Most people leave at 5 p.m. Friday and don't come back until Monday. I don't have to be told. I was once walking downtown on a Sunday, the lone pedestrian, when I heard a voice call out for someone named Rachel. My name isn't Rachel, but I turned around anyway because I couldn't imagine who else the caller would have been yelling at. Seeing a distant car, I walked on, assuming Rachel was off around some corner. But I was Rachel. The car caught up with me, and someone jumped out, ready to hug me. I turned to face her and, surprise, wrong person. Go figure. The only pedestrian was almost hugged by a passenger in the only car. Any illusion that I was living in a regular downtown evaporated.
Viewed from a car, downtown is just a cluster of gray with some trash flying around. Viewed on foot, that all changes. It's worth looking at downtown this way. You wouldn't judge a museum exhibit just by driving by it, would you?
Before Hesse McGraw reopened the Paragraph Gallery at 12th and Walnut this spring, he took me over to see the new space. We parked near the old Jones Store building and walked right in. Things were really shaping up inside, and we decided to circle the building on foot, to put it all in context. Our walk took us through an alley. We leaped over mysterious rivers of suds to keep our pants from getting wet, then approached a doorway where three men were quietly huddled. They looked startled to see us, and one said hello in an overly friendly way.
A few steps later, McGraw grinned and said, "I love how we're in this nonplace right now. I don't know what kind of shady business those guys were up to, but they clearly didn't expect us to come walking by. I think that's pretty fantastic."
It is fantastic to be in a nonplace. Those guys in the doorway can do whatever they want here, it seems. So why can't we?
Most buildings are empty, either boarded up or wearing "For Lease" signs like carnations on the lapels of guys who've been waiting a little too long for their mystery dates to show up. These places hang out somewhere between the glory of their past and the possibilities of their future. At some point, the Busy Bee Cafe at 18th and Oak sold the soda water advertised on its west-facing brick façade -- how little work would it take for the Busy Bee to reopen exactly as it was? Despite being boarded up, the entrance still looks welcoming. It's on a stretch that already includes the Next Space, the Gorilla Theater, Weird Stuff and Antique Cars. What would a café on the corner do for those few blocks?
Across the street is a gray building for lease -- a dull, ugly, almost olive, seriously peeling gray. But it's easy to imagine it with a fresh coat of paint, trim a different color, its garage doors open instead of closed, inviting people inside a theater or a shop of some kind. Right now, that building could be anything. Tomorrow, it could end up being just another law office -- or, worse, a parking garage.
And are all those empty-looking buildings really empty? On a building at the corner of Truman Road and Walnut, the rough, pink, once-marbleized façade is marked by a faded area shaped like the letter B. The letter B? Is this Sesame Street? Walking slowly, looking at the wall, I stumbled upon yet another letter B. And another. Nine B's in all. This was entirely too baffling to ignore. I approached the door. It had this great old-school punch-button lock built into it. I pulled on it, and because it opened, I walked in. It was an office. At the front desk, a woman asked if she could help me. I tried to explain about the B's, but she didn't know what I was talking about. We were at a conversational impasse when a man who had been listening from the back of the room stepped dramatically to the front desk.