Dustman

Sometimes I dream about doing something I would really like to do. The following was from a dream I had about working on a daily adventure strip called “Dustman”. It was set in New York City, a place I’ve never lived but like all Americans, I have a substitute familiarity with. The artist had a skritchy but cinematic style, as if Will Eisner had been inked by Jules Feiffer. My job was to work on plot and dialog.

Below is more or less the outline of the story we told in the opening arc of the strip. I really wish I were working on this project.

Dustman

Leon Martenson is a rookie detective assigned to investigate the tales of a vigilante operating in Lower Manhattan. Stories among street people are circulating about a mysterious man who lives on rooftops and patrols streets and alleys to protect the homeless, prostitutes, children and ordinary working people from thieves and extortionists.

One street patrolman tells of having confronted a guy he thought was the vigilante after having seen him break up a purse snatching by somehow creating clouds of dust to separate the victim and assailant.

“Who are you?” the cop had demanded, seeing someone watching the scene from the roof of a five-story block of storefronts and offices.

“I’m nobody, I’m nothing,” the mysterious watcher replied. “I’m just the wind, I’m smoke, I’m dust and leaves in the wind. I’m dust, man.” And then he had disappeared.

The patrolman had run up to the roof as quickly as he could after calling for backups but no one could find the “witness” the cops started calling “Dustman.”

Martenson’s partner, veteran Detective Arlyn Washburn, refuses to have anything to do with the investigation. He’s convinced that Dustman is just an urban legend and that the incidences reported by people are lies, hoaxes, hallucinations, mistaken identities and perhaps even copycats using the Dustman legend to get back at their enemies or just make headlines.

A young woman named Bonnie Lincoln who writes a news blog called “Below Manhattan,” about life in NYC, also is doubtful that Dustman really exists but she and Leon are intrigued and interested with each other.

Sightings of Dustman have ranged from the Bowery to Morningside Heights but more frequently witnesses place him south of Midtown, often in or near Soho and the West Village. In an age of cellphone and security cameras, numerous, more or less crappy, photos exist. Two of the clearest show a figure that could be Dustman looking down from the top of a building.

Bonnie and Leon use their various sources to collect evidence about Dustman’s methods and existence. Bonnie fills her blogs with anecdotes about Dustman saving this or that person from a mugging or other robbery. Leon looks for more tangible proof.

He has fragments of balloons once full of dust and used as weapons by Dustman. “How does he get them to burst when he throws them?” he asked the police lab but no one had a good answer.

From various photos, the police artist creates a composite image showing a tall man wearing a khaki raincoat, blue jeans or slacks, sneakers and either a brown wool cap or a battered looking grey Stetson. From the testimony, he could be an olive-skinned white man, or a light-skinned black man. The patrolman who spoke with him thinks he was white but isn’t too sure.

Martenson, with Lincoln’s help, leaves messages with people offering to meet with Dustman and suggesting times and places where the detective or reporter will wait for a meeting. But after two weeks, Dustman has not shown up.

While Leon and Bonnie are finally having a romantic interlude that started out as another discussion of Dustman, Washburn calls his partner to tell him, “We’ve found your guy.”

The body in the alley in the Meatpacking District did fit the description of Dustman in most particulars but no one had ever described the mystery man as having a pencil-thin mustache. Still, the police tentatively close the file. But two weeks later, the word on the street is that someone wants to meet with Martenson.

Leon goes to the meeting spot, feeling guilty that he hasn’t told Bonnie, Near a statue in one of the little pocket-size fenced parks in Soho, an hour after dusk, someone speaks from the shadows.

“I’m not dead,” says a dry-as-dust voice. “While your people think I am, I’m going to take a little vacation. I’ll be back.”

“How do I know it’s really you, really Dustman?” asks Leon.

“When I’m gone, look behind the statue.” And then the voice answers no more questions. Dustman has disappeared.

The detective looks behind the statue and finds three balloons half-full of dust and covered in a thin layer of clear ice.