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Tag: freeloading

Night at the museum

In our final days in Baltimore, Ace and I shifted from a house that was empty to one that was very full – of art, and art supplies, and things that, in the homeowner/artist’s view, could, with a little work and imagination, be turned into art someday.

Artist J. Kelly Lane, having an out-of-town house-sitting gig of her own, offered to let Ace and me stay Thursday and Friday in her South Baltimore rowhouse, which, she warned me ahead of time, had its quirks

You know you’re in trouble when you arrive to find a note titled “Weird stuff about my house…” and it’s two pages long.

You know you’re in bigger trouble when, in a house full of art works, you break one of them.

In the wee (literally) hours of the morning, I rose off the downstairs futon to make my way upstairs to the bathroom. I was stepping carefully through the darkness, but my knee hit a stand-up ash tray and knocked it over.

If that alone weren’t bad enough – it’s hard to find ash trays at all these days, let alone the stand up, three-foot high kind — Kelly had apparently applied her artistic skills to this one.

I’m guessing (and hoping) it was a thrift store find –as opposed to a family heirloom — one that, while already the perfect combination of form and function, she saw as being in needed a bit more pizzazz.

Someone, I’m guessing Kelly, had painstakingly painted both its post and the two serpents that make up its handle, which is the part that broke when it fell to the ground.

Now it’s 4 a.m., and I can’t go back to sleep. In addition to the guilt I feel for breaking it in the first place, I’m feeling guiltier yet for what’s popping into my mind:

Glue it back together. There’s a glue gun right there on her shelf. She’ll never know.

Blame it on Ace. With a dog as big as him, in a house filled with so much art, an accident is bound to happen. Right?

Staying at Kelly’s house was like spending a night at the museum. Her paintings cover the walls. Walk in the front door and you’re in what looks like a studio. Enter then next room and you’re in what looks like a studio. Keep going back and you enter what appears to be a studio.

She’s applied her flair to the dwelling, too – like the stair rail and stairway risers painted in leopard skin motif. In addition to painting canvases, Kelly paints house interiors, and she’s into a host of other crafts, like hand-made Valentine’s cards and decorating items like the stand-up ashtray whose handle is now broken.

Bad dog!

No. Making the dog the scapegoat isn’t a good option. On top of not being fair, what a person’s dog does is, in the final analysis, the person’s responsibility.

True, I have in the past blamed him for gaseous eruptions that did not originate from him, but that’s different – dogs are more easily forgiven than humans for that.

Then too, blaming him for the mishap would tarnish his image as the perfect dog. In reality, he’s not perfect – and I wouldn’t want him to be – but he comes a lot closer to it than I do. And when it comes right down to it, I – wrong as it might be – probably care more about his image than mine, except when it comes to farts.

Like a lot of dog people, I worry more about my dog – his health, his reputation, his “proper” behavior – than I do about my own self in those regards.

From previous visits, I knew there would be some risks at Kelly’s house – that a wagging tail, or Ace going into rambunctious “let’s play!” mode, could result in serious damage. As it turns out, it was I, in my pre-coffee, bathroom-seeking clumsiness — as Ace soundly slept — that sent things a kilter. And a standalone ash tray, no less – a true antique that harkens back to the days when smoking wasn’t a misdemeanor, and ash trays were respectable enough to be an entire piece of furniture.

I’d gone more than a month in our previous location – also somebody else’s house — without breaking anything. But then, it being an empty house, there was really nothing to break.

Now I must break the news, and somehow make things right.

Then, and only then, will I be able to go back to sleep.

(Postscript: Kelly was very forgiving, and didn’t seem mad at me. To find out more about her art, contact her at easelqueen@yahoo.com)

Roadside Encounters: Mikey and Soju

Names: Mikey and Soju 

Breeds: Pug and Great Dane 

Encountered: At Riverside Park in Baltimore

Backstory: I got to spend some time with two of my favorite local dogs yesterday — a day whose warm temperatures led both humans and canines to linger at Riverside Park, in no particular hurry to get back home.

Even if it’s not here to stay, the mild weather was welcome — especially to Ace, after a winter of being rushed through the dog walk by an owner hoping to quickly get the “mission” accomplished and himself back indoors …

“C’mon, do your business, my toes are frozen. It’s too cold. Let’s go.”

In retrospect, in this past month, I’ve probably been, in Ace’s eye, a bit of a buzzkill.

Doing his duty, I don’t think, has ever been the foremost mission in Ace’s mind during trips to the park (hence the urging). He sees it as more of a happy hour, or preferably two – a chance to add to his scent portfolio, visit old dog friends, meet some new ones, and track down those folks who, at some point in history, have provided him with a treat.

Yesterday was the kind of visit he likes best — a long one, with good dog friends to play with, new ones to sniff out, and lots of humans to mooch off. (If you have treats in your pocket, Ace will determine which pocket and, should you need prompting, attempt to insert his nose inside it. When it comes to freeloading, I think I have learned some of his skills, and he has picked up some of mine.)

We got to catch up with our old friend Soju — he’s named after the vodka-like (but sweeter) Korean beverage. Soju and Ace are old friends, and they used to wrestle endlessly at Riverside, a true up-on-the-hind-legs, paw-swinging battle of the titans. When one of them went down, you could almost feel the earth shake.

