My seven-year-old-son sees a dog with a leg cleaved off lying dead on the eastbound side of the 10 Freeway. He gasps—sucks his breath all in and lifts up his neck and head.
“Look at my new watch,” I say stupidly, just trying to turn his eyes.
“Oh,” John says. “Oh that poor dog, did you see that Dad?”
I drove on. I think John’s crying in the backseat. But he isn’t. He’s just staring out the window with distance in his eyes. I glide to the exit ramp, drive across the overpass and down the ramp so that we are on the westbound side of the freeway, going the other way.
John frowns. “Dad, what are you doing?”
We exit again, drive across another overpass and get back onto the freeway, headed towards the dog. John is frightened. I can hear wavering in his voice.
“What are you doing?”
“I am going to cover that dog.”
“What? What do you mean? With what? Why? What are you doing, Dad?”
I pull over on the shoulder and turn off the engine. The dead dog is thirty feet in front of me. I reach into the backseat. My gym bag is there, on the floor at John’s feet, scrunched with a still-damp towel. I grab the towel and climb out of the car on the passenger side so as not to be near the traffic flying by.
John starts to cry. I can see him in the rear-view mirror.
“What are you going to do, Dad?”
I walk over to the dog. It’s starting to bloat. A brindled male mutt, one hind leg missing, the stump raw and purpled at the hip. His front legs are splayed apart. I think for a split second that it makes him look supplicant, before I catch myself and think, “This is just a dead dog.” A dog that stinks, stiff dead on an oily patch of filthy asphalt. A crumpled waxed cup lies next to the dog. A straw waves from the plastic lid. I kick the cup away, and my foot rubs up against the dog and annoys the flies. They buzz around its black lips and eyes. One crawls out from a nostril and up the other. Bending over at the waist, I unfurl the towel and drop it over the dog, but the rush of wind from passing cars blows it off. A car horn honks furiously. I have to wrap him. I kneel, and it hurts. The dog is so stiff that I can hardly roll him over so that my sweaty towel can get under and go round. But after a few minutes of struggle, it is finished.
Do I pray now?
What do I say? Goodbye, dog? I am sorry that you are so ignominiously dead?
John. I go back to the car. My son is speechless and wide-eyed, now in the front seat, unable to figure out what his father is doing covering a dead three-legged dog with a gym towel on a gritty Southern California freeway shoulder.
“Come with me.” To my surprise, he obeys. We hold hands as we walk to the bundle.
“We need to pray for this dog.”
My voice quavers.
“It’s the right thing to do. He needs someone to be here. We are here. We need to say something.”
John just begins without being asked, holding his small hands out in front of him, palms up. I can barely hear him over the noise.
“God please take care of this dog and help him walk in Heaven. Amen.”
* * *
You have to drive the freeways to see the blankets. I’ve never seen them on a street or any of the wide boulevards that cut across the basin. They are always on the freeways, on the shoulder or sometimes up alongside a guardrail. I saw a burnt orange one last month, dirty and crumpled up against one of those commemorative mission bells that mark the El Camino Real on the Pacific Coast Highway. The rust on the bell matched the color of the blanket.
I drive the Pasadena Freeway nearly every day. That’s where I see the most blankets. From Pasadena through South Pasadena, to Highland Park, then down towards the L.A. River and up the southern edge of the Elysian hillside near Dodger Stadium. And back again. 8:30 one way, 5:30 the other.
I’ve seen maybe a hundred blankets over the last twenty years, probably half of them on the drive to work, half on the way home. I don’t think most people notice. At first I thought they were discarded trash, bedspreads or tablecloths blown off the top of a car where it covered something, or maybe thrown from a window by a mischievous child. Some look like those quilted blue ones from U-Haul.
Witness converted to pattern, and the blankets revealed themselves. They weren’t ever flat or billowed out. They were always on the shoulder or the median, never in traffic. Always bundled up and rolled, as if there was something inside that wool or paisley-printed cotton package. Which of course there always was.
In Los Angeles, we all know people who refuse to drive freeways. New drivers or elderly drivers, people who’ve been in terrible accidents, teenagers. They seem to be mostly women, but that’s probably wrong. Men have a harder time admitting it, and truth is obscure.
I meet these people from time to time. They ask for surface street routes to the soccer game. Or they arrive late to events and eventually get around to explaining why. It is a hard way to get around the metropolis, plotting a careful route avoiding the freeways. Maybe we live in two cities, one for those of us who drive and one for those who don’t. Those who see the blankets and those who do not.
A friend of mine stopped driving altogether after getting hurt in an accident, even though it happened in a parking lot and she wasn’t even driving. A kid in an SUV backed into her as she was putting groceries in her trunk at Ralphs. She was fine, but she nearly sliced her hand off on a bottle of expensive gin that shattered in her shopping bag. She doesn’t drive at all. She gets around by bus and Metro, and she just bought an expensive bicycle. Her palm has a purplish scar shaped like a cross.
Her name is Angela. Her grandfather owned the construction company that poured the concrete that made the Pasadena Freeway. That project made him very rich. You can see his name and his company embossed in concrete on the abutments on the bridges that cross that freeway: Arnold Dove Construction, Pasadena.
