They were most definitely not what he called, "those inbred, runty little dogs you would giggle and make fun of." They were husky dogs and usually had the markings shared by nocturnal hunters, such as raccoons and some bears and, among canines, are the same as the ones found on Rottweilers, Dobermans and German Shepherds. The markings generally consist of a black body with a dark tan coloring on the paws, lower legs and under belly, as well as a light tan color around the mouth and eyes, which creates a mask. The entire coat is rich and shiny.
I was really more interested in a little fawn-shaped Chihuahua... wasn't I? But this very polite man assured me that this was going to be best choice I could possibly make for a Chihuahua. Oh, he ended up being so very right. I'm forever grateful to this unique man for providing me with what would feed the great love I have for my precious Gomez, and eventually, Magi. I have sent this man a Christmas card every year for the last fourteen years (really, more of a love letter). But on the fifteenth year the card was returned, and I found out that my hero had passed away during the previous summer. I cried as though I had lost a parent.
But back when Gomez had finally arrived, he looked a lot like a small bat. This was definitely not the Taco Bell dog. He was about four inches long, and three inches tall. His ears were overwhelmingly big, and he had these disproportionately large (albeit very small) feet, which are the same size today. He literally grew into his paws. Oh, my divine little dog, what a good little friend.
However, in the beginning, our first weeks together were no honeymoon. He cried and cried every night because I made him sleep in his kennel and wouldn't let him get into bed with me. This was a practical move, but one that was also based on fear. A fear of something bad that happened to me when I was twelve years old. A fear that that thing could happen again. Young Gomez should have counted his blessings.
I'll never forget it. The story goes way back, back to what would be a horrible Easter. I was a kid living in New Orleans and I had gone into the French Quarter on the Saturday before the holiday, and purchased a little pedigree Siamese kitten from the pet store on Dumaine street. I put her into a shoebox with holes in the top and, since I was far from home, I got on the Canal Street bus (no animals allowed). It was the famed bus marked "Cemeteries," which had been written about by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire. A streetcar back then, of course, but now a bus.
So I was on this piece of history, riding it toward the Tulane stop, and all the while, right outside the window, the daytime city was honking and yelling. Before I knew it the little cat inside the box began to cry and cry. The bus driver heard it immediately, turned and looked right at me and said, "Is that you? Do you have something in there?" I froze for a moment and then started to meow and meow with my own mouth, looking beyond him and counting the stops, praying he would reach mine before the jig was up. It was all I could think of. I felt like I was in an I Love Lucy episode.
I had already decided her name would be Natasha. I had even started work on a velvet pillow, with small inset stones. I had gotten through the first huge "N," although the top looked a little messy.
When I reached my bus stop, I raced off the bus and ran home, bolting in through the door with my new best friend. My father looked directly at the box and said, straight out, "No. No animals." My face dropped a whole mile as he told me that there was no point to have a pet cat when we had so many animals already. Who needed another kitten when you had fifty cats running around the neighborhood? He sure didn't.
The army of felines who called our block home where all descendants of one cat named Princess. She had been brought to our home, and escaped as soon as she arrived. This was in the days before people immediately spayed a cat as soon as they acquired one. Of course we hadn't either. So wouldn't you know it, Princess immediately started having offspring. Offspring who had offspring who had offspring. Eventually we wound up having cats all over the place that had hairless tails and looked like rats–there was no mistaking it, all of them were Princess's spawn. My favorites were two that were each born without one leg. When they were born, their umbilical cords were attached to leg nubs. They looked like amputees, but had actually been born that way. Surprisingly, the lack of body weight gave them greater movement. They were the fastest little kittens that had ever lived in the neighborhood. We called them Stimp and Stomp.
But despite all of this, I was blind to my father's absolutely realistic refusal to allow me to bring another cat into our home. What was I thinking? I was a wishful kid, and she was a beautiful little kitten. I pleaded with my father and he eventually screeched and howled, saying, "No! No more pets!" I was devastated, knowing I'd have to return the kitten (how would I get her on the bus again?). I spent that night crying in bed and holding my dear little Natasha.
The next morning I got up and went to breakfast. After I settled at the table, my father surprised me by telling me that he'd had a change of heart and would allow me to keep the kitten. The kitten! I'd forgotten about the kitten! I ran around the house looking for my precious little Natasha.
"Natasha! Natasha!" I raced around the house like a madman. At one point, I whizzed right past my father, who was glaring at me and, no doubt, already regretting his decision. But there was no time to worry about it at that moment! Where was Natasha? I couldn't find her and I though that perhaps fate was playing a cruel joke. Had she escaped and gotten lost in the neighborhood like Princess? Had she been taken out by one of my siblings? "Natasha! Natasha!" My precious Natasha. I cannot tell you how hysterical I was.
