Chappie and the Neighbour
"I like the fact that Austin's the first place I've ever lived where there's a real sense of community. People care about their neighbors." --Ian McLagan
I have a story to tell--or actually Benson, my shaggy beast of a dog, has a story to tell. He is lying now on the floor near my feet, so that if I move to get up, he can track me around the house. It must get tiring for him, middle-aged man that he has become this past year, to keep constant watch on me. His curly strawberry-blond coat has grown over his eyes, and he peers upward at me through thickets of brows that twitch and tremble. When we walk down the street he casts sidewise glances at my feet, so that if I turn one direction or the other, he can anticipate and act accordingly. He's always anticipating my actions, moods, reactions, etc, as well as those of others; that's his job.
Benson is a therapy dog--a nebulous term, and hotly contested these days. I bought and trained him from the age of 10 weeks, desensitizing him to every obnoxious thing I could think of that life might throw our way. When he was solidly trained I bought him a vest that proclaims "Therapy Animal," and with a letter from a psychologist he became legal in any place I might choose to go. He's slept under bar stools, shopped at Target, been through airport security, ridden in cars, trucks, airplanes big and small, boats, kayaks, canoes, and balances on my stand-up paddle board when we play in the lake. He's traveled through four states and two countries, and weathered it all with cool, trusting, friendly aplomb. There was a time when I genuinely needed Benson's services--thanks to PTSD, and life in Africa. But these days he's more or less retired, just in time for the therapy dog shit-storm that's hitting now, thanks to abuse from people slapping vests on untrained animals and hauling them into swanky restaurants, where they dine straight from the table.
So now that you know Benson, you'll understand why I took him on a date with me one night to La Mancha, a Tex-Mex restaurant in my north Austin neighborhood. The date was my good friend Dave, a talented punk-rocker who is also sight-impaired. Dave loves having Benson along, so I snapped on the therapy vest and he accompanied us into the restaurant and took his characteristic place halfway under the table. He loves to lie with his long snout poking out in case anybody wants to pay him attention. Which someone did. It didn't take long for the place to fill up, and the table next to us was sat with a white-haired gent and his date, a lovely quiet woman who returned my smile but never said a word. The gent, however, was all enthusiasm. Dave and I were in the midst of a conversation about who-knows-what when a bright, Brit voice interrupted, "Oh, my, wot a luvly little chappie!" Benson, who is not "little" by any standard, immediately began army-crawling across the floor to this delightful person who might, possibly, have a dog biscuit about him. The gent reached out, then hesitated--"Can I pet 'im?" But Benson was already answering the question, having reached the proffered hand and shoved his nose into it. "Yep," I replied. I forewent the usual awkward "Erm, no, he's a working dog" conversation and turned back to Dave, who was becoming annoyed (he can't see who's addressing us, and he hates when people approach Benson because he's anticipating the inevitable question which always follows.....)
...And here it came. "So wot's the vest for? 'Ow did you get it?" Dave started to growl out a retort but I patted his hand rather firmly. This was a nice person, and he looked familiar; I wondered if I'd seen him around the neighborhood. I didn't want Dave snapping at any of my neighbors. More questions bubbled up: "D'you think I could get one for my dog? Can any dog get it?"--and piles more after that, all delivered in this lovely Cockney accent that was so viscerally familiar from my childhood (born in Scotland, partly raised in England). I was beguiled in spite of myself; what a warm soul, genuinely curious, and "the luvly chappie" by now had rolled over on his back, eyes closed and tongue lolling in bliss. It wasn't long before I had to break off the conversation, as our food arrived; but Benson, who is no dummy, remained within reach of the Brit, and I let him. Obviously dogs were high on this man's list, and there was a lot of love going around over at that table. Besides, a sudden thought came: that is what therapy dogs are for--and in Benson's mind, were he to have a conscious thought, that is what he's on the planet for--to spread as much love as possible. Also I was pretty sure I knew the guy from somewhere. Neighbor, I decided, definitely a neighbor.
Or rather, as it turned out, neighbour. It wasn't until later that evening, when I couldn't get that Brit's face and crazy Cockney accent out of my mind, that it clicked. It was Ian McLagan I'd been talking to, or more rightly, who'd been talking to Benson. This bright, curious soul, this pesty asker of questions, was Mac of the Faces and the Small Faces and the Bump Band: British transplant and lover of all things Austin. Unknowingly, I owed him a debt for influencing my musical taste from the time I was old enough to appreciate rock n' roll. I was forced into piano lessons, and hated them madly, for ten years; but Mac did magic on the keyboard and I loved it. He wrote and riffed and sang songs with bands I grooved to; I once accidentally imitated Rod Stewart's hairstyle (not a good period of my adolescence) and I still hold The Faces partly responsible for my ongoing adoration of men with fantastic hair and tight shiny pants.
And now? I wish I'd said more to Mac while I had the chance, sitting there in the warm restaurant bathed in a haze of margaritas and connected by the love of a friendly dog. I wish I'd been a little quicker in recognizing an icon from my teenaged angst, but that's the way it is with these things; you never expect to brush up against someone extraordinary while you're pushing pinto beans around on your plate, eyes shut to anything but the mundane.
There won't be another chance. Mac took his leave a bit early and I never did get to finish that interrupted conversation. But I went last night to the Austin Music Awards, where he was memorialized with a stunning tribute; so many Austin greats played their hearts out for Mac that the place was nearly set ablaze with love. Patty Griffin, Gary Clark Junior, Charlie Sexton, Alejandro Escovedo, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Tameca Jones, Shakey Graves, and more--all beautiful and bittersweet. I don't doubt Mac was there too, both onstage and in the audience, getting a big thrill while we boogied and swayed and cried and laughed.
But there was one soul missing from the celebration. No dogs allowed, and I didn't push the therapy dog thing because I figured it would be too much. Too many people, too loud, too many heels for his big soft paws to dodge. I told the chappie about it when I got home, though. It's hard to explain to a dog about rock n' roll. Hard to tell him what it means to feel your pulse roar with something bigger than just your one heart beating; about how a swift-fingered blues riff can make your whole self grin so wide you could swallow the moon. He pressed his head against mine and waved his tail and sighed. I don't know what that means in dogspeak--maybe he was telling me something dogs try to tell humans all the time and we just don't get it. Or maybe he knows something I can only guess at; that Mac is still out there, whispering and roaring, rocking down the stars, joyriding past Jupiter on a sweet, soulful song he's just now beginning to write.