Chris Wise’s grandmother died the morning after Christmas 2004. A month later, while visiting a dog breeder in Virginia, Wise met a pit bull puppy that seemed to be the canine reincarnation of his beloved relative.
“She just reminded me of my grandma, the way with her eyes,” says Wise, a tall, thin, 19-year-old employee of the Regal Gallery Place movie theater. “And she loved plants. My grandmother loved flowers and [the dog] did, too. Like, she’d actually sniff flowers, but she’d eat plants, flowers.” He took the small creature back to his home in Petworth and gave it a name: Laydie.
So when Laydie died on Jan. 6 after being run over outside Wise’s house, the teenager was, in a way, mourning two deaths. Such a profound loss, he thought, demanded observance beyond a certificate of cremation. Wise wanted a public statement. And that meant one thing: a memorial T-shirt.
Well, two T-shirts and a hoodie. Laydie died on a Friday; the following Monday, Wise was at the Georgia Avenue clothing store Planet Chocolate City with photographs of Laydie. Wise passed $60 over the counter. In return, he got a custom clothing line that shows the world—at least that part of it positioned behind Wise and his friends—the sorrow and indignation of having a dog deleted too soon.
On the back of the sweatshirt is a large photograph of the black-and-white puppy, along with several epitaphs: “1/26/04–1/6/06,” “THE GOOD DIE YOUNG,” “FOREVA BEAUTIFUL…FOREVA YOUNG….” On the front, there is text reading “RIP LAYDIE” and “AGAPPE LOVE.” The T-shirts, which went to two close friends, bear similar designs. “Go Get ’Em, Cujo,” reads one.
Wise wears his black hoodie when he’s out and about and when he’s dozing in bed. He takes it off for work and bathing. In the summer, he says, he’ll purchase lighter shirts.
For anybody who’s spent time in crime-prone neighborhoods or at least watched a lot of hiphop videos, the concept is no doubt familiar. The name for it changes by city—R.I.P. shirts, memorial Ts, dead man’s shirts. But the idea’s always the same: Somebody expires under tragic circumstances, and soon that person’s face is gracing gear worn by family and well-wishers. Chelsea Cromartie, an 8-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet in 2004, was given a T-shirt afterlife. So was Anthony Blount, a 24-year-old friend of Wise’s, who was shot three months ago behind an apartment building in Columbia Heights.
Wise had Blount’s shirts made at Planet Chocolate City, as well; the store has become something of a go-to place in this specialized industry. “Some are car accidents, illnesses. But the majority are murders,” says manager Shawn Ryan, 28. “It’s definitely sad…because sometimes I know the people I’m doing shirts for.”
The doggie death shirt appears to be a new tweak in the fashion. Ryan says his shop minted its first about a year-and-a-half ago and has since created a small suite of dog wear: Three shirts (including the most recent for Laydie) commemorated automotive-accident victims and one acknowledged a hound that died of internal illness. “The first one I did, I found it kind of odd,” says Ryan. “But in the same sense, you have people putting sweaters on dogs, you know what I’m saying?”
Calls to area shops that do memorial Ts didn’t turn up any other pet work, which fits Wise’s claim that he’s spearheading the trend. “I’m actually the first person I’ve seen with it, for real,” he says. “I don’t think most people are bold enough, or gutsy enough, to do it.”
Or perhaps they just haven’t met a dog they’ve loved enough. Wise has known a few. He says his mother, facing cramped apartment life, raised him “in the crib” with a German shepherd named Duke. Since that early exposure, Wise has lived a life rich with canines. He’s adopted seven dogs, training each how to socialize, obey, and protect. He plans on attending veterinary school and eventually opening a cageless shelter.
Laydie was the favorite in his menagerie. The two hung out at the shops near the Georgia Avenue–Petworth Metro station. At home, they sat on the couch and watched TV. And Wise made sure his dog got respect. Last Halloween, his friend Steffany Chavez bought a cow costume for Laydie to wear. “But Chris would not let me dress Laydie up,” says Chavez, 18. She tried tying a little cowbell around the dog’s neck instead. “Chris got mad. He was like, ‘Take that off her.’”
For being saved from silly costumes, Laydie gave her master loyalty. Once, after tying Laydie up outside a neighborhood Safeway, Wise noticed that she had slipped out of her collar and followed him inside to the check-out line. “And it looked like a Godzilla movie, because everybody was just running and looking back,” says Wise. “We’ll always have good memories.”
Of course, there will also be the bad memory of Jan. 6. Wise was sitting in a Cadillac DeVille across the street from his house. When the father of the family he stays with opened the front door, Laydie bolted out and headed for her master.
Wise jumped out of the car to stop traffic. Cars in both directions slowed down, he says, except for one vehicle, which hit Laydie at full velocity. The dog flipped twice and came to rest at the base of a tree about 30 feet away.
Wise was wearing two jackets and hoodie. He threw them all off, he says—“That’s how angry I was.” Laydie’s howls brought people to their front porches two blocks down. Wise went to her. “She wasn’t in the right mind. Her tongue was out of her mouth; she had defecated on herself….You could just smell death,” he says. “I touch her, and she looks up.”
In a final, involuntary act, Laydie then bit Wise on the finger.
The next couple of minutes were tense. Wise stood by the driver’s window and demanded an apology. Instead, the man called the police, who came and threatened to arrest Wise. The driver cruised off. “I’ve never seen the car since,” says Wise. “I look for it every day, trust me.”
That night, Wise dug a hole in his backyard. He put the shovel aside after realizing that, should he move, the dog wouldn’t follow. He got her cremated the next day and put her remains, along with dried flowers, in a basket in his living room. Near his bed, he keeps his dead dog’s possessions—water bowl, rain towel, a toy made from chew-proof fire hose—in a plastic container. He’s adopted a new pit bull named Precious, but she’s not allowed to play with Laydie’s old toys. “I think it was too soon when I got [Precious],” he says. “I guess the family’s still adjusting, some of us more than others.”
That’s where his shirt comes in.
Wise now wears Blount’s shirt on Fridays only, as Laydie has taken up residence on his chest. Now, whenever Wise goes outside, he’s guaranteed at least a couple of double-takes. “Someone said, ‘Is that serious?’” says Willis Jefferson, a high-school buddy of Wise’s who walked Laydie. “Some people think that it’s funny.”
Wise says the shirts have generated a lot of confusion. “I have to explain to them what it is being close to a dog, taking care of her,” he says. “Sometimes they still look at me a little funny, but I don’t pay it any attention, because I understand my soul.”CP