Stories From My Idols: Part II

Unlike Klosterman, who I sought out on my own after a good friend of mine threw “Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs” at me in the high school cafeteria and said “Read this,” I did not come across this writer’s great work until my first year of university, when a journalism professor of mine recommended a reading of hers.

That article was “The American Male at Age Ten,” and much to the surprise of my professor, quite frankly I hated it. The story, that is, not the way that Susan Orlean magically transformed the character of Colin Duffy from a regular 10-year-old to one of the most interesting characters I came across that day. So, I opted to give Orlean another shot, she was after-all praised as one of the best magazine writers by this professor who I held in high regard.

As I continued to read more and more, I became fascinated with Orlean’s ability to take ordinary people, objects, characters, whatever, and transform them into something extraordinary. Her attention to detail, her ability to offer descriptions one would expect in a Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King novel, her research into seemingly knowing everything about whom she is writing, her wit, and her, as mentioned, ability to see beyond the scope of a normal journalist, and instead of finding something exciting, transforming a quirky nobody into a competitor for the Dos Equis man’s title as “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Some of my favourite works by her include the story of a run-down south Boston neighbourhood turning the corner, a story about the most watched whale in the world, and perhaps the greatest, playing to the music-lover in me, a look at the Shaggs, an all-girl band from New Hampshire who, by ear are painful to listen to, but who Frank Zappa proclaimed as being better than The Beatles.

The piece I will leave with you today is none of the above, however, but instead the story of Biff Truesdale, a champion of the Westminster Kennel Club’s prestigious “Best Boxer” and “Best Working Dog” categories. It is a perfect example of how brilliantly she can turn a normal story about a showdog into something incredible.

So, please enjoy…Show Dog.

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

What Biff likes most is food and sex. This makes him sound boorish, which he is not — he’s just elemental. Food he likes even better than sex. His favorite things to ear are cookies, mints, and hotel soap, but he will eat just about anything. Richard Krieger, a friend of Biff’s who occasionally drives him to appointments, said not long ago, “When we’re driving on I-95, we’ll usually pull over at McDonald’s. Even if Biff is napping, he always wakes up when we’re getting close. I get him a few plain hamburgers with buns — no ketchup, no mustard, and no pickles. He loves hamburgers. I don’t get him his own French fries, but if I get myself fries, I always flip a few for him into the back.”

If you’re ever around Biff while you’re eating something he wants to taste — cold roast beef, a Wheatables cracker, chocolate, pasta, aspirin, whatever — he will stare at you across the pleated bridge of his nose and let his eyes sag and his lips tremble and allow a little bead of drool to percolate at the edge of his mouth until you feel so crummy that you give him some. This routine puts the people who know him in a quandary, because Biff has to watch his weight. Usually, he is as skinny as Kate Moss, but he can put on three pounds in an instant. The holidays can be tough. He takes time off at Christmas and spends it at home, in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where there’s a lot of food around and no pressure and no schedule and it’s easy to eat all day. The extra weight goes to his neck. Luckily, Biff likes working out. He runs for fifteen or twenty minutes twice a day, either outside or on his Jog-Master. When he’s feeling heavy, he runs longer, and skips snacks, until he’s back down to his ideal weight of seventy-five pounds.

Biff is a boxer. He is a show dog — he performs under the name Champion Hi-Tech’s Arbitrage — and so looking good is not mere vanity; it’s business. A show dog’s career is short, and judges are unforgiving. Each breed is judged by an explicit standard for appearance and temperament, and then there’s the incalculable element of charisma in the ring. When a show dog is fat or lazy or sullen, he doesn’t win; when he doesn’t win, he doesn’t enjoy ancillary benefits of being a winner, like appearances as the celebrity spokesmodel on packages of Pedigree Mealtime with Lamb and Rice, which Biff will be doing soon, or picking the best-looking bitches and charging them six hundred dollars or so for his sexual favors, which Biff does three or four times a month. Another ancillary benefit of being a winner is that almost every single weekend of the year, as he travels to shows around the country, he gets to hear people applaud for him and yell his name and tell him what a good boy he is, which is something he seems to enjoy at least as much as eating a bar of soap.