Finding that it was all too much to bear and not knowing what else to do, I ran to my room and threw myself onto my bed. As I was flying through the air, I noticed something. To my horror, there she was: rock hard and in a stretched out position. She wore a face of agony and her mouth was hanging open. I had smothered her during the night. My unfinished pillow with the scraggly "N" was near where she lay. My precious Natasha. Oh how awful, the poor soul. Fate had played a cruel joke. I went back to the table and tried to eat my breakfast–a big bowl of raspberries.
I later decided to bury her in a box; I even planned a funeral service. But after some thought, I remembered that my allowance was really my only source of income. I put the service on hold, perhaps permanently. After all, Natasha and I hadn't had time to really get to know one another, had we? I decided to save her as is, and take her back to the pet store for an exchange.
I returned her that Monday (she already smelled a bit) and told the dealer that she had sold me an ill cat. Oh, how awful. I wound up with her brother (as well as another wild excursion on the New Orleans transit system). I named him Henry-Joe. Why Henry-Joe? Well, it had to do with interior design.
I chose that name because the "N" on the pillow I had been working on was never that great. I took the "N" and turned it into an "H," which came to stand for "Henry." The "Y" at the end looked a bit spastic, so I just kept going, and found that it looked a lot like a "J," with a hyphen, which came to stand for "-Joe." Henry-Joe it was. Who ever said function shouldn't follow form?
Henry-Joe lived for twelve years, and was a fantastic cat. He would retrieve plastic soldiers, walk with the dogs, proud as though he were one, and was divinely friendly. He'd lie on anyone's lap and chase away anyone he felt was not loyal to his beloved family.
Well, the pain from my memories of Natasha had years later set into motion my loving cautiousness for Gomez. I wasn't going to let what happened to her happen to Gomez, and that's why I wouldn't allow him to sleep with me in the bed. So he cried and cried, night after night, until he was old enough to finally be allowed to get in bed with me. He's been with me for fifteen years, now. What a wonderful little boy. My dearest friend.
It's been a lasting friendship, as he's now an old man. I heard it once said about a dog's age, in relation to a human's, that you take the first year and add three, and then add seven for each year after that. So when you do the math, Gomez is indeed very old, but very dear. What a wonderful, loyal friend he's been.
It was five years after Gomez came into my life that his half-brother, Magi, came into the picture. He arrived on January 6th, which is The Feast of the Magi, the Three Kings. This is also where the word "magic" is etymologically derived from. So perfect, I thought, for this little dog. He came out of his little kennel as a puppy, screeching, barking and snarling. I discovered that he would never allow anyone to touch him, which at first I thought was kind of normal, but he reacted to people reaching toward him by biting. That too seemed normal, and kind of amusing, for a small dog. Amusing, until you realize that a tiny puppy can have tiny razor-sharp teeth.
As my heroic breeder had told me, Magi had been bred for show and had a perfect mouth. His upper and lower teeth met perfectly—a trait that could inflict perfect pain! It felt like two serrated blades chomping down sharply when he got a hold on your flesh, which he would then repeat in rapid-fire, a sewing machine-like bite that wouldn't stop.
When I first greeted Magi, by leaning down to kiss him, he returned the affection with a piranha-like shredding attack on my lip and drew blood. Well hello to you, too. I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you, being a dog lover, what I did to that puppy.
I eventually realized that he was indeed very ferocious. So much so that I had to hire a professional trainer to come over, put a harness on him, and walk him around in my courtyard. I thought it was ridiculous that I should have this little seven inch-long pet that ultimately needed a professional trainer to help in refining him! I wonder what the neighbors thought? Well, my courtyard has seen it all, I'm sure. Oh, that courtyard. My building has a huge one and having it has been very nice while living in New York City. It reminded me of New Orleans. The courtyard is almost anti-New York. It takes me to another place for a few minutes every time I enter and exit my home. That courtyard ended up being perfect for this husky dog trainer as he whipped itty-bitty Magi into shape. By the end, he had taken Magi and actually trained him to walk on a lead, and also allowed people to touch him without incident. Amazing!
When it was all over, the trainer met me in my kitchen and I thanked him. I asked for some of his business cards, in case friends of mine might need a dog trainer. He reached out to hand me a small stack of them and I asked him to just set them on the counter as my hands were too busy. I was cooking frantically, getting ready for a party I was throwing that evening. I was making my "world famous" veal dish for my friends, one of my favorite things in the world (really just breaded fried veal–but prepared by me). I had arranged the three piles of meat out on the counter. Raw veal. Piles of cooked veal. Piles of dusted and ready to be thrown into the cast iron skillet veal. The meat and other tasty ingredients I would use in a highly organized, step-by-step assembly line were laid out on the counter between us as we talked. He was standing there, looking at me, explaining all the different things he did with Magi, and what he believed in when it came to training a dog. I kept saying "Uh-huh... uh-huh," as I pounded the meat. And I mean really pounded it. Pound, pound, beat, beat, until it was good and flat. Then I would dip the meat in flour, then in eggs; dredge it through the bread crumbs. And then I'd throw it into very hot oil so that it fried and fried and fried.
