Proud Polly's iconic station still up and running

Friday, February 24, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 8

When Kenny was a young boy, he sometimes would listen in while Johnny Cash and Jim Polly poured coffee to fuel the banter as they talked over world events.

Sometimes Cowboy Jack Clement would drop in as well. More on Cowboy – the Shakespeare-spouting king of Belmont Boulevard – later.

Kenny Polly says everything from riding shotgun in a wrecker, fiddling with tools and soaking in the gentle neighborhood happenings – like the Jim and Johnny conversations – were parts of his learning to love the business his father opened 57 years ago at the corner of Gale Lane and Belmont Boulevard. (Across the boulevard and maybe 100 yards south is Clement’s legendary Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.).

On a wet and crappy day, I sought some comfort and a column in a fairly familiar place. It wasn’t the recording spa – though that indeed would be a joy. I was looking for the bit of Mayberry that’s left in the souls of Nashvillians, so I rolled my old Saab into the lot of Polly’s Service Center.

A quarter-century ago I dropped into this same place to interview Jim (who died in 2002). Not much has changed, except there now are six car bays – all occupied – instead of four, and a crew of 13 rather than six, is answering phones, doing paperwork, smoking the very occasional cigarette, and working the wrenches.

“Got the gas tank off that one to fix it,” says Kenny, as he leads me through the maze of cars, doors and equipment to his quiet little office where “LTI Pattern Rear-Wheel Cylinder” – a remnant of the most recent parts search – fills the wide-screen monitor of his Dell.

“Gas smell bothers you much, I’ll open the door,” he says as we both plop down on tall, worn stools in the office.

Tired of holding my breath, I indicate I’d like it if he could open up the door that goes to the outside of the building in order to flush out the thick aroma released when one of Polly’s mechanics took the gas tank off to get to an ailing fuel pump in a gold, 2007 T-Bird.

Not far away from our seats is a photo of Kenny – with his fishing guide – holding up a 49-inchlong (“that’s not counting the fins,” he says), 48½-pound redfish. He later tells me it took him an hour and 10 minutes to bring it in as he fished in the Gulf of Mexico, near the mouth of the Mississippi.

“If I ever take time off, I go fishing,” he says. “Rivers, lakes, the ocean. I like fly-fishing.” He did return the finned monster to the sea, and regretfully admits, he really can’t go fishing too much, as he is consumed by keeping up the family tradition and golden reputation on Belmont Boulevard.

“I treat my customers well,” Kenny says. “Dad taught me long ago that if you treat everybody the way you want to be treated, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Basically, it is, of course, a kindly neighborhood mechanic’s translation of the Golden Rule (“do unto others, blah, blah, etc.”) Be nice to stumble into practitioners of this philosophy more frequently, I reckon.

“I’d guess 80 percent of my customers have my cell phone number,” Kenny adds. “They know they can call me anytime if they need help with their cars.”

If someone does call Kenny for assistance during non-business hours – the place is only vacant for a few dark hours between the 7 p.m. closing time and 4 a.m., when “morning person” Kenny comes in to get as much done as he can while the city sleeps – they will have to wait a bit. He lives on a 49-acre spread in Bon Aqua, with his wife, Maria, and nine geriatric dogs.

“I’d been living in the city all my life (he was raised off Edmondson Pike, on Candlestick Drive, not far from Blackman) and wanted to see what it was like to live in the country.” Stars are brighter. Noise of civilization is rare. “I found out I really like it,” he points out.

Oh, yeah, about those geriatric dogs, well they apparently seek out Kenny and Maria. Derelicts with four legs looking for shelter to live out their lives.

“Dogs just started showing up,” explains Kenny, who only once intentionally has brought a dog from elsewhere – he was driving with one of his daughters when she saw a dog in a box on the side of the highway and “she asked me ‘what are you going to do about that?’”

He laughs because his daughter knew precisely what Kenny was going to do about it. He was going to stop his truck (from the fleet of 13 pickups he has on his property in Bon Aqua) and take the dog back to the barn.

“I built a little room onto the back of the barn where I put in ceiling fans and some couches for them to sleep on,’’ he says. “They can come and go as they please.”

Most of them stay. Why not? “Next thing I’ll do is probably put a television set in there,” he says.

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but know my own formerly stray dog is fond of CNN, NFL games, Cubs baseball and “Seinfeld” reruns.

Kenny Polly followed in his father’s footsteps as owner of Polly’s Service Center on the corner of Gale Lane and Belmont Boulevard in Nashville.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Other than the one he retrieved from the box, the other “geriatric dogs” were lone stragglers, either castoffs or perhaps orphaned or escaped from abusers. They just wander onto the property to find a late-life haven, a warm, dry place filled with love.

“I think the most we ever had at one time was 17 or 18,” he adds, noting the mongrels immediately become part of his family even into the afterlife. “We’ve got a little dog graveyard out to the back of our property.”

His eyes light when he talks about his collection of geriatric mutts. “They like it in the barn and in their room. Sometimes in the summer – when it’s too hot – I bring them in the house …. When they come to us, if they stay a week, we take them to the vet for their shots and stuff.”

If you can’t tell by now, then I’ve done a poor job of illustrating just what kind of man is Kenny Polly, 57, who spends his life saving vehicles and stray dogs while pumping gas for handicapped and geriatric human clientele.

“I have somebody on the front at all times, we pump for anyone who needs help, at self-service prices.”

His kindness extends into the mechanics’ bays also. “Sometimes with my geriatric customers, they come in with their cars to get them fixed, and I know they can’t afford to do everything that it needs, so I tell them which repair they need most and tell them we’ll do something else another time…. Same thing for young married couples, who probably are just getting started, have bills and a house note. They can’t afford to get it all done at once.”