In the spring of 1940, not long after the freeway opened to parades and fanfare, Arnold Dove went with five friends to see the ruins of the St. Francis Dam, about an hour’s drive away over the mountains. The dam fell down in the middle of the night sometime in the late 1920s, and the floodwaters killed about 300 unsuspecting people downstream. An entire Mexican labor camp washed away, obliterated in mere seconds. The bodies were never recovered, buried under tons of debris and muck left behind when the flood receded days later. No one remembers these people.
The center section of the dam, called The Tombstone, did not fall. Angela’s granddad and his friends picnicking on top of it took photographs the day of their visit. Angela has the pictures. Six friends, smiling and laughing. They have a picnic basket, a blanket spread out on what’s left of the dam, and bottles of soda or beer. One picture looks out across the landscape, and, in the far distance and way down below, you can see the boulders and chunks of concrete tossed around by the flood. One picture is of a dead rattlesnake, lying next to the broken bottle that someone had just killed it with. Right after this picture was taken, one of the friends picked up the dead snake and playfully threw it at Arnold Dove. He leapt out of the way and fell 200 feet to his death. Angela lives in his Pasadena mansion with her husband and their two sons, one of whom is named Arnold.
You know this. The blankets wrap dead dogs. Lost dogs or wild dogs, dogs that run onto the freeway and get killed. Who is wrapping them up? I never saw anyone do it. I never thought of doing it, until I did.
I see a bundled freeway blanket vision, a wakeful dream, floats fully made into my head. Pentecostals from Central America, people who see it as a mission to give these dogs cloaked respect in death, are doing this. They drive the freeways in the stillness and the dark, seeking dead dogs to veil. It’s much safer at that hour, and they’d pretty much escape being seen on such rare errands.
Poor and devout, immigrants living six across in a thinly-carpeted Los Angeles apartment. Sharing a car, working rough jobs, hanging out at lumber yards or hardware stores, looking for a half day’s labor. I see them, soft-spoken and pious, holding tiny crosses rubbed shiny in their palms.
I see them in those shabby spaces, mumbled prayerfulness over rice and beans. An hour before first light, they squeeze into that one car. They have a chosen route. I imagine a map taped as tapestry on a wall in that apartment. They study the map and choose each daily route, each freeway to traverse, a sepulchral pilgrimage bracketed in prayer.
The trunk of the car is lined with torn and dirty $1 swap meet blankets. They drive, quickly stopping when someone sees a dog. Each dead dog gets a blanket and some dignity. Or, if not that, at least anonymity proven by wool or cotton.
After I had wrapped my first dog, seeing blankets became something other than a curiosity. I know it seems odd, and I cannot quite describe it. Seeing these sad, peculiar parcels should provoke melancholy, right? But that isn’t what happened to me—seeing a dog blanket became for me hopeful. I saw redemption and beauty in them, and that beauty radiated outward from each bundle.
I stopped listening to the radio on the way to and from work. For the first time in my life, I bought religious CDs. Verdi for the Requiem, Handel, Homilius, Praetorius, and Canticle of the Sun. On either side of me people laughed and argued on their cell phones as our cars inched past the Southwest Museum, over the LA River, or through the tunnels on the way home.
I did not talk on my phone. I sang.
All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
I wrapped dogs; I bought cheap blankets. In the space of a week: two pit bulls, a terrier mix, and, improbably, a leering basset hound dead on an on-ramp in South Pasadena.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think that I had found “my purpose” or a calling. It was all more direct and simple than that. Drive, see a dead dog, pull over, enshroud the dog, pray, drive on. I think I liked the precision of it all as much as anything else. There was no gray area: my car, my blankets, my dogs. Faith and fastidiousness intertwined. The prayers I uttered over the dogs became more elaborate, and, more often than not, I sang them. I took greater care in the way I wrapped.
Two more mutts and a spotted Chihuahua. A Boxer mix.
I craved fellowship in the work, but I kept it secret. Only John knew, and he knew only about the first dog. I asked around, but it was awkward. My pastor looked at me quizzically when I inquired if he “knew anything about people who wrap dead dogs in blankets along the freeways.” I had to laugh to myself—we think ministers have seen or heard it all, and I figured I had stumped him with that one. “No,” was all he said.
Then, I got a tip. A friend told me about a cousin who belonged to a small evangelical sect that cared for the dead—people and animals—and that it did its work all over Los Angeles. That had to be them; my vision of who was doing this reappeared in my head. My friend said that they met at a storefront church in an old butcher shop in Highland Park, and she arranged for me to meet her cousin there on a Sunday morning.
I drove by the church twice just to make sure it was there, and on Sunday, I went. My heart fluttered when I walked in. The little congregation was mostly Latina, with a few men and boys, maybe twenty five people total. Three of us were white, including Joanna, the cousin. After services, I tried to talk to people in my pidgin Spanish, which went reasonably well. I introduced myself, but the translation seemed to get garbled, as it came out (correctly, I later learned) as Bernabé. I’ve never been a Barney, and I didn’t offer that.
