A few days ago we went over to the Georgia Street Garden on the city's East Side and a really nice group of kids from that neighborhood came out and helped us make a few hundred seed bombs as part of a small project to beautify Detroit. On its surface, this neighborhood is pretty typical of the city. It isn't shockingly empty like some of the more dramatic areas nearby, but you'll find no shortage of burnt-out shells of houses, or vacant lots where houses once stood. But to focus on those would be to ignore the reality that this neighborhood is not abandoned. Plenty of good people live in this neighborhood; plenty of the houses are well-maintained with proud lawns by proud people. There is new infill housing. There are churches and schools. But the most striking thing about this neighborhood are the gardens. Over the three years I've been coming here, I've seen more and more gardens popping up, some well away from the central community garden started by neighborhood hero Mark Covington back in 2007-8 (I first wrote about him here). Smaller vacant lots are getting transformed into new gardens, and more backyards are being tilled this year than last. The rooster's cry vies with that of the alley pheasant.

Still, despite the good that the gardens bring, it's a tough neighborhood, particularly at its edges. There's no getting around that fact. Like so many other neighborhoods in this city, the residents of the Georgia Street neighborhood must contend with the everyday realities that crushing poverty brings. I don't want to sugarcoat this post with any nonsense about how coming to this neighborhood for an afternoon and making wildflower seed bombs would do anything about the crime, or the lack of jobs and opportunities that these kids face. I didn't do this to "help" these kids; I really went there hoping they could help me and my children better understand the city we're living in, outside of the natural bubble we've created for ourselves downtown. I want to stress that I am not writing this today in search of any recognition for my humble efforts, but because I want you to see for yourselves how cool these kids are, and give you a vision of the city of Detroit as something more than ruins, prairies, and vine-covered houses. 

My daughter, a veteran of the seed bomb manufacturing process, stood by my side as I explained the basics. I could tell she was proud of already knowing what to do, and wanted to help show everyone the process. She's usually so shy, and I was pretty proud of her for jumping right in there among the big kids to get her hands dirty. 

I was hoping to make 1000 little seed bombs, but the kids developed their own technique of making bombs the size of baseballs filled and covered with native Michigan wildflower seeds. They were like neutron seed bombs. I also brought some peat cups to plant sunflower (and other) seeds in, with the idea that they could be stuffed in the cracks of broken porches or hulks of burned and abandoned homes. It didn't take long for the huge board we would use to dry the bombs to start filling up, or for my reserves of soil, peat, and clay to start running out (and I'd like to thank the anonymous Sweet Juniper reader who sent a $20 bill to Busy Bee Hardware to help fund this project). 

Once the board was full and the supplies were dwindling, the kids were ready to clean off their hands and get started learning how to work the cameras I brought for them. As I briefly mentioned in this post, I have been meaning to get some cameras in the hands of a few Detroit kids in order to document their own lives (I know this is hardly an original concept, but I wanted to do it my own way). I wanted to give the kids cameras with no strings attached, but still offer them my services to help them develop, digitally edit, and publish their work online and display their printed work. After writing about it, I received dozens of offers for working digital cameras and for a few days our mailbox was flooded with them. I received so many that I was able to take the money I had set aside for cameras and use it to buy extra digital media cards, film, batteries, and an identical carrying case for each kid. Thanks to all these generous Sweet Juniper readers, there were some really excited kids on Georgia Street that evening.  The kid in the middle of this picture, Benito, looked up at me and quietly said, "You mean, this camera is mine? Like, until I die?"

After the initial excitement wore off, the kids sat down with a book I'd made of many of the photos that I've taken in this city. It was pretty interesting for me, to suddenly see my photographs through their eyes. Occasionally Mark would point to something and tell them where in the city the subject was; when they saw this photo one of them said, "Hey, that's Tippy-Toe Ty! He's always asking for a dollar." When I admitted to giving him a few, the kid replied, "See, now that only encourages him." When Mark saw the first photo in this post he laughed, "I know that dog. My wife named him. Zeus." The things they knew about my own photos confirmed to me the reason I wanted to give them cameras. I hoped they would help them tell their own stories in a way I never could.

