“Still Life, With Dusty”, or My Class B Misdemeanor
“That’s a beautiful dog” the man in the small elevator said as he scratched Dusty’s nose. I thanked him and put in plain words my dog and I travel the country and write about our adventures. “We got in from Brooklyn ten minutes ago. Headed to Ferguson in the morning. Gonna commit a Class B Misdemeanor in Memphis on our way home to Austin” I said, road haggard and weary. “That sounds wonderful. I would love to have that job,” he replied. I asked him what he does for a living, and he said, “I’m in a rock band called Third Eye Blind.” The doors of the elevator slide open on what could’ve been the thirteenth floor of my day, and the dog and I never saw him again.
Dusty and I were in Pittsburgh for the night, down by the water and sports arenas. Third Eye Blind, the seminal rock band of ten years ago, was playing the next night. It was Father’s Day, the dog and I split a pastrami and cheese sandwich from Primanti Bros. (the local legend of an eatery who put French Fries on the sandwich) before we were to become “Still Life, With Dusty” that night, a living, breathing art instillation at the Mattress Factory Contemporary Art Museum’s Summer Galla. Dusty will eat anything. I think he has pica, the eating disorder in which people consume paper, clay, metal, sand, just about everything, and this is a horrible mischaracterization and oversimplification of the affliction. We were studying how the country has changed, everything changes, cities change, people change, sandwiches change, like looking at a light bulb flickering until it burns away. The only thing constant is change. Nothing was going according to plan and I couldn’t have been happier. We were sucking on a dream, a dream filled with French Fries in the middle of sandwich. My dog and I were kings, or so I told myself.
Pittsburgh is the new poster boy for gentrification, a movement I view as a disease, like pica consuming everything in its path. Pittsburgh is what Austin and Portland were a decade ago, what Seattle was in the 1990’s, what San Francisco was since its inception, a place where trends in urban neighborhoods result in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses, mostly artists and colored people. On our way to the Mattress Factory, hip-deep in an arts district that grew out of a bombed out brick and mortar world, Dusty and I happened upon a man Randy as he waved his hands and called us over, asking what kind of dog Dusty is. That is how we meet people. They always want to know what kind of dog Dusty is.
“Oh! You should have as many journeys as branches on that tree, and to have as many dreams as leaves on that tree”, he said to Dusty. Randy grew up in Pittsburgh a poor boy, his mother ran away with six kids because she was a Christian and his father wasn’t. The story of “Randy Land”, a series of painted houses and gardens he bought back in 1995 on a credit card is the story of struggles. It is the stories of what to recognize, and what to keep. Randy flunked kindergarten and third grade and he never understood books. He couldn’t retain it, and as a boy he was lonely. ” One day I looked in the mirror and I wasn’t lonely. I always had a friend 24/7. I learned my mind was a file cabinet, and a file cabinet needs a key, and in that moment I unlocked my heart, and my heart unlocked my mind.” Randy became a gardener at the age of eight and would make a hundred dollars a day cleaning other people’s lawns. He graduated from high school and took classes at the local community college on psychology and philosophy to learn more about people and the world. “Intelligence is inside your head, but it means nothing unless you can unlock it with your heart.” Randy now has 800 gardens in eight parks, and his series of brightly colored house? “Randy land is junk and joy!” he told me, a place that now holds 200 weddings a year, but Randy Land is really for his mother. “I’m a pebble of the rock my mother is. There was always smiles in her tears.” I’ve traveled across time and space with my dog for almost ten years. Rarely have Dusty and I met a man more beautiful as Randy. He is a star beyond the fiddle and perfunctory. We hugged him, one of us licked him, and we said good-bye and went to the Mattress Factory where teenage girls giggled and took turns taking selfies with the dog as we pretended to be art.
“What kind of dog is he?” a girl asked.
“A good one.”
“What kind of writer are you?”
“A not so good one.” I said.
