At nearly 7 a.m. daily, hundreds of West Siders head out of their apartments with their dogs for the first walk of the day in Central Park, often in pajamas or sweatpants that they had slept in. Some have thermal coffee mugs in hand as many need to be at their jobs by 9 o’clock, either in an office or at home. When entering the park, their dogs look around and sniff “Hellos” to welcome other dogs of every size.
It is not easy to go out so early, especially when it is freezing or hot and humid, but when you know you will be joining others for coffee, good conversation, humor and making friends, it breaks the loneliness of solitary apartment life. The members of these Central Park breakfast clubs give the dogs treats as allowed by their owners.
Our own breakfasts, straight from the takeout counter, may include plain croissants or scrambled egg sandwiches and, of course, coffee while our dogs sit beneath the table or mellow out in our laps. (Even though our dogs are well socialized, the owners are watchful for any rough behavior.)
My first dog group included a beautiful, energetic couple who lived an international life between New York, Italy and Brazil. They had three adorable small poodles. Business took them away to San Francisco several years ago, but they have now returned. That group also included a talented hair stylist with two small poodles, a magical makeup artist, and an international conflict photographer and his journalist girlfriend, who stressed over her partner's assignments in Afghanistan.
These days, there are two groups that I frequent. The first includes Larry, a retired actor who goes into Central Park by 8:00 a.m. and heads to a table beside the pathway of a café. Larry takes out a freshly cooked chicken breast and within seconds dogs are pulling their owners towards his table for their treat. Usually about eight people wind up at the table, buzzing about the latest Broadway shows, best movies, vacation plans, restaurants, or where to locate anything. It has been said that this group is better than the internet for finding things.
This is an eclectic group with people from many fields - financial, artistic and the tech world. There is a former professor from Carnegie Mellon who is now at Bloomberg. She and her husband have a large mushy mastiff and a newly acquired white pit bull. They usually stay for only a moment and head off to work.
Health issues often come up in conversation. One beloved woman, Lori, was taking time off as a financial consultant during her cancer treatment when she suddenly took a turn for the worse. She still managed to make the five-block walk into the park with her small white dog until almost the very end.
Another café regular with her bichon frise had planned a cruise to Africa with Michael, her significant other of 25 years. One week into the trip, friends received messages that Michael had become seriously ill, and she was trying to get him somewhere for better medical care. The boat left them off in Namibia where he continued to decline. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after arriving home. The woman was heartbroken and came to the breakfast club every day with her dog to get support and share her saga.
A second, devoted group gathers around a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who holds a proper salon in the park. There is nothing that his majestic mind has forgotten. His friend and dog walker Gabrielle is always by his side at breakfast with both of their dogs. He regales us with his memories of theater, opera, performers, play writing, society and of course, politics. Included in this group from time to time is a judge, an attorney and other professionals who mostly come with their dogs. The playwright and a prominent Broadway actor give a Glugwein treat to the human regulars during the Christmas holiday.
My present adorable dog is one I adopted after my sweet little Shih Tzu passed away at the tender age of 12. Our dogs in this group are serious beggars, as they receive lots of treats, both chicken and other delicacies.
By the time I have had coffee with enough lively conversation, my neighbor Carmen and her golden retriever are returning from their 7:30 walk around the reservoir and we can return to our building together.
All of this takes place under the sweeping branches of London plane trees, oak and maple trees, a perfect setting for a New York City morning.