A long night in Charlotte

This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There were honorable protestors in the Charlotte streets last night, and there were people who came to break and burn. It’s possible, even likely, that some changed sides during the night. They showed up to stand for peace but anger overwhelmed them. Or they showed up to riot and their hearts pushed them a different way. Our lives are complicated.

 

This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There are honorable and skilled police all over this country, and there are police not worthy of the badge. It’s possible, even likely, that some change sides under pressure. They practice calm reason but pull the trigger too soon. Or they itch to take down a suspect and decide, in the moment, to leave the gun in the holster. Our lives are complicated.

 

It’s 1 o’clock Thursday morning and the cable networks are still showing live updates of the chaos in uptown Charlotte, two and a half miles from our house. I can hear the helicopters. I’ve lived in Charlotte 27 years. My wife and I met here. Our roots are sunk to the waterline. One of the things we love most about Charlotte is that it has always been a warm and friendly city. But it is also an American city, and every American city lives with the threat of a street fight over the tensions that have always defined us: freedom vs. control, justice vs. peace. They are values this country has battled over since the beginning. This week, it’s our turn.

 

It is our turn because a police officer here shot a black man Tuesday afternoon. Maybe you have already decided who was right and who was wrong. The truth is, only a few people know. Police say the victim was holding a gun. The victim’s family says he was holding a book. We haven’t seen all the pictures or any of the video. We don’t know the facts. We just know how it makes us feel.

 

The officer’s name, by the way, is Brentley Vinson. The victim was Keith Scott. They are actual people with names and families, not just cardboard stand-ins for what you already believe. Put those same two human beings in that same spot on a different afternoon and maybe it ends another way. The possibilities are as countless as the stars. But here on the ground we have to live with what happened – one man dead from an officer’s bullet, and two nights of blood and broken glass.

 

The anger is always just under the surface, even in a friendly town. Like most other places, Charlotte has wealthy white suburbs and a poor black urban core. Like many other places, we have basically re-segregated our schools and limited the chances of our children to grow up around anyone different. Like a lot of other places, we have a troubled history of police shootings. Just last year a jury could not reach a verdict in the case of Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte officer who shot an unarmed black man named Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. Prosecutors chose not to try Kerrick again. It was a victory of sorts that they decided to try him at all.

 

The violence in Charlotte comes from the same place as Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem. It comes from the same place as the rise of Donald Trump. It comes from a mutual mistrust of those who are not like us, and the furious belief that America is rigged to favor the other side. Mostly it comes from a shared history that we can’t escape. From the beginning, when our country was built on the backs of slaves, we have been clothed in sins that will never wash all the way clean. With every generation we will turn more tolerant, more welcoming, more alike than we are different. But our resentment and shame over race is built into our genetic code. It has been there since the birth of the nation. Our past bleeds into our present, and that’s why things are never black and white, just always a frustrating gray.

 

Wednesday afternoon, in between the first night of protest and the second, I had a cup of coffee with a smart young sportswriter. We were talking about how Cam Newton spoke out in a blunt and bold way about race late last season, but has taken a softer tone this year. The young writer didn’t know what to think. Is last year’s Cam closer to the truth, or is this year’s Cam the real one? Or are they both authentic parts of the same person?

 

I told him to get used to the confusion. People never get more simple. Life never gets more simple.

 

Last night, watching on TV, there were heroes on the street. A public defender named Toussaint Romain got in between the front line of protestors and the front line of cops, brokering peace. A few protestors tried to chase off the others just looking for something to destroy. A few cops walked over to the protestors and lifted up their faceguards and started a conversation.

 

Those are small things, but they matter. On some nights, like these last two in Charlotte, it seems like we live in different worlds, separated by bullets and tear gas and rocks thrown through windows. Sometimes that’s the only way the voiceless can speak. Sometimes it’s the only path to justice. But there’s also a space in between, somewhere in the gray smoke, where we can try to reach one another as human beings. We have to step into the smoke, knowing that we do not always know, understanding that we do not always understand. Otherwise we’re destined to meet here again and again, late at night, on the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

A Prince story

I went looking for the ticket stub today but couldn’t find it. I’ve kept the stubs from almost every concert and ballgame I’ve ever been to, but somehow this one slipped away. That’s OK. The memory holds.

We camped out all night for tickets. In the ’80s you had two options if you wanted tickets for a big concert. You called Ticketmaster the morning they went on sale and listened to a busy signal over and over for six hours. Or you stood in line all night at a ticket outlet. We stood in line because Prince was bringing his Purple Rain tour to the Omni in Atlanta and we had to be there.

So we took a place on the sidewalk outside a record store called Turtle’s in Athens, Ga., sometime on the evening of Nov. 30, 1984. I know the date because the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game was the next day. My friends Virgil and Perry, who went to Tech, were coming for the game anyway so they got there early to camp out for tickets. Our friends David and Andy joined us, even though they weren’t going to the show, because it sounded like fun and also because we had Jack Daniels.

