The longest part of the journey is said to be the passing of the gate.
-- Marcus Terentius Varro
This journey begins with a nose. A nose wholly unlike other noses, which have the facility for discernment and disdain; this nose, instead, tumbles down the face to which it belongs like a playful possibility, full of the warmth and whimsy of youth. I have known this nose since childhood -- with its attendant eyes, so full of eagerness and glee, and the ever-present smirk twinkling in its shadow -- but only in recent years have I come to be intimate with it, to feel its smooth, globular curves under my touch, to press my lips to its shiny summit. Today is a different matter. I have been asked to repair the damage done to this nose by a hoodlum's baseball bat.
"They've only been vandalized once in all the years I've had them," says John Law with a shake of his weary head. "Just a little graffiti that time. Came right off. Do what you can."
I survey the damage: a fist-size fissure on the front right quadrant of Jack's nose. Jack is the name bequeathed to the last of the three retired Doggie Diner Dog Heads, to which Law has voluntarily become steward and shepherd. The only working Dog Head, the one to which I became attached as a child, still stands above the Carousel Diner on Sloat Boulevard, thanks largely to Law's diligence and the devotion of friends like Bishop Joey, aka Ed Holmes, founder of the First Church of the Last Laugh, for which the Dog Heads have become religious icons of a silly sort. The other Dog Heads -- Manny, Moe, Jack -- roam about the Bay Area on a flatbed trailer, frequenting art events and overseeing a plethora of creative idiocies.
With the solemnity of an acolyte, I begin sanding and plastering the breach. We're preparing for the Dog Heads' first coast-to-coast tour; it's important for the trio to look its best.
"Coast to coast," Law often says in the days leading up to the trip. "From Carousel Diner to Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island. From the Golden Gate to the Brooklyn Bridge."
There is a certain appeal to traveling across the country with the Dog Heads in tow -- upon seeing these goofy dachshund faces, with their long, knowing smiles, people laugh, wave, and honk their horns; some even stop to rub the noses, as if the gesture would naturally confer a wish -- but Law is another reason for my joining the trip. A longtime prankster, urban adventurer, backstage art facilitator, and avid bridge climber, Law conveys an air of effortless generosity and reliability, a blend of old-world manners and new-frontier methodology that inspires loyalty and enthusiasm as a matter of course.
"I hope the nose isn't a bad omen," says Law, biting his thick riverboat mustache. "Disasters come in threes. Cross your fingers."
Having finished repainting Jack's nose, I move to the wheel wells of Shoo, Shoo Baby, the 1966 Gillig bus captained and sustained by Justin Atwood, aka Jarico Reese, founder of the Cyclecide Bike Rodeo, a touring enclave of punk rock clowns and anarcho-artists. Gaunt and weathered, with a shock of bleached blond hair that perpetually smells of engine grease, Reese looks like a cross between a cartoon duckling and a revolutionary Bolshevik, and is, as such, strangely inspiring. Several members of his troupe -- bicycle wrangler August Wood, handyman Laird Rickard, mechanic Peet Manuel, and Manuel's fainthearted dog, Joe Monster -- have been brought aboard for the Dog Head trip. The rest of the crew includes Ed Holmes; Night Crawler photographer Jillian Northrup; poet Blake More; gal Friday Simone Davalos and her future husband and robot tech-head, David Calkins; filmographer Flecher Fleudujon; and, following behind in a satellite vehicle, Hush Hush club owner Kim Jordan and her canine defender, Sebastian.
It is springtime in San Francisco, and we couldn't ask for a finer day. The Sloat Boulevard Dog Head beams at us from a clear, benevolent sky as the brave among us stuff our faces with corn dogs. We head toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Cars honk, people wave, children point. No one mentions the bus refrigerator blowing up the night before. Instead, we laugh and salute the small plane that trails us across the bridge, depositing Fleudujon at an airport just outside Vacaville. He arrives on board the bus grinning like a wild man, with the opening documentary film footage for Head Trip, the story of the Dog Heads' bicoastal passage, in hand.
In Chowchilla, not 150 miles from San Francisco, there's an explosion: a blown tire. One of the new tires. There's talk about the refrigerator, the dog nose, and the rule of three, until Law notices the trailer hitch is barely holding. The rule of three is revised. The spare tire is put in place. The hitch is reinforced with a piece of rain gutter found behind a gas station as Blake More does yoga in the fading sunlight. Hours pass.
The next day, we are refit with tires in Sacramento and loaded up with phosphate sodas at a diner on Ghost Town Road in Yermo. On our way to Primm, Nev. -- home to Buffalo Bill's Casino and a 90-mile-per-hour roller coaster called the Desperado -- we listen to passing truckers on the CB radio: "Breaker one nine. Dang it, there's three mighty big dogs behind that hippie bus!"; and the less heartening, "Don't Californians know there's a minimum speed out here?"
