The Jungle of Montini
by Rue Harrison, Jul 17, 2000
Not so long ago, driving a familiar stretch of freeway, I noticed a flocked chihuahua in the rear window of an anonymous commuter across from me traveling in another lane, one of those artifacts that give meaning to the word cute.
From the corner of my eye, traveling at some 65 miles an hour—partly bored, partly focused for the preservation of dear life— I allowed myself to study the little figure. The chihuahua, with its construction which caused the little head to bob with each slight bump in the road, seemed to be giving a perpetually affirmative response to some unknown question and, without warning, I noticed something arising in me, a small but unmistakably happy feeling.
In the back of my mind a little dialogue began. Considering myself a sophisticated person in the ways of art, some voice warned me against my childish response of pleasure, untempered as it was by the slightest hint of irony. After a few moments of internal dialogue, and affecting an ironic tone, I pointed out the bobbing artifact to my husband who happened to be riding with me. "I’d like to have one of those for the rear window of my car," I said.
His response was non-committal and I said nothing more, only noting the wistful feeling that passed through me as the anonymous car and its bobbing chihuahua parted company with us via an off-ramp.
A few weeks later, I found myself on BART with a friend. We were on our way into San Francisco to rendezvous with a small group of friends for dinner, all of us women, either quickly approaching or having just passed fifty years of age.
It happened that, as we made our way out of the subway, we found ourselves walking past a number of street vendors, and I noticed on one vendor’s table - mostly devoted to silver jewelry - a display of fifteen or so flocked, bobbing animals. Among them were chihuahuas similar to the one I’d seen on the freeway. There were others too, although of what breed I’ve forgotten because my attention was suddenly captured by a particular one, a white, flocked bull terrier with glistening, button eyes and a sweet and hopeful expression.
We stopped. My friend Karen, who accompanied me, has three dogs herself, two or three cats, and a back yard that at one point was known around the neighborhood as The Jungle of Montini. The foliage was so dense that only small, very persistent children or animals were able to penetrate into its hidden interior. This didn’t trouble Karen, nor did she concern herself about what cultural significations her extensive collection of tchotchkes might imply.
"What do you see?" she asked me, noticing my sudden interest.
I picked up the bull terrier. And there was a pause as the object sat in my hand.
Karen must have noticed my ambivalence, because she suddenly urged me in her usual direct way, "Go ahead and get it."
It was so easy—four dollars, including tax.
In no time I was carrying a plain white plastic bag in which a small box rested containing the hidden figure. An unexpected, if likewise hidden pleasure, had been set coursing through me.
We found our way to our destination, a trendy San Francisco restaurant. Fighting our way through a packed Friday night bar area in which courtship rituals were taking place between beings half our age, we joined our other friends at a table set with a white linen table cloth.
Still tenuously connected with that childlike sense of happiness, after we were settled, I took the dog out discreetly and set it on the edge of the table. The gesture was met with no open acknowledgment by the group until Karen said, "Look at Rue’s dog!"
Then one of the women present, an art director for a publication which is an arbiter of taste in the city, and always very quick of mind, made a polite comment and strategically moved the conversation to another subject.
No one at the table returned to my little figure, and a small retreat occurred inside.
Shortly, a young and stylish waitress came to take our orders. As she took us in, a subtle change seemed to fall across her carefully made-up eyes as they came momentarily to rest on my little dog who, having no way in which to bob affirmatively, only smiled up at her expectantly with its pink fuzzy lips.
I wrestled with that.
One part of me said, "You’re projecting."
Another part scolded, "Aren’t you strong enough to let it sit there?"
And I could feel something in myself already receding further into its hidden place. After the waitress left the table, I put the dog back in its box and ordered a vodka martini.
The next day I prepared to install the artifact in the back of my car, a commuter vehicle as undistinguished as the one in which I'd originally spotted the chihuahua.
I wanted to feel brave and happy about doing this, but in the bright light of morning, the desired feelings did not appear. Instead, my resolve felt like an act of will, or perhaps some kind of defiance. Stalling for time, I examined the bull terrier to see how its bobbing function worked. So simple. The neck of the dog was a long tube with a hook placed at a point of balance on it. The hook, once fastened to an eye inside of the body of the dog, enabled the head to bob.
Having by now resolved to carry through, I peeled off the paper from a piece of double-stick tape, centered the dog in the middle of the deck behind the rear seat and stuck it into place. Stepping back outside the car and moving around to the back, I couldn’t help thinking that my husband would hate it and insist that I get rid of it.
I wondered how long it would take him to notice it.
But much more challenging were my own reactions. Now I was faced with the reality of having a bobbing dog-figure in the back window of my own car.
Feeling a little forlorn that so much interference stood between me and the simple, happy feelings I’d first experienced, I went inside the house.
A few days later I asked my husband if he had noticed anything new about the car. "You mean that thing in the rear window?" he replied.
"Does it bother you?"
After a pause he answered with a small note of resignation, "I’m using it as a way to work on not caring about what other people think."
The next time we were together in the car, however, he said, "I’ve been thinking. Why don’t you make your own figures? You could make 15 or 20 of them and line them up all across the rear window."
I deduced that he was having his own struggles about being seen driving a car with a mass produced, flocked, bobbing-dog tchotchke.
But later on, I thought about his suggestion, and the question occurred to me, "If the dog is for my own pleasure, why am I displaying it to the world? My dog and its affirmative bobbing should be just for me!"
So the next time I parked, I moved the dog to the front dashboard where it would always be in my own field of vision. I stuck it down on the passenger side facing forward. The bull terrier was now my sidekick and riding shotgun as I drove down the highway.
For a while this alignment was an improvement, although I noticed after a few days, some irritation building up about this new configuration. For one thing, I could only see the back of its head, and that gave its bobbing an altogether different quality. Now it seemed a mindless affair or perhaps the result of a neurological problem.
In the following days I noticed a hardening in my attitude toward the little figure. I disavowed it and no longer wanted to associate it with the feeling of simple happiness which had been evoked on that first encounter.
A few days later, a moment of concern that the double-stick tape on the bottom of the dog would make a permanent mark on the dashboard led the figure’s unceremonious removal.
It now sits on my mantel with a number of other items, where its head only bobs during earthquakes.
I thought the episode had reached some natural completion, but only a few days ago I was driving across town and came up beside a car at a stoplight. Looking over, I saw a burly male driver sitting there quietly. On the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel and facing him directly, were two small, flocked dogs. Their heads bobbed appealingly. Before the traffic moved, I stole a closer look at the man. He seemed relaxed, even peaceful. ∆