Pretty soon the line went down the sidewalk and up the side of the parking lot and across the back side of the lot next to the street. It’s hard to stay up all night, even when you’re 20 years old. Andy and I amused ourselves by doing Scooby-Doo impressions. It’s possible we did this for hours, and possible that the people near us in line threatened to kill us if we didn’t stop. My memory is a little hazy on that part.

What I do remember is that Prince’s music was everywhere. Somebody had “Dirty Mind” on a boombox, and somebody else had “D.M.S.R.” blasting from a car, and everything from the “Purple Rain” soundtrack was all over the radio. It struck me how diverse the crowd was for a mostly white Southern college town. You could love Prince for the guitar licks and the funk grooves and the dirty lyrics and the perfect pop melodies. You could love him if you were straight or gay or something else. He erased every line in the sand and did it in platform shoes. He was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

If I remember right, the tickets went on sale at 10 in the morning. At 10:05 somebody with a bullhorn said the show was sold out. Only a few people at the front of the line had gotten seats. The rest of us moaned and cussed. All that time for nothing.

Then the bullhorn clicked on again.

“He’s adding more shows!”

Today I know they probably had more shows scheduled all along and just wanted to make sure people were in line to buy the tickets. But that morning, it felt like a miracle. After another half-hour or so we made it into the store and bought three seats for the fourth show of five. Our seats were behind the stage. We didn’t care. The show was five weeks away. I held that ticket close every day.

Sheila E. was the opener. Like Prince, she was gorgeous and she could really play. At the end they cut the lights and she did a percussion solo with neon drumsticks. She would have been an A-plus club show by herself. But then, after intermission, the lights went down again. It’s one of my favorite moments in the world, when you’re at a big show and all of a sudden it goes dark and you know the thing you’ve been waiting on for so long is about to happen.

Dearly beloved …

He opened with “Let’s Go Crazy” / “Delirious” / “1999” / “Little Red Corvette” — four homers to start off the game, parked in the upper deck. Nobody sat down after that. I’m not sure we breathed for the next two hours, except maybe for laughing along with “International Lover.” I can’t find a bootleg from that night — if you know of one, holler — but back then “Baby I’m a Star” was routinely going 15 to 30 minutes, with multiple solos and dances and whatnot. I remember never wanting it to stop. The band was so tight — one of the many things Prince did was bring the joy of a hot live band to a concert scene being taken over by synths and drum machines. He stood in the middle of it all, ripping guitar solos and screaming the high notes and dancing like James Brown crossed with a stripper. They hit the long breakdown to end it and walked off the stage and we all just stood there spent.

That was encore 1.

Encore 2 was “Purple Rain.”

The words of “Purple Rain” are about a breakup, but the music is gospel. They could play those chords in a Baptist church on Sunday and it would fit right in.  I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life, and a couple that equaled that night, but I’ve never been to another show that was so much at once — so many different styles, so many brilliant ideas, so many connections that no one had made before Prince came along.

The music built to that last big solo, and we swayed in the purple light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, 600

They threw a big party at the Charlotte Observer on Thursday. You could also get by with calling it a wake. The reason for the party was that the newspaper is moving out of the building it has lived in since 1970, on the spot where the newspaper has been published since 1927. The reason for the wake had nothing to do with concrete and steel. It was about the people who make newspapers, and what they believe in.

Hundreds of people filled the lobby of the old building at 600 S. Tryon St. There were Pulitzer winners, and people who sold millions in ads, and circulation directors who figured out how to get the paper on the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of people at 6 in the morning every day. There was Cynthia McCarter, the security guard who knows the building like a mama knows her child, and Gladys Shamblin, who could get the phones working when God and AT&T had no idea how. People had taken off work and used up vacation time. Gary O’Brien, the great photographer, flew in from Tucson, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I hugged so many necks.

The old building doesn’t have much going for it but memories. It has always been ugly. The newsroom on the fourth floor has narrow slitted windows that would be useful in case of a Viking invasion but are terrible for letting in light. The escalators break so often that the one safe job at the paper was escalator repairman. In the last few years the elevators started trapping people, and sometimes the doors open and close on their own, like a scene from “The Shining.” A few years ago the paper sold the building to its parent company’s pension fund, and the pension fund sold it to developers. It will surely be a teardown. I would pay a fair amount of money to push the plunger that blows the building up.

But the Observer is not leaving because the building is decrepit. They’re leaving because the staff needs only a fraction of the space. The Observer has shed employees by the hundreds in the last eight or 10 years, just like every other paper of any size in this country, because the ways newspapers used to make money are gone. Classified ads, which used to fill entire sections of the paper, vanished into Craigslist. Businesses took most of their display ads online, for a fraction of the cost, or just built their own websites. The printed paper is still a moneymaker, but younger readers don’t want it. The Observer (and most other papers) have more readers than ever when you add print and online, and the money from the digital side is growing, but it’s not enough to cover the nut.