I then asked him if wanted to try a piece of my world famous veal. He smiled and said, "No, thank you." I didn't take it personally (anyone who's ever tasted it told me that it's the best they've ever had).
After he left, I picked up one of his cards and noticed that there was something on the back. On the rear of his card was a little stamp that showed a caged calf screaming in agony and underneath it was printed with bold letters the words "NO VEAL. DON'T EAT VEAL."
Oh well, I guess I won't be hearing from him, I thought to myself, as I popped another morsel in my mouth. I never did.
Thus, Magi entered my life. Sweet, darling Magi. He is a long-haired Chihuahua, and has the black and white markings of a Holstein dairy cow (or a Gateway computer box). His coat is very thin, dense and furry, like an angora sweater. Gomez's coat, on the other hand, is very silky, thick and lustrous. They make quite a pair. When I walk them down the street it appears as though I'm being led around by two possessed wigs.
Magi actually looks a bit like a French and a Japanese dog. One day when I was walking him, a man walked by and said, "You have a chin."
"Yes," I said, "I've been dieting."
"Not you," he said, "the dog. That's a Japanese Chin. Isn't it?"
"Oh, no..." I answered, "It’s not a Chin. It's a Chihuahua."
On another occasion someone thought it was a Papillion, and I said "No, no, no. It's a Chihuahua."
A Papillion. I hadn't thought about Papillions since I'd owned one long, long ago, when I lived on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. It was the only small dog I had ever owned before now. His name was Louis, and his longer name was Little Louis the Papillion. I was told he wouldn't bark, which is why I had purchased him. He barked his head off. That was actually fine after a while, but what I just couldn't deal with was that he would take my cat's feces out of the kitty box, carry it across the apartment in his mouth, and jump up on my bed, and devour it. That was the last straw.
Although on the delightful occasion after he would do that, I would take him to the next door neighbor, whom I really detested. She would hug and hold him and kiss him right on the mouth. I would stand there with a big grin. Then Louis would lick her all over the face. The fact that he had just eaten a turd and was now licking her face made me detest her a little less.
Now my three boys and I are a family. Surprisingly, when I looked at the papers on Magi and Gomez's litter, I was astounded to see that they came from a breeder who called himself "House of Oz." Being a Judy Garland fanatic for most of my life, I was amazed. How appropriate is it that my two dear children would coincidentally come from the House of Oz?
Two dear children indeed! I had another surprise when I noticed that Gomez and Magi were actually related. They share the same mother. They had different fathers, and believe it or not, their mother was also their maternal grandmother! Rather shocking indeed, kind of West Virginia, no?
Ten years after Magi's arrival came Benny. Young, divine, delightful Benny, who, at last, is the very little type of dog that Pat's Coco was. He's not thick like Gomez and Magi, he's a funny little apple-headed dog with a large, protruding forehead and a little beak of a nose. He really does look like the result of ET and Condoleezza Rice having a baby together. Kind of perfect, so ugly he's cute (more like ET, not Condoleezza).
I eventually discovered that Benny had quite a history. A star-studded history. He belonged to a rock star in California for only about half a day. The rocker had purchased him for one specific reason. He knew he was going to receive a Grammy award that year and wanted a gimmick for the ceremony. What he thought would be perfect would be to have, instead of just his typical chunky, highlighted, blond hair (his trademark), was a little Chihuahua on his arm when he went to accept his golden statue. And after that was done, goodbye dog. In addition to that, oddly enough, I later found out that Benny was also the sibling of another famous little Chihuahua. One who had a famous name herself: Tinkerbelle. I'll go no further. Ahh... historical lineage!
So it was lunch with Pat at J G Melon's, having a greasy hamburger at a table on the sidewalk, while he blab, blab, blabbed away... that was what started it all. "Darling, darling" Pat would say, telling saucy stories about the long nights he would spend in his apartment with wonderful yellow-brown men from the Philippines (he loved to go on and on about that). And while I sat there listening, all I wanted to do was to go and meet my dear friend Coco, pet her and love her. Who would have known that the whole situation would have led to my owning not one, not two, but three Chihuahuas.
The truth is I don't own them. They own me. They are me. And, I'm them as well. It's a true bond that I can't put it into words. My apartment is decorated with lovely objects, great furniture and interesting art, but this makes not a home. My three babies are all that matter to me. People come over and tell me what beautiful things I have. I tell them that everything they see can be wrapped up and delivered within an hour. It's all for sale. The only things that mean anything to me are my three wonderful little boys. And I know the only thing that means anything to them are each other, and me. A most perfect family indeed.