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Rich Dog, Poor Man 

Thursday, Apr 29 2004
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An outdoor bar serving complimentary Chivas Regal cocktails in baby bottles is still not de rigueur for most Los Angeles pet events, but it was the first thing greeting visitors to the recent Silver Spoon Dog and Baby Buffet held on the Beverly Hills grounds of an old Douglas Fairbanks estate. Celebrities and commoners drifted through arbors festooned with stuffed pooches before ambling down a fairway bordered with display booths, wine stations and beanbag furniture for the fatigued. Many were young women with tiny dogs — actress Hilary Duff and her Chihuahua, Chiquita, or reality-TV spawn Nicole Richie and her Shih Tzu, Honey. By contrast, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John and their massive German shepard, Larry, were interviewed by animal psychic Sonia Fitzpatrick, while Jason Priestley was seen hoisting his bulldoggish chum, Swifty Lugnuts.

Pet pampering was the theme of the two-day fund-raiser for the no-kill Much Love Animal Rescue. Businesses offered “interpretive pet portraits,” dog sweaters, custom-made pet beds and nightstands, canine gourmet treats and breath fresheners; 5-gallon bottles filled with water and lemon slices, and connected to bowls, awaited thirsty dogs. It was the kind of event that defines “conspicuous consumption.”

“People are more comfortable throwing money at their dogs down here,” one visiting Berkeley jewelry maker told me as she stood behind a table displaying necklaces. “People are more utilitarian in the Bay Area.”

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Tori Spelling was also selling jewelry, from her newly launched Maven line.

“Maven is kind of edgy jewelry,” she told me. “I created as one of my pieces a diamond-and-gold bone necklace. Maven is not at all pet jewelry [though], and the necklace is not for pets, it’s for people.”

Chez Puppy, purveyor of “sociable and socially conscious dog treats,” organizes canine marriages and “bark mitzvahs.”

“We did a doggie wedding at Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica,” a company co-owner told me. “We arranged everything that goes into a real wedding — though on a smaller scale — from clothing to the hotel, a nondenominational minister, a best man and maid of honor.”

Across the lawn was Amber’s Armoires, a line of handcrafted wooden wardrobes. “Each one has a rack and drawers to hold your dog’s clothes, leashes, collars, jewelry, pedigree papers,” Amber’s Armoires’ founder said. Then there was La Petite Maison, which custom-builds playhouses for children that can go for $45,000 apiece, and dog houses, which, at $4,500, seem like a steal.

“Our biggest kid’s playhouse is 20 by 17,” I was informed about one home with a sun room. “It has a kitchen with running water and a media room. The doggy houses are enormous too — we’ve got one that’s got a fireplace and recessed lighting.”

For those seeking a narrative experience, Jean-Paul Chiari runs Le Bulldog of Beverly Hills, whose star, a bulldog attired in a tux and top hat, is available for special occasions and comes with his own biography. Chiari’s assistant vainly tried to coax gathered press to kiss the bulldog’s face, then gave up and smooched him herself.

 

In a way, we not only expect events like Silver Spoon, we demand them. Don’t the mad indulgences of celebrities make L.A. L.A.? Aren’t mahogany-framed pet divans and reflective dog-walking clothes the things that separate us from utilitarian San Francisco? And most of the event’s vendors and guests continually donate to charities, animal and human — Spelling told me that all of her necklaces’ sales proceeds go to Much Love. But conspicuous consumption will always gnaw at Americans, even if they can’t explain exactly why. The answer lies closer to home than they think.

If you drive down a particular street on the commercial edge of L.A.’s Skid Row, you might notice a tall, slightly stooped figure discreetly making up-and-down gestures to motorists. He’s one of four men on a short block who, for a tip, will pick parking meters with a bent paper clip in their slots or keep an eye on your car. “Harris,” as I’ll call him, lives in a nearby hotel that probably doesn’t have a media room, let alone recessed lighting. Many of his friends, if they even have a roof over their heads, occupy a living space that could fit inside one of La Petite Maison’s kiddy playhouses.

Harris wears black sweats and a baseball cap. Some of his front teeth have been pushed in, and there are white flecks in his beard. Last week I asked him if the downtown revitalizations have brought any money his way.

“Once I could make $50 or $60 a day,” he said. “But that was before the economy went bad.” Harris’ speech retains its native Jamaican lilt, and his eyes are always searching for approaching traffic, vacated spaces — and the police.

The world of meter feeders is more tightly connected to stock-market palpitations than might be imagined. Harris, who says he has a business degree from L.A. Trade Tech, knows a bad economy when he see one and says that redevelopment has closed many of the check-cashing offices that benefited his bleak corner of L.A.’s invisible marketplace. Still, he and his colleagues, all African-Americans, have adapted, even beating the new technology that a few years ago replaced manually operated meters with electronic ones. I ask about his presence on Skid Row.

“I had a fall,” he said. “Like everyone here — a fall.”

Harris spots a white man in an SUV and runs over to him. The man seems startled, then recognizes Harris and shakes his hand. It turns out the man has been away from this area for a few years. He gives Harris $5 to look after his car.

Comparing Silver Spoon with Skid Row may seem like a cheap shot, but there was a time when the image of a homeless American next to that of a $4,500 dog house was cause for outrage. Today we don’t care and dismiss such Calcuttan contrasts as vulgar dialectics, demagoguery, class hatred. Silver Spoon is the kind of event that the rest of America, from its trailer parks to The New York Times, eagerly points to as proof of Hollywood insanity, but the deeper madness lies in a country that ridicules the rich without acknowledging its poor, a society that denies the very possibility of contrast and outrage.

For a few minutes Harris’ street is parked out. The meter feeders gather until a space opens up.

“Where’s my money? Where’s that 20 you owe?” one of Harris’ colleagues asks another. “I need to get in that house.”

“That whorehouse?” the other says, indicating some rooms above a lingerie shop. “They won’t let people of color in! Only whites and some Mexicans!”

“I’ve been in!” avers the first man. “Had $80 on me one night, but I just had to have me this one bitch!” He didn’t say if the place served Chivas.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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