They went at it for a bit yesterday, with Ace, the older of the two, watching as Soju galloped around him in circles, then tackling him like a lazy linebacker when Soju veered close enough.

Mikey stayed out of the fray — a wise choice given he’s not much bigger than a football. Mikey, a therapy dog with one of the more expressive faces you’ll ever see, generally avoids the roughhousing, choosing instead to sit at your feet, looking up at you with big brown bulging eyes until you give him a treat, no matter how long it takes.

Good things, he seems to know, come to those who wait – and spring is one example. Yesterday didn’t mark it’s arrival, but even a false precursor was welcome, and dogs and humans soaked it up. It occurs to me that we should send thank you notes to spring — perhaps that would lead her to stay around a little longer and forestall the inevitable arrival of her evil sister summer, who always comes to early and stays past her welcome.

Speaking of staying past one’s welcome, Ace and I — after a glorious month in a friend’s empty house in Federal Hill — will be hitting the road again next week.

As of now, it appears we will be heading south, where we plan to stay in an undetermined location for an indeterminate period of time. How’s that for a plan?

Once again, we’ll tear ourselves away from Baltimore, where — in addition to promoting my new book — the last month has allowed us to get ourselves organized, experience a semblance of stability, soak in a hot tub on a rooftop deck (just me, not Ace) and savor the pleasures of our old neighborhood.

I’ll miss my corner bar. Ace will miss his favorite park. But, as I think I said nine months ago — when Ace and I first embarked on our journey to discover America, its dogs and the people who love them — there’s one thing we’ll miss most of all:

Friends … big and small.

(To see all our Roadside Encounters, click here.)

Adventures in househunting, Craigslist style

Where I’d like to live and what I can afford are two different realms, two very different realms – a fact I bring up not because I’m the first person to experience that phenomenon, but because it is one of the reasons Ace and I are having difficulty settling down, even temporarily.

All I want is a small cabin or cottage — they being much more romantic than something called a house – away from the hubbub, with heat and electricity, perhaps on the water, with a view of said water, and maybe a porch, possibly a fireplace, and washer and dryer, either near a park or with a big backyard that Ace can romp in, for, say $700 a month.

I’m not set on that. I’d also settle for a huge artist’s loft, utilities included, under $800 a month, where I could spread out and tape notes to the walls and write brilliantly when I’m not at the neighboring dog park, or enjoying the downtown skyline of (insert city here) from my deck, or taking part in the thriving social scene and cultural activities within easy walking distance.

Am I asking too much?

Of course I am.

For those of you who haven’t been following the recent adventures of me and my dog Ace,  allow me to summarize. Eight months ago, we hit the road to see some America — freeloading off friends and strangers, staying at cheap motels, spending a week on a boat, a month in a camper, a few nights in the car and in my tent. Part of the reason was to find ourselves, and find home. Part of it was to see if we could be vagabonds, roaming the country for the same amount we’d previously spent on rent and utilities at our rowhouse in Baltimore.

The trip gave me a deeper appreciation of my dog and my country; a better understanding of its faults (the country’s, Ace has none); and it confirmed my suspicion that most of the great places to live, scenic-beauty wise, have been co-opted by the rich. It also instilled in me — if it wasn’t already there — a thriftiness that, while mandated by my economic situation, borders on obsession.

I just can’t stand spending money on overpriced things, like gas, fancy restaurants, hotels, electricity and rent.

Arriving back in Baltimore, still unsure where home was, we were lucky enough to land in an empty house near the Inner Harbor that’s awaiting its new tenants — three soldiers returning from Afghanistan, expected to be back at end of February. It more than meets my needs and my budget, as it’s a friend’s house that’s costing me nothing. I, essentially, am squatting, with permission. But the clock is ticking.

So everyday, I visit Craigslist, most often “housing, sublets and temporary,” looking for a place to live for March, maybe April and May, maybe longer. I’m not limiting myself to the Baltimore area. I’ve also searched, on the Internet, the Eastern Shore, North Carolina, Delaware, Philadelphia and, on really cold days, Arizona.

My options are limited because I’m hesitant to sign up for a year’s lease and, of course, by my  dog — but also by my cheapness. I will probably move to wherever I find the best deal.

For awhile, I thought I’d found it, in Wilmington, N.C. — a pet-friendly, two-bedroom home overlooking the woods on a quiet cul-de-sac close to Wrightsville Beach. At $695 a month.

I emailed about what sort of pet fees and restrictions might apply, and got a speedy response. The house was still available, and they allowed all dogs — except for for Rottweilers, Akitas, chows and pit bulls.

Ace — as some of you may know, and in answer to the question many of you have asked — is  a mix of Rottweiler, Akita, chow and pit bull.

The next day I found affordable paradise again –  a “cottage” in Ellicott City, Md., one that, from the pictures, looked just like what I was looking for. It was secluded, wooded, with two bedrooms and a porch, for only $700.

Again my inquiry was quickly answered:

“Thanks for your email and interest in renting my house..I am Banke Jur, the owner of the house you are making inquiry of. Actually I resided in the house with my family, my wife and my only daughter before and presently we have moved out due to my transfer from my work now in Warsaw,Poland. Presently my house is still available for rent for $700USD (rent already includes utilities). More so Now, i’m currently in the (West African) for an international Christian follower’s crusade …

“Await your urgent reply … please we are giving you all this based on trust and again i will want you to stick to your words, you know that we have not seen yet and only putting everything into Gods hands, so please do not let us down in this our property and God bless you more as you do this …

“The house is available for rent at the moment so you are free to move in as soon as you wish to. A Deposit of $500 (which happens to be the security deposit) is required before moving in. Arrangements on how to get the keys and other necessary documents delivered to you.”