None of this is new. You’ve heard it for years. What you might not have heard is the distant quiet of an empty newsroom. What you might not have seen is the vast vacant mailroom, big enough for two basketball courts, where dozens of workers stuffed sales papers and coupons into the daily paper. They moved that operation out of the building years ago, along with the presses two stories below that used to rumble all day with editions that went to every corner of both Carolinas. There was a huge window in the lobby where you could watch the presses run. Some nights, when I had a big story in the next day’s paper, I’d stand and watch for a while on my way out the door. The papers rolled off the presses and wound through the pressroom, too fast to keep track of, like blood coursing through a giant beast. I could feel it in my heart.

There’s a mural covering that big window now, so you can’t see the empty room behind it.

 

*****

 

We believed. No, that’s wrong: We believe. Still do. We believe in what a newspaper means to a city. A great newspaper tells stories and raises hell. It helps you figure out what your government is doing and what you can do about it. It shows you where to buy a new car or a pair of shoes. It gives you a crossword puzzle to work on with your morning coffee. It is a public utility. You turn it on and it’s there like the water or the lights.

It’s hard work putting out a great paper. “You’re gonna cry,” somebody said Thursday when I walked into the newsroom. “It’s OK,” I said. “I’ve cried in here plenty of times before.” The Observer has never been a shouting-type place — you rarely even heard a door slam — but there have been plenty of uncomfortable conversations, and quiet seething anger, and gripe sessions down at the vending machines. This is the same as pretty much any situation when strong creative people work on something together. I read about a TV writers’ room one time, and somebody said that no matter how heated it got in there, the same rule always applied: Best idea wins. At the Observer, the best idea usually wins.

The upside is that most days it was a glorious place to work. You didn’t have to wear a suit and nobody shivered in fear when the boss came through the door. One of my all-time favorite Observer moments is when the new CEO of our parent company came to town on his tour of the newspapers the company owned. He gave a brief speech and asked if anybody had questions. Binyamin Appelbaum, one of our business reporters, asked the CEO to name some good work he’d read in the papers he was now in charge of. The CEO’s second-in-command jumped in to answer the question, but Binya stopped him. “No,” he said, pointing at the CEO. “I want HIM to answer.” At a lot of other places, he might’ve gotten fired for that. At the Observer, we were taught to hold powerful people accountable — no matter who. (Binya, by the way, is now killing it as an economics reporter for The New York Times.)

What I still haven’t gotten to, way too far into this story, is how much fun it was. I’ve been gone from the paper nearly four years now and the thing I miss the most is just coming into the newsroom and shooting the shit with people I enjoy being around. It’s such a joy to work with smart, committed people who care about the same things you care about. We would pass around stories we loved, or crazy reader emails that made us laugh. We’d idle away downtime with endless debates or silly contests. The art department used to have an epic Nerf basketball game that involved complicated rules and shots made from various spots around their office. Every so often you’d hear a gigantic roar in there, and you’d know somebody made the full-court shot from the other end of the room.

The best times were when a big story broke. All the petty disputes, all the efforts to avoid work that day, all that was dropped in an instant and the giant machinery of the newsroom meshed together. It was like watching a pile of parts assemble itself into a precision clock. To work with a group of absolute professionals putting together a package of stories on a tight deadline … there will never be anything better in my working life. And once you’re in it you see how many people it takes to do it right — from the people answering the phones to the copy editors saving us from errors to countless other people whose names you never see in the daily report, but who are in there just as deep as the electrons and ink.

I’ve written a lot of this in past tense, because I don’t work at the paper anymore, but the present tense holds. There aren’t as many people who work there now, but they still do great work every day — more than every other media outlet in town put together. Wherever you’re reading this, that’s probably true in your city, too. We have far more news outlets than ever before. Some of them do important, compelling work. Most don’t. If the NFL expanded to 500 teams, there would be a lot more football. Tickets would be cheaper. But it wouldn’t be a better game.

 

*****

 

They made a wall with all our names. There were thousands of them — all the people (or at least all the ones they could identify) who worked at the Observer over the years. At first it reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial, or one of those small-town monuments to the war dead. That’s not comparing journalists to soldiers, although many journalists have risked their lives covering wars. It’s more about a struggle a lot of us have in different ways: trying to fight for something bigger than yourself, and feeling like you’re losing. You don’t have to be a soldier to deal with that. You can be a pastor trying to keep a church alive, or a parent raising a troubled kid.

