“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
How did we get here, traveling each day across time and space, meeting people in places unknown? I have loved him longer than I can put into words. Dusty is an exuberant being whose eyes shine each time he smiles or barks at raccoons. He is home to me. The night before we left for Florida I kept asking where he’d been as his soft white legs shuffled out of the wooded section of our dog park in East Austin. Dusty said nothing — he never has, and never will. He just vanishes when we go to the park. It’s like a dream I don’t know is coming, where he disappears and comes back to me when I least expect him. I always fear he will go forever, and I’ll have no one left to talk to. “Has the washing machine always smelled like gin?” I asked him. “Do you remember if I showered this morning?” These are the broken thoughts that rattle in my head — the ones I can only talk to Dusty about.
Los Angeles. San Francisco. Boise. Brooklyn. We’ve seen them all. Last summer we went on one last journey, an adventure into the heart of Florida, a battleground state, to look for a vice presidential running mate for Dusty’s presidential bid. The concept was simple: use satire to talk about the 2016 election, specifically the rise of the hate-filled “alt-right” in the GOP with Donald J. Trump as its mouthpiece. “Why vote for one of these dogs when you can vote for mine?” we’d ask, and we’d survey Floridians about their hopes, dreams and desires for the future. Dusty is a good listener, and I type OK.
On the morning we left for Florida, my iPhone screen lit with a notification about a gunman at an Orlando nightclub. It would take a few more days for the realness of this to sink in. For now, we were far enough away from the scene that we could afford to give it little more than a sigh.
Dusty and I had become folk heroes, legends in my mind, like a Robin Hood fox and a Little John bear, or a space Wookie and a Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder, as we’d crossed the country the past three summers. As I lifted him into the truck that morning, minus the tail he’d lost to cancer last year, but plus the arthritis in his hips that came on this year, I was reminded that time stops for no dog. Still, Bernie Sanders ran an exhaustive presidential campaign, and he’s 97, I think.
Florida came to us like isolated cells on postcards, one framed image at a time. Florida is always a key battleground state, and is exceptionally weird and fantastic, just Google “Florida man” and wait for the headlines to appear. Anything goes in Florida, and guns were everywhere. In Tallahassee, we went to a pawnshop to see if we could buy Dusty a gun (yes, but there’s a waiting period). In Tampa, we wrote an untitled country song on a napkin at Tiki Joe’s about the new neo-cons. Every day as we traveled, the death toll rose from the Orlando shooting. First ten confirmed dead, then twenty, then maybe forty, with scores more wounded. On Father’s Day, we drove across Alligator Alley and down to Key West where I was going to get a tattoo, a series of clouds on my arm next to the quote from The Little Prince I got when Dusty and I were in L.A. two years before, but I was sick. I was too sick. My feet were tingling and I felt nauseous. Too much fried food and too many Zombies at tiki lounges across the state were taking their toll. Dusty was beat, too. He can’t handle the long truck rides the way he used to. In Key West, Dusty and I laid in bed with a mushroom pizza and watched the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA Championship, the first sporting championship the city had won in decades, adding to the odd and crazy year that already was. Donald Trump, riding the backs of fear, had risen to the top of the Republican field for the presidency — that was as vile and disturbing as anything I had seen in my lifetime, and now Cleveland just won something. (That is when I got an idea for a book about 2016. It will be twelve chapters long, one for each month, and the chapter titles will be “No, really, this is what happened in January, and “No, really, this is what happened in February” and so on and so on until December.)
The death toll in Orlando had risen to fifty. The night club was called Pulse. I looked at the untitled country song I had written on the napkin, a song about missing a girl from far away and how I would like to make the world fine for her, and that sometime, maybe we could meet in heaven, where it will be the past, not as it was, but the past as we remember it. America will be “great again” and so will we. Dusty’s hips won’t hurt, and I’ll be free from stomach pain. I got out of bed, packed my bags and told Dusty we would be leaving in the morning. I wanted to see Pulse with my own eyes.
Who are you, and never let me go, she said with her arms as she hugged me. Kristen was a social worker who is now an academic advisor at Full Sail University. She is from Orlando, born and raised, but said she couldn’t bring herself to visit the sight of the shooting until that day. She came to write a message on the black netting placed between the club and the street. She knew none of the victims, but knows people who have tended bar at Pulse. “Every bartender in town knows each other,” she told me. As we spoke, House Democrats staged a sit in to protest Congress’ lack of leadership on gun control, specifically dealing with what happened in the building only a few feet away from our paws. “I like your dog,” she said, smiling even as her eyes became red. I decided not to ask her more questions. She gave me another hug, a who are you, and never let me go hug. She could have broken my bones.
The Pulse Nightclub is surprisingly small, wedged between a gas station and Dunkin Donuts. It’s hard to imagine so many people could have died there. It was opened and named in 2003 by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler to honor Poma’s brother John who died of AIDS “so his pulse could live on.” As I looked around, I see that it has, even amongst the bloodshed. Another woman hugged me, then another, as an old man prayed in front of the sign. They dropped to their knees and hugged Dusty, who licked their cheeks.
Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside Pulse. The GOP was quick to blame Muslims, the donkeys pointed to gay hate. As I posted pictures to Facebook and Instagram, I received messages from the world saying “Thank you for going.” Dusty and I became ambassadors for others. It was quiet and soft. It could have been the moon on a Sunday morning, but it was Orlando. We had never been here before, so we wrote a message on the black netting they had to block off the crime scene in yellow chalk a policeman gave me, hoping they never forget us.