Problem was, the same house was listed at $1,650 on a dozen other rental websites, including the Re/Max website, its official listing agency.

My findings thus far? What appears to be a dandy deal is often a sleazy scam. What appears too good to be true, generally is. And what I can afford seems to be a “sleeping room,” a roomate situation, or in a neighborhood that, while the house has been “rehabbed,” the neighbors, unfortunately, have not.

Searching Craigslist has given me some new pet peeves: ads that don’t include a price, address, or even neighborhood; ads for places that proclaim dog-friendliness, but limit that to dogs under 25 pounds; ads proclaiming dog-friendliness that turn out to charge an extra $100 a month for it (Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t “friendliness” you have to pay for generally called prostitution?); ads repeated so often as to make you scream; ads pretending to be offering a property that just funnel you into some other website, sucking up your time.

Not to mention they get no editing. There was one house whose owner boasted it was ”recently remolded.” Apparently the original mold wasn’t good enough.

Another ad on Baltimore’s Craigslist offered free rent for 2 months — on a farm, with pets and horses allowed —  in exchange for “painting services that equal 40 hours/week.”  I could do that. What I could not do, though, was pay the $3000 cash deposit they asked for.

I also came across this ”bachelor or bachelorette pad” at $875 a month, which features a built in bar, stripper pole, and, at least in the photos, what appear to be tools of restraint. I exercised some and didn’t seek more information.

There are plenty of ads for roomates. But at 57, I just can’t see moving in with a roomate, or two, or three. I thought some about this one in Canton, a shared rowhouse, for under $700 — three female roomates looking for a fourth of any gender. There were already some “mellow dogs” living there, according to the ad. Ace and I both fit into that category. While it did set me to humming the theme from “Three’s Company,” I didn’t make an inquiry — mainly because, as much as I’d try to be Jack Tripper, I’d come across as the token old coot. I am, come to think of it, a lot like Don Knotts/Mr. Furley on the inside, masked beneath the cool/sleepy exterior of Norman Fell/Mr. Roper. (Not that I actually watched that show.)

What all this is telling me is that humans, at least those on Craigslist, are not to be automatically trusted — that maybe newspaper classified ads, because people had to pay for them, were at least a bit more reliable, not to mention spam free.

It’s telling me too that that there should be a blacklist of landlords and insurers that unfairly blacklist entire breeds.

And, when I read between the lines, it’s telling me that maybe we’re not meant to settle down. Ace, I’m mostly convinced, wants to. Part of me does, too. But another part is saying that, if I invest in anything, it should be a home with wheels.

Maybe we should continue traveling the country, this time in an RV, Ace and me, perhaps with another zany sidekick – not Fran Drescher – simultaneously filming it for use as either reality show or sitcom.

You better hope I find a home, or you might have to watch it.

The pawlitics of bedtime

On my first night in Missoula, I fell asleep with one dog and woke up with a different one.

On the next night, I fell asleep with two dogs and woke up with one.

On the third night, I fell asleep with two dogs and woke up with none. 

For the first time in our five months of traveling, in the latest of the long line of friends and family off whom we have freeloaded, Ace opted to sleep with someone other than me.

My feelings are hurt, but not too badly.

Back in Missoula, Ace has found a lively playmate, and I’ve been in full freeloading mode, enjoying all the comforts of somebody else’s home.

Gwen Florio, a reporter for the Missoulian, who I used to work with at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was kind enough to invite Ace and I to stay with her, her husband Scott, and their dog Nell – a four-month-old Brittany spaniel.

I’ve eaten most of their leftovers, drank most of their milk, eaten most of their eggs, watched their TV and had my own room in the basement, featuring one of the top two beds I’ve slept on (the other being in Santa Fe) during our journey.

Two more weeks on it, and I think my back would stop hurting.

But, as  much as I’ve enjoyed nesting at Gwen’s, it’s time to press on to Seattle.

On the first night, I retired early and Ace came to bed with me. When Nell jumped in – well to be honest, she jumped up, putting her front paws on the bed, and I pulled her up the rest of the way – Ace jumped off. I fell asleep snuggling with Nell, but when I woke up she was gone, and Ace was laying at my side.

On the second night, Gwen was working late on election night, and after watching a little bit of the “shellacking” on TV, I retired early. This time, Ace didn’t mind Nell joining us (if only Republicans and Democrats could learn to co-exist so quickly), and I fell asleep with the two of them – once Nell completed her process of nibbling my hands, squirming, walking over me, turning in circles, pawing at the bedspread, nibbling my hands some more, turning a few more circles and finally flopping down with a sigh. By morning, though (like many a Democrat), she was gone.

On the third night, I retired even earlier, and they both followed me to bed, and  both got in. But when I woke up they had both abandoned me. While I slept, Gwen had returned home and the dogs joined her for the night. Fortunately, her husband was out of town so there was room in her bed for them both.