In Vegas, at nightfall, the Dog Heads seem in their element. Shining beatifically in the neon glow, they become as much of a tourist attraction as the town. Passers-by gawk and wave. A car full of locals follows us down the Strip, one of them proclaiming: "I want to be just like you when I grow up." We cook dinner on the edge of the Hoover Dam with the Dog Heads in stately repose.
Outside of Flagstaff, snow flurries begin to pile up on the windshield; still, we make a stop at the Flintstones Bedrock City Theme Park & Campground, a marvel of desolate roadside Americana located 6,600 feet above sea level. By the time we reach the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the weather has grown colder yet, but Reese, refreshed from his first real sleep of the trip, insists he can jump the great chasm aboard his renowned Homeland Security Bike. A crowd gathers; a few of us cover our eyes; the rest of us cheer. With Reese's crash helmet, cape, and teeny-tiny ramp in place, the Homeland Security's auxiliary propane jet propulsion blasters are lit and Reese makes his approach. Sadly, a malfunction in said propulsion unit sends the bike veering dramatically to left, just shy of the canyon's edge. (Editor's note: This is not how the stunt appears in Head Trip. )
The crowd applauds anyway, and we invite everyone back to rub dog noses.
The Dog Heads forge ahead, stopping at a rattlesnake museum, a fireworks depot, and the Cadillac Ranch along the way. There are more mechanical mishaps -- brake lines fail on Kim Jordan's satellite vehicle in Texas, another bus tire is blown in Oklahoma -- and more disturbing weather: golf-ball-size hail in Motley, Texas; baseball-size hail in Hardman, Texas; tornadoes moving down the road on either side of us somewhere between Louisiana and Missouri.
All the same, we arrive at Graceland unscathed. The crew gets drunk on Beale Street, has a proto-religious experience involving "space gophers" under the St. Louis Arch; and gets treated like royalty in Pittsburgh, Penn., by underground luminaries Tommy Amoeba and Phat Man Dee. There, we bring aboard beards-and-beauty impresario $teven Ra$pa; the future Mrs. Law, Christina Hardbridge; Bike Rodeo publicist Summer Burkes; and San Francisco wild man Ché, just in time for dog walking in Washington, D.C., and a guided tour of pathological specimens at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (RIP Gretchen Worden, the museum director who took us in after hours and treated us to her macabre wit and indelible spirit).
And, at last, New Jersey.
There's nothing like a quiet walk on the beach at dawn after a long drive, a solitary moment in which to peruse local attractions. I stroll along, engaging in conversation with an elderly Romanian woman, and find a satin prom dress lying in a gutter by the Dog Head bus. I alter it while waiting for Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs to open for breakfast. We all eat hot dogs and drive into Brooklyn, and here's where it begins to happen.
"Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights," writes historian Miriam Beard. "It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living."
I don't know what I can tell you about Brooklyn.
I've read somewhere that there are 3,268,121 potholes in Brooklyn; 90 different ethnic groups; 1,600 miles of street; 50 miles of shoreline; 1,500 registered places of worship; I understand that 8,000 Belgian waffles are consumed in Brooklyn every day. I couldn't say for sure, but what I can tell you is this: Brooklyn feels like home in a way that nowhere else but San Francisco ever has. I like it here.
I like the way the children chase the Dog Head bus as though it were an ice cream truck; the way groups of Hasidim stop and gape as if they've just seen a movable blasphemy; the way the old black men shuffle out of the barbershops and the young Italian men lean against their cars and fold their arms across their chests. I like the way the Polish waitresses don't smile until they've seen me in their restaurants for three days in a row.
I like the way the old women in the thrift stores try to dress me, and the way strangers say hello on the street, whether I'm alone or not. I like the subways after midnight and the "regular coffee" at dawn. I like the musicians on the street corners and the dancers on the rooftops and the cat lady in the park. I like the neighborhoods, the vast, wild ranges of humanity that permit me to trip around the world without ever leaving home. I like the smell of the bricks and the texture of the air and the unfamiliar odors that cling to my clothes when I'm here.
I like it, and upon our return to San Francisco -- after the serenades by Mr. Lucky in Times Square; the weirdly coincidental dachshund dog festival held in Washington Square Park; the Porn Clown Posse's visit to the Guggenheim; the walking tour led by Timothy "Speed" Levitch; the San Francisco show-and-tell presented at CBGB's by Laughing Squid; the quarter-mile marathon featuring Chengwin (a giant chicken-penguin) and his nemesis, Chunk (a giant chicken-skunk); and the bike rodeo hosted by the Madagascar Institute -- I continue to think about Brooklyn for more than a year.
So I'm going back there, to see what there has in store. I don't know when I'll return or what I will be like if I do, but rest assured, my heart will always be here, even as my mind and body wander.
Thank you for reading.