This summer Timothy Braun is traveling the US with his sidekick, his dog Dusty, reporting back from the road on the state of the States. You can read his first installment here, where Dusty meets and saves the day for Suicide Girls at SXSW.
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor,
Not going left, not going right.
THE NIGHT BEFORE we left, Dusty and I attended a bon voyage party at Homeslice, our local pizza joint in Austin. I’m not much for parties, but Phil the manager invited us and made more food than we could eat so the dog and I would snack on leftovers as we drove across the high desert of West Texas. Phil is a mountain of man, with a fuzzy beard and a teddy bear grin. Before we met in Austin our paths crossed in Manhattan back in the 90s when he was the manager of Rodeo Bar, a noted place of debauchery during the alt-country fad. Phil, however, is “punk rock,” as he likes to say. He’s all heart, no ego and plays with pizza because he loves it. Before Dusty and I arrived, he made a small pizza for a little girl’s stuffed animal. I bet he would make a great father. Phil is writing a puppet show to be performed at Homeslice, a “country mouse vs. city mouse” story he describes to Dusty and me as we munch on a mushroom and onion pie. One-by-one the tattooed wait staff approach our patio seats to feed Dusty crust and tell him how pretty he is. My dog is always in the middle of the room.
Dusty is relatively tame, unless food or fun is to be had, and he doesn’t need to be told how pretty he is. He’s the only dog I’ve ever known who doesn’t bark at his own reflection. Instead, he admires his look in the mirror, and his look has changed recently. I’ve trimmed his fur for our trip, mostly a scruff around the neck to keep him cool, keep burs and insects off him but also to make him look less like a wolf, so more approachable, as his being approached is part of my come on to get people to talk to me. On occasion a person, usually walking a pit bull, asks if Dusty fights, and when they do I tell them to run. I’m responsible for Dusty’s well being, and if anyone tries to hurt my dog, I’ll end that person with my hands. I don’t know why I get angry sometimes, but I do, and as Phil tells me about his puppet play, a flood of children dressed in little league gear and ballerina outfits join the line for loving Dusty.
“Is there anything in particular you’re planning to do out West?” Phil asks.
“I’m thinking about getting a tattoo in L.A.,” I say watching a tattooed waitress kiss Dusty on the nose.
The trip was off to an irresponsible start as Dusty and I had already eaten half of a sandwich Phil made us: an Italian sub with ham, dry salami, capicola, Genoa salami, and provolone cheese in the middle of the night before we hit the road. The rest was consumed before we got New Mexico. Driving across the desert gets boring, and I tried to blast through as fast as I could fearing my Toyota Tacoma might breakdown in the middle of nowhere and the dog would bake in the sun. We started with 186,000 miles on that engine. Driving across I-10 can feel like an eternity. The speed limit is 80, but you never feel like you’re going faster than 35. Any entertainment can soften the blow. I loaded audiobooks of Haruki Murakami’s unabridged Dance, Dance, Dance, 1Q84, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles to my iPhone just for this trip. I consider Murakami the most American author alive, obviously ironic considering he’s Japanese. Still Murakami writes with an absurdity and longing I identify with Americans in a social media age. His stories are surrealistic and nihilistic, focusing on jazz music, whiskey and cats, but they have an alienation that can be synonymous with a secluded culture dominated by distance and suburbs. “I hate cats,” I tell Dusty, as we listen to Wind-Up Bird, and I assume he agrees.
Outside of El Paso I realize I left The National’s Trouble Will Find Me in the CD player. This is the only album I’ve brought with us. Do we still call them albums? This is a happy accident as when I’m not listening to a Murakami characters being raped by Japanese gangsters or looking for lost cats, I enjoy listening to what I call “sad bastard music” with lyrics like “All the L.A. women, Fall asleep while swimmin’, I got paid to fish ’em out, And then one day I lost the job…” I also have a print copy of The Little Prince. I keep this book next to my bed at home along with a Lindy’s football magazine that comes out once a year. I read these to Dusty when he’s scared during storms and high winds to keep him calm. He doesn’t understand the words, I guess, he just wants to hear my voice. The Little Prince was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and I go back to it for guidance the way religious people go back to their good books. Outside of Tucson our truck is hit by a dust devil, a minor league tornado that shakes and rattles us, and Dusty is clearly scared. We stop at a rest area, and I read him parts of the interaction between the little prince and the fox until Dusty licks my hands. That night we stay in Tucson, which is hotter than Hell, for only a few hours. Our hotel room smells like cheap sex, and the only radio station I can find played nothing but Mötley Crüe and Eddie Money. Arizona is a time warp to me.
