Rod Gesner leans against the recreational vehicle he calls home and watches the sun fall behind Kirkwood Avenue. IU students and the city’s homeless population file past as he waits.
As the people cross Dunn Street, their paths split. Students head right toward the flashing lights and heavy bass of the city’s most popular bar. The homeless stay to the left, slipping into the darkness of People’s Park.
Each side of Kirkwood ignores the other, kept out of mind by a two-lane stretch of asphalt. Rod’s out here for both of them. Tonight he just wants somebody to walk past and notice him.
He knows people don’t stop at the run-down Chevy for him. They stop for Kiaayo, 95 pounds of stringy black fur and bright pink tongue.
Just past nightfall, a girl in a short white dress walks up to the bench and points at Kiaayo.
“Excuse me, can I pet your dog?” she asks. “He’s so cute.”
Rod smiles back. “Yeah, he likes the attention.”
She calls over a friend, whose blinking “Bride to Be” sash makes Kiaayo blink a few times. The woman holds a cup of water to his mouth, and the dog laps it up, splashing both the women and Rod as he does. Nobody seems to mind.
“Oh my God, he’s so cute!” one says. They shake the water off their hands and stumble to the next bar. The bride-to-be glances at Rod’s signs as she goes.
“HOUSE of the LOVE of DOG,” the big one says. “Sharing the love of a very special dog.”
* * *
Rod’s RV sits just a few feet from Bloomington’s most stark display of social imbalance. Strobes of light from Kilroy’s on Kirkwood, a popular college bar, dance against the cold stone of People’s Park, a refuge for the local homeless population.
Outside the bar, a line stretches around the corner. A girl tugs at a too-short skirt. Newly minted 21-year-olds hand their IDs to the bouncer, leaning around the door to take an early look inside. A man in a beret plays the accordion and sings love songs in Spanish. A bearded student stumbles out, held up by a friend on each shoulder.
In People’s Park, a man sleeps facedown against a statue. Only a pair of sneakers stick out from behind the stone.
“It’s a separation of classes of the most raw sense,” Rod says, turning his back to the line of students.
People’s Park was donated to Bloomington in the mid-1970s, almost a decade after Ku Klux Klan members firebombed the nearby Black Market. Intended as a safe space for all people to congregate, the park has slowly fallen out of public use.
Now, students walk the extra few feet to avoid setting foot in the park, and park regulars often don’t feel welcome anywhere else. That leaves Rod to fill the gap.
“He’s not really a panhandler, he’s more of a preacher,” Alex Schuette says as he pulls apart slices of cheese. Schuette, an IU senior, works inside the Big Cheeze food truck. “Some people stay for hours.”
As the sun starts to set, Rod stands by the park, shaking hands as people pass. He never lived there permanently but spent a few nights after running away from home. He’s not friendly with everybody, but he makes sure to introduce a few people.
“That’s Daniel, over there,” he says, pointing somewhere toward the park. In the darkness, only the burning end of a cigarette shows where Daniel stands. “And here, this is George’s bag.”
When Rod sees Daniel, a People’s Park regular, and a group of drunk men start to argue in front of a neighboring bar, he jogs across the street to step in. Holding both hands high, he walks into the skirmish and starts to pull Daniel away.
“You’re gonna get arrested,” Rod yells. “Get the fuck out of here. Go!” Daniel scurries away as Rod tries his version of diplomacy. Behind him, lights from the bar fade in and out.
* * *
Rod has sat on the same corner for five years, a visible link between Bloomington’s rich and poor. Kiaayo — “Bear” in Blackfoot, the language of Rod’s Native American ancestors — is his way into people’s lives.
When he moved back to Bloomington in 2010, he’d sit outside with Kiaayo, passing time as he tried to sell his handmade jewelry and glasswork. Almost immediately, people began to stop and ask to pet the dog. Students talked about their dog back home. People explained how they ended up on the street.
When people stop for Kiaayo, Rod does his best to stay out of the way. He lets them come to him. Usually, it’s just a few minutes with the dog before they move on, but a few people each night stop and talk.
Once Kiaayo draws them in, Rod takes over. Female students often get lessons in self-defense, taught with his handmade wooden sticks. He’s helped people through drug addictions and abuse. At least two people call him Dad.
None of that happens without Kiaayo.
“What he does out here is a ministry,” Rod says, rubbing Kiaayo’s head as he talks. “I try to help in my own way, but what he does one-on-one is helping people that miss their families, miss their dogs, had a bad day.”