When traveling my mind wonders and I begin to pretend. I hate pretending. It’s lying with wings. Some times I pretend Dusty and I are Han Solo and Chewbacca, but I can never remember who is which. Other times, I pretend I’m Blackbolt, king of the Inhumans, the reclusive race of genetically altered superhumans in Marvel comic books, and Dusty is my Lockjaw, Blackbolt’s teleporting bulldog that will eat almost anything. I wonder if Lockjaw has pica?
Sometime I sit still, looking in the review mirror, and pretend Dusty and I are still life.
I was happy once. It was Christmas Day, 1982. Santa gave me a teddy bear named Eggbert. He was my inanimate version of Dusty before there was a Dusty. Eggbert is round and pudgy, a character who would seemingly eat anything in my imagination, and when I think about it he might have had pica. Eggbert now sits on a small mahogany rocking chair in the basement of my parent’s home in Bloomington, Indiana, draped in Mardi Gras beads I got in New Orleans when I was a boy. Eggbert ate ghosts for me and made everything better when I was lonely, a time and a place now frozen.
The day after Father’s Day, Dusty and I sat in the basement with my former sidekick and went over our notes in preparation for our time in Ferguson. Words can bang around in your head, forever, really, if you let them, and some place one step to the left of the word “gentrification” that was the steering wheel of this trip, a new truth with a small “t” was bubbling to the surface. I came to the perception of “political correctness” which is nothing more than a verbal form of gentrification. Spruce everything up, make it cute, get rid of all the unsightliness in order to create a false sense of bliss, a commoditization of empathy and tolerance, and “pretend” everything is fine, like how I pretend I’m the Captain of the Millennium Falcon, or worse, the king of superhuman freaks. It is the pretending of PC that bothers me, a lie wrapped in IKEA furniture. It’s the interpretation of what is said and what we want to hear.
Dusty and I spent only a day in Bloomington. I can’t handle revisiting my childhood for much longer. We saw my Grandmother, who told me Dr. Phil had some bad girls on that day while she shared a cinnamon bagel with Dusty, before we visited Ella, the precocious five year old of Wes and Angela. “Dusty and I are going to do something illegal with it,” I told Ella when she asked why I wanted to borrow one of her magic markers. “Your marker will join me and Dusty on our adventure, travel almost 500 miles, and I promise to mail it back to you.” She smiled and offered me pink or purple, her favorite colors. When I was Ella’s age I was in Kindergartten with her mother, probably playing Han Solo in the snow, and I met her father when my dad diagnosed him with leukemia. We all went to high school together, I was the best man in their wedding, and my signature is on their wedding certificate. I had never been so proud when I signed that document. I know I’ll never get married, I’ll never play that game, but on that day I was as close to being dealt the cards of matrimony as I ever will. Dusty and I took the purple marker, played in the park with Ella as we imagined to own ice cream shops with twigs and grass, and then the dog and I disappeared. Nothing is frozen in time.
There’s a polish joke I know. The prince of Poland is confronted by an adviser and told the Germans are invading from the west and the Russians are invading from the east. “What do we do, my Prince?” he asks. “Shoot the Germans first, because in Poland it is business before pleasure.” In fairness, for the joke to be funny you need to pretend Poland even has a prince to take you one step to the left on the realism of the bloodiness. That is what pretending can do for you, and as Dusty and I roll into Ferguson I think of the gallows humor that can float a community and keep it from breaking. My first thought was that Ferguson is a community getting up on one knee from a bad game, but I’m wrong, I’m pretending again. We walked the streets and scratched the surface. It became clear that my belief in everything changing was wrong.
Ferguson is a cigar stand at the end of time and space where no one smokes. The police department had cement barriers in front of the drive, reminiscent of government building in Northern Ireland during the peace talks back when Seattle was hip. There was a school only a half-mile from downtown, I think, a few blocks from the used car dealership. A plane flew low in the sky, and I wondered how small we all must look from far away. This was a town, a street, and a stretch of road that was the center of the world only one year ago with the death of Michael Brown, a black kid, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white cop. The kid was gunned down by the officer in the road where my dog and I stood, next to tattered flags, dying trees, and broken bus stop signs in a summer with no exit. “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”, if we let them be.