My wife finally swung by with a car full of pizzas, and when she got out she said one of the kids ran up to her and breathlessly reported, "We're getting our hands muddy on purpose! And some guy over there gave me a camera!" before running away. He didn't even know about the pizzas yet. The pizzas from Supino were a big hit among the seed bomb makers, and my son proved bold enough to get the first slice (even though he spent most of the evening hitting raised vegetable beds with sticks held in his muddy hands). Two-year olds

The Georgia Street Community Collective is so much more than a series of gardens that provide delicious and healthy food to the neighborhood every summer. The organization is essentially a counterattack against forces that have been besieging the neighborhood for decades. It shows how one good man in one neighborhood stood up to say "enough" only to discover how far from alone he actually was. The collective has made great strides in transforming an abandoned liquor store into a corner store for the neighborhood that will sell the sorts of things that the garden can't provide. Next door, the collective has secured and transformed an abandoned home it obtained for back taxes into a burgeoning community center. In these spaces, the community will continue to celebrate events like the annual Easter Egg Hunt, the school supplies giveaway (with free haircuts!), the reading and movie nights, the Super Bowl Party, holiday dinners, and all the other events that make this organization so inspiring. Eventually I hope to install some computers in the community center where the kids will be able to edit their own photos, but for now I'm just so excited to see how they document their summer in the garden and beyond.

At the end of the day, I was so grateful to Mark and these kids for spending some time with my family on this somewhat silly, mostly-symbolic project, and also grateful to our friend Meghan as well as Mitch, Gina, and Eva from the Powerhouse Project for helping out. I don't know if the seed bombs will produce any flowers, but I think everybody had a good time (which is all I really wanted). And who knows; maybe some of these seeds will produce something after all.

 * * * * *

I'm still getting more cameras ready to give to a new batch of kids, and I hope to be able to share some of their work with you relatively soon. I do keep getting e-mails about more cameras and I think I'm all set for now. If you are interested in contributing something to the Georgia Street Community Collective, I'm going to be giving you a really unique opportunity to do so in a couple weeks. So stay tuned.

We left San Francisco when our daughter was one-and-a-half, but that was plenty of time to get a good sense of the playground culture prevalent among the city's doucheoisie parents (among whom I was certainly a member by default). Papa Wallet Chain or Middle-aged Fauxhawk Dad would tail his toddler named after a Russian novelist or minor Zoroastrian prophet (I know, I know: pot, kettle) around the playground, giving him maybe seven inches of freedom to prevent any fall to the lawyer-vetted recycled-rubber surface two feet below. There was always plenty of parental compunction over one child's unwillingness to share whatever gewgaw had attracted the attention of another (or anxiety over the second child's expressed desire to possess what wasn't his). Conversations ranged from the annoying ("Oh, our Lola just loves kimchi!") to the nauseating ("I'm pretty sure all the Burmese words little Friedrich is learning from the nanny will be a real advantage when he applies to graduate school.") It seemed that every child born to parents of such refined taste was destined for greatness, for here they were: far from the meatloaves and casseroles of the provinces, bilingual, already totally digging good music and cool clothes. . . They were living proof that their parents weren't quite. . .parents.

If you wanted to cause a commotion you could casually mention you weren't that stressed about the 2011 public school lottery. And if you wanted to cause a riot, you could light a cigarette upwind of the NPSI-certified teeter-totter.

When we moved to Detroit, I immediately noticed a curious difference in playground culture among fellow parents. In Detroit, most people didn't even bother getting out of their cars. They just pulled in, turned up the WJLB and let the kids go feral on the climbing structures and swings. I liked this because it meant I never had to engage anyone in small talk, and if I did it certainly wasn't going to be about the advantages of Chinese nannies over their Latina counterparts. But it meant now I was the guy following his kid around making sure she didn't fall.