Ace and Nell have gotten along great, and it has been interesting to watch their play progress — from timid and restrained to no-holds-barred wrestling. She’s Muhammad Ali to Ace’s Joe Frazier. In her back yard, a stone’s throw from the base of Mt. Jumbo, she runs circles around him, eggs him on, gives him a jab or a nip, then darts away. He keeps plodding forward, swinging with his paws, then watching as she bounces across the yard like a pinball.

Ace — despite my initial fears — hasn’t tried to use Nell’s dog door. It’s the perfect size for her, and she speeds in and out of the house at her will. It’s the perfect size for Ace to get stuck in. I had visions of having to take the door off its hinges and taking them both to a vet, or a hardware store, to have dog and door surgically separated.

Luckily, Ace hasn’t tried to use it, or even poke his nose through, probably because it — also like politicians – flaps and makes noise .

Nell, at four months, still engages in the kind of mischief pups perpetrate. At home during the day, while I wasn’t paying attention, she snagged a full roll of toilet paper, took it through her dog door and proceeded to decorate the lawn with confetti. She managed to get into my toothpaste, but apparently decided not to make a meal of it.

Ace, though he seemed unsure how to react to her puppiness at first, now wrestles with her in the way he does with his favorite dogs, nipping at her legs, trying to put her entire head in his mouth, going after her little nub of a tail — all with his trademark gentleness.

When he tires of it all he flops down in the yard, as he did yesterday morning. The grass was white with frost, and Ace relaxed with one of Nell’s toys that he’s grown especially fond of, probably because it has, or once had, peanut butter in it.

For 15 minutes, as Nell alternately looked on, ran circles around him, darted inside and out again, Ace laid there with the purple toy, and when he got up, there was a big green circle where the frost had melted away under his body heat.

To me, it seemed symbolic (then again, I hadn’t had my coffee yet) of what dogs do for us.

They melt away our frosty exteriors, they bring out the unjaded us that can be buried pretty deeply beneath the shells we hide behind, the image we project, all our bullshit and bluster.

They knock down the walls we put up.

Maybe our politicians could learn a thing or two from them, to the point of even becoming bedfellows — not in the dirty sense of the word, but in terms of working together to achieve a goal.

How cool would that be, if they could all settle down, bark less, share the toys, and — as dogs do — make the world a better place?

Of siblings, the 60′s and sappy songs

While traveling with Charley in 1960, John Steinbeck worked in a few visits with family — his son in college, a rendezvous with his wife in Chicago — but he made a point of not including details of those encounters in the book he eventually produced.

They would create, he wrote, a “disunity.”

Instead, the famous writer, traveling the country and using his dog to get people to open up to him, bare their souls and spill their guts, chose to keep his own private life unbared, unspilled and, well, private.

While we’re following Steinbeck’s route, we’re not following that philosophy. That is why you’ve read about our visits with my mother, my father, my brother, an ex-wife and to the former home of my grandparents.

All of this, along with Interstate 94 and my perpetual quest for free lodging, brings us to my sister’s home in Wisconsin.

And the music that she can’t seem to keep inside.

She’s a writer of hymns and a singer of songs who grew up on 60′s music. Long before karaoke machines, she was a hard core singalonger. Or, when no radio was around, a singaloner. She, unlike me — who will sing only when alone (except for Ace) — rarely hesitates to sing, no matter how many people might be around.

She also used her singing to torture me – not that her voice is bad, it’s actually quite good. But — at a time when you don’t even like girls yet — you don’t want one singing sappy girl songs in your face, and she’s always leaned toward the sappy girl songs.

When John Steinbeck left Long Island and hit the road 50 years ago with his poodle to take the pulse of America, he found one of the places to take that pulse was the radio. Radio stations at the time were still playing “Teen Angel,” a morbid little number that told the story of a teenage girl being killed by a train while trying to retrieve the high school ring her boyfriend gave her.

Steinbeck didn’t quite get the name right in “Travels With Charley,” but he did note how the song — No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks earlier that year – seemed to be playing everywhere he went — that America, at least in terms of its music, was becoming pretty homogenized:

“If ‘Teen-Age Angel’ is top of the list in Maine, it is top of the list in Montana. In the course of the day you may hear ‘Teen-Age Angel’ thirty or forty times.”

The song, recorded by a one hit wonder named Mark Dinning, was a continuation of a gloomy theme –  the third No. 1 song in a row at the start of 1960 that featured a love-related death.

The 60′s may have kicked off on a hopeful note, but there was plenty of angst even then, at least in our music. Before Teen Angel, there was “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins — the story of a cowboy who gunned down the man he caught wooing his woman (Felina, who worked in Rosa’s Cantina). He hightailed it out of of town, but was drawn back by his love for Felina. Upon his return, he was gunned down, but at least got a kiss from Felina before he died.

After that came ”Running Bear,” by Johnny Preston. Running Bear, you  might recall, loved Little White Bird – and vice versa — and they both jumped into a raging river to reach each other’s arms, only to get sucked under and drown once they did.

Popular music got a little cheerier and even cheesier after that — with lots of songs about the foolishness of love, including several plaintive chart-toppers by Brenda Lee.

A couple of months before Steinbeck departed on his journey, “I’m Sorry” rose to the top of the charts — a song I remember well because my sister used to sing it constantly, and, once she realized it annoyed me, right in my seven-year-old face.

