On the Upper West Side, at least to me and my family, the outdoors means Central Park. Specifically, I feel this way during the early-morning off-leash hours when pooches roam free.
Just one thing about that: I don’t actually have a dog.
No need. Even those of us who are dog enthusiasts but not owners (my husband is allergic) get the benefit of playing with them without the poop bags, the vet bills, and the midnight walks in the rain. Plus it gives my toddler a place to go after her early-morning wake-ups that young kids love. (Really, kids, what are you waking up so early for? Your job is to play and you can still do that after 9 a.m.)
My daughter adores being up close and personal with all the dogs socializing: Their wet noses and wagging tails sure beat the plush toys and book versions at home. I imagine that for her the dogs are like the Disney characters roaming around in Orlando. For me, aside from witnessing her delight, it’s all about enjoying the pups frolicking and getting to hang out with adult owners at an hour when few others are up and about.
Our Central Park dog run of choice is (or was—more on that soon) the area right behind a Le Pain Quotidien, just north of Sheep Meadow. The routine: Get out of the house by 7 and walk over, saying hi to the doormen en route; watch the dogs and chat with the owners; and then grab coffee and a croissant from Le Pain before sitting in the dog-and-bird–friendly outdoor seating area—charming, in a Snow White kind of way.
Long-standing dog-run friends gather there to catch up on their news. As strangers to this scene, my daughter and I would just grab a spot—me on a seat and she in her stroller—and converse with whomever wanted a chat or play some peekaboo with a baby.
There’s the elegant older lady with her equally elegant dog, Sergio, who reminds me of my mother, with her 1950s Seven Sisters education. There’s the Icelandic musician and documentary filmmaker whose sister visiting from back home often joins her; she invited a few of us to come see her receiving a filmmaking award. Next to them is a group comprised of mostly theater people—among them revered British stage and comedic actor Jim Dale (best known here for narrating seven Harry Potter audio books) making light of his health issues, and a woman on the board of the Irish Rep talking up its latest shows.
It wasn’t long before I learned that the person casually called Tony was none other than Tony Kushner.
Sometimes joining them is someone clearly adored—the energy in the place shifts when he walks in—but whose face I couldn’t place. When I, in my journalistically curious (okay, nosy) way, asked if he worked in the theater, it wasn’t long before I learned that the person casually called Tony was none other than Tony Kushner. Yes, the winner of multiple Tony Awards, author of Angels in America, and currently writing Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. So, yeah, he certainly does work in theater! (Side note: My family was incredibly impressed when during our Christmas Eve dinner at a fancy neighborhood restaurant he said hello on his way in. I tried to play it supercool: “Everyone, this is my friend Tony from the park.” Mm-hmm.)
Like any village, we have our characters. “Chicken Man,” as he’s known in these parts, cooks, well, chicken at home and gives pieces of it to the dogs; every so often he’ll also give away the broth to their owners. As you can imagine, he draws a big four-legged crowd around him at Le Pain that may not be to everyone’s liking. There’s the guy who will tell you—and direct you to the Wikipedia page—about his career in the ’70s when he was a famous dog whisperer, with books and TV appearances. Patricia, or Purely Patricia as she is known to her 36,000 Instagram followers, is a fashion icon chronicled on the blog Advanced Style, a project devoted to “capturing the sartorial savvy of the senior set.” She sports bright orange hair and practically Technicolor clothes no matter the hour. Like all the folks we interact with, Patricia is accompanied by her furry pal; in her case, it’s Ruby Woo, a purebred French poodle whose fur is occasionally dyed pink.
New York City is filled with fascinating people—and dogs—and the early-morning dog run and our little café community have helped me get to know a few of them.
This past winter, however, featured too much freezing weather and too many colds for my daughter, so we spent many chilly early mornings at the kid-friendly local diner or in her room reading books. On the first warm morning this year, we went back to our old haunts, eager to see everyone and catch up. But the reunion was not to be.
That Le Pain location was closed for remodeling, and the dog run behind it was empty. What was going on? I ran into two of the dog owners, who told me that trash left overnight was the culprit and now the pack has gone nomadic, roaming various dog runs in Central Park. As for the post–dog-run café crowd, they decamped to Tavern on the Green’s outdoor space. We’re still excited to spend time with our favorite dogs, and their very New York owners, wherever they may be. I just wish that once in a while we could do it an hour or so later.
Caroline Waxler is a Philadelphia-born writer and editor living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on Refinery29, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter (@Cwaxler) and Instagram (@Carolinewaxler). She previously wrote about her favorite diner for WSWD.