A Young Bowser, Circa 1993

We lost one of our family dogs this week. Bowser was 15 ½ years old (a pure mutt of Collie, German Shepherd, Irish Setter, and St. Bernard) and escaped from his pen at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania while they were here in Tennessee visiting. My father kept the news from us the entire four days of the trip, not wanting to ruin our time together; once home, he burst into tears in the kitchen. We still have hope that Bowser will trot back with burrs in his fur; it’s only been a week. Even as I am writing this, there’s been a false alarm: the rangers from Keystone State Park, less than a mile from my parents’, called to say that they’d found him. But it was another dog—shorter, furrier, not our old guy.

My father hopes that, “he’s getting a piece of ass.” I hope that he’s found adventure: deer to chase, a pond to swim in. We don’t say what we fear: that in his deafness and blindness he’s lost, scared, and alone for the first time. My father raised him from birth, after all. His mama, Sweetie Pie, was our dog (a runt hand-fed from an eyedropper by my mother), as was his grandmother, Tassie. Bowser’s the last generation of the family of dogs that extended from my second year to my thirties.

We didn’t treat those dogs as we treat our dogs now: they lived outside, stinky and matted but loved. Bowser’s enclosure opened into my Dad’s workshop and garage. He slept there on an old couch and when my father went into the garage, Bowser would ease up on his old back legs and grin, a really big grin for my father.

I suppose it’s fair to say that my Dad’s often misunderstood in the human realm—interpreted as gruff and harsh, which is really his mask for emotion or social unease. With the family dogs, he’s always comfortable. A few years ago, he began giving them middles names—Maizee May, Kenai Florissa, Gracie Louise, Stella Elizabeth, Duncan Diesel, Jedidiah Linston. And when our Kenai died in May of 2006, he wrote her a song, “Kenai Florissa, we’re sure gonna miss ‘er.” He’s working on songs for all of them now. Bowser’s, too, will be a posthumous honor.

For a dog of Bowser’s size, his life span is off the charts. True, he was never coddled or brushed, but he had his fun killing groundhogs, slipping his collar and tearing across the corn fields, and, of course, barking at anything barkable. It must have worked for him, for he was a happy dog. A few years ago, my sister, Maria, had him groomed—those poor, underpaid groomers!—and tried to gentrify him for a life in the house. Bowser sprayed everything in sight: wood burner, couches, kitchen chairs, walls, doors, and toilets; he feared the tile flooring; and he escaped out the door every chance he got. Back outside, Bowsie Boy was content even as he lost his senses, cooing for attention anytime he sensed a family member. In this late great adventure, I hope he’s sitting tall and proud with his tan mane fuzzily framing his face, grinning at some new unexpected joy and, just maybe, getting a piece of ass.



We were out of place; no question. Even as we walked towards the first car, its truck open, forty men glancing down into its recesses, every head pulled towards us: Chris’s button-down and my all black dress get-up didn’t help; Warren, in his shorts and t-shirt, offered the most credibility to our group. Chris reached into his pocket and pulled a crisp twenty into view, which seemed only to confirm their discomfort. Cocaine? Illicit weapons? Black market baby?

Nope, we were after lunch. And lunch was in the trunk of that car.

There were three cars in the lot actually, positioned strategically to serve hundreds of Hispanic workers at two of Chattanooga’s many condo construction sites. This car, a big old coupe with a cooler of Cokes in the backseat and a trunk-full of three-compartment Styrofoam meals, was operated by a chunky man with a Hawaiian shirt and a ponytail. “No more,” he told us, though a number of containers remained.

His anxiety was no surprise. Chattanooga’s Hispanic community has been on edge since the raid of the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant this spring; over a hundred workers were arrested. Even the Hispanic Festival at the Chattanooga Market, generally bustling and colorful, was reserved, poorly attended, slightly mournful even.

At the next car, a man and woman spoke rapidly to one another at our inquiry, a sort of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I back and forth. Finally, the woman said, “Carne only. Eight dollars.” The gringo price for sure, but we were hungry and pleased at their willingness. We gathered our armfuls—napkins and spoons, foil-pouched tortillas, sodas, and Styrofoams—and went to sit on a flowerbox.

Poor working-man’s food: meat—mostly bones—that most of us would discard, veins jiggling and gristle, in a tasty gravy, floating delicious sauce-soaked chunks of potatoes; rice and elbow noodles with a scattering of bagged mixed vegetables, seasoned with Goya; chubby red beans in sauce; and homemade corn tortillas. I made “tacos” of the rice and beans, dipped them in the spicy red meat stock, and gnawed the meat from the bones.

The workers around us lounged, some napping, in spots with a snatch of shade, enjoying their few minutes before the return to bricklaying and building in burning sun. By the time I went to wash my hands, they seemed comfortable with our presence, pointing me towards the lady’s room and smiling from under the brims of their ball caps. For Chris, Warren, and I, it was a memorable lunch, a lunch of experience: politics and culture, thrift and sustenance, homemade and open-market, beans and rice and bone and marrow.



The Past Week

The past week has been a hectic feast of picnicking and near-miss food adventures, a fall off the cooking wagon as it were. Over the days preceding the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law with her husband and five boys (ages 10, 5, 2, and eight-month-old twins) ascended on my in-laws. Chris and I were invited for dinner each evening and had lovely, raccous times which included bottle rockets and jumping jacks; bratwursts and gazpacho; ‘nana pudding; various magic tricks and associated bets; a rosary presented by our sweet, five-year-old Burkley to help “Gramma Kay quite smoking;" the sneaking of cigarettes; gin-and-tonics; whoopie pies.

In the middle of it all, Chris and I slipped off to Birmingham for Tom Waits’ Glitter and Doom tour appearance at the Alabama Theatre. The first time I heard Tom Waits, I was fourteen, riding in a Cadillac Brougham with my friend Caleb’s dad at the wheel. “Step Right Up” spiraled nearly-out-of-control on the stereo (everyone’s a winner, bargains galore…something for the little lady, something for the little lady, something for the little lady), and I was sucked in; have been ever since.

For the record, Birmingham is a beautiful downtown of potential and nothingness. We found a single bar, packed to the gills with Rain Dogs and a lone slow-motion bartender; no luck. So we were back on the street, searching for dinner, when Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs beamed brilliantly through its grime. Ever on the search for a good dog, Chris was drawn in and even more so when he swung open the door to be hit with the scent of “boiled meat, steamed buns, and onions,” as he describes. Sadly, the hunched, aproned man behind the counter apologized that he’d cleaned up for the evening, and we, ultimately, were left to theatre drinks and dirty-sock popcorn.

We had a similar miss yesterday for my birthday breakfast, when Chattanooga’s Koch’s Bakery was closed for family vacation. It was apple fritters that we were after. I choose the crispiest fried heap that I can find, glazed in simple confectioners-frosting, and feathery soft crumb inside: an ornery treat reserved for birthday morning, serious hangover repair, or early-morning barbeque-team relief. Oh well.

Tonight, we’ll be hoisting back onto the wagon. Tomatoes are here, and, damn, does this first harvest of Brandywines look promising. I hope my sad little basil plants are ready to be ravaged.