Friday, July 03, 2009

The time we interviewed Debra Jane Seltzer and realized, we are so not worthy.

One day, I got this email from my new friend from Brooklyn, New York, Debra Jane. And within minutes she is totally the new Team Small Dog hero. Because Debra Jane takes her pack of 4 small, fast, kick yer ass dogs all over the country in a van to photograph stuff. Stuff like giant milk bottles and 3 story high dinosaurs and motels shaped like teepees. Stuff that is vanishing before our eyes to make way for Old Navy and steam shipped sized boxes of office supplies and beverages. And when the cool stuff is all gone, Debra Jane and her dogs might be the only ones that found it all.

Debra Jane, I haven't even made a dent in all your photo collections, and your websites, and I spent days in there. I am in awe at the sheer volume of your photos, that you only do on your little road trips. Because it looks like a full time job. Seriously. I am getting tired just thinking about it. My jaw is totally dropped in awe. Besides the actual trip where you are the only human in the car and the driving, and the stopping to get photos and turning around to get photos and going back to get photos, is the enormity of your websites.

Which, ok, is a little confusing. Debra Jane is an overachiever. She has a bunch of websites, and you kind of have to go see them all to get what I am talking about here. Go fix a snack.

gripper, fix, sputnik & gremlin

the big ol' website

flickr sampling of the website photos

the roadtrip blog

Debra Jane:
The site is ridiculously big at this point.
(*The site. My god-this took me days to go through ALL the sites*) But I still have huge lists of stuff to get to yet. New stuff that I find out about as well as reshooting stuff taken many years ago with an old camera or in shitty weather. Or stuff that has been transformed over the years -- for better or for worse.

It is more than 40 hours per week I'm sure. Plus, I can usually sneak in about 3 or 4 hours of me time at work (which means website time in some form). Over the years, I've learned to get by on about 5 hours of sleep per night. I work nights (5:30pm-2am) which means the dogs are sleeping while I'm out. Offleash hours are only til 9am so I have to get up at 7:30 to get the dogs out there every morning or I'm screwed. Nik will start removing books from shelves or deconstructing furniture if I don't. So I stumble off to the park on about 3 1/2 hours sleep. Then I catch a two hour nap before work. For like 15 years I've been doing this. Side effects: memory loss, brain damage, ADD but otherwise great health.

And then the technology while you're traveling of batteries and internets and not letting computers get stolen out of the van. Then, on top of it you have all the dogs and you are dealing with them and they need to go on walks and not bark in the motel room and not whine in the van and that it used to also include competing in agility but now just includes practicing for agility? I am like, how does she do this? Seriously? Because jaw dangling on floor right now.

Debra Jane:
It's very organized -- I just follow along with my list and bang things out. The organization is done way beforehand so I waste no time getting lost or shuffling paper.

The dogs are in the van so nobody's messing with it. My van has three cigarette lighters -- enough to charge the cell phone, the camera batteries and the laptop all at the same time! I have backup camera & laptop batteries always ready.

If I get Nik out to run for a few miles each day, several times per day, then I'm pretty good. The seniors (Grip & Fix) are fine with sniffing around & peeing on stuff. Grem I have to be very careful with or she'll take off. If we pass a water source (big river, ocean) then it's pretty much required that I stop. Nik & Grem start "monkeyscreaming" as you call it. By nighttime, they are shot and grateful when the van stops & they can finally get some quality rest. So they don't bark in motels. They are also used to NYC so they are used to loud, idiotic humans, dog collars jangling, car alarms, whatever annoying sounds that life can have.

The practicing agility is a good thing. I drive out to Long Island during a weekday. Have two rings pretty much to myself. So I can do whatever I want. And then there are some nearby trails where I can take the guys afterwards. The hard part is the driving -- tons of traffic usually both ways.

Also, I think what makes this really amazing is that you're preserving stuff that is vanishing. I grew up in the south bay of LA and every time I go back there, all the old cool googie 50's modern restaurants and apartments and shops are more and more and more gone and it honestly sometimes makes me cry. But I didn't do anything about it and I can't go back and get photos of the stuff that's gone. So you are doing very important work here.

Debra Jane:
I'm so glad that you "get it". I spent a few years living in Venice in the late 1970s. Hadn't really spent much time there til last year and was so depressed about how much development has wiped out everything in West L.A., Santa Monica, etc. Also my the town I grew up in, Ventura, used to be lemon & avocado groves -- now horrible malls & government bldgs.

