I spent four years of my life walking my dog Sally twice a day around the Menil Collection. You walk a dog twice a day and you become part of the landscape. People don’t really notice you. Your narrative is clear: a man and a dog on a chore.
The upside of invisibility? You get to see everything.
The first year I lived on Graustark and Alabama in a leaning garage apartment, where my route took me past the University of St. Thomas. I’d get a glimpse of Philip Johnson’s bisected dome that serves as the school’s chapel, pass by an old house where nuns in brown wimples lived with a dog named Bethlehem.
Then, Sally and I would come across the Rothko Chapel, which always reminded me of the TARDIS, Doctor Who’s time-traveling spaceship, an anonymous police box that’s bigger inside than out. The building’s exterior was mundane to the point of absurdity, its brick façade possessing all the glamour of a junior high school. But the interior—vast and otherworldly.
Each day I’d see the same people. There was the septuagenarian walking a leash-less obese dog who panted and strained its way through a half-block before collapsing exhausted. Its owner smoked Virginia Slims, carried a battery-powered radio perpetually tuned to NPR, and was perpetually ready to put down George W. Bush in her deep cigarette-ravaged rasp.
There was the slow-motion runner. He was in his late fifties, overweight, and wore fine technical gear—tiny shorts, wicking tank, Oakleys. Around and around the Menil he ran (as slowly as possible), muttering curses at you if you got in his way. There was the old woman who dragged a tiny dog behind her while power-walking around the museum. Whatever the weather, she always wore shorts, showing off an amazingly gnarled and wrinkled pair of legs, the legs of a woman once obese who has shed an enormous amount of weight and now carries the extra skin around as a trophy.
There were couples canoodling on the lawn in the evenings and people passed out under trees in the morning. The hippies pushed each other on the swing hanging from the glorious central live oak, and parents took pictures of their children in Menil Park as they climbed the giant iron sculpture. There were museumgoers clutching pamphlets chattering on about Warhol and Magritte, and there were museumgoers who left the Twombly Gallery shaking their heads and muttering that their kids could do better.
There was that vial of crack cocaine I found on the ground one evening. For the month I kept it in my desk drawer, I felt like I had a celebrity in my house. The two little rocks rolled around with my pens and paperclips, and I experienced a little frisson of excitement and danger whenever I rolled it between my fingers.
After Graustark, I lived for three years in another garage apartment, this time off W. Main. From there, a little tree-lined path between W. Main and Branard led straight to the Menil building. The impossibly lovely Menil, with its roof of glass and jutting fins, was designed by Renzo Piano. (Piano loves boating and adds nautical touches to his buildings. If the flood ever returns, don’t be surprised if the survivors float away in Piano buildings. No animals this time, but art.)
In the morning, school buses excreted fidgety children who’d reluctantly line up after the harried chaperones barked at them long enough. At night, there’d be concerts in the museum’s front hall. Unable to hear them through the glass, I’d stand on the sidewalk and enjoy the choreography of the string quartets—the rocking, plunging, and page turning, the bows drawing emphatic cursive letters in the air. I’d marvel at the remarkable creatures leaning forward in the audience, peering at them as if at a zoo for the well-dressed.
I’d walk Sally with women I was dating or friends who were visiting. I’d use the walk as a litmus test: did they get it?
I miss it.
I still walk Sally—she’s 14 and moving slowly—but in Chicago now, where it’s cold and the buildings I pass just hold more people. Inside the efficient and workman-like structures where lives are warehoused in two-flats and three-flats, I see nothing that qualifies as a surrealist collection or thrills me like Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), Cy Twombly’s massive 52-by-13 ft work. These days I only get thrilled in the springtime, when Chicagoans finally open their windows and roars come out of the apartments when the Blackhawks score a goal.
Times change. The nuns moved from their house on Sul Ross and Graustark, so Sally and Bethlehem no longer got to snuff out pecans together. The sculpture is no longer there either, the temporary outdoor sculpture that slipped from a crane while being unloaded from a semi’s flatbed, crushing a VW Jetta. I remember the shock when the car’s owners discovered their concave roof. They had come to my neighborhood and been crushed by the art. The car is long gone and the sculpture is too—loaded back onto a semi, carted back to wherever it was fabricated.
When the woman I am married to now came to Houston to visit for the first time, her flight was scheduled to arrive at noon. I was too excited to sleep the night before and found myself walking Sally at 4 a.m. I heard the constant hum of Hwy 59 thick in the air, but also a bird I’d never heard before. I couldn’t wait to tell her about it, about this place I had lived in for so long and yet still surprised me with new birdsongs. I wanted her, a woman who had grown up in Chicago whose parents and grandparents had grown up in Chicago, to know how amazing it was to be surrounded by beauty, by these massive trees and their overhanging limbs, by the seasonal cameo appearances of gangly herons, by the pale neon glow of a Dan Flavin installation in the wee hours of the morning. It was my daily chore doing laps around the ineffable. I wanted her to be as overawed by it all as I was.
Suddenly, a man behind me yelled, “Does that dog bite?” breaking me from my too-early reverie. I turned and he sped by on a BMX bike. He didn’t have any pants on, his ass exposed to the 4 a.m. moonlight as he pedaled away.
I spend so much of my life missing such impossible wildness.