Big Fred Carey hobbled over to me last night
in a dream, giving his heart-sworn thunderous grin,
reminding me how he’d once paid twenty a week,
as I pumped gas from a Pure Oil station in Mountain Brook—
and how one time an old man parked his busted pickup
next, on the grass, some strange kind of lank fellow,
whose beard was dirty, who’s eye was witty,
whose truck was square at the back
closed off with a delicate netting of wire.
When he’d gotten a sack of day-old buns and rolls
from the bake shop down the street,
he opened the veiled doors behind and called out a company
of trim little dogs like grasshopper children,
fox terriers and kindred mongrels on spindly legs.
He watched them shake themselves,
then cranked his old Victrola.
Hearing its stately scratches, the dogs began to dance.
What a strange sight, to see those dozen dogs
gravely turning about in slow pirouettes, hopping,
spinning in schottisches, somersaulting over their heads.
The old man stood there, watching,
slowly nodding, bidding them persevere
with squashed bits of stale bakery trash.
They silently waited with anxious fortitude
and gnawed crumbs in the wings like refugees.
On a tiny lady dog he strapped a pink skirt.
She treadled beneath the ruffles.
While the needle squeaked a bagpipe wail,
she did a slow and mystic spin
with paws upraised and eyes in a heavenly transit,
turning and hopping, mincing her toes below.
When she’d done her turn, she took the old man’s tambourine
between her teeth and grandly made the ring
of those who watched, and took their nickels and dimes.
I saw the thought fester in Big Fred’s eyes,
that this old man, who should be safe somewhere,
sucking his pipe, reading the weather–-
he and his dogs were out on the whim of the world.
“One morning he’ll wake up dead” he said, whisking his hands.
“I mean, all right for him, he won’t know any better,
but what about the dogs?”
What was there I could say that he would believe,
and what did I know about the demands of art?
© 1991 by Andrew Glaze, from the book Fantasy Street.
In 2003, the poem appeared in the anthology The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers.
In 1985, an earlier version of the poem appeared in Earth That Sings.
The poem was autobiographical of course, like many of my father’s poems.
In 1985 he wrote, “The third job I ever had, just after college, can be considered the conclusion of my growing up in Alabama, because after that, I went off to the army and came back at least officially, an adult.
Jobs can’t be measured in salary. This was one of the best I ever had, pumping gas at the Pure Oil Station in Mountain Brook. My copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses still has brown oil stains on it from those days, in addition to the chewed marks on the cover and the edges administered by a rabbit that belonged to my first wife.
If I ask myself why it was such a gold embossed job, I am honestly at a loss to say, except that it was fun, and I got to know a rich joy loving character like Fred Carey. I also found out how unevenhandedly life repays decency and character. He died at age 43, leaving an infant child and a young wife. I also remember Willie, the emaciated looking mechanic, who waited around every Friday for “the eagle to fly” and whose iron arms made our customers habitual because no other mechanic was strong enough to undo his bolts.”
In 2003, for an anthology titled, The Remembered Gate, he added, “…World War ll interrupted all that. I joined the Air Force. Waiting to be called, I pumped gas from a filling station in Mountain Brook. Between customers, I’d struggle through Joyce’s Ulysses. My ancient copy still has oil stains on it. One day, an old pickup truck parked nearby and the even older man who drove it called out a little army of tiny dogs who performed dances. Many years later, it came back to me for my poem “Dog Dancing.”
In 2015, this poem was one of three featured at the induction ceremony for the first annual Alabama Writer’s Hall of Fame. Read aloud by a local actor, it was a favorite of the audience. My father was one of the new inductees and was very pleased with the performance.
After I was born, our full sized pet white rabbit was my babyhood partner in crime. I would crawl past the lower shelves of our family bookcase, pull the books down, draw in them with a crayon, and leave them for “Bunny” to nibble on. Apparently my father’s already oil stained copy of Ulysses was a target of our efforts.
Pure Oil was founded in 1914, and eventually purchased by what is now Union Oil in California. Mountain Brook is still a wealthy suburb of Birmingham. In those days, gas stations often had their workers wear a uniform and made great efforts to look chic. Attendants not only pumped your gas, but cleaned your car windows. The postcard below is an example of a Pure Oil gas station in Ohio from the same time period.
For those of you who are too young to know what a “hand cranked Victrola” was, it was a “phonograph”/ record player. Originally they came with a hand crank that allowed the user to wind them, like a watch or music box, to play music for a limited period of time. Initially expensive and built into self standing wooden cabinets, less expensive portable versions became available as they became more popular. The photo below is probably similar to what the dog’s owner used to accompany their “performance”.
As cars became more affordable, people began to travel and send postcards from the places they visited. Apparently Ohio was so proud of this Pure Oil gas station that they sold postcards of it. The facade is probably similar to the one where my father worked.
© 2nd Cents, Inc.
A portable Victrola with crank handle to wind it up.