Two weeks ago, around this time, I was sitting with my MTV Hive editor, Mike Ayers, at Shake Shack in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. And I was very, very agitated with him. Despite being a fellow music nerd who usually gets all my music nerd references, Ayers was unable to identify the portrait on my t-shirt.
“I have no idea who that is,” he said innocently.
I couldn’t believe it. Sure, the illustrated visage smirking from my chest had no distinguishing features, other than his tousled hair and two-day shadow. The shirt had been made for me by an artist friend, and I thought it was just obscure enough to be incredibly punk rock and bad ass. Most people wouldn’t recognize the face, but then again most people think Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” counts as indie rock.
“It’s Paul Westerberg!” I shouted at him.
“Oh,” he shrugged. “Sorry.”
I don’t know why it bothered me so much. When I first got the shirt, my wife took one look at it and said, “It looks like a jersey for the lamest office softball team ever.” I posted a photo of the shirt on Facebook, begging my friends for validation. If they said “Oh yeah, that’s obviously Westerberg,” then I could return to wearing it with smug rock snob confidence. A few of them guessed correctly, but most were wildly inaccurate, throwing out names that made my insides hurt. J. Geils, Corey Hart, Rick Springfield, Glenn Frey, Dane Cook, an earnest and clean-shaven Jesus. One smartass even said “James Blunt, and it’s beautiful.” It’s possible they were just trying to fuck with me. But it’s also possible, and probably more likely, that Paul Westerberg just isn’t as universally recognizable as I’d like to believe.
For me, when I see that face, there’s never a doubt in my mind who it is. Not just because of how much I loved the Replacements and almost everything Westerberg has recorded since. I can recognize his face by smell. One look at that mug, especially if it’s a crudely drawn portrait, and I can still smell the unmistakable stench of rapidly defrosting dog corpses.
During the winter of 1986, when I was 17, I got a job at a veterinary clinic on the South Side of Chicago. At the time, I had illusions that I might want to be a veterinarian someday. So I thought working for an animal hospital would be a good first step. My job, as it turned out, mostly involved cleaning kennels. All I learned about was poop. Massive, endless torrents of poop. The number of dogs being housed at the clinic did not match the volume of excrement I had to clean in an average day. There was definitely more coming out then going in. The cages looked like Jackson Pollock paintings.
I eventually figured out that not everybody at the clinic was wrist-deep in dog poo. There was a small minority among the part-time help who had special status. They were as young and inexperienced as I was, but they’d been given special privileges by Dr. Carl. Dr. Carl was our boss, the head veterinarian. He was huge and pasty white, like a snowman, his hands so thick it looked like he was wearing mittens. The employees he picked as his favorites never got stuck with shit duty. Instead, they’d sit in on appointments, or discuss rare canine diseases during smoke breaks, or if they were lucky, assist Dr. Carl with his surgeries.
That’s the job I really wanted. If rumors from my peers were to be believed, dog surgery was equal parts gross and awesome. Blood spurted everywhere, lacerated veins flopped like haywire lawn sprinklers. In my bones, I knew this was my destiny. When Dr. Carl recognized my innate talents, he’d grant me more and more responsibility. And then one day he’d come to work, his face pale and haggard, and say, “I just don’t have the energy anymore.” And I’d flash him a reassuring smile and gently slide the forceps out of his hands. “Don’t worry about it,” I’d tell him. “I got this one.”
The way to get noticed, I decided, was to demonstrate my commitment to the veterinary arts. Most of the teenagers who worked at the clinic were not enthusiastic. They made it abundantly clear that their interest in animals was casual, and they’d only taken the job to earn extra money for whip-its. If you wanted to stand out, you had to volunteer to do things that the punks and the part-timers actively avoided. Like the freezer unloading shift.
With hundreds of strays being sent to the clinic every month, and precious few families lining up to adopt them, euthanasia was a sad and inevitable reality. There was a freezer in the back where the corpses were stored, and at the end of every month a van would arrive to pick up the bodies and deliver them to a local incinerator. Every kid unlucky enough to be on shift would have to load the lifeless, frozen dogs into the back of the van. When my time came, I did it happily. I wanted to prove to Dr. Carl that I could be detached and impervious when faced with the grim realities of our profession. I even tried to make the experience fun for everybody.
Here’s an interesting factoid: When you leave a dead dog in a freezer, it assumes whatever shape it had when it landed. So when you pull it out, it’ll be frozen in what I liked to call “Action Poses.” Sometimes it looked like it was delivering a deadly karate chop. Sometimes it had jazz hands. Or more accurately, jazz paws. Sometimes I would pick up a dog corpse and choreograph an elaborate Fosse routine, or a Mad Magazine-style parody of “Funny Girl.”
“Don’t tell me not to bark/ I’m dead already/ Don’t tell me not to claw/ My body’s heavy!”
Nobody was amused by my musical parodies. “Shut up faggot” was the only constructive criticism they ever offered.