Hey-that Tiki Aparatment building is from Redondo Beach, just down the street from where I grew up! I used to drive by it like every day! I grew up loving stuff like that, and just thought it would be here with us forever.

Do you have any favorite things? You cover a lot of genres, from architecture to signs to weird stuff like dinosaurs and giant lumberjacks to outsider art places. A lot of varieties from cultural production for commerce, plain old cool architecture, and some very passionate and visionary artmaking.

Debra Jane:
That's a tough one. I only dabble in the folk arty stuff. I'm much more attracted to commercial buildings & signs & fiberglass statues. Hard to choose one over the other. I tend towards mid-century buildings -- esp. banks, churches, office bldgs. which still don't get the respect that they deserve and are ripe to demolition. Most of mid-century devotees (websites, forums, etc.) are into houses but I find them pretty boring, plain & redundant. I'm more interested in how businesses brought attention to themselves, how buildings have been re-used, and what survives (vs. what's gone) and hoping to create more interest and therefore respect/importance for what remains so that these things might be preserved. Art Deco buildings have more respectability so I usually don't shoot them unless they are incredible. I am much more into the streamline buildings which are not as "in" -- esp. little ones. I'm sure there is some part of the brain that overlaps with rescue dogs & rescue buildings/signs.

Can I just tell you I am totally jealous you made it to Salvation Mountain? I have LIVED in California my whole life and just can't ever get there.

Debra Jane:
Well, then you must schedule it! I was lucky to be there when no one else was around which kind of accentuated the surrealness of it.

What sticks out in your memory as particularly mind blowing?

Debra Jane:
Stumbling into something that I didn't know about is a rare thing since I spend SO much time researching and prowling on the 'net for stuff. But sometimes I'll stumble upon some freaky UFO-ish 1960s bank or a nice cement church -- or some pet cemetery which I had very little info about turns out to be super great & rips me up emotionally with the photos/inscriptions -- or a neon sign has just the right light on it and I say to it "you're going on Flickr tonight!" Sometimes things that have been in my notes for years and years I finally get to and it's less than expected -- or better. So there are different types of the "unexpected" that would qualify as mind-blowing.

On this most recent trip, this guy comes to mind as "mind-blowing". I had no idea he'd been restored (and I follow this sort of thing so it's strange that I wouldn't know). They did a fantastic job -- but he was missing his Coke cup, paper hat, etc. So it was sad but fantastic. He's one of the super rare, unexplained heads, that were apparently made in Canada.

Another example, I'm very into giant milk bottles & was really looking forward to seeing the Milk Bottle Water Tower in Montreal. I had an intersection & couldn't find it. Asked around in my best broken French & was finally told it had been removed. I was very depressed by the new building that had supposedly replaced where it had been. That night, I looked it up just to torture myself & found photos at Flickr taken recently! Went way back to Montreal just to shoot it. So I felt a sense of accomplishment and awe that even in its rusty state, it lives!

Perhaps my biggest claim to roadside fame is digging up the info about a very special sign -- and even the guy that made them.
This page includes all kinds of details like a map I made of where the signs were originally installed, links & info about all the ones that still exist, videos in descriptions here and there so you can see them operating, and even a few photos of Mr. Milks himself. For a real treat, at the bottom of the page are some "home movies" from the early 1950s that I uploaded to YouTube of what some of his creations in Bossier City, LA (then a mini Vegas).

Does being a New Yorker have anything to do with this? Does living in Brooklyn give you super human powers? I always heard New York was where the super talented and super motivated people went, LA was where the super motivated yet possibly untalented people went, SF where the super talented yet possibly unmotivated went, and Santa Cruz was a black hole that just swallows us up and makes us want to sit around and watch the surf.

Debra Jane:
That's fascinating. Plenty of deadbeats, low-energy people in NYC I'm sure. But yeah, maybe survival makes you stronger, more willful. I always had the sense in Calfornia that years were just melting away. The lack of seasons. Out here, I find I'm racing to accomplish things in warm weather before I never want to go out. I'm deliberately savoring every day right now before it gets too hot and then too quickly fucking cold again. So it's sort of a more panicked way than dogs do of living in the moment. I'm now 51 and feel probably more panicky every year to get shit done & see stuff. Relaxing is not my style so NYC seems an appropriate place to be. If not for the cold and the parking hassles and way too many people. I don't go to movies or plays or museums -- I'm here because of the combination of my good-paying, perky job and my rent controlled apt. When I have a day off, I'm either slaving at the computer or we're off somewhere. I think being back in CA would be good for me & would force me to slow down a bit.