Pretty soon, Biff won’t have to be so vigilant about his diet. After he appears at the Westminster Kennel Club’s show, this week, he will retire from active show life and work full time as a stud. It’s a good moment for him to retire. Last year, he won more shows than any other boxer, and also more than any other dog in the purebred category known as Working Dogs, which also includes Akitas, Alaskan malamutes, Bernese mountain dogs, bull-mastiffs, Doberman pinschers, giant schnauzers, Great Danes, Great Pyrenees, komondors, kuvaszok, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Portuguese water dogs, Rottweilers, St. Bernards, Samoyeds, Siberian huskies, and standard schnauzers. Boxers were named for their habit of standing on their hind legs and punching with their front paws when they fight. They were originally bred to be chaperons — to look forbidding while being pleasant to spend time with. Except for show dogs like Biff, most boxers lead a life of relative leisure. Last year at Westminster, Biff was named Best Boxer and Best Working Dog, and he was a serious contender for Best in Show, the highest honor any show dog can hope for. He is a contender to win his breed and group again this year, and is a serious contender once again for Best in Show, although the odds are against him, because this year’s judge is known as a poodle person.

Biff is four years old. He’s in his prime. He could stay on the circuit for a few more years, but by stepping aside now he is making room for his sons Trent and Rex, who are just getting into the business, and he’s leaving while he’s still on top. He’ll also spend less time in airplanes, which is the one part of show life he doesn’t like, and more time with his owners, William and Tina Truesdale, who might be persuaded to waive his snacking rules.

Biff has a short, tight coat of fox-colored fur, white feet and ankles, and a patch of white on his chest roughly the shape of Maine. His muscles are plainly sketched under his skin, but he isn’t bulgy. His face is turned up and pushed in, and has a dark mask, spongy lips, a wishbone-shaped white blaze, and the earnest and slightly careworn expression of a small-town mayor. Someone once told me that he thought Biff looked a little bit like President Clinton. Biff’s face is his fortune. There are plenty of people who like boxers with bigger bones and a stockier body and taller shoulders — boxers who look less like marathon runners and more like weight-lifters — but almost everyone agrees that Biff has a nearly perfect head.

“Biff’s head is his father’s,” William Truesdale, a veterinarian, explained to me one day. We were in the Truesdales’ living room in Attleboro, which overlooks acres of hilly fenced-in fields. Their house is a big, sunny ranch with stylish pastel kitchen and boxerabilia on every wall. The Truesdales don’t have children, but at any given moment they share their quarters with at least a half-dozen dogs. If you watch a lot of dog-food commercials, you may have seen William — he’s the young, handsome, dark-haired veterinarian declaring his enthusiasm for Pedigree Mealtime while his boxers gallop around.

“Biff has a masculine but elegant head,” William went on. “It’s not too wet around the muzzle. It’s just about ideal. Of course, his forte is right here.” He pointed to Biff’s withers, and explained that Biff’s shoulder-humerus articulation was optimally angled, and bracketed his superb brisket and forelegs, or something like that. While William was talking, Biff climbed onto the couch and sat on top of Brian, his companion, who was hiding under a pillow. Brian is an English toy Prince Charles spaniel who is about the size of a teakettle and has the composure of a hummingbird. As a young competitor, he once bit a judge — a mistake Tina Truesdale says he made because at the time he had been going through a little mind problem about being touched. Brian, whose show name is Champion Cragmor’s Hi-Tech Man, will soon go back on the circuit, but now he mostly serves as Biff’s regular escort. When Biff sat on him, he started to quiver. Biff batted him with his front leg. Brian gave him an adoring look.

“Biff’s body is from his mother,” Tina was saying. “She had a lot of substance.”

“She was even a little extreme for a bitch,” William said. “She was rather buxom. I would call her zaftig.”

“Biff’s father needed that, though,” Tina said. “His name was Tailo, and he was fabulous. Tailo had a very beautiful head, but he was a bit fine, I think. A bit slender.”

“Even a little feminine,” William said, with feeling. “Actually, he would have been a really awesome bitch.”

The first time I met Biff, he sniffed by pants, stood up on his hind legs and stared into my face, and then trotted off to the kitchen, where someone was cooking macaroni. We were in Westbury, Long Island, where Biff lives with Kimberly Pastella, a twenty-nine-year-old professional handler, when he’s working. Last year, Kim and Biff went to at least one show every weekend. If they drove, they took Kim’s van. If they flew, she went coach and he went cargo. They always shared a hotel room.

While Kim was telling me all this, I could hear Biff rummaging around in the kitchen. “Biffers!” Kim called out. Biff jogged back into the room with a phony look of surprise on his face. His tail was ticking back and forth. It is cropped so that it is about the size and shape of a half-smoked stogie. Kim said that there was a bitch downstairs who had been sent from Pennsylvania to be bred to one of Kim’s other clients, and that Biff could smell her and was a little out of sorts. “Let’s go,” she said to him. “Biff, let’s go jog.” We went into the garage where a treadmill was set up with Biff’s collar suspended from a metal arm. Biff hopped on and held his head out so that Kim could buckle his collar. As soon as she leaned toward the power switch, he started to jog. His nails clicked a light tattoo on the rubber belt.

