A couple of weeks ago I was sitting with Tom Wolfe outside his Tom’s Pot Pies restaurant near the corner of Court and Vine streets downtown, and he suddenly pointed his long arm like a basketball center about to dunk.
“That’s the dwarf,” he said dramatically, his eyebrows pointed for emphasis.
I looked, but just then the 78 Metro bus went past, obscuring the people on the corner for a moment. Then I saw him plain as day.
His upper torso was normal size; his legs were short, straight kegs. He had straight brown hair held in place with a band tied around his forehead so that he looked like an Apache.
Tom had put a table and chairs out in front of his business, and a young couple walking home from the library had sat down and joined us. They wanted to know what was so remarkable about the dwarf.
“Well, he’s like one of those urban legends,” Tom said. “People who hang out at night in bars downtown have seen him. I think I was working at Japp’s when I first saw him. He was incredible.”
I remembered standing with Greg Schmidt outside of Kaldi’s Coffeehouse and watching the man do back flips into the dumpster, then shinny up street light poles. Greg, who admires all efficient mechanisms, admired the dwarf tremendously. “Look how strong he is,” he said to me that night.
Tom said, “The trouble with the dwarf was he’d backflip into the second story window and curl up inside a box or under a desk and spend the night. It made the business owners crazy.”
I’ve known a lot of street people who might be called Urban Legends. They were real, though some of their stories might have been exaggerated. Mr. Spoons was well-known.
He put adhesive tape on soup spoons and played at least eight at a time as well as I’ve ever heard them played.
“Spoons done won The Gong Show,” Caldonia said once. “He’s beat me forever.”
She was taking her tap shoes out of a shoebox tied with rough twine.
I met Caldonia at Arnold’s Bar and Grill back in the early ’80s. She was a tiny black woman who started out tap dancing on street corners in Louisville, and she was still plying her trade.
When she danced, the waitresses passed the hat, and if a customer proved to be recalcitrant she’d stop in front of his table and make her buttocks jump up and down one at a time. It never failed.
“Caldonia, Caldonia,” she’d sing. “What makes your big head so hard?”
It was the refrain from a Louis Jordan song of the Swing era. She said he’d named the song for her, but it could be that she took her name from the song.
She lived in Section 8 housing up on Reading Road, on Social Security checks I guess. She died sometime in the ’80s, and I remember hearing talk about a pauper’s grave.
In the end I think Caldonia’s family buried her. I hope so. She was one of the best tap dancers and all-around entertainers I ever saw, even if there was something a little off-kilter about her.
I remember Johnny Rosebud, too. He’d come by with fresh flowers, a scruffy growth of beard and ripe body odor.
He had one song he liked to sing, and if the band would play it he’d take the microphone and belt out “Kansas City” in a grizzled voice, spitting all over the mic, his arms stretched out like Jackie Gleason.
Tom Wolfe has been something of an Urban Legend himself, though he’s well-groomed and is an elegant conversationalist. He was a Marine and then a seminarian, a profession he supplemented for a while as a bartender.
His longest bartending job was at El Coyote east of town. He told me once that women had been his ruin, and I’ve seen more than one pretty girl drive by in a Mercedes or a BMW convertible, blow the horn and yell, “Wolfie!” It always makes him sheepish.
When he started making chicken pot pies, he found his niche, and you’d see him delivering pies in pizza warmers to bars with hungry patrons, to parties and to offices. He was everywhere, laughing, affable, kind-hearted.
He once showed me a letter from Ronald Reagan congratulating him on saving a boy from drowning in a swollen creek in the dead of winter. He framed the letter. It was beautifully written, congratulating him on his heroism.
“I had Reagan on speed dial for months,” Tom said, laughing.
We like to exchange stories about the different “characters” we’ve known. Tom was the first person to tell me about the 9 o’clock rat, a large rodent that ran across Vine Street from the alley to the back of the library every night at the same time.
I watched for that rat many a night last summer, and it was true. You could count on him like the mailman. Every night at 9 p.m., the rat dashed across the street.
He hasn’t shown up yet this year. Tom says it’s the economy.
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