I am totally wondering, what does her house look like inside? Is it so carefully catalogued? Are there millions of equally cool roadside souvenirs?

Debra Jane:
Very boring space. I don't collect stuff. There is a huge Muffler Man head (long story) and a few other things (postcards, photos but not really tshochkes). Otherwise, it's office-like. Tables, files, big screen TV that never gets turned off while I'm "working". Horrible marathon crime documentaries on right now -- murders, cellblock life, whatever -- titilating enough to look up once in awhile but not enough to get suckered in. I'm into neat and tidy and organized. Dirt and dust don't bother me. Clutter freaks me out.

What do Brooklyn dogs do when you are at your investment bank job?

Debra Jane:
Got that one already. Grem wears her bark collar & snoozes in a crate while I'm out or she'd get us evicted. She tries to get Nik to play which gets everybody barking. I don't feel bad for her though. She gets tons of exercise during the day & it's just her regular routine. Everybody else behaves & sleeps. It's dark soon after I go to work.

And is it weird to have an investment bank job when investments are falling apart all around us?

Debra Jane:
I've survived five rounds of layoffs -- but maybe not the next one (December?). My company is one of the more conservative and European-based so they didn't have to get bailed out and didn't do skeevy things. It's businesses buying/selling businesses or parts of them. Things have definitely slowed down. What I do is make presentation books look "pretty", make graphs, tables, simple graphic-y things, some editing/typing. A mix of Word & PPT & Excel. The stuff the bankers can't do themselves. Lately, the bankers have been doing more and more of it so the books look like shit. But in these times, they aren't making the millions that they were so nobody care how things look I guess. I'm like a chef working at McDonald's right now.

Does this listmania and archiving skillset affect your dog training? I am thinking you are a super good dog trainer. Gripper has been a big champion in USDAA and NADAC, and they are all well behaved enough to travel around in a van and be behaved on all these different locations while you are running around shooting photos

Debra Jane:
I took boatloads of seminars and went to camps with all the greats in the first eight years or so. But I had no good trainers in my area. So it was always a mix of seminars/camps & then doing the actual training on my own in rented spaces. So I got used to winging it and experimenting and my dogs did damned well. So somewhere between what I learned from the pros and what worked for my dogs got us along quite well. I never had driven Border Collie or Sheltie types that LOVED the sport. But had to develop working relationships that mattered & motivated my dogs.

I know I lectured you about the barking on the teeter technique. I liked your approach to group teeters! Anywhere that you can insert novelty into training is a good thing I think.

Um, most people would not describe my dogs' van behavior as "well-behaved". Every nearby motorcyle is cause for mayhem. Toll booths. Gas stations where they pump your gas (NJ and OR -- I do all I can to avoid them). So lots of situations that are noisy, not pretty, with dogs thrashing against the glass. Grem goes off barking at any dog she sees. She sometimes smells them before she sees or hears them. I've seen her jump up from sleeping to find them. And she's a real earsplitter. Nik also brings me bits of anything he can find in the van -- a one inch scrap of paper or plastic will do & puts it on my shoulder & starts whining or bumping me to throw it. I indulge him sometimes which is a big mistake. Or he somehow busts into the strapped-up toy bins in back & brings up a squeaky. So there's always lots of amusement/annoyance to keep me from dozing off.

Where is your next trip going to be? How do you figure out the routes you're going to take to avoid all the Home Depot's and Walmarts that are becoming so ubiquitous now? Do you have an inner radar devloped now that helps you find stuff when you're traveling?

Debra Jane:
Much more unromantic than that. The routes are really the most efficient paths between destinations. But on a major, old commercial strip thru a town, I will have a drive around sometimes to see what's there. I haven't been to the Midwest in awhile so that's where headed for the month of August. So I better not have any rain! My Ohio & Missouri shots are about five years old and pretty ugly. Parts of IN & IL I still haven't gotten to. KS & IA I've only covered part of. So for the past couple months & for the next six weeks, I'm frantically working on my lists -- printing maps for each destination & organizing the piles. As well as key word searching the crap out of google & flickr so I miss as little stuff as possible in the states & cities that I'm heading to. I always find out about some neat gas station or sign when I get home that was just blocks from where I was -- painful!