The business I love has put a lot of good people on the street and left behind a lot of empty buildings. I love it anyway, and so do the people who came by the paper Thursday, not so much to say goodbye to the old building but to say hello again to one another. I did most of the best work of my life with those people, and had most of the good times I’ll ever have, and met the woman I married. Newspapers can break your heart. But I’ll let it be broken every time for what I got out of the deal.

After three hours or so, the old building emptied out, except for the people who still had to put out the news. Alix and I walked through the revolving doors and out of 600 South Tryon, probably for the last time. But the party wasn’t quite over. Some folks had arranged to meet at a bar around the corner. We went to spend a little more time with our newspaper friends, a little more time, just a little more time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephant in the Room: The end of the beginning

 

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Some of you know that I’ve been working on a book for a while — it’s called “The Elephant in the Room,” and it’s a memoir about my life as a fat man in a growing America. Just after midnight last night, I wrote the final sentence and then typed -30-, which is old newspaper lingo for the end of a story. I emailed the draft to my agent. Most of my columns for the Charlotte Observer were about 600 words. One of the features I write for ESPN might run 4,000. This was 61,000 words. I hope a few of them are good.

This is just the end of the beginning. A few trusted readers are going to take a look and give me some thoughts. I’ll read those and make some changes. Then my book editor at Simon & Schuster will get ahold of it, and he’ll have more ideas. What we end up with will be different than what I turned in today. That’s how it works and how it ought to work. I don’t know when there will be a book for you to buy. But you can bet I’ll let you know through this blog, Twitter, Facebook, emails, town crier, etc.

There’s still a long way to go. But for now: I wrote a book! I think I’ll go sleep for a couple of days.

 

The Oxford American Georgia Music Issue (alternate universe version)

One of my favorite days every year is when the new Oxford American music issue comes in the mail. This is the magazine’s 17th annual music issue. At first, every music issue gathered music from around the South. For the past six years, each issue has focused on one Southern state. This year it’s Georgia. My home state.

As always, the CD that comes with the issue is fantastic — full of deep tracks by well-known artists, and revelations by musicians most of us have never heard of. The Georgia version ranges from James Brown and the Allman Brothers to ’70s folkie Alice Swoboda* and my new obsession, indie-pop singer Ruby the RabbitFoot (from my hometown of St. Simons Island!)

*Alice’s real last name was Harper but she switched her stage name after seeing a mention of the old Mets’ outfielder Ron Swoboda. This is my favorite factoid in quite some time.

But as I went through the tracks, my mind kept creating another CD — one with some of the other great Georgia musicians I’ve loved over the years.

So here’s a mythical Disc 2 that doesn’t repeat any of the artists from the Oxford American disc (with one necessary exception). That means I can’t use, among others, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, the Drive-By Truckers, Johnny Mercer, OutKast or R.E.M. (they show up on an Indigo Girls track). In the spirit of the OA collections, I’ve avoided the obvious choices from better-known artists, and tried to throw in a few folks you might not know about.

  1. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be the First To Say Goodbye)”

“Midnight Train To Georgia” bubbles underneath all Georgia music the same way “Georgia On My Mind” does, so let’s try Gladys’ greatest ballad instead. If you’ve ever loved and lost, you’ll be a mess by the time she hits the bridge. This song, “Midnight Train” and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” — the group’s three indisputable classics — were all written by Jim Weatherly, who was a quarterback on all-white Ole Miss football teams in the early ’60s. Life is weird and messy and wonderful.

2. Sea Level, “That’s Your Secret”

Sea Level is named for Chuck Leavell (C. Leavell — see what they did there?), who played piano with the Allman Brothers Band and now tours with the Rolling Stones. (He’s also an honorary ranger in the Forest Service.) This group is an offshoot of the Allmans with a little more jazz in the mix. My hometown FM station played this track a lot in the ’70s — the monster bass line by Lamar Williams came through even on my crappy Sears Roebuck stereo. Plus I always loved that this song namechecks Dusty Rhodes.

3. Mother’s Finest, “Somebody To Love” (live)

I plan to write a lot more about Mother’s Finest for a project I have in mind for down the road sometime. For now, just know that Mother’s Finest taught me — and a lot of other Southern boys and girls — that you could throw rock and soul and funk into a blender and make it sound great, and that there was something powerful in that blend beyond just the music. Grace Slick wishes she were as cool doing this song as Joyce Kennedy.

4. The Jody Grind, “Blue and Far”

They put out only two albums, but both are just about perfect — standards and pop nuggets and weird in-jokes, all built around the devastating voice of Kelly Hogan. There’s no better music for a Sunday night.

5. Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart, “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)”

Officially it’s Marty Stuart featuring Travis Tritt, but they split the singing 50-50 so I’m counting this one for Travis. He had some big hits but never made it quite as far as his voice deserved — he’s not George Jones but you can hear him get close now and then. All I know is I spent many a quarter playing this in jukeboxes all across the South when it came out.

