"You know you're a senior citizen when you look up the word 'old' in the dictionary and it shows your picture."
That's got to be some sort of world record for the most words ever crammed onto the front of a hat. It's not that funny, either. But it's kind of folksy so you let it slide, especially since the guy wearing it, Gene McKenzie, looks like the prototypical cute ol' pappaw standing there behind a row of homemade pies in his shortsleeve button-up, his suspenders and a set of glasses thick as mason jars. Everybody that passes gets a "howdy". Quaint as quaint can be. One look and you'd forget you're at the Bull Creek Trade Center in Floyd County, Kentucky, and swear you'd landed in Mayberry.
That is, until you noticed that he was leaning on a skull bong next to a box full of dildos.
Bull Creek is a pretty rowdy spot. It's a flea market on US 23 near Prestonsburg. During the warm weather months vendors get there early and vie for tables from which to peddle all sorts of insanity, most of it fake and a lot of it probably stolen. How else are you going to make money selling deodorant for 50 cents or pimping underwear called "POLDO by Ralph Lauren"?
Some other perennial favorites of mine are the shirts that say "Cowboy butts drive me nuts!" and the window decals of Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes) taking a piss on whatever you hate most. Fords. Chevys. Obama. Tree huggers. The EPA.
I bought a pack of female bodybuilder trading cards that I'm thinking of taking on Antiques Roadshow.
I used to work at the newspaper in nearby Salyersville and people would call me all the time with "tips" about hot merchandise being unloaded there and pit bull puppy mills and that sort of thing. I'd just say, "Yeah. No kidding." Then I'd use it as an excuse to drive over there and get a chili dog from Uncle Roy's Snack Shack or a bag of BBQ pork rinds from, you guessed it, the Pork Rind Shack. If I ever tried asking questions or taking pictures somebody would invariably invoke some law that doesn't exist and threaten to smash my camera.
In 2005 a guy was murdered there by his supposed friend during an argument about the war in Iraq. I'm sure there were a lot of Kissinger quotes being bandied about.
The killer was a gun vendor, by the way. And both guys were packing. That's the first thing you notice about Bull Creek. One in four people has a gun. And it's likely to be in their hand. If it's a rifle or a shotgun it's over their shoulder. A lot of gun trade and cash sales going on. Never seen a guy try to hold a plate of sauerkraut and a snub nose .38 at the same time before? Go to Bull Creek Trade Center.
Gene and his wife Pearle, also one of the sweetest looking oldtimers you've ever seen, have been selling at Bull Creek for about 7 years now. Sometimes they set up elsewhere. There was a flea market in Johnson County that they worked for a while. But they're in their mid-70s now and Bull Creek is where they like to be.
I first noticed them there probably around 2008 and have been intrigued ever since. They just look so wholesome and the stuff they sell is so bizarrely paradoxical. In the middle of their table are the pies and cookies and fudge they make together in their presumably lovely home. To the right is a still life of brass knuckles, cavewoman panties and a children's bible. To the left is a pile of porno mags, "tobacco" accessories and boxes of sex toys.
A year or two ago, when I wasn't on official business, I finally asked them what was up with the odd combo. And they actually had a really good answer. They basically told me that of course the porn and the drug paraphernalia are the moneymakers. But this is a small town. Nobody wants to get busted by their neighbor staring at a table full of smut. The pies and stuff, they said, give people a reason for being there. So if your kid's Sunday school teacher strolls by while you're eyeballing the new issue of Squirters you can just pretend you're there for the strudel.
I dug a little bit deeper this time and found out that their son has a place in Hazard called McKenzie's Exotic Gifts where, according to a recent online review, they've got "everything you need to stroke, peek, poke or choke". They're able to get the scandalous merch from him at bulk prices so they figured why not make a few easy bucks, even if they don't totally understand what they're selling.
This is a conversation I heard between Gene and some young lady:
"You'ns still got that one pipe had Bob Marley on it?"
"Loooord, I don't know. Which one's he? This here's all we got."
"I seen it last week and come all the way back for it."
"Here's one. This ain't him is it?"
(It's not. It's Che Guevara.)
"Shew. What about that Pepsi bottle one?"
"We don't sell pop."
"Pop? What? No. I mean ye bongs, baby. Ye pipes. You had one last week shaped like a old Pepsi bottle. You still got that'n?"
"This here's all we got."
I asked, but she didn't want to stick around for the photo op. Neither did Pearle. I found out later that she's been on edge since she was cited by Prestonsburg City Police not long ago for selling bootleg movies at Bull Creek. They told her to stop and she just kept on hustlin'.
Nobody wanted to try any dessert with me either. Gene makes the fudge and the cookies. Pearle makes everything else: the pies and brownies and angel food cake. She also makes the no-bake cookies that Gene recommended to me and that I bought for $1.25.
They're basically blobs of chocolate, peanut butter and oats. They were alright.
In retrospect, I probably should've gotten a Hustler.
Story and photos by Coleman Larkin