Except for a son of his named Biffle, Biff gets along with everybody. Matt Stander, one of the founders of Dog News, said recently, “Biff is just very very personable. He has a je ne sais quoi that’s really special. He gives of himself all the time.” One afternoon, the Truesdales were telling me about the psychology that went into making Biff who he is. “Boxers are real communicators,” William was saying. “We had to really take that into consideration in his upbringing. He seems tough, but there’s a fragile ego inside there. The profound reaction wand hurt when you would raise your voice at him was really something.”

“I made him,” Tina said. “I made Biff who he is. He had an overbearing personality when he was small, but I consider that a prerequisite for a great performer. He had such an attitude! He was like this miniature man!? She shimmied her shoulders back and forth and thrust out her chin. She is a dainty, chic woman with wide-set eyes and the neck of a ballerina. She grew up on a farm in Costa Rica, where dogs were considered just another form of livestock. In 1987, William got her a Rottweiler for a watchdog, and a boxer, because he had always loved boxers, and Tina decided to dabble with them in shows. Now she makes a monogrammed Christmas stocking for each animal in their house, and she watches the tape of Biff winning at Westminster approximately once a week. “Right from the beginning, I made Biff think he was the most fabulous dog in the world,” Tina said.

“He doesn’t take after me very much,” William said. “I’m more of a golden retriever.”

“Oh, he has my nature,” Tina said. “I’m very strong-willed. I’m brassy. And Biff is an egotistical, self-centered, selfish person. He thinks he’s very important and special, and he doesn’t like to share.”

Biff is priceless. If you beg the Truesdales to name a figure, they might say that Biff is worth around a hundred thousand dollars, but they will also point out that a Japanese dog fancier recently handed Tina a blank check for Biff. (She immediately threw it away.) That check notwithstanding, campaigning a show dog is a money-losing proposition for the owner. A good handler gets three or four hundred dollars a day, plus travel expenses, to show a dog, and any dog aiming for the top will have to be on the road at least a hundred days a year. A dog photographer charges hundreds of dollars for a portrait, and a portrait is something that every serious owner commissions, and then runs a full-page ad in several dog-show magazines. Advertising a show dog is standard procedure if you want your dog or your presence on the show circuit to get well known. There are also such ongoing show-dog expenses as entry fees, hair-care products, food, health care, and toys. Biff’s stud fee is six hundred dollars. Now that he will not be at shows, he can be bred several times a month. Breeding him would have been a good way for him to make money in the past, except that whenever the Truesdales were enthusiastic about a mating they bartered Biff’s service for the pick of the litter. As a result, they now have more Biff puppies than Biff earnings. “We’re doing this for posterity,” Tina says. “We’re doing it for the good of all boxers. You simply can’t think about the cost.”

On a recent Sunday, I went to watch Biff work at one of the last shows he would attend before his retirement. The show was sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Kennel Club and was held in a big, windy field house on the campus of Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The parking lot was filled with motor homes pasted with life-size decals of dogs. On my way to the field house, I passed someone walking an Afgan hound wearing a snood, and someone else wiping down a Saluki with a Flintstones beach towel. Biff was napping in his crate — a fancy-looking brass box with bright silver hardware and with luggage tags from Delta, USAir, and Continental hanging on the door. Dogs in crates can look woeful, but Biff actually likes spending time in his. When he was growing up, the Truesdales decided they would never reprimand him, because of his delicate ego. Whenever he got rambunctious, Tina wouldn’t scold him — she would just invite him to sit in his crate and have a time-out.

On this particular day, Biff was in the crate with a bowl of water and a gourmet Oinkeroll. The boxer judging was already over. There had been thirty-three in competition, and Biff had won Best in Breed. Now he had to wait for several hours while the rest of the working breeds had their competitions. Later, the breed winners would square off for Best in Working Group. Then, around dinnertime, the winners of the other groups — sporting dogs, hounds, terriers, toys, non-sporting dogs, and herding dogs — would compete for Best in Show. Biff was stretched out in the crate with his head resting on his forelegs, so that his lips draped over his ankle like a café curtain. He looked bored. Next to his crate, several wire-haired fox terriers were standing on tables getting their faces shampooed, and beyond them a Chihuahua in a pink crate was gnawing on its door latch. Two men in white shirts and dark pants walked by eating hot dogs. One of them was gesturing and exclaiming, “I thought I had great dachshunds!”

Biff sighed and closed his eyes.