We mostly worked in glum silence. If Dr. Carl wasn’t around, Travis, a surly 19 year old with dyed black hair and an earring would bring out his boom box and blare songs by Bad Religion or Hüsker Dü. I’d never heard any of these bands before, but I pretended to know every word. I’d nod my head along to “Celebrated Summer” like I had every note committed to memory. Travis was cool, cooler than anybody I knew or could hope to be friends with. He smelled like pot and had his own apartment and scowled at anybody with authority. Every shift, he wore the same shirt. It had a drawing of Paul Westerberg from the neck up, looking drunk or stoned or probably both, with the phrase “Bastard of Young” scrawled underneath. I didn’t know it was Paul Westerberg until I asked Travis who it was, and he sneered at me and said, “It’s Paul Westerberg, you ass.” I felt like an idiot, but I never forgot the name.
It was an awesome shirt. I wish I owned it, if only because I didn’t have a single friend at high school who would’ve appreciated or even understood it. I would have loved to wear it and then sneer at my friends when they dared to question the frazzled portrait. “It’s Paul Westerberg, you ass,” I’d hiss at them. Knowing who Paul Westerberg was made me feel like a unique snowflake.
One frigid winter morning, Dr. Carl summoned me into his office. “We have a problem,” he said. His voice was a whisper, like he was sharing a secret that only I could be trusted to keep.
“What can I do?” I asked. It didn’t matter what he wanted. I’d do anything to prove my devotion.
“The van isn’t coming today,” he said. “We’re going to need to … borrow your car.”
He didn’t need to explain the rest. I knew where this was going. The death freezer was dangerously close to capacity. The door couldn’t be closed without putting some elbow into it. The bodies had to go somewhere. It was up to me.
“I understand,” I said, my voice unwavering. “It’s not a problem.”
As it turned out, it was a problem. Here’s the funny thing about frozen dead dogs. When you take them out of a freezer, they’re not exactly malleable. That doesn’t so much matter when you’re loading them into a van, which has plenty of extra space. But when you’ve got a ‘74 Honda Civic, which doesn’t have a lot of extra trunk room, or even a back seat, that’s another matter entirely.
It could’ve been done. If we’d taken the time and been patient, we could’ve found a way to fit all thirty frozen corpses in the back of my car. You just had to think of it as a furry puzzle. “Just put that doberman right there, and you’ve still got plenty of room below the passenger seat for a couple of pugs. It’s all about using the negative space.”
But my teenage co-workers didn’t have the patience for analytical thinking. They wanted to be finished with this minimum wage indignity. So they did what anybody would’ve done in a hurry. They shoved. And pushed. And forced the stiff, frozen bodies to fit into a space that basic geometry wouldn’t allow. It didn’t take long before we heard the snapping of limbs and the crackly pop of frozen bones shattering. The corpses surrendered to our panicky assault. When I glanced into my back seat, I didn’t see a pile of dead dogs. I saw a congealed mass of … something. Flesh and bones pointing in improbable angles. It was like the dogs had been placed into a giant blender and then emptied into my car.
Dr. Carl told Travis to drive with me. I needed somebody on the other end to help me unload, and there was only room in the front seat for one person. We drove through the mid-day Chicago traffic like people who knew they were guilty. Travis chain-smoked, the ashes just barely making it out of his open window. My hands shook, barely able to cling to the steering wheel, and I kept glancing at the rearview mirror, waiting for the inevitable sirens of a police cruiser.
“Jesus Christ,” I blurted at Travis while we were stopped at a red light. “You’re covered in blood.”
Travis looked down at his t-shirt; the Paul Westerberg shirt he always wore when working at the clinic. It was splattered with canine plasma. He looked like a crime scene.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he howled, tearing the shirt off his body.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at him. “Don’t do that!”
“Well I can’t wear it anymore,” he said. “I look like I murdered somebody!”
“You sitting in my car without a shirt doesn’t look any better. Put your fucking shirt on!”
“Fuck you more!”
We screamed at each other for almost twelve blocks, him shirtless, me shaking so violently that the car pulsated. We delivered the dead dogs, and then I drove us back to the clinic and we walked into Dr. Carl’s office and told him we quit.
Travis left his bloody Westerberg shirt in my car. I sold the car a few weeks later. But I kept his shirt. I was like Clemenza: “Take the cannoli.”
I washed the shirt, of course. The bloodstains were easy enough to get rid of. But even after several cycles, it still smelled like dead dog. Maybe it was my imagination. No one else seemed to smell it, but to my nose it was unmistakable. It was that putrid combination of fur and ice. And that, somehow, made the shirt feel even more punk rock. When I wore it, I wasn’t some innocent kid who did musical parodies and got called a faggot. I was the kid with a t-shirt of a punk rock singer that nobody recognized and smelled vaguely of death.
That’s the face I see, or I guess I smell, on my new Paul Westerberg t-shirt. It doesn’t look anything like the shirt Travis left in my car. But I have a psychosomatic reaction to it anyway.
“I don’t see it,” says Ayers, my MTV editor, squinting to get a better look. “That could be anybody.”
I breathe in deep, and my nostrils fill with the stench of a Chicago summer and a Honda Civic filled with frozen and mangled dog corpses. Well of course it’s Paul Westerberg. Who else could it be?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)