The other day I took the kids to the biggest playground in the city and let them loose. After a while I glanced up and noticed that all of the eight other parents on the playground were dads. This is not altogether strange in a city where nearly half the working-age population is unemployed or underemployed. I put my book down and sat there admiring these other fathers playing with their kids, indulging myself in a bit of imagined solidarity. I imagined conversations we might have, although I was pretty sure no one wanted to hear me complain about how hard it is for me to get my kids to eat kale & quinoa salad. Like me, some of these guys had two kids with them. It isn't easy doing this no matter who you are. You've got to deal with their crap all day and then deal with all the people who think you should be doing something more. You've got to keep them fed and keep them safe and keep them happy. Look at what good dads these were, bringing their kids to the playground on a Friday morning, what hard work this is, what a deep responsibility.

Then I smelled the weed.

A dad about twenty paces to my right had just lit up a blunt. Normally when you see people smoking weed they're all parsimonious about that shit, doling out tiny little servings in pipes or furtively passing around those wet, limp little joints until some guy who smells like reggae pulls out a clip to smoke the roach. Yeah, this man didn't give any indication that he considered marijuana to be a scarce resource or something that really ought to be enjoyed in private. He ashed his blunt against the stairs of a slide and took a long hit while my son ran right past him and his own daughter ran towards him yelling to watch her do something or other. Alright, Deanna, he breathed without a cough or sputter. It was kind of awesome, but totally burned a hole and burst my sober reverie.

Sure: tough job, this. So tough one of your colleagues sees fit to light up an enormous blunt at 10:30 in the morning. I mean, couldn't he at least have waited until after he made lunch?

The Dog Wagon, Part 2

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 20, 2010 | ,

I was at an art opening the other night because my friend's band was playing and ran into a lot of people I hadn't seen in awhile. "So what have you guys been up to?" a few of them asked.

"Well, we have this dog cart. . ."

Frankly, for the last month life hasn't been about much else. Every morning, the kids and the dog get more and more antsy until we take it out. Every afternoon, after the boy naps, we drag it out to the playground and gradually all the neighborhood kids show up, and before I know it I'm giving dog wagon rides to everyone under four-feet tall, all around the neighborhood. This could be the start of a new venture; add a chicken petting zoo and a free trampoline and we're in business.

[I finally put together that "how to build a dirt-cheap dog cart" post; you can see it here]

I have spent the last four years of my life as a beast of burden, schlepping the kids and all their gear around, and I must admit a real pleasure in shifting that load to another creature. I put those two kids in the wagon and watch the dog trot merrily down the sidewalk bearing their weight and suddenly I can move like Gene Kelly. Even without the sprightly tap-dancing, the whole contraption creates something of a spectacle. Everywhere we go, cars stop moving in the road while cell phones point at us from open windows. Even a female mounted cop rubbernecked when she walked past us down Gratiot Ave:

I do prefer to keep it away from roads (we only take it along a road on our way to the market), and luckily there's a mile-long below-grade bike trail that runs through our neighborhood. Down there, I can even let them go without holding the leash. I am considering rigging up a simple system of reigns and a brake for these moments. Giddyup, the boy shouts. This is really fun, the girl shouts back at me, over and over, as I race to catch up.

There is a part of me that wishes I could just take the kids in their dog wagon to the grocery store or the pizza parlor without causing a scene, but I understand it's out of the ordinary. It's the sort of thing that's easier to get away with in Detroit than it would be elsewhere; I can't imagine doing it in Park Slope, and even though I wish we didn't always cause any scene there is something to be said for the number of smiles we create during every trip we take out the front door. I imagine this is sort of what it's like to be outrageously attractive, to have strangers smile all the time or say nice things or buy you drinks. I feel pretty lucky to have rigged up something that creates so many tiny moments of joy.

And yet, we've had a few nasty confrontations. One lady saw the dog's naturally white muzzle and assumed he was older than his four years, telling us that he was "way to old to be doing that much work." Another woman shook her head and finger at me, "You're putting your children's lives in the hands of that dog," to which I later wish I'd replied, When we take any big dog, or any street dog into our homes, don't we all? I looked at Wendell and knew I trusted him completely, but couldn't get too angry at this woman. She didn't know into what good paws I've entrusted my children.