The worst torture, though, would come two years later, with the release of the song “Johnny Angel,” by Shelley Fabares. My sister would delight in singing me – being a John, though not a Johnny –the sappy tune. She was 14 by then, I was nine. The more I appeared to be bothered by it, the more she did it, which taught me a lifelong lesson.

Today, in the home she shares with her husband in DeForest, outside Madison, she has her own karaoke machine, which she fires up frequently. Unlike the young me, the machine serves as both her accomplice and audience, and doesn’t run to another room.

Her husband, also named John — and a true appreciator of her singing — has a connection to another singer, I just learned today. When he was in the 7th grade in Dumfries, Virginia, he was assigned to be the escort of one of four finalists vying to be selected queen of the winter dance.

Parents and teachers served as judges for the contest, and they picked the girl he’d been chosen to escort — the daughter of a marine. She was cute, he recalled, the fastest runner on the playground and prone to wearing “puffy-shouldered dresses.”

The year was 1959, and the girl was Emmylou Harris.

Now that I’m grown up, I don’t think I’d mind Emmylou Harris (a true dog lover, by the way) singing “Johnny Angel” to me — even in my face. My sister singing it to me, however, is still bothersome. How do I know? Because even now, as I look up the song on YouTube, she is doing it again. She’s singing along. And she’s 61. And I’m 57. And I want to run into the other room.

Johnny Angel, how I love him.
He’s got something that I can’t resist,
but he doesn’t even know that I exist.

I’m pretending it’s not bothering me at all.

Spending big in the frugal state of Maine

Rolling into Maine, about the same time fall decided to, we’ve decided to lay low in Portland a few days, dry out from our camping experience and perform a little maintenance — on the new website, the car, the dog and myself — before we head into the remote, northernmost reaches of Maine.

Among those things needing to be dealt with: broken eyeglasses, dirty laundry, a shaggy and unkempt appearance (me, not Ace), and a seriously moldy smell in the car. In addition to all the wet stuff that had been riding in the back of the car for two days — I halfway expected to look back there and see Ace amid a field of mushrooms – there was still more wet stuff atop my car in my leaky rooftop carrier.

So we pulled into (you guessed it) a Motel 6 and got to work on our top priorities — for Ace, scoping out possible sources of treats; for me, doing something about the small lake that had formed inside the black plastic rooftop bag.

I decided a new rooftop carrier would be a good investment, because without it, Ace would be riding amid a mountain of camping gear, luggage and other miscellany. I hoped to get a carrier with a hard shell — one that would be easy to get stuff in and out of, and one I wouldn’t have to tie down with ropes and bungee cords.

I left Ace in the room and headed to the Sears auto center at the Maine Mall. While they had the hard-shelled carriers, they didn’t have the hardware necessary to attach it to my luggage rack, so I ended up with another soft one.

Since I was already there, I decided to get the oil change I’ve been postponing, and asked them to check my tires.

After a quick bite in the mall’s food court, I went into the Pro Vision Center, asking them to accomplish what I could not –  at least not without wearing my glasses, which one can’t do when they’re trying to reinsert that little screw that secures the temple to the front of the frames. They did it in two minutes, and charged me nothing, an act for which, by the end of the day, I would be even more thankful.

Sears called to tell me my car needed some realignment, and that my brake pads were wearing thin (which explains that squeak I’d been hearing.) I opted to have the back ones replaced and let the front ones live out what little life they have left.

That meant I had more time to kill, so I stopped for a quick and drastic (at my request) haircut, and — because the temperatures are dipping up this way and I brought no winter clothes along — bought a jacket at J.C. Penney. I opted for a black microfiber bomber jacket, though I plan no actual bombing in the near future and I have no idea what microfiber actually is.

From there, I picked up Ace so he could tag along for my next chores: doing the laundry, emptying and removing my old carrier and throwing everything that was wet into dryers – shoes, pillows, sleeping bag and tarps included. Despite my efforts, my workboots and a pair of sandals still had  strange fungi growing on them, so I disposed of them, along with the old and holey black plastic carrier and the massive amounts of dog hair left after I gave Ace a good Furminating.

When I tallied what I spent — $10 lunch, $15 at the laundromat, $20 (counting tip) for haircut, $40 for a jacket, $10 for batteries at Radio Shack and a whopping, but not unfair $473 at the Sears auto center — it added up to almost $600. Ouch.

And this just when we were completing the most frugal month yet of our travels.

In month four, we, for the first time, were headed for spending less than $1,000 for our food, gas and lodging combined — thanks mainly to staying still in Baltimore for a bit, and freeloading off friends both there and in Philadelphia.

September saw us spend only seven nights in motels, two at a campground, one in a car, 10 in the homes of friends and 10 on the boat of a friend. All tolled, we spent only $400 on shelter, only $240 on gas and about $300 on food. (Knowing we were saving money elsewhere, we treated ourselves to some nicer dinners than usual.)

Perhaps I need some lessons in frugality from the people of Maine, who, according to the stereotype anyway, have adjusted to living in a state where incomes fall far behind the rest of New England. The state’s farmers and fishermen are accustomed to an up and down economy, and know how to make ends meet during the downs.

This afternoon, while walking Ace behind the Motel 6, I noticed a group of four young people. One jumped into the Dumpster and tossed cans and glass and plastic bottles up to his cohorts.