The next day we are to stay in Santa Monica with my former New York roommate and spiritual advisor The Reverend Thomas P. Gissendanner. Usually, I would alter names, or at minimum remove the last one, but I’ve known Tommy for fifteen years, and he would want his full title spelled out. Tom is an actor with matinee idol looks and obtained his divinity degree online so he could marry people. We used to drink brown liquor together. Now, I’m sober and he has a daughter who calls my dog “Dugh-y.” When Dusty and I arrive, Tom’s new home has sewage problems and his mother visiting – taking up the guest room bed, so the dog and I stay at a Travelodge down the street with a sweet woman who manages the motel. “Mr. Timothy,” she says, “I hear you are writing about your travels with Mr. Dusty. You spell my name H-I-L-D-A.” She is adorable, and I promise Hilda she will be in the story. And voila…
The beds at the Travelodge are hip level for me, meaning too high for Dusty to leap in and out of. I push the furniture around the room and put the bed mattress on the floor to make him comfortable. I sleep there to. I prefer to be close to the ground so Dusty won’t be alone in a strange place. Plus, he always sleeps in the middle of the bed wherever we are, giving me one sliver of mattress off to the side. I’m used to this.
The next morning Dusty and I hike up a hill to the famous Griffith Observatory with the animator Miwa Matreyek (I’ll use her full name too as you should look up her amazing work) of Cloud Eye Control, a collaborative performance group that creates work combining interactive media with live performance. L.A. has quietly become one of the best art and theater towns in the United States. Although a gorgeous park in the middle of the city, Griffith Observatory has been a major set piece in Rebel Without A Cause and even the erotic spoof Flesh Gordon. It’s a clear day, and I get sunburned, but the hike is exquisite and designed to drain Dusty for my two o’clock appointment at the Honorable Society, a swank tattoo parlor on Santa Monica Boulevard. I know the tattoo parlor will be exciting for the dog and I need him to be calm while I get inked.
The shop at the Honorable Society is done up like an old mansion, sporting furniture with feet and even a flat-screen TV where two young boys stop playing a hockey videogame to scratch the dog. My tattoo artist and I talk about the local NHL team, the L.A. Kings, who are in the middle of the Stanley Cup against the N.Y. Rangers at the time. Down the street a large mural on the side of a Trader Joe’s reads, “We Are All Kings.”
“Can you do this tattoo in French and English?” I ask the tattooist, showing him my design.
“Yeah. If you’re gonna put this on your arm, I suggest we do it in cursive”
And we do.
I have to rub Aquaphor cream on my tattoo to keep it from getting infected, and I feel sick for days, but Dusty and I celebrate my new cosmetic enhancement with red velvet cupcakes and doggie yogurt on Venice Beach. There, we find the new Lindy’s football magazine. Published that very day, I read to him on the floor of our motel about the Indianapolis Colts that night. The Colts are our team, and quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to break passing records this fall. Dusty and I are both happy.
When Dusty and I skip out of L.A., it’s the twentieth anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s running from the police in his Bronco. More Americans watched that chase than the Super Bowl that year, and that moment is considered one of the key moments that kicked off reality TV as we know it, changing too forever our understanding of what news is. On our way out of town we meet with Bob for breakfast at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank next to the Brady Bunch house. I dare you to say that five times fast. Bob is in the entertainment industry and teaches on the side. I’ve known him for twelve years; we have history in the East Village theater scene back in New York, back when Phil was at the Rodeo Bar and Tom was my roommate. We used to do our plays in old churches and warehouses, and when you get guys like us together it’s like old comedians telling jokes at the Olive Tree Café over baklava. We eat eggs, reminisce and discuss our favorite TV show Louie. “It’s a horror show for parents,” Bob tells me. The latest episode was a ninety-minute flashback detailing pot smoking teenagers as Louie C.K. catches his daughter taking a drag off a joint, but our conversation quickly changes to gun violence, a subject more American than Murakami could ever write.
Bob’s classroom was in “lock-down” the other day as a man roamed L.A. with a high-powered rifle. The day before a kid shot the hell out of an Oregon high school. Bob was trained as an actor and has a degree in directing from the CalArts. He simply doesn’t have the skill set to deal with school shootings but then again who does?
“I want to bounce an idea off you, but I just don’t know how to pitch it yet.” Is what I think he says, but I am paying more attention to his body language than the words coming out of his mouth, and it’s looks like he’s saying he’ll kill anyone who comes anywhere near to harming his kids.
“I want to do,” he explains, “a hyper-realistic theatre piece of a school shooting inside the classroom setting. No dramatic art, no resolution.” He goes into to all the late-night research he’s been doing on school shootings. All of them have been committed by straight, white boys, which is caustic considering 48% of the country is still freaking out over gay marriage. Then there’s how Bob even tries to explain to his seven-year-old and ten year-old what do during a school shooting.