Do you meet people when you're on the road that help you find things to see?

Debra Jane:
Nah, I'm the antisocial type. No time to chat. And 95% of what I see is preplanned. But I do sometimes have get-togethers with people that I've become buddies with at Flickr that like the sorts of things that I do. Usually a couple people on each big trip. Always had good experiences.

Do the dogs ever do anything naughty on the road that puts you into a tight spot? IE, bad for life, good for story?

Debra Jane:
Daily! See blog. Grem scares the crap out of me daily even when I'm home. I can't count the number of times she's crossed busy roads. Running across the desert in NM was one of the worst experiences.

Do all your dogs love each other equally or do you have pack dynamics?

Debra Jane:
Not so much. I'm not even sure they love me! They are true terriers -- self-sufficient, not at all clingy. Nik & Grem play together sometimes in the house -- terrier chawing on each other type play -- but never outside. Grip & Fixie do withers dances -- posturing and barking nastily at each other -- a lot. Female dominance crap I'm told. But it never goes anywhere -- just looks bad. Nobody cuddles with each other. Maybe they're all the products of broken homes & dysfunctional families. But with all their park experiences with hundreds of different kinds of dogs offleash, daily, they have perfect social graces. Can keep their space without getting into fights. Can handle obnoxious, pushy dogs with ease. Have some patience with puppies. I've had friends who claim they have dogs with aggression issues -- but have introduced my dogs to them with nobody losing it. The owners are always shocked. My dogs know how to say "stop it" and "leave me alone" in a serious but not insulting way.

Introvert or Extrovert? Do you ever travel with another human, or is it only with the dogs only?

Debra Jane:
I don't think anyone could bear traveling with me or the dogs! I'm manic, they're nutso. Introvert I guess. I'm manic, they're nutso.

So there -- that oughta keep you busy. Damned life story! Grip is pacing and barking and spinning and digging on me and her full water bowl (practically speaking English) -- indicating that it's time for dinner.

Take care,


So really. Scroll back up to the top. Go to Debra Jane's websites and see all the stuff she's found out there. Go see some of it yourself, and find more. It's all going to be gone someday. And don't call her Debra Jean, or Debbie. It's Debra Jane.


Blogger Elayne said...

I LOVE Debra Jane's Roadside Architecture site. I was furious with myself when I first discovered it because I too spent hours/days perusing it (with a dial-up connection!). I keep taking photos of buildings and things to send her and forgetting to send them or I decide they're not worthy or probably both.

I've seen her run her dog at a couple of NADAC Champs many years ago-he is the coolest!

July 3, 2009 4:52 PM  
OpenID artdecobuildings said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. The mention of art deco and streamline buildngs pricked up my ears but I fell in with the whole post. I love the Montreal 'Milk Bottle' because I saw it several weeks back but my photo is nowhere near as good as this one.

July 3, 2009 11:39 PM  
Blogger Jen Lindsay said...

Very interesting read. And her rat terrier is gorgeous.

July 4, 2009 7:19 AM  
Blogger Erika said...

i work with debra jane -- we argue all the time about the techy side of the interwebs (i'm a romantic / new gadgets are cool person, she's a smart realist)....

but i want to say that on a day-to-day basis this interview most excellently captures the dedication and insanely hard work that debra does.

i still think someone should pay her to do this full time and publish a book or three. debra jane is doing a service in documenting disappearing americana. the fact that she does it with four awesome dogs in her van sparkle, well, it just makes me smile.

debra jane is one of my biggest sources of motivation. i wish i could be as focused and laser-like and obsessed (in the best possible way) like her!

July 5, 2009 11:46 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

DJ was in Florida earlier this year and I hoped we might cross paths, but her schedule is crammed full and we couldn't make it happen. What she does is amazing and we are all richer for it. I consult her site before I travel anywhere so I won't miss something amazing!

July 18, 2009 12:46 PM  
Blogger Simba said...

I've been a fan of Debra Jane's for years! Even tried to plan my own road trip with Simba...hasn't happened yet tho...

Awesome interview!


July 20, 2009 2:50 PM  

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