So this morning, like every morning, Rod woke up by an office garage on the east side of Bloomington. He said good morning to Kiaayo, grabbed a mug and walked to the Circle K gas station for coffee.
The garage’s owner won’t let him stay past the morning, so Rod put Kiaayo back into his Chevrolet RV and drove west, toward the IU campus. He parked his home just off the intersection, leaving space for the grilled cheese truck next to him.
He tied Kiaayo’s leash around the foot of a green bench, rolled out a leather office chair and put a plastic cup on the sidewalk. A single dollar hung over the edge. He pulled a bundle of bamboo staffs from the RV, arranged his signs and waited.
Most nights, visitors drop some change in Rod’s cup. Donations are his main source of income, save for a few odd jobs here and there. Almost everybody gets an invitation back and a copy of his 35-line mission statement.
“To Share Kiaayo’s (Bear’s) Love and Healing with as many People as Possible,” it reads. “And To Provide Comfort and Assistance as Best I Can; Without Becoming an Enabler.”
It’s barely after 10 p.m., and he’s already run out of copies.
* * *
Rod talks with his eyes, a wild pair of eyebrows dancing in rhythm with his words. A thick white beard hides most of his face, and a wide-brimmed hat droops around his hairline. A rope burn on the back of his leg is probably infected — he insists it’s fine. Mold has grown on his glasses, where the lenses meet his nose.
He’s quick to share his own history. The phrase, “Well, that’s a long story, so I won’t go into that,” dots his conversations. He hasn’t stayed in one place long enough to put down serious roots.
In the ninth grade, his family moved from Indianapolis to Bloomington. By 15, he had dropped out of high school, run away from home and started hitchhiking around the country. A hundred thousand miles, a string of failed relationships and dozens of craftsman jobs later, he fell in love with Maya.
Rod and Maya spent 10 years together before a slew of health problems caught up with her. She died in a local hospital as Rod pleaded with the doctors to do something. He still blames them for her death.
“They couldn’t see what I could see with my own eyes was broken,” he says, tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes.
That was 2009. He moved back to Bloomington soon after — “another long story,” he says — and his trust in people started to fail him. He says the government came after his business, hitting him with permit requirements and peddling laws. I t eventually became too much for Rod to navigate, so he stopped selling.
Rod and Kiaayo met six years ago in Kitsap County, Washington. Rod was a tree trimmer who’d made his way to the West Coast. Kiaayo was just a bundle of black fur. The name came easily. “He looked like a little bear cub,” Rod remembers.
Kiaayo is his official name. Rod’s signs call him the “Comfort/Therapy Wonder Dog.”
* * *
For now, this is all Rod wants to do, he said. He’s picked up a few landscaping jobs, but can’t see himself promising somebody he’ll show up and work 40 hours a week.
He tries to make it to the street corner six nights a week — he always takes Sunday off. Most weeks he succeeds, but sometimes he can’t force himself to do it.
His feet are constantly sore. He’s got a knee he needs to get fixed. He didn’t know he was born with spina bifida until he was 30 years old, and it keeps his lower back tight at all times. Scars line his hands and knees.
Ask if he’s happy, and he looks away immediately. He sighs, and suddenly he has to adjust Kiaayo’s collar.
“I still cry sometimes, missing her,” he says. “It doesn’t go away easily." Sometimes, 10 years of Maya hit him in an instant, and he can’t stop himself. He stays in with Kiaayo on those nights.
Kiaayo is 6 years old now. Rod’s chosen not to have him neutered, just in case he wants to have puppies someday — somebody has to carry on the ministry when Kiaayo’s gone.
“I will probably say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand the pain of having another dog,’ until some friend gives me a dog or I stumble across a foster who looks like him,” Rod says. He hopes his next dog can have the same effect on people as Kiaayo does, but realizes that's unlikely.
Rod has just started to renovate his home, turning it into a “Temple of Art and the Beauty of All Creation.” Over the next few months, he’ll fill the Chevy with his glasswork, arrange his jewelry and set aside a space for private conversation.
He plans to leave the windows open so people can see what he’s created inside. As they walk around the RV and see his collections of beauty, they’ll come across a mirror, with a sign next to it:
Turn around! YOU are the beauty of all creation. But look behind you, because the beauty of creation is all around us.
He’s already picked out the sign.