One of the teenaged boys, for reasons unknown to me, offered up a nickname. “You are Paloma macho,” he said. It was presented in friendliness and with an open smile. I thought it sounded flattering, and I did not mind it. I was so thrilled to have found these people, hoping that they were the dog blanket people, hoping that they would bring me in, bring me along. I stayed all day, each hour an answered prayer. We talked and did chores around the tiny sanctuary, swept up the sidewalk, that kind of thing.
A week later, after another church service, they invited me to go with them, and I went in gladness. Not to the dogs at first. First to the people. I did not know that there were still potter’s fields in Los Angeles, but there are. Cemeteries of the poor, the lost, and the nameless. We spent an entire Saturday at one. We walked among the stones—rough cement stones from crude molds, all laid flush with the soil, no headstones. They were for the most part unmarked save for the occasional number crudely etched in—“976” or “1301.”
The congregation clutched hands, encircled in song and prayer. No one presided, they all participated as one, and I joined them. Afterwards, they brought out picnic paper plates and slender dowels, and I quickly learned that this was to christen the unknown with names. One of them would write a name, or ask me to do it always an Old Testament name, always in English—with a Sharpie on a plate. Then we would tape the plate to a dowel and thrust it into the soil next to the stone. Across the hours, people unknown gave way to people prophetic and ancient, if only as long as a flimsy paper plate appellation would last. Zenobia. Ruth. Zachariah. Ahab. Ezekiel. Japheth. Job. Maybe because it fit so easily on a paper plate, we named nine Jobs.
It was exhausting, exhilarating labor. Back at the church, over lemonade and churros, I asked in my halting Spanish if they were the same people who wrapped dogs. They knew exactly what I was talking about as I pantomimed the act. Yes, they said, they were those people. I guess I had proven myself in the cemetery. I could go with them if I wished. Meet us here, they said, in the parking lot out back of the church, at 4:30 a.m. the next morning.
A storm arrives at midnight. It is windy and raining hard, and I cannot sleep. I wonder if the work will have to be set aside, but I catch myself. Mission is never obliged to weather. The rain wakes John, and he comes groggy into my room as I am dressing.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going for a drive,” I say.
“It’s just something I have to do.”
He knows. “Can I come with you?”
“Yes.” His knowledge alone nearly brings me to tears.
John dresses quickly in shorts, a t-shirt, sandals. I forget his rain jacket. We drive eight miles to the storefront church. The others are already there, six people drinking coffee under an awning. They nod hello to me, and the teenager Eduardo says “Paloma macho.” Someone hands John a doughnut.
One of the women pulls out a map. They have already decided where to go. She points out the southbound Harbor Freeway. We will drive as far as the Rosecrans exit and then turn around and go the other way. We will start looking for dogs once we get to the Martin Luther King, Jr. exit near USC.
It isn’t far, and we get there quickly. Still, the freeway is starting to get busy with early morning harbor and airport traffic. At Martin Luther King, I roll down the windows, and rain slants into the car. Our two-car caravan spots a big dog right away; what looked first like a tire takes animal shape as we slow down and pass by.
We pull over. John knows what I am going to do. I grab a big blanket and a flashlight from the trunk.
“Come with me, John.”
Four of us walk back to the dog, the asphalt slick and sticky under our feet, flashlights on.
It is a Shepherd. She looks asleep. There is no obvious wound or trauma. The others enfold her in a blanket and slide her over towards the far edge of the shoulder so she won’t get hit again. Murmured prayer begins, and that’s when I hear the pup. Off on the other side of the stubby concrete barrier, down somewhere in the dirt and weeds, a puppy whines.
I peer over the edge of the wall, shielding my eyes from the rain, and scanning with my flashlight. The pup is crying from a culvert where it must have sought shelter after its mother was killed. John and I are standing right against the concrete; it rides up to John’s belly.
“I am going to grab that puppy,” I say.
The others look at me, uncomprehending. They haven’t heard the puppy because of the rain.
I try my poor Spanish.
“Está herido.” It is hurt. “Le ayudamos?” We help?
My voice rises over the rain and the dog’s meek whimpers—it is lying on the corduroy metal at the mouth of the culvert.
“Por favor? Por favor?”
Comprehension opens teenager Eduardo’s face, and I think he’s going to come help me.
“Absolutamente no, Paloma macho,” he says. “No podemos orar por ellos si no están muertos.”
We can’t pray for them if they aren’t dead.
“Oh my God,” I say.
Their prayers complete, the congregants turn and go back towards their car, looking back my way as they do. John pulls away from me, climbs quickly over the wall, and moves down the little berm. He reaches his small arm into the culvert like a crook and grabs the puppy, cradling it gently to his chest. He returns to the wall, and I lift him over.
We walk in wet silence back to the car. John and the puppy are both trembling.
“I’m so cold,” John says.
I wrap his shoulders in the blanket and tuck it around the little dog as I do. We get into the car and drive home.
William Deverell is Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and Chair of the history department at the University of Southern California. He writes on the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century American West.