Ride the Rails



I first met Michael in a dog park in Philadelphia while on my Off the Leash journey in July of 2011. It was early on. Libby and I were still getting our sea legs under us, a bit tentative. The vibe in each city, each park, every situation felt different.

Michael was cool. He’s a soft-spoken guy, cute, young enough to be one of my sons.  He was at the dog park with Frank, his client dog that day. Turns out Michael was a dog walker. We quickly fell in, with conversation about dogs, naturally, but it soon moved to our shared desire to earn a living from our art. We talked about the eternal struggle of the starving artist, he was scraping by as a dog walker to allow enough time to paint. He’s a painter.  Well, he was also a musician at one time, and he’s a pretty damn good photographer too, but the larger body of his work is abstract painting and drawing, on everything from canvasses to box cars. Here’s what he says on his website, On the Border of American Vision:   I am deeply fascinated by the idea of sneaking into hidden worlds, the thrill of trespassing into secret places. I spend much of my time moving alongside America’s railroads, stealing rides and sending scrawled images, coded messages, and inside jokes to trackside companions across the country. It is here, hurrying through the darkness, lurking in the shadows under bridges, sitting unseen behind bushes at truck stops, hiding from passing lights with a pounding heart, I find inspiration for my work. Bear in mind, that at the time I met him, I was a slightly-past-middle aged woman roaming around the country with her dog, staying in shabby hotels and chatting up truckers and rest stop custodians. Of course we clicked ! Michael and I  parted friends on a high note in Philly that day, he had just booked a two-man show at a local gallery and I was feeling validated to come across a kindred spirit who was able to intone a few chants of encouragement from the “keep going” mantra.

Things went sour for Michael in Philly after that.  Busted relationship, guns and car alarms going off at all hours of the day and night. He got jumped by some thugs on the street who busted up his face. Somehow he hung in though, got another show and sold enough of his art to get the hell out of town. Michael and his dog Pumpkin split, heading south. With a few stops to see friends and swim in as many rivers as they could find, Michael and Pumpkin ended up in Austin. That’s where I saw him last week.

I was there on business, the day job business. I am back to the dual demands of a day job to keep the lights on and my night job, keeping the home fires burning on the writing gig. I won’t whine, it’s a waste of breath. Having a dose of Michael was good for the soul though. It’s not like I know him that well at all. I had spent maybe 22 minutes with him three years ago in a dog park, in the blazing sun in central Philadelphia, but we had stayed in touch.

In Austin, I got to see his house, I got to see Pumpkin and the other two dogs that he and his girlfriend and roommate have. He made me coffee at the coffee house where he works a couple of days a week. We walked across the parking lot to get some lunch from a small take-out place with a ping-pong table next to outside dinettes. I got to have pork belly tacos for the first time ever and got the artist’s walk-through of a a mural he’s recently painted on the fence alongside the restaurant.

One of his murals.

One of his murals

“Can you see Pumpkin in there?” he asked me when we’d backed up away from the mural to study it from across the lot.

I was embarrassed that I couldn’t make out the shape of the dog, at first. Then I detected a tail, and well, the tail revealed the dog. Michael told me how sometimes he’ll be making a coffee or latte and look up to see customers out in the parking lot studying the mural. “You see a dog in there?” he’s overhead them a time or two.

Our next stop was a gallery he wanted to show me. East Side Glass Studio is a really cool space run by two cute chicks named Shara and Leigh who are elevating the art of blown glass in Austin.

East Side Glass Gals

East Side Glass Gals

They invite people in to watch them work, they teach classes, hold special events and they share wall space with Michael in their gallery. He hadn’t seen the installation yet, he was pleased with how it turned out. I suppose one of the benefits of having the day job is that I was able to buy a piece of his art. I was thinking about buying some new boots while I was in Austin, instead I bought this watercolor, Boot Heel by Michael W. Hall. Interesting juxtaposition of a boot heel in the colors of the sky. I like it. It will always remind me of him. Hopefully it will keep me mindful to keep moving forward.


And as if to put an exclamation point on our reunion, when I said goodbye to him in Austin last week, he said he was going to ride a train to Dallas and back in the next few days. Here’s the picture he sent to me today.





About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    I can hear the wind rustling in your hair, but I can’t imagine you and Libby atop a boxcar. The great escape ends up chasing you down. I wish you peace, love, lots of money and a bag of tomatoes to zing at a few rotten exes.

    • Yeah, Libby wouldn’t be digging that, fo sho. Fact of the matter is, I probably couldn’t even climb up at this point. But the other things you mention, peace, love, LOTS of money? Oh girl, I’m in. Hell, I’d settled for a modest amount of cash.

  2. Love catching up with your life a little bit! I love the idea of actually riding ‘on’ the train, although I would never have the nerve to try it…thanks for sharing.