At the Ferguson Farmers Market Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was played by The Maple Jam Band and the bakers from Pie Craft gave Dusty a monster pie, a chocolate chip cookie dough treat with housemaid marshmallow and blue food coloring to make the delicacy appear as a tiny Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Nothing makes my dog smile like a blue cookie. The police were shaking hands and showing people black and white cop cruisers, a community outreach program that felt as fake as a three dollar bill. Video surveillance only a year before showed what appears to be Brown shoving a convenience store clerk and stealing cigars minutes before he was fatally shot by Wilson, shot at least six times, including twice in the head and four times in the right arm. His act: a Class A Misdemeanor. The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death, nor did the officer who gunned him down knew he stole those cigars.
There were signs in storefronts that read “Black Owned Business” in faded red, black, and green. “What kind of dog is that?” led to some giving me their story, but not a single, solitary person would give me their name. The police officers would not go on the record, and clearly had media training, thinking carefully as they chewed their words, never looking me in the eye, always looking at Dusty. Each officer I spoke with was white, female, and felt if though the riots where started by outsiders looking to cause trouble, and made it clear that they were being treated unfairly. No white men would speak to me. I counted how many black people turned me down for an interview before one would say yes, eight in total. “He didn’t have to die, and that is all I will say to you and this dog” a woman at the market told me. The entire town was cold. I can’t imagine being married, or having a kid, but if I watched my dog or teddy bear die I would lose my mind. The witness count varies from story to story, but we know Michael Brown was killed at noon in broad daylight on Canfield Drive. His body was in the street for four hours for all to see.
That night we stayed at the Osage Arts Community, outside the small Ozark town of Belle. When traveling across country I prefer to stop here so Dusty can see his girlfriend, Katie, a horse (I’m cool with it), and his dog friends Aphrodite, Zeus, and a golden retriever so friendly some at Osage believe he has brain damage. The retriever, Murphy, never stops smiling, and always licks Dusty in the teeth when he sees him. Dusty licked Katie on the nose, and played in the river with his friends as I looked at my notes, my thoughts, and the pictures I take after weeks of being on the road, Dusty being on leash, pretending to be my writing partner. That day the golden retriever was standing in the back of a farmer’s truck, and when the farmer backed up to collect garbage bags, and Murphy fell out the of back end and his hind leg was crushed. It was in slow motion for me, like a relentless nightmare. I screamed at the top of my lungs to “Stop!”, but the farmer didn’t hear me. Was this what it was like to watch Michael Brown die, in broad daylight, seeing brutality from afar you can’t stop, frozen in time, or am I just pretending again? The golden retriever lived. He never stopped smiling. He limped from under the truck, over to Dusty with a bloody paw, gave him a lick across his teeth, and slipped away into the brush. Michale Brown could never be so lucky.
The next morning Dusty and I went to Memphis, a town that is 435 miles away from Ella and her pretend ice cream shop in the park. We stayed at the Peabody Hotel and signed a waver stating Dusty must walk around the flowing water fountain in the middle of the lobby that is the home of the famed Peabody ducks. Dusty laid under the lobby player piano as I asked where Graceland is before splitting a fried green tomato bacon cheeseburger with the dog. I’ll eat anything, I guess. Perhaps I have pica. That night my dog was lookout as I defaced the wall of Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, the King of rock ‘n roll, with Ella’s purple magic marker. “Dear Elvis, Tim and Dusty were here. Thanks Ella.” Now at the same age of when I was on the playground with her mother, and cheering her father in his defeat of cancer, Ella become my distant and unknowing accomplice in a Class B Misdemeanor, her marker in the mail as we got back to our room at the Peabody, and by the time Memphis police read this on Instagram, Dusty and I were in Arkansas, still life in the rearview mirror. It was wonderful. I had never been so happy. That was the second proudest signature of my life, me with my dog putting in plain words what we do for a living. I bet that guy from Third Eye Blind would love to have my job, at least that is what I like to pretend.
If you, or someone you know, has pica you can get help at this link.