They left with a full sack.

Frugality, they say, is a tradition here — though one can be both frugal and generous.

Take Gordon, who is temporarily living down on the first floor. He’s been a Motel 6-ite for more than two weeks.

He seems to limit his luxury purchases to treats for the dogs he meets at the motel and his daily cigar, which he steps outside to smoke, disposing of his stogies in an ashtray on the side of the building.

He spends much of the day sitting in the small lobby, handing out treats and making friends with the dogs who pass by. He plans to stay a couple of more weeks before going to visit some family in northern Maine.

If he ever needs to figure out exactly how many days he has been in this Motel 6, I know how he can do it. Just step outside and count the stogies.

Candle blowin’ time: My birthday wish list

For my birthday, which is today, I was thinking of writing up a wish list — all the things Ace and I need to continue, for the next three months, our travels across America.

At the top would be use of a state of the art motorhome — not one of those gas-greedy, road-hogging behemoths, but something a bit more compact and economical, where I won’t constantly be worrying about how quickly my wallet is draining or whether I’m in my own lane.

After that, I’d ask for a continuation of the cooler weather that has finally shown up, reasonable gas prices, an end to any and all weight limits and “fees” charged for bringing a dog along anywhere, health insurance (for me and my dog), world peace, and that Ace and I manage to continue to avoid life’s potholes. Cash, of course, is always nice, too.

Yes, as our financial situation grows bleaker, sending us back to the 401K to continue our journey– assuming there’s still something left of the 401K — I could work up quite a wish list.

But wish lists are a waste of time — they lead one to get so focused on what they’d like to get that they fail to appreciate what they have gotten. They tend to itemize the material things, while leaving out the more important ones. In my case, in the last three months, what I’ve gotten has been a lot. With the possible exception of when I got my first dog — that’s him and me in the picture — I’ve probably never been happier.

I think I was about 10 when it was taken — apparently in the days before focus had been invented. You’ll just have to trust me when I say we were a good looking team. I’m not sure what happened to the snappy red blazer, but Tippy — a gift for my 5th birthday – died, as all dogs do.

Since then, another 45 years passed — as have about a dozen more dogs. There were jobs, and wives, high points and low ones, honors and criticism, thrills and disappointments, challenges and victories, all of which led to where I am today. Specifically, that’s in the house of a friend in Baltimore, who has gone to the beach and offered me lodging in exchange for feeding her cat, named Kitty, who so far has just hidden underneath a chair making noises like a constipated aardvark.

Or at least what I’d imagine a constipated aardvark would sound like.

Where I am, in the broader sense, is: 57 years old, unemployed, without a home (mostly on purpose) and halfway through what I hope to be a six month journey, weaving back and forth across America. With, of course, my dog.

Right now, I am actually in several states: Maryland, Flux, Uncertainty, and, perhaps the most scenic of all, Disarray. I am attempting to make some sense of the jumble of paperwork, books, shoes, clothing and garbage that inside of my car; and fighting off the nagging insecurity of not having a real home, a real job, a real bank account. I am tired of Motel 6′s, fast food and tailgaters.

Yet, for some reason, as Ace and I simultaneously ponder the wisdom of, and rest up for, the next leg of the journey, I am more thankful than ever for all I have — my dog, family, friends and the last three months being at the top of that list.

Ace has truly dazzled me with his ability to adapt to new situations (though we’ll see how he does later this week when we attempt to spend a few nights aboard a not very large and difficult-to-climb aboard boat). He has adjusted with ease to everything so far — new accomodations, new dogs, long drives, curly fries,  hot weather, canned food. Being with each other pretty much around the clock, we’ve become even closer, more co-dependent than before, which may or may not be an entirely good thing.

Family and friends have opened their homes to us as we’ve hopscotched the country — and so, on occasion, have complete strangers. We’ve met authors, and Michael Vick dogs, we’ve “couchsurfed,” visited ex-wives and ex-cats, spent time at shelters, rescues and sanctuaries that are doing wonderful things, and had some fantastic encounters with everything from space aliens to strippers.

I’ve learned that people are good, dogs are even better, and America — mired as it may temporarily be by the bad economy — remains, like the old song says, beautiful … and by that I mean both its landscape and the people who occupy it. I am lucky to have seen so much of it and met so many of them — the latter, more often than not, being made possibly by my amazing one-of-a-kind dog.

So, to heck with the wishes;  it is a happy birthday; we are going to push on; and the cat under the chair, as I wished, has stopped making noises.

Really, the only thing Ace and I need to continue our journey across America is each other.

On the other hand, if someone insists on providing us with an RV, we will accept.

(“Dog’s Country” is the continuing account of one man and one dog spending six months criss-crossing America)

At last, Ace gets some beach time

After two and a half months on the road, Ace and I finally landed on a beach. We love the mountains. We love the desert. But, all in all, there’s no place we’d rather land than at the beach.

No other place — and I’m just speaking for myself now — is, at once, so stimulating and soothing. Give us the sound of pounding surf, the sight of gliding pelicans and the smell of salt water and, of course, access to some air conditioning, and we are happy souls. All my senses, and perhaps even my brain, seem to to work better at the beach.

