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“Beware of Dog,” Lexington, Kentucky, by Guy Mendes

Issue 96, Spring 2017

Snarly Pete on the Ramparts

The answer is never the answer. . . . The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
—Ken Kesey

On a narrow, little-used side street that borders my neighborhood, there squats a long, one-story concrete-block commercial building of dismal aspect with scant outward evidence of recent human activity of any sort whatsoever, commercial or otherwise. Massively overshadowed by a much larger, much newer building across the street, its unprepossessing façade is separated from the curb only by the width of a skimpy sidewalk. The interior is divided into four large rooms, each of which has its own doorway and its own fairly expansive show window; otherwise, it’s as windowless as a root cellar. The roofline is low, but there’s no attic, so the ceilings are improbably high. Each doorway is protected by a tattered, timeworn canvas awning the shape and pallor of half a loaf of unbaked bread, a style which once bespoke, anomalously, a swanky nightclub or a ritzy hotel, neither of which this cheerless, woebegone old structure has ever been, or ever could become. 

Yet it has, withal, a certain cachet. For many years now, I’ve treated myself to a daily meditative stroll around the neighborhood, but so profound was the old hulk’s glum anonymity that it was years before I noticed this fact: because the side street isn’t perpendicular to the main drag that it feeds into, the building isn’t rectangular, but is instead an elongated parallelogram. (Small wonder I flunked plane geometry.) Accordingly, the four rooms inside it are also parallelograms—as I discovered by stopping from time to time to peer voyeuristically through the dust-coated windows. Inside, the long walls of each room angle off crazily to the left, as though the entire building had been wrenched askew, “sprung” somehow, like the hood of a car after a fender bender. Even on the sunniest days, precious little daylight penetrates the gloom. Standing before one of those wide, murky windows was like standing at the mouth of a cave, the emptiness within looming vast and dark, unfathomed. 

But before it was dwarfed by its relatively monumental new neighbor, this concrete bunker was probably the most imposing building on the street. I can imagine it brand-new in the postwar 1940s, four nice, hopeful little shops all in a row—a Western Auto store, say, and maybe a carpet store, and a five-and-dime, and a modern-as-tomorrow beauty parlor. It would have been an embryonic mini-mall, trying desperately, with its tony awnings and venturesome, futuristic interior angles, to be classy, uptown, the Latest Thing. 

Twenty-five years ago, when I first took root as an invasive species in these environs, the old building still had a couple of tenants—one elderly gent who reconditioned grandfather clocks, another who performed the same service for old vacuum-tube radios—but for self-evident reasons neither enterprise seemed destined to prosper, and within the next few years, first one, then the other closed, and the place stood empty. For a very long time thereafter, the only thing that ever seemed to change—and this only every couple of years or so—was the identity of whichever local realtor was currently posting FOR SALE signs in the windows.

At this juncture of my narrative, on the probably erroneous assumption that among my readers there might be some benighted wretch who doesn’t have the good fortune, or good sense, to live in Lexington, Kentucky, as I do, I have to interrupt myself just long enough to explain that among the very top ranks of deceased Lexington icons—such as Henry Clay and Adolph Rupp and Little Enis, the World’s Greatest Left-Handed Upside-Down Guitar Player—is one Smiley Pete, a nondescript little spotted dog who roamed the downtown streets back in the 1950s, making himself at home at any number of business establishments. In the course of a day, old Pete might pay social calls at a newsstand, a couple of cafés, a shoe repair shop, a barbershop, a dry cleaner, even a law office or two, collecting treats and tributes at every stop like a furry little gunsel in a gangster movie, making his rounds and marking his territory on fire hydrants and lampposts along the way, smiling throughout as amiably as a crocodile. Smiley Pete’s long gone, of course, but he lives on in Lexington’s civic memory, immortalized by a commemorative plaque downtown and, eponymously, by Smiley Pete Publishing, the publisher of our thriving monthly community magazine, the Chevy Chaser, where he also serves as spiritual mascot and logo.

Okay, back to Our Story Thus Far: So if you walk around behind the east end of that grim old building of mine (and, yes, I’m declaring a proprietary interest there, although I have no idea who actually holds the deed), you will find yourself standing at the head of a short, blind alley that immediately narrows to a dank, forbidding concrete-block passageway, and dead-ends abruptly at a block wall, upon which an unknown hand has painted an almost-but-not-quite-successful trompe l’oeil photorealistic representation of a medium-large spotted dog in full attack mode, ears laid back, fangs bared, poised to leap. Above him to the left, on a barred window that looks like it could be an aperture into a jail cell, is a BEWARE OF DOG sign; to the right, padlocked, is the back door of the building. 

