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.
"I know what she's talking about," he said. Then he opened a box, pulled out an iron letter B and held it up. "You mean a B like this?"
This was the Berlau Paper building; the B's stood for Berlau. A bulk distributor, Berlau takes care of much of the city's paper needs, ranging from the toilet paper used by area schoolchildren to rolls of butcher paper to custom napkins for Fric & Frac and cups for Broadway Café. The iron B's had been hung on the building during a midcentury renovation. In the early '90s, someone stole a few of them, so the current owner, Dennis Manning (who bought the building from the third generation of Berlaus), had the remaining ones taken down for safekeeping.
And speaking of that: Along the wall was an old safe -- an ornate model from which loose diamonds were once sold. It's the kind of safe you'd see in an old gangster movie. Everything about the Berlau Paper building begs to be in a movie -- including the photos a homeless man wandered in to sell, photos of the building apparently taken in the 1970s. How the homeless man came upon the photos remains a movie-worthy mystery.
That calls to mind a story about the night just before Mardi Gras this year, when members of the vigilante brass band known as the Dirty Force -- a bunch of musicians who stage raucous musical interruptions of shows at which they have not been invited to perform -- had just been kicked out of the Dixie Belle and onto the streets of an "abandoned" downtown. A slew of cop cars came driving toward them, sirens blaring. At first, the musicians feared that the police had been called to put an end to their instrumental intrusion. Still, they continued playing their New Orleans funeral march.
"Just then," recalls Dirty Force member Heather ScorchaMinga, "I realized they were chasing a car I didn't notice, smelling of a clutch gone out and driving only about 15 miles per hour."
As the lawbreaker drove by, he stared at them in apparent disbelief. Of all times to see a brass band playing a funeral march on an otherwise empty street, right? He must have felt like he was getting arrested to a soundtrack.
"It did feel like a scene from a film," ScorchaMinga says. "So surreal and abandoned but energetic at the same time. We went on our merry way, busting into bars and restaurants like we owned the place. With downtown the way it is now, we kind of do."
She's not the only one who has experienced the vacancies downtown as freedom instead of limitation. The man who goes by the name Mott-ley, who runs the East 18th Street gallery called MoMo, remembers the day back in early May when tornados blew through the area, just missing downtown. He was working in his studio, waiting around in case anyone stopped by wanting to see the art he was showing at the time: quirky paintings by a young woman named Lad who, like most of the talented people who show work in this space, is still getting her start. But nobody was out driving, much less walking. He went outside and watched debris blowing around, the sky changing to a noxious yellow. He didn't have to worry about how his wheelchair would fare in oncoming city traffic.
Mott-ley had the same feeling a lot of people get walking around downtown. He owned the place.