6. Drivin’ N Cryin’, “Honeysuckle Blue”

Kevn Kinney, the lead singer, is an acquired taste — sort of a Southern-fried Geddy Lee. (I’ve never quite acquired that Geddy Lee taste.) Either way, the band has got every move in the book — folk to country to arena rock to their own blend of power pop, heavy on the guitars. Great, great live band.

7. Donkey, “Slick Night Out” (live)

The “Swingers” sound two years before “Swingers” came out. Donkey always had more of a melancholy undertow, though. These guys never picked up Heather Graham at the bar.

8. Arrested Development, “Mr. Wendal”

People bopped with the beat when it came out back in ’92, and for a lot of them it wasn’t until the 10th or 15th or 100th listen that the lyrics started to sink in.

9. The Heartfixers, “Greenwood Chainsaw Boogie”

Tinsley Ellis, the guitarist and singer, has gone on to a long solo career in the blues world, but I’ll remember him as the guy who used my bottle of Bud as a slide as he played while walking across our table at the Red Lion in Augusta one night. He kept the beer, too.

10. Cee-Lo Green, “Fuck You”

There should probably be some Goodie Mob in here, to show off that side of Cee-Lo, but the truth is that this video has 14 million views, and I was responsible for about a million of them the week it came out. (My friend Joe Posnanski was responsible for another million.)

11. Jack Logan, “New Used Car and a Plate of Bar B Q”

Jack Logan moved to Athens in the early ’90s and worked as a mechanic. In his off hours he wrote song after song. At some point a few prominent musicians (including R.E.M’s Peter Buck) heard some of the songs, and Logan eventually made a connection with a record-company exec. Logan sent him 500 songs. They narrowed it down to 42 that Logan released as a two-CD set called “Bulk.” I’ve played “Bulk” a lot over the years and always come back to this track. It’s still out there for a country singer who wants a #1 hit.

12. The Producers, “What She Does To Me”

These guys were the go-to band for festivals and frat parties when I was at UGA. The outfits are dated now, and nobody really runs around with a keyboard anymore, but this is still as beautiful a slice of power-pop as you’ll find. I can’t play it once without playing it twice.

13. Alan Jackson, “Country Boy”

Alan Jackson has had a zillion #1 country hits, he sells out arenas whenever he goes out on tour, he’s my mama’s favorite singer … and he’s still underrated. He’ll slide out of his lane and try something different more often than most country singers. Just two years after doing a straight-up gospel record, he put out this sly, sexy track. You sure look good, sittin’ in my right seat / Buckle up, and I’ll take you through the five speeds. Yeah buddy.

14. The B-52’s, “Rock Lobster”

I’ll take arguments for this as one of the top 10 singles of all time. It’s hilarious, it’s compulsively danceable, it rocks (that single-note solo at 2:22 in the video is a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll moment), and by God nobody had EVER heard anything like it. Or seen anything like it, either.

15. The Black Crowes, “Remedy”

The first two Black Crowes albums are guaranteed to make me feel better, especially turned up loud. They work better than Advil.

16. Brick, “Dazz”

Destined to be played at every grown ‘n’ sexy party from now to forever. And rightly so.

17. Atlanta Rhythm Section, “Georgia Rhythm”

There’s so much more great Georgia music out there — I left out a ton of hip-hop, a bunch of metal (MASTODON, people!), gospel, country, pretty much everything. I’m sure I’ll think of more songs the second I post this. Maybe there’s a Volume 3 down the road. Send suggestions. Either way, it makes sense to end here with the band I most identified with Georgia growing up. When I hear my home state in my head, I hear Ray Charles and Otis Redding first. But Ronnie Hammond comes in right behind them. Crank up that trusty Gibson, son.

Bonus track: James Brown, “Dooley’s Junkyard Dawgs”

Of course the Godfather is on the main Oxford American CD … but I’ll be damned if I’m putting together a compilation of Georgia music without this tribute to Vince Dooley’s great UGA football teams. The bass line alone is better than any other fight song in history.

Now then. When’s that North Carolina issue coming out?

 

 

 

 

Good dog. Good, good dog.

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Our dog Fred passed peacefully Thursday at about 7 p.m. Alix and I were there by his side, along with the amazing Dr. Mary Fluke, who had cared for him since he was a puppy. We told stories and laughed and cried like children.

He had a good last few days. We discovered right near the end that he liked tuna fish, and he must’ve eaten half a tuna’s worth. At my mama’s wise suggestion, we also fed him bacon. (When in doubt, have some bacon.) The food perked him up. Most days lately he hadn’t had enough strength to take his normal walk to the end of the block and back. But on Wednesday, he pulled us down there and then another whole block. On Thursday we took him on one last car ride. He watched out the back window as we drove him through the streets he knew so well.