“When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’”.
– An uncredited New York Times reporter covering Halford E. Luccock in an article published September 12, 1938
When we returned to Austin, the state of Texas was undergoing its own self-reflection. I was invited to a Donald Trump rally. Trump was refused space at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Austin for his rally because it was Food Truck Tuesday at the center (or at least that was their excuse to not host the GOP presidential candidate and his fans). Instead, Trump and his gang would have to hold their event at the Travis County Expo Center, a metal barn in the country known for gun shows and rodeos.
There was a military-like police presence at the barn, including police on horseback blocking #blacklivesmatter protesters. I was invited to attend the rally with Corey Dargel, a composer and lyricist known for his work with New Amsterdam Records, a New York City-based label that prides itself on promoting classically-trained musicians who fall in between traditional genre boundaries.
“I’m starting to get a little nervous. I’ll bring some Clonazepam in case we need it,” Dargel texted me before we went. Dargel, by no means a fan of Trump, was interested to see the pageantry, observing the math and science of the candidate and his performance. I was more interested in the long division, and I left Dusty at home. I feared he would get hurt or worse.
Donald Trump is about the new nationalism, a nationalism that longs for a past that never was. There are two camps in his arithmetic: you are either with us, or against them. His followers, and there are millions, are the people who listen to BOB FM and lament as to why they just don’t make good music anymore, and Trump knows how to play the notes they want to hear. The emphases of the night were on safety and fear. Chants about walls and war were the norm throughout the evening, and as the night grew longer the crowd became more hostile. His “Make America Great Again” slogan concerns me, with an emphasis on the word again. Exactly what time and place does Trump want to return to? Will women still be allowed to vote? Will certain people no longer be welcome on golf courses? I like the Internet and penicillin. When we reach “again” can we keep that stuff? “We are going to turn it all around. Give Donald Trump a chance,” a young man next to me with a “Don’t Tread On Me” pin cried.
This summer I began to think Trump was not interested in becoming president. With the addition of key media figures to his campaign, he seemed to be strategizing and creating a new media outlet, an empire, that could have a rabid audience base for the next four years with a built-in antagonist in Hillary Clinton, and he did nothing at this rally to change my mind. Trump seemed disinterested as six different people were thrown out of the rally, most of them on the standing room floor in front of the speaker. When Trump supporters suspected there was a traitor in their midst, they would collectively point and yell. This group behavior was reminiscent of the 1976 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland, when alien-infected people slide their mouths open, point, and screech when a non-assimilated person was discovered. The original Snatchers was an allegory for communism… ironic behavior for a people claiming their freedom is being stolen.
Trump will lose the election, but he isn’t going anywhere. He can keep his act going, a narcissism disguised as freedom fighting, for years while stoking the fires of paranoia. As Dargel and I exited towards the concession stand, a girl with purple hair looked bored as hell, and as I was thinking there was no way she came there willingly, I spotted the woman sitting behind her, who was watching me like a hawk. She likely had seen me taking pictures and writing on my phone, and most importantly, she saw I wasn’t chanting with the crowd. I can only imagine she was moments away from pointing her finger and screaming at me. I hope when the election is finally over, we can stop calling white supremacy “alt-right.”
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
- Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
The dog and I didn’t find our VP candidate in Florida. We couldn’t find the character, but we found one in our own backyard: Jude Hickey, the Associate Executive Director of our local YMCA. Jude is an exuberant being whose eyes shine each time he smiles. He is notorious for being sweet and kind, thoughtful and loving. America hasn’t earned Hickey, but we deserve him, and our first act as running mates was to send our friend Jamie flowers after a car accident. Our platform is one of kindness, licks, and hugs that whisper who are you, and never let me go.
Early voting was underway in Texas, and after Googling to make sure it was allowed, I brought Dusty with me to the polls. I wanted him to see me cast my ballot for him, as this will be his last presidential election year. We waddled up to the machine that would take our vote, and I began to dial “Dusty” under the write-in section of the ballot before stopping. I thought of Kristen, and Pulse, and Florida. George W. Bush won by a margin of 537 in Florida, and this year a Florida man would go on to hang black mannequins in tree next to his Trump yard sign, claiming it is just “Halloween.” This is why I don’t care about Clinton’s emails, or any of her shenanigans. It was no time for jokes, satire, or tomfoolery, even from a 41-year-old boy and his dog. Dusty will be gone too soon, and what world would Kristen inherit. She was like a dream I don’t know is coming. She disappeared and came back to me when I least expected her. Instead of Dusty and Jude, I voted for what some have called “the lesser of two evils,” and I thought of what I wrote on the Pulse Night Club wall in yellow chalk a policeman gave me:
“Tim and Dusty Were Here and We Love You.”
These are the broken thoughts that rattle in my head — the ones I can only talk to Dusty about. And as we elect our next president, I think of heaven, everyone we have lost, and must remember, but I still can’t figure out why my washing machine smells like gin.
Portions of this piece were taken from my Huffingtonpost essay “Food Truck Tuesday, or The New Nationalism” and my short Instagram and facebook essays from my Away, With Dusty stories, and an homage to my friend Patrick Philips and his poem “Heaven.”