I first encountered this slavering Cerberus shortly after I moved into the neighborhood, when, walking home from a downtown bar late one bibulous evening, I stepped into that alleyway for purposes familiar to every late-night tippler, and was going about my affairs in a relaxed but businesslike manner, when I glanced up to see—Egad!—a mad dog rushing at me out of the darkness! 

Now, some persons in my condition would have been unnerved by this development and taken flight, but not me—no, buddy; I stood my ground before the ravenous brute, and befriended him, and when I appropriated the building I appropriated him as well. Snarly Pete, I calls him, and although he doesn’t answer to the name, his loyalty and steadfastness are unparalleled. His paint is peeling, and he’s slowly fading into oblivion as the years go by, but under Snarly’s watchful eye—which, by the way, proves on close inspection to be curiously and unaccountably star-shaped—my building has remained unmolested. Stubbornly defying the passage of time, it stands unaltered in its quintessential homeliness. 

During a walk one day about three years ago, I was startled out of my perambulatory musings to find a dump truck and a front-end loader in the narrow street, and several workmen with sledgehammers industriously punching a great, gaping hole smack in the middle of the front of my building. A couple of days later, the opening had been neatly trimmed out and closed off by an overhead garage door, the workmen and the heavy equipment were gone, and all was serene again. And so it remained for three more years.

In December 2015, a capacious dumpster suddenly materialized one day in front of my building, and workmen were once again scurrying to and fro, some humping great slabs of moldy old drywall and ceiling tile and splintery plywood to the dumpsters while others raised a tremendous racket hammering and sawing and ripping and tearing inside. Over the following couple of days, the crew hauled away two or three dumpster loads of deconstruction debris. Yet after they’d stripped the walls and ceilings to the studs and hauled away the last load, I peered in through one of the grimy windows and saw that, inexplicably, everything looked more or less the same as it had looked before: still cavernous and shrouded in gloom, still empty but for a few abandoned reminders of the workers’ recent exertions—here a sawhorse, there an overturned bucket, way off in the far corner an upended wheelbarrow leaning on its handles—still vaguely sinister and just as inscrutable as ever.

Finally, late one afternoon not long ago, I found that parties unknown had left an auto transport trailer parked where the dumpster used to be, and on the trailer was an old automobile covered by a tarp. I thought I recognized the car’s distinctive, snout-nosed profile, and since there was no one around, I took the liberty of lifting the skirt of the tarp (I used the tip of my cane, shameless old roué that I am) and sneaking a peek at its ample rear end. Sure enough, it was a 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, a car I had briefly admired, in my callow youth, for its snazzy, fin-bedizened, pseudo-futuristic styling. From what I could see, the old banger—a coupe in the body style once known as “hardtop convertible,” with side windows that opened all the way back—was in pretty good condition; its once-glowing golden paint job had gone all dingy and ocherous, and the chrome was pocked with rust, but it was still on its wheels, and it looked to be intact all the way around; even the taillights were unbroken.

As I moved along, I was already saluting the cosmic agencies, whatever they may be, that brought together these two venerable relics, the cockeyed building and the misbegotten automobile, at this late stage of their respective inanimate lives. They belonged together, it seemed to me, as they complete and complement each other perfectly. Next day, the transport trailer was gone, and another bit of stealthy window-peeping revealed that the car was now inside—presumably via the garage door that’s awaited it for three years now. Divested of the tarp, the Studebaker hunkered contentedly in the shadowy recesses of the furthermost corner of its gloomy chamber—where, incidentally, it rests to this very day, as though it has found a haven at last.

Of course, if I were so inclined, I could just walk on down to city hall some afternoon and find out who actually pays taxes on the property (certainly not me), and then a couple more blocks to the public library—in the heart of Smiley Pete’s old territory—where an hour or so of research would surely yield all there is to know about the building’s brief and probably mundane history.

But those are facts, and “facts” are exactly what I don’t want to know, inasmuch as they will inevitably get in the way of the little fictions I’ve enjoyed telling myself during my walks for most of the last twenty-five years. Facts have nothing to do with the fanciful
scenarios that I entertain—and that entertain me—when I pass the building in the course of my daily trudgery. Rather, my speculations tend to be of an existential character, and they often assume a somewhat fuzzy, disjointed visual dimension as well, like random pages from a poorly drawn graphic novel. So: 

Did Smiley Pete himself ever wander up this way and frequent these old shops? Does he still haunt the premises, or did that upstart Snarly run him off? Is this place futuristic, or medieval? In the dead of night, when there’s nobody around to hear them, does it resonate with the chimes of ancient grandfather clocks, or the crackling voices of old-time radio? Whence cometh those anomalous awnings? Is that a jail cell . . . or a dungeon? A torture chamber, even? Whose dog is Snarly Pete, if not mine? That black star in his eye, could that be some creepy, cultish symbol, a curse, a warning that something wicked is afoot? Is that a theremin I hear?