“It’s a struggle between keeping myself informed and keeping my kids safe,” he tells me. “There’s so much that I don’t want them to know or see or hear. I get my news through NPR in the morning, and I keep my finger near the volume control so they don’t hear the words ’school shooting,’ which as we know is part of everyday life. Those are two words my kids understand and those two words together will put fear in them, which is the one thing I’m trying to prevent for as long as possible…fear is mostly rooted in imaginary objects and, here in Southern California, in earthquakes. Shootings are becoming like earthquakes—entirely unpredictable, capable of causing death and injury, impossible to anticipate their depth of impact, and a present threat regardless of class.”
I tell Bob I like his idea for the play and will help if there’s anyway I can. I think too of the Louie C.K. story about how isolated our world has become with cell phones and computers:
“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids…they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy.”
Bob and I used to do avant-garde plays, but this subject matter here is too real, too close to home for him, and he won’t hear about it in a subjective way. He wants to break that fourth wall the way Louie C.K. does and get close and personal, to be real like Louie on TV talking about kids, his own kids. It’s a powerful idea, more powerful than kids smoking pot, and I tell him I’ll help any way I can. With that, I head north with Dusty.
And then comes Joy.
Santa Barbara is picturesque, with Spanish architecture, a pier and palm trees, but I can’t imagine living there. I’m only there for Joy, a girl I met five years ago at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She documents community response to the theft of stone sculptures from the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal when she’s not cracking skulls on the Santa Barbara roller derby team, the Mission City Brawlin’ Betties. Joy is known as “P.S. I Shove You,” or “Shovey” for short and hasn’t rolled in longer than she can remember since she hurt her leg. Joy is charming and has the vulnerability of a young Michael Jackson. In the past we could make each other laugh easily, with an understanding that flickered between us.
“Somebody call a veterinarian, ‘cause these puppies are sick!” she’d say while flexing her biceps.
When Joy and I eat fried food and catch up, I keep Dusty calm by ordering steak bits and bone marrow off a special doggie menu. Joy tells me about Nepal, how the pollution is bad, and they have no street addresses and the roads have been destroyed all at once to make new ones.
“Do you ever get lonely?” She asks about my road trip.
“Only around people,” I respond.
She doesn’t laugh, and I’m surprised. She looks at the ground. Joy tells me she is heading back to Asia for an art show, and that she is saving money to adopt a child. My comment is thoughtless and arrogant, and I still regret saying it. I buy her flowers from a street vendor to apologize and we walk Dusty on the pier under an almost full moon. Santa Barbara’s coast is dotted with oil rigs in the distance that look like clunky amusement parks in the night. We crack dumb jokes about puppies, make small talk and discuss the new National album before she wanders home with her flowers.
“I like to run while listening to The National,” she says. “I always feel like the lead singer is holding back, something important when you are running.
I know I’ll never see her again, and as I write this, I wonder where she is now, who she is now.
The next day Dusty and I drive across the California wine country, which would have been romantic when I drank. We eat at In-N-Out burger, and I say this because outside of pizza I have a deep love of cheeseburgers and I’m the only man I have ever known not to like the storied burger chain, but when in California you do as the locals do and the locals do love In-N-Out. Dusty and I make our way to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, just up the hill from Palo Alto. I attended the program four years earlier, a program founded by Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill, (remember, you are here because others aren’t) and it is arguably the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. The sky is everywhere, and this was the first place I ever heard the band The National. The last time I was here I listened to “Mistaken For Strangers” over and over again until the other artists told me to stop.
That night we stay in the basement of the director’s house, and the bed is low enough for Dusty to jump in with ease. Earlier Nick, the director’s husband, and I snuck off and talked about sports. It’s rare to be able to talk about sports at a residency program, and I tell Nick about my new football magazine. He tells me about attending the 1958 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium when my Colts beat the New York Giants. Nick watched Johnny Unites throw pass after pass that day. This is considered to be the greatest game in the history of football, and as O.J. changed news, this game shifted the country’s attention from baseball to football. When Dusty and I lie down to sleep that night, the L.A. Kings win the Stanley Cup in double overtime, and I think about the “We Are All Kings” mural on the grocery store wall. I brush pine needles from Dusty’s short fur before he sits in the middle of the bed, as he always does. He puts his head against my leg while I rub the Aquaphor cream on my tattoo. It says:
Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed
It’s part of the interaction between the fox and the Little Prince.
The dog and I get up early the next day and drive off to Oakland, to Jack London Square, where we will stay for the next week.