While he was napping, I pawed through his suitcase. In it was some dog food; towels; an electric nail grinder; a whisker trimmer; a wool jacket in a lively pattern that looked sort of Southwestern; an apron; some antibiotics; baby oil; coconut-oil coat polish; boxer chalk powder; a copy of Dog News; an issue of ShowSight magazine, featuring an article subtitled “Frozen Semen — Boon or Bain?” and a two-page ad for Biff, with a full-page, full-color photograph of him and Kim posed in front of a human-sized toy solider; a spray bottle of fur cleanser; another Oinkeroll; a rope ball; and something called a Booda Bone. The apron was for Kim. The baby oil was to make Biff’s nose and feet glossy when he went into the ring. Boxer chalk powder — as distinct from, say, West Highland-white-terrier chalk powder — is formulated to cling to short, sleek boxer hair and whiten boxers’ white markings. Unlike some of the other dogs, Biff did not need to travel with a blow dryer, curlers, nail polish, or detangling combs, but, unlike some less sought-after dogs, he did need a schedule. He was registered for a show in Chicago the next day, and had an appointment at a clinic in Connecticut the next week to make a semen deposit, which has been ordered by a breeder in Australia. Also, he had a date that some week with a bitch named Diana who was about to go into heat. Biff has to book is stud work after shows, so that it doesn’t interfere with his performance. Tina Truesdale told me that this was typical of all athletes, but everyone who knows Biff is quick to comment on how professional he is as a stud. Richard Krieger, who was going to be driving Biff to his appointment at the clinic in Connecticut, once told me that some studs want to goof around and take forever but Biff is very businesslike. “Bing, bang, boom,” Krieger said. “He’s in, he’s out.”

“No wasting of time,” said Nancy Krieger, Richard’s wife. “Bing, bang, boom. He gets the job done.”

After a while, Kim showed up and asked Biff if he needed to go outside. Then a handler who is a friend of Kim’s came by. He was wearing a black-and-white houndstooth suit and was brandishing a comb and a can of hair spray. While they were talking, I leafed through the show catalogue and read some of the dogs’ names to Biff, just for fun — names like Aleph Godol’s Umbra Von Carousel and Champion Spanktown Little Lu Lu and Ranchlake’s Energizer O’Motown and Champion Beaverbrook Buster V Broadhead. Biff decided that he did want to go out, so Kim opened the crate. He stepped out and stretched and yawned like a cat, and then he suddenly stood up and punched me in the chest. And announcement calling for all toys to report to their ring came over the loudspeaker. Kim’s friend waved the can of hair spray in the direction of a little white poodle shivering on a table a few yards away and exclaimed, “Oh, no! I lost track of time! I have to go! I have to spray up my miniature!”

Typically, dog contestants first circle the ring together; then each contestant poses individually for the judge, trying to look perfect as the judge lifts its lips for a dental exam, rocks its hindquarters, and strokes its back and thighs. The judge at Lehigh was a chesty, mustached man with watery eyes and a grave expression. He directed the group with hand signals that made him appear to be roping cattle. The Rottweiler looked good, and so did the giant schnauzer. I started to worry. Biff had a distracted look on his face, as if he’d forgotten something back at the house. Finally, it was his turn. He pranced to the center of the ring. The judge stroked him and then waved his hand in a circle and stepped out of the way. Several people near me began clapping. A flashbulb flared. Biff held his position for a moment, and then he and Kim bounded across the ring, his feet moving so fast that they blurred into an oily sparkle, even though he really didn’t have very far to go. He got a cookie when he finished the performance, and other a few minutes later, when the judge wagged his finger at him, indicating that Biff had won again.

You can’t help wondering whether Biff will experience the depressing letdown that retired competitors face. At least, he has a lot of stud work to look forward to, although William Truesdale complained to me once that the Truesdales’ standards for a mate are so high — they require a clean bill of health and a substantial pedigree — that “there just aren’t that many right bitches out there.” Nonetheless, he and Tina are optimistic that Biff will find enough suitable mates to become one of the most influential boxer sires of all time. “We’d like to be remembered as the boxer people of the nineties,” Tina said. “Anyway, we can’t wait to have him home.”

“We’re starting to campaign Biff’s son Rex,” William said. “He’s been living in Mexico, and he’s a Mexican champion, and now he’s ready to take on the American shows. He’s very promising. He has a fabulous rear.”

Just then, Biff, who had been on the couch, jumped down and began pacing. “Going somewhere, honey?” Tina asked.

He wanted to go out, so Tina opened the back door, and Biff ran into the back yard. After a few minutes, he noticed a ball on the lawn. The ball was slippery and a little too big to fit in his mouth, but he kept scrambling and trying to grab it. In the meantime, the Truesdales and I sat, stayed for a moment, fetched ourselves turkey sandwiches, and then curled up on the couch. Half an hour passed, and Biff was still happily pursuing the ball. He probably has a very short memory, but he acted as if it were the most fun he’s ever had.

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