And now, with the advent of the mysterious Studebaker, my building has become the secret lair of . . . um—yes!—of HawkDude (“Hawkman” being taken, let’s go with something more contemporary), crusading crime fighter, half man, half bird of prey, scourge of evildoers throughout the Bluegrass and the entire Tri-County Area! He roosts up there in the rafters until the instant his natural hawkish supersenses kick in and alert him that criminal activity is afoot in our fair city, whereupon the Hawkster coolly folds his wings and drops like a plumb bob, slap into the driver’s seat of the Studebaker—that unpromising conveyance having, in the meantime, conveniently metamorphosed from crusty old over-designed rust-bucket into, hey, this sleek, elongated 24-karat-gold-plated top-down imaginary convertible roadster version of its former clunky self, and it awaits him with its 275-horse V-8 engine already rumbling, pulsing in readiness beneath its gleaming, golden hood! 

Then HawkDude—a handsome chap despite his steely-eyed but disfiguring squint and the cruel, hooked scimitar of a beak that divides his feathered countenance—clutches the steering wheel with taloned fists and revs the V-8 to a fearsome crescendo and scratches off in true studly HawkDude fashion, even as the garage door rolls up with split-second open-sesame precision just in time and just far enough for the Stoodie—let’s assign the intrepid chariot a gender, and call her Gilda—just far enough for Gilda to rocket through the opening, HawkDude at the wheel with that fierce beak preceding him as though it were his own personal hood ornament, his loyal canine companion Snarly Pete riding shotgun with his shaggy head lolling out doggy-like on the passenger side, and now Gilda spreads her gilt-tipped wings—formerly her ’56 Studebaker tailfins—and away they roar into the night while all the tiny local malfeasants and malefactors scurry for their hidey-holes . . .

Well, y’know, it’s really kind of wonderful how far a person’s imagination can take him when he’s trying to put off doing his income taxes. But I do have one more brief tale of supernatural hanky-panky in connection with my building, and then I’ll hush: 

Recently, a new, aggressively large for lease sign has appeared, draped along the building’s parapet, and I suspect that change is on the way, and that Snarly Pete’s days are probably numbered. So, lest his memory be lost forever in the mists of time, I suggested to my photographer friend Guy Mendes—who shares, in his work, my own affinity for eccentric (some would say oddball) subjects (I happen to be one of them)—that he might find Snarly both compelling and, in a noirish sort of way, quite photogenic. 

The afternoon Snarly Pete sat (as it were) for “Beware of Dog”—Guy’s perfect portrait of him that embellishes and graces this story—turned out to be unseasonably cold and blustery and bleak, the perfect atmospherics for what we had in mind but not the sort of day that invites a lot of foot traffic; the wind was sharp and bitter, and there wasn’t a living soul in sight. We left the car in front of the building and were walking around to the back for our rendezvous with Snarly when we heard a vaguely familiar “Thwup! Thwup! Thwup!” coming down the street toward us. A basketball! Bouncing merrily along all by itself straight down the middle of the street as though a ghostly point guard had just come into the game! And it bounded right past us as we stood there gaping, and as it passed it seemed to be shrinking somehow, getting smaller with every “thwup,” smaller and smaller until it was no bigger than an orange, and then it suddenly veered left and thwup-thwup-thwip-thwip bounced straight down a storm drain and disappeared forever. 

Cue the theremin and fade to black.


Coda: I didn’t tell Guy about HawkDude and Gilda and the evildoers; there are certain things a person really ought to keep to himself. But anyone who doubts me about that spectral basketeer should just ask Guy, who, before he became a hippie photographer, was a walk-on UK Wildkitten (he made the freshman traveling squad in 1967), and wouldn’t lie about such a matter under any circumstances, lest Adolph Rupp rise from the grave and smite him soundly.

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Ed McClanahan

Ed McClanahan is the author of The Natural Man, Famous People I Have Known, and four other books, including, most recently, I Just Hitched In from the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader. He and his wife, Hilda, live in Lexington, Kentucky.