MY DOG SAVED the day for the under-clad ladies of the 2014 SXSW Suicide Girl party at the Hotel Vegas in East Austin. He was an invited guest – he gets invited many places – but on this night he became a hero when the sexy alt-pinup models known for tattoos, piercings, colored hair and dreadlocks were forced to bundle-up and hide in a backroom between a wall and a pool table to stay warm and dry from a storm that had smothered their party. Disappointed patrons who came from all over the world fled the rain, and as the dog and I looked for shelter, the hotel’s manager grabbed me by the arm, pointed at my dog, and said the girls wanted to meet him. The girls hugged and played with him as he sat on the floor between a wall and a red velvet pool table. My dog, an Australian shepherd, often looks like he’s smiling – and why wouldn’t he be? For a brief moment he was the envy of East Austin.
On our way back to my truck he and I dodged a bomb of rain under the porch of a margarita shack where we had a brief encounter with the ladies of Blush Kitchen, a YouTube channel devoted to baking in bikinis. “I like your dog’s eyes,” one of the girls said. They came to see the Suicide Girls too. We swapped recipes and business cards. “What’s your dog’s name?” another girl asked.
That was the end of the second day of SXSW for me and my dog.
I met Dusty six years ago. He was sitting in a cage as I entered a local animal shelter near the running path I frequent in downtown Austin. I had no intention of adopting a dog. I only stopped for a drink of cold water, but he was cute, and I decided to play with him. He’s half husky, half Australian shepherd, with one blue eye and one brown eye. When we played, he was friendly but didn’t listen to a thing I said. “Sit!” I said. He licked my face. “Come!” I said. He walked away. After a few minutes, he curled up next me and put his nose against my knee. Since then we have been inseparable and on many adventures including to kite festivals, being serenaded by Elvis impersonators, falling in love with horses, and surviving a “disagreement” with a herd of buffalo that felt we were getting too close to their young.
On the third day of SXSW, I had brunch with a childhood friend who is now an editor at Wired magazine. We grew up in a small Indiana town together, were the co-winners of our 6th grade creative writing competition – he wrote a rap, I wrote a Twilight Zone episode and we both attended Columbia University. We see each other at “South By” each year, talk about our families, TV shows, and the music we’re listening to, but this year he wanted to have a serious conversation. “You’ve been in the trenches a long time and you need to sell yourself,” he continued as I “ninja’d” the check, that is, I paid for our meal before he could notice the waiter had taken my credit card. I’m sneaky. I take pride in sneaking our checks when we see each other. I do paraphrase what my childhood friend said about my skittish story-pitching skills because I was still distracted from the day before, from the way the women reacted to Dusty, but it was clear he wanted me to take my stories more seriously. He wanted me to take that story more seriously.
I started writing about my adventures with Dusty two years ago. Our first one was published auspiciously by the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. We were cartooned in pink and red, a picture of us eating pizza and watching movies. After that fan mail came: love letters from Portugal, a dominatrix in Canada wanted to meet, and every divorced woman in Texas asked “us” out for coffee. The New Republic recently named our story the second saddest story in the history of “Modern Love,” which is weird because I consider our adventures to be fun, that and taking the silver medal in the saddest competition truly makes you the saddest, in my opinion.
More of our stories were published, and soon in Austin I became known as “Dusty’s Owner,” which is better than most things I’ve been called in my life. Our local pizza joint and men’s clothing store keep bones for him in case we walked in, and I’ve been deluged with suggestions on what to do with our stories. “What if you pitched a Louis C.K. style show to FX, just replace the daughters with your dog?” Others have suggested movies and a video game where Dusty and I fight crime or mediocrity. One person suggested a Tim and Dusty app for the iPhone, but was unable to explain exactly what it would do. “You know that Steinbeck book where he travels the country with a poodle?” a friend asked not so long ago. “Why don’t you do something like that? You two are always getting into trouble.”
I hadn’t looked at Travels With Charley since I’d been in college and was too cool to finish it. In the book John Steinbeck traveled across the United States with his poodle, Charley, to “…hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light…” and to rediscover the country he’d been writing about for many years. Steinbeck was moved by a desire to see the United States on a personal level since he made his living writing novels about it. He wrote of having many questions going into his journey, the main one being: What are Americans like today? His son, Thom, has a different story and said his father’s real reason for the trip was that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Steinbeck had a heart condition that meant he could have died at any time.
I’m not a novelist. I’m a playwright. I never finished Travels with Charley when I was younger. There was no sex, no violence in a travel story with a dog and a man getting old. It meant nothing to me then, and I was too busy wearing a black leather jacket and pretending to be Sam Shepard. Now I’ve written some 130 plays and operas, most of them short, none of them I’ve liked, and before I had Dusty I used to travel the country extensively for playwriting gigs. I often write about Coney Island, the American West – and tattooed pinup models. I’ve written in a barn on Montauk, buffalo ranches in Wyoming and the Texan Hill Country, a horse farm in Missouri, a cabin in New Hampshire, a ranch in California funded by the inventor of the birth control pill (I was there because others are not here), the St. Francis Center for Spirituality, and a frozen island off the coast of Maine where the lady of the establishment kept inviting me to church because she thought I was going to burn in Hell. Then, four years ago I was at the Santa Fe Art Institute writing sixty-four short plays for sixty-four paintings. I went out for Indian food with a performance artist and a woman who drew on erasers. As we sat down to eat I told them I had to go. Something was wrong. I felt a bolt of lightening shoot me in the chest, and a chain wrapped itself around my wrist, pulling me to the Devil. Perhaps the woman in Maine was right. I was diagnosed with a heart murmur, and I am getting old. I haven’t traveled much since then.
I’ve realized I write often about America, but I haven’t seen much of it in years. This summer I’m going away with Dusty. We will drive across the American West and write travel essays for The Weeklings on all the trouble we get into including visiting experimental puppet shows, kite festivals, Elvis impersonator contests, watching movies, eating pizza, a haunted house in San Jose, state fairs, county fairs, rodeos, food festivals, and other random silliness such as my getting a tattoo. I am moved to write about the country on a personal level with Dusty, who just like that night with the Suicide Girls always helps land me in situations I wouldn’t get into on my own. It’s my own humble version of Steinbeck, and mine is called Away, with Dusty. He had a French poodle. I have an Australian shepherd, who saved me from much heartache. Now we’ll see what happens with my heart murmur and middle age. I certainly don’t wear a black leather jacket anymore. I have an off-the-rack coat from the Gap.
The world has changed since Steinbeck toured the country with his dog. It’s also changed much since I first tried to read his book. An introduction by Jay Parini to the 50th anniversary edition of Travels With Charley cautioned readers, “It would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist.” Keep in mind, I’m no novelist, but I do have a dramatic streak. I can’t promise truth, well, perhaps not the literal kind. Instead, how about a deeper understanding of America today as I see it with Dusty. What else would you expect from the owner of a dog who gets invited to Suicide Girl parties?
Tune in next month for the first installment in the summer series Away with Dusty, when Tim and Dusty start their travels across America (or at least Texas) for The Weeklings …