* * * * *

We adopted Wendell more than three years ago. The guy who brought him to the shelter said he found him wandering alone near 7 Mile and John R, a particularly rough spot in a rough town for dogs. And yet he came to us so mild-mannered and eager to please. We have this strange conviction that he endured so much misery on the streets he still doesn't realize that our small gestures of ownership aren't worthy of his goodness, his near-perfect behavior.  There, I said it: he is almost a perfect dog. I haven't written much about that because there isn't much to say about perfection. Sure it would be more entertaining to regale you with Marley & Me-style hi-jinks, but other than the occasional smelly dog fart we don't have much to complain about. It is almost daily we remind ourselves of that decisive moment at the animal shelter, knowing that this particular creature was either destined for a needle the next day or the next decade in our home, and we tell ourselves that we definitely made the right decision: we definitely got the best one.

I read an article once in the Washington Post where some woman said of her lovely daughter adopted from China, "I think we got the best one." This is something you could never say about a genetic child (you should feel it, sure, but never say it), but I found it so endearing to read those words. It was so beautiful, I think, to see such an expression of falling so deeply in love with a child she had no part in creating.

In the same vein, I hope you will forgive me for stealing a bit of that sentiment and apply it to our mutt, for we had nothing at all to do with him. We never trained him. He came to us this way from the streets. He has never strayed more than a few feet from our own. True, he could be a better dock jumper, but he makes up for it with proven Frisbee catching and tree climbing skills. He has tolerated the abuses of infant fingers and toddler rides without so much as rolling one brown eye, and yet he becomes all teeth and throat the moment anyone jiggles our doorknob. He pulls our kids around the neighborhood with protective purpose, and pride.

He's a good one, guys. A good friend. Almost as good as yours, I bet.

If you have any comments about this post, I'd love to see you add them to the kind words already left at the first post, here

I swear I wasn't there for a Clozapine refill. . .

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 13, 2010

So I was inside one of those massive warehouse stores the other day (hint: it rhymes with Lost Dough) and the entire time I'm wondering how the hell I'm going to turn the experience into a blog post. This is what I have been reduced to: everything I do gets run through a battery of tests to determine whether it's worthy of distilling down to a few hundred words of purple prose with the requisite self-deprecating quips thrown in with a few unnecessary French or Latin words and plenty of self-aggrandizing links to previous posts followed by a couple of new photos and a pithy conclusion. It's like I'm back in college and I've got to crank out an essay once a week. You guys are like scary invisible professors. Are the people who came for the Detroit stuff still out there now that I've stopped writing about all the broken shit? Are there enough kid stories for those who found the site when I was scrotum-shrivelingly identified as a top mommyblogger? And I'm afraid I can offer only disappointment to the gentleman from Qatar who found this site while googling for pictures of "bowling pins in vaginas." I apologize, sir. Our focus is root vegetables here.

So I'm walking along the checkout aisles, mentally composing some text with my trademarked insipid moralizing:

"I am suddenly reminded of the French reporter who contacted me last week about stopping in Detroit while blogging her way across the country like some post-industrial De Tocqueville. If Alexis De Tocqueville himself were to travel across America today he would find no sight more American than this line of consumers herding their oversized shopping carts filled with oversized purchases out of the big box warehouse store, like drones doing their patriotic duty in the ant colony we call AMERIKKKA. . ."™

Blech, shut the hell up already you asshole. Then I remember why we're there in the first place and consider a few petty digs at my in-laws:

"Every time my father-in-law visits from Pittsburgh he stops at his Costco on the way out of town and brings us, among other things, a box of 24 mangoes, a 6-pack of flashlights, and several plastic wheeled vehicles for the kids. Last year he bought us a membership for Christmas because apparently he mistook our efforts to minimize household clutter for a glut of empty space just waiting to be filled by tent-sized tins of biscotti and 64-oz jars of capers. We were going to wait until our apocalypse bunker was ready before we cashed in the membership, but we really needed to pick up another 50-gallon drum of cheap blended Scotch for when my mother-in-law visits. . ."