And this wasn’t just any beach. This was — in what was perhaps my biggest freeloading coup to date – a gated beach community, part-time home to North Carolina’s rich and famous, good old boys like Andy Griffith and not-so-good, not- so-old ones like John Edwards.

Figure 8 Island near Wilmington is a private paradise – not accessible to the beach-going hordes, private enough that celebrities (usually) find solace there, and dotted with mansions that seem to think they’re big enough to defy hurricanes.

Exclusive is what it is — the sort of place I’d be prone to make fun of, unless of course, I was invited in.

Once Ace and I were, we didn’t want to leave.

Ever.

I’d made a point to time our continuing travels so that we’d be able to take advantage of an invitation to visit my former University of North Carolina classmates Steve and Louise Coggins, year-round residents of the island who were holding a mini-reunion for some college friends, most of whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in — as someone felt it necessary to point out — 35 years.

Steve, a lawyer, and Louise, a psychotherapist, are hard core dog lovers, and hard core people lovers as well. Earl, their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, is the latest in a long line of rescues. If rescuing dogs weren’t enough, Steve has also hauled some humans out of the ocean, and I’m guessing Louise, in her job, has pulled a few humans back from the riptides of life they were caught in as well.

They, and the other old friends I reconnected with, seem to remain just about as wacky as they were in college — Louise, who once tracked down Paul Newman on the island and talked him into posing for a picture, in particular. They seem to remain — despite all you hear about the vanishing idealism of my greying generation — just as idealistic and committed as they were then, too. Maybe even more so. If there’s a liberal cause, or a Democratic candidate, you can probably find its, his or her bumper sticker on the back of Louise’s car. (“Who would Jesus execute?” was my favorite.) And, beyond lip service, both she and her husband seem still up for a fight when it comes to what they think is right.

That, to me, was even more refreshing than getting slapped and tickled by a cold ocean wave, though I must report that the ocean is not cold at all. It’s the warmest I’ve ever felt it. (This continues to be the summer I came to believe in global warming.)

Ace and Earl hit it off immediately — Earl being a low key little dog who likes to sit in a lap, or other comfortable spot, and observe the humans, often with a quizzical stare that makes you think he’s still trying to figure out the species.

Ace — though he’s not big on swimming in the ocean, prefering to wade, was in his element, too.

Meaning he had humans with whom to bond — there’s nothing he likes better than having lots of people around to lean on, lay atop and hold hands with.

He seems most content when among multiple friends, kind of like Steve and Louise. Their beach house — rebuilt after Hurricane Fran claimed their first — seems to have a steady stream of visitors coming and going. If it were a bed and breakfast, it would be doing a thriving business. I think there are long stretches between the times only they and Earl are there.

I hung around for two days, evening out my one-sided driving tan and pondering how I might extend my stay. I offered to become Steve and Louise’s live- in gardener — especially appropriate because, at their wedding, I, having gone attired in blue jeans, was mistaken for a gardener. I considered altering the dates of my visitor’s permit, or stowing away on the island, sleeping on the decks of unoccupied mansions during the night, frolicking in the surf by day.

But finally, and with great effort, I tore myself away.

Ace was even harder to tear away. For the first time on this trip, he didn’t come when I called him to jump in the car. Instead he walked up to the front door of the beach house and sat down — not the momentary, ready-when-you-are-sit, but that determined, try-and-budge-me sit dogs do.

But after taking in two days of good friends, good food, good sun, good surf, and a breezy oceanfront porch swing nap that — until Ace came over and started licking my hand — was perhaps the most restful nap ever in my entire history of napping, we forced ourselves back in the hot old car and headed north, headed in search of another piece of my past.

That story is coming soon. Suffice to say that — unlike my college friends, and their principles — it didn’t hold up so well.

Locked out in Arizona

One pitfall of freeloading, I’ve learned – at least twice now – is that every person’s home has its own quirks, whether it’s a toilet that’s tricky to flush, water faucets in which the hot and cold are reversed, or doors that lock behind you when you step outside.

The latter caught me again this week.

After spending a week with my brother in Gilbert, I headed up Friday to spend a couple of days with my father in Scottsdale. Ace, who he and his wife Bonnie had met before, reconnected with the both of them, and so dazzled them with his good behavior that they felt okay about leaving him in the house when we all went out to eat some Mexican food.

A couple hours later, around 8 p.m., they went to bed, first showing me the ropes – like the light that, because of no off switch, must be unplugged, the switch to turn off the ceiling fan, how their TV remote (a device that has grown increasingly complex in recent years) worked.

I kicked off my shoes, hopped on the couch, started blogging, switched to watching TV and dozed off.

Around 11:30 I was awakened by a beeping. The burglar alarm, though not enabled, was spouting off. They were sleeping right through it, so I decided to check the perimeter of their home, and smoke a cigarette while I was at it. I slid open the sliding glass door to the backyard and called Ace, who stuck his head out, felt the temperature outside and pulled his head back in like a turtle.

Fine, stay inside, I said, pushing the sliding door closed to preserve the precious air conditioning.

And hearing an ominous click.

Exactly one month after locking myself out the first time on this trip, at my mother’s home, I’d locked myself out again, at my father’s home. (Please feel free to psychoanalyze that behavior.)