After I wrote about Fred’s dying days a few weeks ago, I heard from hundreds of people all over the world. Some had stories of their own old dogs. Some had young animals they vowed to love as much as possible. Some people just wanted to say they were sorry for our loss. Alix and I are sorry, too. But also grateful.

I’m writing this Thursday night. Nearly every night for the last 14 years, one of us has let him out before we all went to bed. We’ve spent so many nights standing in the cool air on the street we love, staring at the stars, listening to one of the neighborhood owls, or just watching Fred prance around the yard and catalog all the new smells. He brought us those moments and a million more.

I didn’t know what to do tonight so I walked out in the yard and stared at the stars and thanked him again for coming into our lives.

He was the best dog.

 

Our old dog

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It’s not fair to write about a dying dog. Just those last two words are enough. Automatic tears. So I understand if you stop here. But I need to say a few words about our old dog Fred. It’s not all sad. Not even mostly. I’ve been meaning to write this for months, with the idea that you should celebrate the things you love while they’re still around. It turns out I need to do it now. Not that it matters to Fred — I’m pretty sure he can’t read this, although he has fooled us on many things over the years. Just in case he can: Good boy. Such a good boy.

Let’s do the sad part first. Fred has a big tumor on his liver. It’s most likely one of two cancers, both malignant. He might have a few weeks, might not have tomorrow. They could do surgery but the specialist we saw couldn’t promise they could get the whole tumor, much less whatever else might be in there. He’s got a bunch of other problems. The arthritis in his hips is so bad that our neighbor calls him the Little Soldier because he sort of goosesteps down the street. Sometimes he pants through the night. He has random seizures no treatment has been able to fix. He’s pretty much deaf. Most of all, he’s 14 – ancient for a yellow Lab mix. The surgery would be hard on him. And even if it works, the specialist said, he’s not likely to make it to 15.

So we are going to let things be.

End of the sad part.

He just showed up in our lives one morning. It was early November 2001, just when it starts to get cold around here. It was a couple months after 9/11 and we were all walking around with holes in our lives. At the time we lived in a house with a long driveway. I went out to get the paper and there was a white ball wriggling at the end of the drive. The closer I got, the faster he wagged. I looked at him. No collar. I looked around. No people. He followed me back to the house.

I picked him up and took him in the bedroom, where my wife, Alix Felsing, was sleeping. Alix! I whispered. Look! At the time we had a tabby cat, and without her glasses, Alix thought I was holding the cat. She put her glasses on and noticed a couple of things I didn’t – the puppy was bloated from worms and crawling with fleas. That’s nice, honey, she said. Let’s take him outside.

Our yard didn’t have a fence. So we took him across the street to our neighbors Bill and Susie. We put him in their yard while we figured out what to do. I walked back to the house and about halfway up the drive I looked back. The puppy was right on our heels. He had squeezed through the gate to follow us.

We had a dog.

We went back and forth on names for a while. I wanted to call him Herschel, after my favorite football player, the great Herschel Walker. Alix, for some reason, was not especially fond of this. Eventually we settled on Fred. Fred’s a solid guy. Fred’s your buddy.

We took him to puppy training a couple of times, but the main thing he learned was that people have treats in their pockets. When we first started to walk him on a leash, he’d turn around every 20 feet and beg for a snack. When he wasn’t begging, he was sniffing. He’s got some hunting dog in him — besides the Lab part, we think he’s part German shorthaired pointer, because of his thin back end and the tan speckles on his cream coat. (He has one big spot in the middle of his forehead, like an Indian bindi dot.) He also used to go on point sometimes when he was a young dog, although we could never figure out what he was pointing at. Whatever’s in there, he’s a scent hound to the core, plowing his snout into bushes and down holes, checking out the crotches of every creature he meets. This was not so charming when we had company.

We kept him in the garage while we made arrangements to build a fence. You might have heard that young Labs chew. Fred basically ate our garage. He chewed the drywall. He chewed the attachments to our Shop-Vac. We kept a plumber’s snake in a 5-gallon bucket. One day we came home and found the top half of the bucket chewed off, the snake sprawled on the floor, Fred dancing in the garage with glee. He ate about as much plastic as he did dog food in those days. His favorite snack was poop from the Canada geese who hung out at our little pond. He snapped up the turds like Tootsie Rolls. We’d steer him away from the droppings but he’d always find one we missed. Never once got sick.

Years later, when we were renovating our bathroom, we took our shampoo and toothpaste and stuff and put it in a box. Fred got into the box and ate a bar of soap. We Googled “dog ate bar of soap,” and the Internet told us everything from “he’ll be fine” to “OH GOD HE’S GONNA DIE.” We were getting ready for church. Instead we ran him to the closest vet we could find that was open on a Sunday morning. We waited an hour and a half. It turned out he was fine. The vet said that sometimes, dogs that eat soap end up farting bubbles. We had our cameras ready for hours. Nothing. After all that trouble, we thought we deserved at least a fart bubble out of it.

