When the long summer was baking hot and everyone sat out on their porches and stoops waving paper fans to make a small breath of breeze, a wonderful thing would happen to break the monotony of the uneventful chain of hot days. Down the street, from nowhere, would come the Pony Picture man.
He would come slowly, his clothes wrinkled and sweat-stained, a battered fedora tilted back on his head. On one shoulder he balanced a large camera on a tripod. In the other hand he led a small brown and white pony.
Down the street next to the curb they would come, the pony's hoofs clip-clopping hollowly on the soft asphalt. The man didn't need any ballyhoo to get customers-all he had to do was to walk slowly, stopping once in a while so a child could pet the pony. Soon, dozens of little legs were running inside houses and apartments. Everyone pleaded with their moms to get their picture taken on the pony.
If mom could find enough change in the sugar bowl, you would join the straggles of kids lining up by the curb to be immortalized as cowboys on a real live pony.
The pony was a gentle creature, nodding placidly beside the picture man, giving an occasional swish of his long tail to shoo away the angry flies plaguing him. His mane had been clipped, and it stood up like a bristle brush down his neck.
His bridle was dotted with silvery studs, and on the center of his forehead was suspended a large metal ornament. The saddle was just the right size for small kids to sit comfortably, and the stirrups were extra wide for city kids whose primary knowledge of horses came from the Saturday matinee movies.
Becoming a Cowboy
The picture man would write down your name and address and take your money. Kids who were too little to know all that stuff were accompanied by their mothers. Between spelling out names, the moms dragged their hands across cowlicks and wiped off smudgy mouths with the corner of their aprons.
When it was your turn, the man fastened a pair of sheepskin chaps around your waist, tied a bandanna around your neck, and plopped a felt cowboy hat on your head. The boys always wanted to wear the bandanna around their faces, so they would look like outlaws, but the picture man knew that moms wanted to see faces, not masked bandits, and he always talked them into wearing the bandanna the right way. His last adjustment was to the cowboy hat. He would slide it away from your brow, where you had given it a rakish tilt, and angle it down so that the back of the hat framed your face.
After positioning your hands on the pommel, he would adjust the legs of the tripod and peer through the camera lens. "Okay, pardner, smile and say RODEO!" The pony, right on cue, froze, and you sat up straight and tall holding tightly to the pommel as you had been told, a happy grin scribed across your face.
Then suddenly you were off the pony and back on the ground, the chaps and bandanna and hat whisked away to be given to the next in line. Standing again in your ordinary play clothes with the sweat from the hot chaps running down your legs, you were once more just another neighborhood kid.
Tony the Pony
The man reached into the saddlebag and paid the pony with a handful of oats.
"What's his name, mister?"
"Why, Tony, of course. Tony the Pony." Tony shook his head back and forth to his admiring circle, allowing himself to be stroked by alternating sets of hands.
One boy brought a bucket of fresh water, splashing it back and forth to the sidewalk. The man would tilt the bucket up for the pony to drink. "But not too much" said the man, who didn't want the pony to get sick.
Sometimes a mother would bring some lemonade down to the man in a jelly glass. Two generous ice cubes floated on top. The man would raise the glass, swallow it all in one gulp, and sigh. He would lift his hat to the lady as he handed the glass back. "Thank you kindly, ma'am, that was just what I needed."
Then he would pull a scrunched hanky from his back pocket, swab his sweaty face and neck, and nod goodbye. He slipped the camera and tripod into a loop across Tony's saddle, to let him carry the camera for a while. They walked slowly down the street, turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
In a week or two your picture would arrive in the mail. For a while it was featured somewhere in the house-your dresser mirror perhaps, or paper-clipped to the wall calendar. Slowly as the months passed into winter, the photograph was moved lower and lower in your consciousness, until one day, years later, you discover it in a cardboard box when you prepare to move away.
It was lying with the ticket stubs for "Bambi" at the Palace theater, the dance program for a tap dance review, the award ribbon for a vegetable garden contest sponsored by the city schools.
There was the happy grin, as you imagine yourself Roy Rogers for a brief summer second.
A brief summer second when unjaded childhood could be entranced by a pair of chaps, a bandanna and hat, and a pony named Tony. A time when the arrival of the Pony Picture man was a wonderful event on a small city street on a sultry afternoon.
Where did the pony and the man go when they turned the corner, the camera bobbling on the pony's back? They disappeared forever, and all that is left is a fading photograph of a kid on a horse.
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