Will’s not much of a people person. I’ve come to this conclusion after the latest in a series of menacing phone messages in which Will has implicated me as a key figure in a city-wide conspiracy to bury his burgeoning dog walking business by collaborating with the Department of Public Works and rival walking services in the wholesale removal of his prolific, hand-drawn flyers from every telephone pole in every neighborhood across the city and county of San Francisco. Sure, I’ve tried calling him back to explain that in his blitzkrieg approach to advertising (literally, every neighborhood in the city and county of San Francisco) there’s bound to be some loss here and there, but it’s a no go. As far as Will is concerned I’m an operative of the man. Which is why, as I write this, I’m also beginning to think that I’m an idiot for even getting involved in the first place. I mean, who sees a sign on a street corner marketing dog walking, pet portraiture, hand-forged canine leg braces ($75 a pair), and custom-built motorized bicycles and thinks to themselves, ‘now here’s a self-starter I’d like to share my home phone number with’?
Really, I should have seen this coming.
But allow me to backtrack: a few months ago Will’s Flyers appeared everywhere and almost overnight, for the most part stapled at eye level on bulletin boards in coffee shops and video stores. But the ones that caught my attention were the ones taped to utility poles just above curb level: easy to overlook unless you, the captive two-legged target, happened to be waiting for your dog to finish its business. Base, intuitive, and as calculated as the diaper commercials punctuating educational afternoon cartoon line-ups, this was brilliant advertising, clear and simple. I was immediately attracted to the incongruity of Will’s industrious sense of self-promotion and the aesthetic naiveté of the portrait services being offered at the bargain price of $20 per drawing. So I got it in my head (where most of my life-long regrets tend to originate) to commission Will for a rendering of my cat who was about to undergo long neglected oral surgery, a procedure I hoped would exorcise the flat of the strange, sardine-like stink that crept into bed late every night and curled up to stay. I called the number on the flyers, left a message and waited.
Two weeks pass, the cat has her surgery, and I give up on hearing back from Will. Then I hear back from Will, calling me from a phone booth. I know this because he opens the conversation by telling me that he is in a phone booth and that he doesn’t have much time to talk because he doesn’t have many quarters and his friend outside the phone booth is waiting on him to buy pie for dinner. Traffic tears through his voice while he talks. He asks me about the cat, about her surgery. I’ve forgotten my mention of this in my initial message, and caught off-guard by his concern I confess my surprise. “I don’t forget anything,” Will shouts. His mouth is far away from the receiver, and he sounds like a man accustomed to talking one way and looking another. Ignoring his tone I press for a back-story and Will obliges:
One man, three dogs. They live in a truck and share the front seat to stay warm. One of his dogs, Natalie (the namesake of his business), has a tumor the size of a golf ball on her neck that requires immediate removal, hence the assertive advertising campaign. All proceeds from Will’s dog walking will go directly to the welfare of his animals. As for the twenty dollar price tag on the pet portraits, Will considers this an insult to his talent but is willing to accept it on behalf of his charges. “Twenty dollars buys a lot of dog food,” he assures me, and because I have no idea what it’s like to survive on subsistence level as a struggling artist who happens to share most of his body heat and personal space on any given winter night with multiple kibble-craved dependents, I acquiesce.
Will’s instructions: photos of the cat, along with the money, are to be left in an envelope at a pet store on Stanyan street. The store’s owner, Gordon, will contact Will when everything is in place. “Don’t worry about Gordon,” Will assures me, “he’s the last hippie in the Haight.” But I ignore this red flag for the only reason that makes sense: if I deal with Gordon I don’t have to deal with Will, meaning his dogs. I don’t like dogs, and I hope to keep them as far removed from this experience as possible. “One more thing,” Will adds before we hang up, “how would you like your cat posed in the picture?” Like in the flyers, I tell him, meaning the cartoonish iconography I’d come to love, in which dish-eyed owls leer over leather clad mice popping wheelies on thumb sized (and undeniably sweet-ass) motorcycles. Cheesy Rider rides again, I quote, and Will laughs. “I just made it up,” he says. I tell him that’s why I called in the first place, expecting more laughter. Instead, there’s a long pause. “But I made that shit up,” Will insists. And that’s when I begin to suspect that everything is instantly and unexplainably fucked.