Those geese at the old house used to torment us. They’d poop all over the walkway between our back door and the carport. One morning Alix saw them gathered right outside the garage and decided a dose of Fred might scare them off. She hit the garage door opener and Fred took off outside. It took a few seconds for the door to lift enough that Alix could get out. When she did, she saw two things: One, Fred had in fact scared the geese silly — they were taking off toward the pond. Two, the geese had brought their babies. Fred had a gosling in his mouth.

Alix chased him around the yard, hollering at him to drop it. Fred thought this was a fantastic game. After a minute or two of this Alix ran back in the garage and grabbed a dog treat. She showed it to Fred and he instantly dropped the gosling. It took off running to find its family. Fred had cradled it in his mouth the whole time, never biting down. We knew then we had a gentle dog. Sometimes I’d roughhouse with him and he’d grab my arm with his teeth, a million years of wild dog battling a thousand generations of breeding. He never clamped down once. Far as I know, he never hurt another living thing.

*****

He had fears we never understood. He cowered at the sight and sound of trucks, especially, for some reason, white vans. He ran away from children. He didn’t even like things associated with them — one time, when I was walking him, he took a wide arc to go around an empty Big Wheel. He was about two months old when he showed up at our house and we always wondered what happened to him in those two months. Nobody ever put up signs in our neighborhood looking for him. We think he got dumped in the street, or escaped a bad place. He sure seemed grateful to be with us.

We had a big backyard in that first house, with a garden and a couple of pecan trees. We spent some of our finest days back there, picking up pecans or weeding the flower beds as the dog and cat played in the grass. Our cat, Rocket, would let Fred chase him and then head up a tree when he got too close. Then, when Fred wandered off, he’d come back down and stroll back into Fred’s line of sight. Chase, up the tree, back down again. At night Fred would sleep in a crate in the garage, and Rocket slept in the seat of our John Deere riding mower. After Rocket died a year or so later, Fred would chase a cat now and then, but he never tried hard to catch one. I think he just wanted to play.

He had some Lewis and Clark in him. Every so often he’d get loose and take off, exploring the neighbors’ backyards. I’d chase after him, steam coming out of my ears. He’d look over his shoulder at me and trot just out of reach, like Rocket used to do to him. Finally Alix and I figured out a trick: We’d go back and get the car and drive over to where he’d wandered. As soon as he saw the car, he’d jump in. Back then there was nothing he liked better than a car ride. He’d stick his head out the back window, jowls blown back in the breeze, nostrils pumping with all the smells he was taking in. After a while he’d prop his front paws on the console between our seats and lay his chin on my shoulder. A dog can love you in a way that caves in your heart. It can also leave a lot of drool on your shirt.

When he was 3 we moved to where we live now, a neighborhood with houses closer together and a lot more people walking around. It took him some time to get used to this. If dogs can be introverted, he’s an introvert. Of course he’d sniff another dog’s butt. That’s dog law. But some dogs are alpha dogs, and Fred is an omega. A 55-pound weenie. Once we took him to a dog park and three or four other dogs jumped him right when we got inside. One of them bit him. He was OK, but the rest of the time he was there he went off by himself to the far corners of the park. I stood there in the middle of the park and cried, partly because I knew how he felt. Alix and I are introverts, too, and we’ve always wondered if we raised Fred to be a loner.

It probably didn’t help, at least in that regard, that we neutered him. For years he licked his crotch constantly. I always figured he was watering the spot, hoping they would grow back.

He’s got some other quirks. He won’t go near the A/C vents in the floor — I’m pretty sure he thinks the air coming out of there is monster breath. He used to lick the pad of his back left paw constantly, like a baby sucking its thumb. We had our vet check more than once for a splinter or an infection. It’s still a mystery. He still spins around six or eight or 10 times before he lies down. I read somewhere that it’s a hard-wired memory from the days when wild dogs tamped down the grass before they slept. Now that the arthritis has made it harder for him to get down, he backs into a corner and sort of slides down on the bed. But he makes sure to get his spins in first.

Sometimes I think he was born for the North. Every year he wilts a little more in the summer, and every year he perks up in the fall. His favorite days are when it snows. We had a big snowstorm at the old house one day and he dove in and out of the snow like a dolphin. We spent a year in Boston and it snowed 60 inches that winter. He’d bound through the park across from our apartment and come home with a snootful of frost. The last time he went on a walkabout was a couple years ago on a snowy night here in Charlotte. I let him out without a leash because he had gotten so slow. But the minute he got out in the snow he trotted down the sidewalk, faster than he’d moved in years. It took two blocks before I could catch up to him.