I briefly pondered sleeping outside, but with temperatures still feeling like they were in the 90s, I motioned for Ace to come to the door, thinking maybe by some miracle he could lift his paw up and hit the lock to let me back in. Instead he stared at me through the window with a look that said “What are you doing out there?” turned around, walked over to the couch and, always the opportunist, climbed into the spot where I was formerly dozing.

So much for a Lassie-esque rescue.

In my socks, I walked through gravel whose pieces felt like they’d been individually sharpened, and around to the front door, checking windows on the way. Everything was locked up tight, including the front door, which not even my nearly over-the-limit credit card could get open. I briefly worried about the alarm company showing up, seeing me trying to gain entry, and unloading on me. After all, this is Arizona.

I rang the doorbell, once, then twice, then a dozen times, knocked on the door until my knuckles ached, but no one awakened, not even Ace. Then I took to slamming on the door, hard, with my open hand. That got Ace to barking, which, combined with a few dozen more doorbell rings, finally brought my father downstairs to let me in.

“What are you doing out there?” he asked.

I explained the whole thing. He went back to bed. Stressed out by the whole ordeal, I stepped outside for a cigarette, this time insisting my hero dog come with me, and leaving the door open a crack.

(To go back to the beginning of “Dog’s Country,” click here.)

When will our journey end? Dunno

One month ago today, a man and his dog left the comfort of their Baltimore rowhouse and set forth across America on a journey with no firm destination and of no definite duration.

An unemployed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and soon to be published author (the man, not the dog), he decided he could keep doing his website and look for jobs just as easily on the road as he could from home — and in the process feel a little less dejected and rejected, a little more alive, perhaps, even, at 56, a little less old.

Don’t get him wrong, he loved his routine, and so did his dog — but within routine, you can also find the word rut, and sometimes there’s not much different between the two.

Rather than pay for housing, he decided to pack up his website, his dog and himself and hit the road, documenting their adventures — a la John Steinbeck and Charley, but with the modern-day benefits of Mapquest, Google, WordPress and cellphone –  all while trying to get by on the amount he once paid for rent, roughly $1,000 a month.

After one month, and 3,300 miles, he — who, in case you haven’t figured it out, is me — can report that he nearly met that goal; that his dog, himself and, we hope, the website are all better for the experience; and that the journey is going to continue for a period that, like the man, will be indefinite.

Life on the road has its downside — the constant packing and unpacking; the where did I put my so and so; the heat; the where am I going to stay tonight; the expense, which we try our best to mitigate; and the uncertainty, which can be both good and bad.

But the gypsy in us — and there’s more gypsy in us than perhaps we thought — is loving it as we drive across America, through cities large and (preferably) small, checking its pulse (it still has one), revisiting some people and places and getting acquainted with some new ones.

So far, I can report, Ace, car and I are holding up well, though just this week a “Malfunction Indicator Light” started flashing (on the car, not me or Ace). It’s a little disconcerting since we’re contemplating crossing a few empty deserts in the week ahead, and according to my owner’s manual it could be a sign of major engine or transmission problems, or perhaps nothing at all. I think I’m glad I don’t personally have a malfunction indicator light.

So far, healthwise, my only problems have been dental, even though some have questioned whether they might be mental.

A cap fell off a tooth on one side, and there was a gaping cavity (to my tongue, it felt like the Grand Canyon) on the other, making eating difficult.

A trip to the dentist would have sent me over budget, so I decided on do-it-yourself dental work. Since no pain was involved, at least if I refrained from eating, I bought a product called Dentemp O.S., and, after locating my detached cap in a pocket of last week’s pants, glued it back on. I used some more of the product to fill the cavity.

Health insurance for me, like a lot of Americans, is still — despite all that reform (is it done yet?) – something my finances won’t permit.

Looking at our overall spending since we departed, our biggest expense has been gas ($580 worth), followed by lodgings (eight nights in motels at $334), then food, which — if you subtract the amount spent on buying dinner for those who took me in (about $200) – was $120. That comes out to $1,034 — less than I was spending on rent and electricity during my stay-put existence.

The key to staying within my self-imposed limits is going to be mooching accommodations when I can, camping when I can, couchsurfing some more, continuing to avoid dentists, and not covering so much ground that gas eats up my budget.

Ace and I have both lost a little weight — not a bad thing for either of us — and he seems to be enjoying the trip so far. He’s as eager to meet new people as he ever was, and with all the new dogs he has met, he’s becoming even more sociable and reliable.

No matter where we are, he has taken to giving me a look around 11 a.m. that — and maybe this is just my imagination — seems to ask, “Is it checkout time?”

He’s getting used to being a rambling dog, and next week we plan to get motoring again, heading out of Phoenix for a while and going north and then west, or maybe west and then north.

We’re trying to set up doing some volunteer work at Best Friends, the Utah animal sanctuary, hoping to visit the Circle L animal rescue ranch in Prescott, and maybe will venture into California, where I’ve been feeling the urge to revisit Salvation Mountain — a man-made, hand-painted, mostly garbage monument (to God, not Dog) I wrote about nearly two decades ago when I traveled the country (sans dog) as a newspaper reporter. It’s near the Salton Sea in an area known as Slab City, which attracts an interesting mix of vagabonds and nomads.

Our trip may or may not be a neverending journey, and it may or may not someday evolve into a second book, but this much is for sure, there’s a neverending supply of stories — dog ones and people ones — out there.

And we’re off to find a few more of them.

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