Would you like to go to a free concert in Times Square? Put on by the avant-garde artist and musician Laurie Anderson? Who is playing music for dogs? In the freezing cold? Apparently, some people answer those questions with a resounding yes, and apparently I'm one of those people, because on Monday night I found myself in a cab heading into Manhattan with my dog, Kerouac, a 12-year-old chow mix. The cab's dashboard said it was 18 degrees outside, and with 17 MPH winds it felt much, much colder than that.
When I arrived, I found a couple hundred people who had made the same choices I had, all bundled in their heaviest clothing on the red bleachers of Duffy Square. There were also about 75 dogs, who had not chosen to be there because dogs cannot make decisions about where to be, but they seemed happy enough because dogs usually seem happy enough. It seemed like the sort of event that should have been in Brooklyn, and probably indoors, but here we were.
A tent had been set up at the base of the bleachers offering headphones with which we humans could listen to the concert in exchange for our IDs. Headphones on, I sought out a spot on the bleachers, where many people were already seated on blankets with their dogs.
Jenny Coffey, a resident of the Lower East Side, had brought along her nine-year-old dog, Beauregard. I asked if she received the free dog treats that crew members had been handing out to attendees prior to the show.
"Yes," replied Coffey, "but it's not his brand." Coffey and her husband were both major Anderson fans, "and I hope he is, too," she said, gesturing to Beauregard.
"Is he inclined toward experimental music?" I asked.
"You know what he's..." Coffey replied, gesturing with her hands as she searched for the right words. "He is to the left. He just goes his own way."
As ambient music played over my headphones, I spoke to Steve Cho and Karmen Wu and their six-year-old American Eskimo Dog Schubert – "like the composer." The two amateur musicians had never heard of Anderson's work before, but they had read about the performance in the New York Times.
When asked whether they thought Schubert might like it, Wu replied that they didn't know.
"We just know he hates piano," she explained. "He likes cello. Maybe he'll like the lower-pitch stuff."
I took a moment to see how Kerouac was enjoying the concert, hoping he might react to the specifically dog-friendly music in some interesting way, but he seemed unaffected, content to just stand there in between strangers, who would occasionally reach down and pet him.
"I just want to put my hands in this," I overheard one passerby saying to him, presumably about his thick fur.
Just before midnight, about half of the gigantic TV screens surrounding Duffy Square switched over from their regularly scheduled ads to a three-minute segment from Anderson's Academy Award-shortlisted documentary, Heart of a Dog, a collection of intimate stories about love, memory, death, and dogs. The other half of the screens continued playing ads.
After the screening finished and the screens returned to their ads, the crowd made their way down the bleachers.
One dogless woman who had pink-dyed hair noticed my dog and another dog circling one another. "It's never too cold for butt-sniffing," she remarked.
It was the kind of cold night when you find yourself saying things like that, things that don't quite make sense. When we were all huddling in line to return their headphones, one young woman said, "If we all scrunch together," then stopped, as if she wasn't sure if she had spoken out loud, or lacked the sufficient energy or body heat to continue speaking.
As I was leaving, I asked Jonathan Nosan, a contortionist, whether his nine-year-old beagle Clover enjoyed the performance.
"Her head perked," he said. "Her head cocked."
Nosan said he enjoyed the event. "It had that moment of, New York isn't so bad," he said. "Times Square doesn't totally suck.
"In [my] 20 years [here], it's easy to get super jaded," Nosan continued. "And then something beautifully artistic and supportive and immersive happens like this. I was very happy about that."