That Boston year, in the fall, we drove up to Maine one weekend and took him to the beach. He’s never been much of a water dog, but he loved chasing gulls and wading in the ocean and trotting in the sand. He was 7 years old by then — a middle-aged dog — but he high-stepped down the beach, his ears thrown back like he was a puppy. If you’re good to a dog, pretty much every day for the dog is a great day. But that one might have been the best. We rubbed off as much sand as we could and piled him in the back seat, and he slept like a brick all the way home.

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*****

 

Alix and I have been married 17 years, and Fred has been with us for 14 of them. We’re busy people. We wouldn’t have thought we had time to look after a dog. But when it’s something you care about, time bends and stretches. Somehow we’ve had the time to take him for walks and keep him fed and clean up his messes and just hang out together. He never was well-trained but he’s a skilled communicator. His go-to move is the heavy sigh. Sometimes Alix and I will be in bed, talking through something important, and all of a sudden from the corner of the room comes this long and deliberate exhale of profound boredom. No matter how serious our conversation is, it makes us laugh. Wrap it up, he’s saying. It’s sleepin’ time.

He also won over our families. Alix’s folks are not especially dog people, and my mama has been scared of dogs since she got bitten as a child. But they welcomed him into their homes.  My mama even started tossing him little bits of bacon in the kitchen. When she found out he was sick, her advice was to give him some bacon. To be honest, that’s her advice in a lot of situations. It’s pretty good advice.

It’s been weird to see Fred get older faster than us. For the first few years of his life, he pulled us down the street. Then for a while he walked by our side. Now we’re the ones up ahead of him. When he was young, he’d hear the car door shut in the driveway and run to the door to meet us. Then there was a while when he’d get up when we came in the door. Now he lies on his bed and waits for us to come over, his tail thumping with every step we take toward him.

He’s still a beautiful dog, with a thick coat he sheds like crazy. My wife will pull an old sweater out of the closet, something she hasn’t worn in years, and somehow it’ll have Fred’s fur on it. We joke that 20 years from now, we’ll still find his fur up under the couch, or drool spots on the hardwood floor. He has always left his mark.

*****

When he started getting really old, it didn’t register with me right away. I’d yell at him for not eating his supper, or not wanting to go on his morning walk, or eating some random thing off the ground. (These days he has a taste for dirt.) I’m not proud to say this, but even now I get mad at him sometimes. I’ll take him outside on a beautiful night and he’ll just stand in the yard and look around, not wanting to go down the street or back inside. It got me really frustrated until I realized the problem. I was mad at him for dying on us.

That’s the thing with pets. They’re probably going to die before you. They make you deal with death and loss before you’re ready. Alix and I are having a hard time imagining a life without Fred, but we’re going to have to live it. We hope to remember what he has taught us.

Always make room for treats.

Sometimes you should wander off and see the world.

Explore things with enthusiasm, even if you’re shy.

Any day might be the best day of your life.

We used to walk him for miles, but these days he’s not up to going far. He didn’t want to go at all for a while. But then the neighbors a few houses down, across the street, started setting out a bowl of water and a jar of dog treats every morning. Now when we let him out, he does his business and heads straight for that house.

He’s always had a good memory. He used to bark whenever the doorbell rang. A few years ago, after I had surgery, I recuperated in the living room. If I saw somebody coming up to the house, I’d yell “Hey, Alix!” so she could open the door, usually right as the doorbell rang. More than a year later, I was at one end of the house one day and Alix was at the other. “Hey, Alix!” I hollered. Fred barked and ran to the door.

I wonder what he remembers now.

Fred

Here’s a thing I remember. At the old house, I’d let him out every morning to roam the back yard. It was almost as deep as a football field, and he’d go way back there and sniff around the edges of the brush. I’d stand at the corner of the garden fence and watch. After a while I’d whistle and he’d look up. I’d dig a treat out of my pocket and hold it high where he could see.

In three strides he’d be going full speed. It was such an expression of natural joy, his ears blown back, his eyes wide, every muscle in perfect sync. He barely touched the ground, like a pebble skimmed across a river. He never stopped on time and so he would go flying past and slam on the brakes, scrabbling in the dirt like a cartoon. Finally he would make it back to me to get his treat. He always wagged when he saw one of us but now his tail would be spinning like a helicopter blade.

On his good days, even now, when we walk up to him his tail will spin like that. It lifts our hearts off the ground.

I don’t know your thoughts on the afterlife. One thing I hope is that we’ll be able to sit down and have a conversation with Fred. Have him tell us why goose poop tastes so good, where he really liked to be rubbed, whether we did right by him at the end. Make sure he knows how lucky we are that he showed up in our life one day.

My other hope is that up there, we’re all young and strong again. I’d love to watch him run.