Wednesday, October 22, 2008
It was a little more than nine years ago that Otis reached the pinnacle of his life. He of course didn't know it at the time. I had taken him on a 17,000 mile journey around America with my BFF Seamus Culligan. I was making a book called Dog Bless America and it was my intention to photograph at least one dog from every state. Before it was all said and done, Otis had marked territory in 48 states. Here is a journal entry from our time in New York City, which was just about the very middle of our trip.
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (1:20-25)
Well, the epiphany has happened. I half expected that it would sometime along this trip. And it did today. At the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine during the Feast of Saint Francis – an annual "party" to which all creation is invited, including the animals. Much like many of the people we’ve met on our journey, Saint Francis was a man of profound hospitality and broad welcoming spirit, and it is because of these fundamental qualities he is celebrated as this party’s host. As is the good timing of most of our trip, this celebration fell on the weekend we just so happened to be passing through. We heard it was quite an amazing sight and one we’d be sinners to miss.
When we arrived at the church – the massive and beautiful church – the people and the pets were proceeding their way in. My first job was to get tickets to get in and Seamus’ was to capture the insanity of the moment on tape. There were dogs everywhere. There were cats too. And iguanas. And Pythons. And birds. And ferrets. But mostly there were dogs. Hundreds of them. I heard someone counted one thousand of them. And they all peacefully filed into the church, one right after the other. If it wasn’t God that was orchestrating this peaceful procession of animals, then I don’t know who it could have been.
Seamus fired away while I received the disturbing news that they had just run out of tickets. Before I had time to panic, the kind ticket-master told us to wait at the roped off area at the bottom of the church steps and we would probably make our way into a standing room only scenario. This was good enough for me as long as we could get in.
And get in we did. There were approximately 5000 people, 1000 dogs and numerous other creatures as a result of God’s blessing to be fruitful. We walked into this magnificent church with all the animals behaving so well and my jaw just dropped. It was easily one of the coolest sights I'd ever seen. The service began with Seamus nowhere to be found. The ceremony opened with a welcome from the Dean of the church and next thing we new we were witnessing something I would have paid very good money to see. And I’m talking more than the two bucks I dropped in the hat when it came by. The mission statement for the Church of Saint John the Divine says that in the spirit of Christ, it is chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership. The Cathedral serves the many people of their City, Nation and World through an array of liturgical, cultural and civic events. Their theology supports the values of community, hospitality, witness and stewardship, which undergird this mission. Don’t ask me what all of this really means, but if I knew a religion like this growing up, I wouldn’t have been kicking and screaming all the way to Sunday school.
There was singing and dancing and pleas for help for the homosexuals of Uganda who face life in prison if it is discovered that they are gay or lesbian. There was live music that I swear could be number 1 on the Billboard charts if they wanted to release a CD. It was so damn good. There were African American dancers and men in masks parading up and down the aisle on stilts no less! There were ballerina dancers who seemed as if they were floating in air. And there were prayers that actually made sense! Where was Seamus? Was he capturing this? No one would believe me if I just wrote it in an e-mail, I thought. He had to be getting this. He’d better be getting this.
At one point the man spoke of Jesus Christ. He said Jesus was born and his mission was one of love. He wanted to gather people. He wanted everyone to get along. He wanted to give love and be loved. As I listened to these words I looked around for Otis. I couldn’t see him. I looked behind me and there he was, on the lap of this total stranger – a man legally blind, and he was licking him all over his face. Here was the epiphany. The celebration of the animals. The celebration of Otis. Everything the man was saying about Jesus Christ could also be said about Otis. Mind you, please don’t think I am taking anything away from Jesus, but just look at this dog of mine. He’s a loyal dog, I guess, but he’s more interested in making other people happy, making other people smile. He gathers people. They look at him and say, "My what an interesting dog." He snorts and they laugh. He wags his tail and they pet him. I’m pretty sure I could have walked away from Otis at that moment and he would have continued to find love and happiness and give love and happiness for the rest of his life. I like to think that he would miss me, but I’m pretty sure he would survive. For Otis, like Jesus, it’s all about the love.
As for me, I would just love to know where Seamus was. After communion it was time for the blessing of the animals. What we were about to see next was something I hope everyone that’s reading this gets to see once in their life. If you’re an animal lover, you’d die with glee. Down the aisle walks an elephant. Following the elephant is a camel. Following the camel a Lama. Then an ox. Then a pony. Then a duck. And on and on and on. They just kept coming. It was Noah’s Ark only in single file. "Please, Lord, let Seamus be capturing this," I prayed. At this point I went to the front of the church where before the communion there had been more security. Polaroid in hand, I walked with purpose right past three usher men. Next thing I knew I was right up front, standing directly behind a very small group of people with cameras on a raised platform designated specifically for them. I then looked up and my prayers were answered. There was Seamus, front and center, capturing it all. "Hallelujah," I exclaimed. I would ask questions later. No need to bother him now. He was in a zone.
So I started firing away with my Polaroid. The light inside was a little funky so I asked the guy next to me for a reading off of his meter.
"If you want to expose for the elephant go 4.5 at a 30th. The camel 4.5 at a 60th. And be sure to get my boss in the shot," he said.
"Who’s your boss," I ask.
"Bruce Weber," he states.
"Holy shit," I scream in my own mind.
Here was Seamus Culligan capturing it all and right next to him is Bruce freakin’ Weber. For those who may not know, Bruce Weber is huge in the field of photography. He’s also pretty huge in real life, but that’s another story. Anyway, the guy was firing away like nobody’s business and I made sure to get him in one of my shots. Perhaps one day I will reach his stature. Not his size, hopefully, but his stature. You should have seen him work. He would take a picture, lift the camera up in the air, his assistant would take it out of his hands while another assistant would replace it with another camera. He must have had four assistants working around him like clockwork. All the while Mr. Weber would maintain his focus on the subjects in front of him. It was a beautiful thing. Had I not been in so much awe I probably would have got a couple more shots of the animals. Still, I managed to get a couple of good ones – including one of "the man" himself.
At this point one of the ushers at the church instructed everyone on the platform that if they wanted a shot of the animals coming out of the church they would have to go now. I stayed behind because I was more interested in dogs, but Seamus and Bruce and his crew bolted out of there as quick as lighting. It was perhaps the funniest sight I’ve seen on the trip: Seamus, in all his glory, being escorted to yet another platform outside with Bruce Weber and other members of the press. Later, I asked Seamus how he pulled it off. He said he went in and just walked up like he knew what he was doing. When the woman asked him for his press-pass Seamus responded simply, "I’m doing the documentary." No questions asked, from then on it was cart blanche.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the little park adjacent to the church where a number of priests blessed the animals one by one. What with only being about halfway done with our trip I figured it would be a good idea to get young Otis blessed for at least the duration of the journey, if not the rest of his life. Before the day was over Otis had been blessed by three different priests. I figure in Dog blessing’s that’s twenty-one times, which I think should cover him for the duration of the trip, if not his entire life’s journey. All in all it was an unforgettable day. And as the Dean himself spoke, "Only in New York."