He is, to use the greatest compliment in my personal vocabulary, “a damn nice guy.”

He is as old-fashioned as is his service station, one of the few real survivors where folks can not only get gas but get their cars repaired or tires swapped out, around.

Such oil-stained oases are disappearing at a rapid rate, nearing extinction in the gas-and-go world where people pump their own gas and double-time it inside to use the restroom, get beef jerky, breath mints, a pack of Kools and – toward day’s end – grab well-chilled sixes of Natural Light tallboys, Powerball tickets and a couple scratch-offs.

Some of these “quick shops” also offer deli sandwiches. (Recently, when I’ve stopped at these gas-and-go joints, I wonder: “What would Trump do?” if he encountered the clerks with faraway eyes and exotic accents.)

Kenny actually has one of these deli-gas station hybrids, the Midway Market run by Maria, out on U.S. 70 in McEwen. “You need to come by at breakfast time. Talk about meeting some old characters….” He laughs at his warm encounters with The Breakfast Club.

He owns the quick stop in McEwen, but it’s clear his heart belongs to this old-fashioned service station at Gale and Belmont, where Johnny Cash used to drop in often – “especially if he was going to go over to see Cowboy Jack,” (officially The Man in Black’s best friend and frequent co-conspirator.)

“My dad and Johnny Cash were very good friends. They’d sit out there (in the front of the shop where the cash register resides and seats for waiting customers abound) and solve the world’s problems over cups of coffee.”

Course Cash has been gone since 2003. Jim Polly died the year before, a year after selling the business to his son.

Kenny continued seeing Cowboy right up until he died 3 and one half years ago, as it’s a mighty short walk to the Cowboy Arms compound.

“He was funny. I never knew what he was going to say. He was a character. You know that. You knew him.”

He laughs, but his voice turns to brief lamentation when he talks about the loss of that flamboyant neighborhood Falstaff. That recording genius, practical joker, songwriter and host to lots of people, who would hang out at Cowboy Arms, imbibe in something to please the senses, sing songs, classic and silly, bask in the sunny disposition of Cowboy.

Besides the rootin’- tokin’ Cowboy Jack Clement and Jim Jolly’s Pal in Black, other celebrities come once or twice, then make it a habit.

“We see Ray Stevens in here. He’s a real, good customer. And Emmylou Harris,” (perhaps the loveliest, in all measures, person in Nashville.)

I ask if he’s ever been asked by Emmy to take one of her pack of dogs from her nearby Bonaparte’s Retreat Dog Rescue shelter (on her property near the Oak Hill/Green Hills confluence.)

Some of Nashville's most famous personalities, such as Johnny Cash and Cowboy Jack, trusted their cars to the Polly family's service station in the Belmont area. 

-- Leigh Melton Singleton | The Ledger

“No,” he says, He’s always got plenty of his own. Still it is logical Emmy would choose as her service station one run by a dog rescuer.

Jim Polly was noted for the bright-red 1947 Ford pickup he and Kenny restored. It was a south Nashville landmark, parked in front of his shop. It let folks know the boss was in. (A note here, back in 1992, when I wrote about Jim Polly for a column in the Nashville Banner, a fine afternoon newspaper slaughtered by greed long ago, the red truck is what drew me off Belmont into this service station with its Cheers-like atmosphere. That column, framed, is on the wall in the front of the station.

“When my dad got sick, he gave (the truck) it to me. But with all the hours I was working, I didn’t have the time to maintain it, so I sold it,” Kenny recalls.

“I told him I was going to use the money to help my mother after he was gone. It was important to me to do this while he was still alive.”

One truck not used for the commute from Bon Aqua is a 1919 Chevrolet pickup with wooden spokes on the wheels. Kenny proudly shows me a photo of this cherished collectible.

“I just always have liked trucks, ever since I used to ride along with my dad in the wrecker. I was here every Saturday.”

Of course, that was part of the molding that had Kenny ready to buy out his dad back in 2001. He’d been running it for awhile, anyway, as his dad battled cancer.

“After I bought it, Dad would still come up here to help some. Maybe watch the station while I was out with the wrecker.”

Kenny learned from his pop that the best way to keep a business thriving is to be there, not just treat the place as an investment.

Such absentee ownership is one reason many stations have closed or become smokes-and-jerky snack shops, he says. Polly’s has survived 57 years because Kenny has followed the example of his dad before him.

“Owners who don’t work at their place, well, their hearts aren’t in it. You can’t be an absentee owner and succeed. You have to be here.”

Fortunately, “being here” is not only a job, it’s fun for Kenny.

“Even as a kid, I always liked it when I could come in here and there was something with an engine I could fix,” he says. As a youngster, he graduated from working on toys with engines to working on real cars.

And, even in this techno age, he says he doesn’t see any reason why he can’t keep pleasing his customers long into the future.

“I love coming to work every day. I like working on cars and solving the challenge to fix it.”

Yes, the computer-loaded cars of today are more complex than their predecessors. That doesn’t stop him or his crew.

“You’re still a mechanic. You can still figure out how to fix ‘em. You just need to stay in the loop, stay educated.”

He does go to training sessions sometimes, but more often finds his answers are somewhere between his monkey-wrench and the internet.

This genial soul who was born to run Polly’s Service Center notes that neither of his grown daughters has shown any interest in taking over the business when he’s gone.

“I guess when I’m gone, this will be gone,” he adds, waving his arm across his empire of dirt and grease and love.

That will be long in the future.

“A lot of my customers ask me when I’m going to retire. Well, I’m not going to retire. It’s fun. I wouldn’t know what to do when I wasn’t here.”

He smiles. “I plan on working until they throw dirt on my face.”