But your in-laws read the blog, I tell myself. Ixnay on the Ewarsday. As I'm brainstorming some other inevitably pretentious perspective on the whole experience, I suddenly grow fearful that someone is going to recognize me (like that time I rushed through closing elevator doors at a giant suburban shopping mall called "The Somerset Collection" and a cute girl inside said, "Are you Jim from Sweet Juniper?' and for a moment I contemplated diving through the glass elevator into the fake ficus plants below to avoid the shame of being caught with a J.Crew bag in my hands). Then I scold myself for being a narcissistic swellhead who thinks he's going to be recognized because of his stupid blog. It's not like you're a real celebrity, like French Stewart or Bronson Pinchot, I think, and my wounded, empty-scrotumed puppy of an ego responds sotto voce, "But some online magazine did say I was a top mommyblogger, you asshole."

The truth is I'm at the Costco because I want some cheap digital cameras to give to some kids but things aren't all that cheap* and I'm looking around for a twenty pack of disposable film cameras and I end up harassing the poor woman at the photo developing department because they have a photo developing department but don't sell film or disposable cameras. I give up and look for my wife who's choosing between the twenty pound bag of frozen shrimp and the thirty pound bag. There's nothing in the store I want so I turn my attention to my children and think, well this is cute, maybe there's a post here:

"The kids sat side-by-side in the massive shopping cart, confused, I think, by this new two-abreast seating arrangement, or, perhaps, by the Brobdingnagian nature of the overall experience, for who wouldn't feel tiny next to a canister of Whoppers taller than a third-grader or the box of Q-Tips their mother just put in the cart that surely will one day be scraping their own grandchildren's cochleae. . ."

Oh shut up, I finally say. It's just a trip to Costco. We've all heard the jokes about the oversized quantities. No one cares what you think. Why don't you write a blog post about what a fucking loser you are?



*I am giving some Detroit kids cameras to document their lives; it is part of a larger project I plan to reveal at the beginning of May.  I was hoping to find some 3-6 megapixel cameras at a reasonable price, not just to be cheap but to make it a non-issue if they are lost for reasons beyond the kids' control. Apparently the major camera makers preferred to grind up all those 3-6 megapixel sensors in some Shanghai dump rather than make digital cameras to sell for less than $150; an astute reader just e-mailed me to note that some Sweet Juniper readers might have old cameras languishing in closets after being replaced by more advanced technology (we are giving our trusty old Kodak Easyshare DX4330 to the kids). If you have an older point-and-shoot digital or a 35mm film camera in working order that you'd like to donate, I'd love it if you'd e-mail me so we can talk. Thanks to the overwhelming response from readers, I now have more than enough cameras to get this project started. Thanks to everyone who contacted me!

The Dog Wagon

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 06, 2010 | , , , ,

Click Here 
When I was ten I spent the winter reading a lot of Jack London and building a dog sled. After cutting the wood and nailing it all together, I set it out in the snow and tied it to our youthful Labrador Retriever, ordering her to mush. She just sat there mulishly and gave me a look that told me to get a goddamn Siberian Husky.

One of the best things about being an incredibly childish adult is that there's nobody to tell you that you can't use the power tools. Or in this case, a simple ratchet and screwdriver, because that's all I used to turn our old jogging stroller into a wagon that our German Shorthaired Pointer has been joyfully pulling around the neighborhood for a week. And with this I have further cemented my reputation as a total nutjob among all our neighbors:


That double jogging stroller gave us a wonderful summer of use, but it had front alignment issues and it was taking up a lot of space in our basement. When I was trying to figure out how to build an axle for a dog wagon, I remembered the jogging stroller and just took it apart to use the back axle and wheels and then detached some of the tubing to create the wagon shafts. I used about twelve $1.59 hose clamps to attach everything together, knowing that I would have to make adjustments later and not wanting to drill anything yet. But the clamps (which require only a standard-head screwdriver) have turned out to be really strong. I took the handlebar seat from the Popscycle and attached it with a five inch bolt between the foot rests and an extra large clamp in the rear:

I can take it off again pretty quickly when we want to go for a bike ride. I'm still working on a second seat; right now the girl will occasionally sit in the basket on a broke-down toy horse we found at the thrift store. I'm rigging up a seat belt and handle this week. Most of the time only one kid rides in it, and when we take the wagon to the market the groceries go in the basket (that was scavenged from the neighbors' trash). You could probably make something similar out of any jogging stroller (we used a Babyjogger Twinner II) or one of those kid trailers you pull behind a bike. If there's any interest, I can post a more detailed how-to so you can build one for your kids and dog(s). I'd really love to see wagon pulled by a team!

I did a lot of research on the types of carts used in recreational dog carting and I was happy to read that a two-bicycle wheel sulky like this is much easier on a dog than a heavier four-wheel wagon. I also researched the harness that the dog would need to wear, and determined I could either pay $70 for a nylon "one size fits all" harness, or make a leather one myself that fits Wendell perfectly. I found diagrams online for a standard Siwash harness and went to the thrift store and bought five or six of the best quality leather belts they had. The big coup came when I was on the way out of the store and noticed an old leather golf bag loaded with brass rings, clamps, padded leather straps, and tons of good leather, all for $3.40. I bought a bag of leather rivets and used an awl to puncture the leather and put the harness together making sure he had a nice padded piece across his chest. I had to figure out a way to keep the shafts away from his body while still allowing him to steer the wagon and after a bit of experimentation I got it right:

The shafts are just for steering; he "pulls" the wagon with leather traces. I still have a bit of fine tuning to do, but I'm pretty happy with how it all came out, using almost exclusively recycled materials and spending only around $30 for everything I needed to complete both the wagon and the harness.

* * * * *

This is the good part.

Now, I fully expect to get some nasty e-mails/comments from dog lovers telling me this is cruel. Never mind that we're not trekking across the Yukon Territory here (we're just trotting around our neighborhood). Never mind that he's pulling children, not adults. Never mind that dogs have been pulling carts for hundreds of not thousands of years. I would even agree that for some dogs this sort of thing might be cruel. Carting is not for every dog, but I will say that it is for our dog. He has boundless energy, and we went for a 5-mile run every day for several weeks before we started carting just so I could be sure he'd be in good enough shape after the long winter. He loves to be outside. It would be far more cruel to leave this dog in his crate while we played outside. His tail wags the entire time he's pulling and he dances around with excitement whenever I pull out the harness and move the wagon towards the front door. While he carts I keep hold of his leash and he pulls against the leash as though the wagon isn't even there. He wants to jog with the wagon and when I get out of breath and stop he turns to look back at me as if to say, Come on, fat ass. This is more fun if we run. I didn't even really have to train him for any of this; the first few times he was strapped in I rewarded him with treats whenever he made a confident turn or if he came when called. But this adopted Detroit street dog truly is a natural. When he started pulling the wagon with the kids, he became even more careful, as if he knew his kids were in there and it was his job to keep them safe. He even loses interest in squirrels.

Wherever we go, we hear a lot of the same comments, but my favorite so far is, Those are the luckiest kids ever. Who wouldn't want to get pulled around in a wagon by a beloved dog, his tail tickling your knees as it wags? We've taken practically every kid in the neighborhood for a ride around the block. The girl's best friend shouted, "I want to do this every day!"

Gram insists on wearing his new "cowboy" hat every time we go out in the wagon, and we have totally been dressing him like an Amish boy. I am planning to buy one of those orange reflective triangles you see on the back of buggies the next time I stop by the Feed & Seed, just in case one of those Yoder boys are on Rumspringa and don't see him as he circles the playground. 

Here's a very shaky video I made as I ran backwards ahead of the wagon trying to get some perspective other than me holding the leash. This is not how we ordinarily do this (but don't worry, we were on a very safe sidewalk and I was never more than a few steps away):