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GARDEN OF THE GUYS

In September, cheerful trolls still stand on the Park Hill neighborhood fence, though their magenta hair is bleached white from the rains of summer. A giant plastic slug eyeball, once a gumball-machine treasure, is disintegrating into a pile of sludge dotted with once-live flies--a poignant contrast to a nearby array...
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In September, cheerful trolls still stand on the Park Hill neighborhood fence, though their magenta hair is bleached white from the rains of summer. A giant plastic slug eyeball, once a gumball-machine treasure, is disintegrating into a pile of sludge dotted with once-live flies--a poignant contrast to a nearby array of plastic flies glued to the fence with Liquid Nails. In fact, Jane Hultin still has traces of Liquid Nail residue beneath her fingernails--thanks to her friend and artistic partner, Jean Smith.

"Jean gave me a gross of flies and ants to stick onto the fence when I quit smoking," Hultin explains. "It was a busy summer."

Now all that is coming to an end. Soon the drifts of figurines known collectively as "the Guys" will go into deep hibernation in the bottom of a bureau drawer, and Hultin and Smith will have to content themselves with leafing through their scrapbook. Until next spring.

This ritual dates back five years. It was 1990. Hultin had lived at her house on 16th and Ivy since the mid-Seventies. Jean and Bob Smith, who have since moved a few blocks away, had been her across-the-alley neighbors almost that long. Sometimes, when Hultin got home from her day as a legal secretary, she'd take a beer out to the alley to unwind with Jean, a freelance artist. "We'd always done silly things together," Hultin recalls. This included--but was never limited to--limousine tours of houses decorated with Christmas lights, a "Celebrate Your Favorite Duncan Yo-Yo Party" and a brief tattoo excursion.

What Hultin noticed in the alley that afternoon were five or six scuffed plastic action figures, among them G.I. Joe and Robin, Batman's sidekick. "We thought, Oh look, some poor kid dropped his toys," Hultin remembers. "And we stuck them up on my fence so the poor kid could find them."

Every day thereafter for a week, Hultin would take her beer out to the alley to check on what she started calling "the Guys." After seven days there was a miracle: More Guys had appeared, possibly contributed by Jean Smith, though she has never confessed. After a month the fantasy collapsed--someone stole the Guys, all but Robin. That tore it. Smith and Hultin decided to move the remaining Guy within Hultin's backyard, where he could not be observed from the alley. (Except, perhaps, by two very persistent tree-company employees.) For added security, they glued the Guy's feet to the fence.

"After that," Smith admits, "we just couldn't seem to stop."
The Guys multiplied. Smith and Hultin bought sacks of them at dime stores and through the Archie McPhee catalogue, sought them out at garage sales and kept their eyes to the ground for more Found Guys. After a year, Bob Smith began designing intricate wooden display cases known as Guy Environments. Themes presented themselves--such as Creepy Crawley, a jigsawed wooden shelf filled with rubber worms and bugs; Modes of Transportation, a vast collection of trains, planes, automobiles and other things that go vroooom; the Food Section, featuring a cornucopia of plastic grapes, carrots and Carmen Miranda-esque dolls; and the Church, in which a troll couple exchanges wedding vows under the watchful eyes of Buddha, the Pope, Jesus, Mary and several gilded cherubim.

"Then there's Wild West and the part we call Waves of Guys," Hultin says, "which is basically the leftovers. Here's the Horny Hillbilly. Isn't he awful?" He's priapic, at the very least. His immediate neighbors are a hula dancer with a chubby face, several plastic cheeseburger components, babies, donkeys, pigs and the Count from Sesame Street.

What Hultin and Smith got from this extraordinary assemblage was nothing short of fulfillment.

"For me, it's nostalgic," Smith explains. "My mother never liked this kind of stuff. `Why would you want to waste your money on that junk?' she would say. But it's wonderful junk, and I do want to waste my money on it. I do, I do."

Hultin empathizes. Also, she likes nothing better than coming home from a long day at the law firm to find a big cardboard box full of plastic junk, courtesy of UPS. "And I get to play with it all," she says dreamily. "Plastic eyeballs. Cowboys. This." (She points to a creme-de-menthe-flavored lollipop with a dead cricket embedded inside it, scarab-like.)

Hultin's dedication is not without price. She spends hours each summer, she says, wiping the Guys off after every rainfall and sprinkling them with red or white pepper to keep the squirrels away. And then there are the parties, which don't come cheap, in terms of either money or planning time. The first, held in 1994, was a sort of coming-out party. Hultin, Smith and Smith invited fifty people, ages twenty to seventy, along with "a few stuffy folks who wouldn't understand it at all" for a more interesting mix. The Guys stood out brilliantly in the lighting Bob designed for them. Food, drink and music were exactly right.

"Sometimes people would ask, `Can we bring anything?'" Jean Smith says. "And our answer was always, well, you could bring a Guy."

This is not as easy as it sounds. The Guys guys have standards. A prospective Guy must be (a) inexpensive, (b) the worse for wear and tear, and (c) emphatically uncollectible.

Nevertheless, Jean Smith says, "we try to immortalize them. Some people buy really `nice' guys. That's not right. It's not a matter of the most unique ones or the most valuable." If, however, these criteria can be met, a donor will get the honor of placing his Guy in the display of his choosing--after which Hultin or Smith will glue it in place.

Hultin's scrapbook is filled with letters, more than one of which refers to this year's Guy Party as the social event of the summer. There is the note from Sherri and Misti of the Swingle Tree Company, who wrote: "The figures on the north side of the house are really cool."

"What a super group of fun people you had to see your amazing Guys and squirt each other while eating the hors d'oeuvres," another party guest commented.

"Well, we did provide all sorts of squirt guns," Hultin recalls, trying to sound modest.

"And there was Guy Food," Jean Smith says. "Guy Food is never nutritious, and there's usually mayonnaise involved." She turns to a color photograph of a table piled with hors d'oeuvres, including cheese puffs, chipped beef and olive spread, and pinwheel sandwich slices pinioned to a tidbit tree.

"I remembered how to cook it all from when I was married in the Sixties and used to have to entertain," Hultin says.

But Guy Parties in the Nineties are less of a headache and more of a fabulous good time--at least, if the snapshots of Hultin and the Smiths are any indication. Overdressed to the nines, the three fortysomething friends smile festively, their arms around each other. Bob Smith wears a white tuxedo jacket.

By 1995 approximately 5,000 Guys were ensconced on Hultin's fence, and the Guy Party had a theme: The Guys Go to a Carnival. Hultin and Smith spent months before the July 1995 fete ordering squirt guns, putting together prize bags for the ring toss and burnishing the Guys. They even wrote a book--the limited-edition, color-Xeroxed History of the Guys, which several guests purchased for $25. Again, the white tuxedo made its appearance. Again, the thank-you notes poured in. A slot on Hultin and Smith's mailing list acquired a certain cachet. A few neighborhood children have even come by to check out the Guys.

"Yes, and a few of our guests brought kids to the party this year," Hultin says, with a touch of confusion in her voice. What, these people think the Guys are toys?

"We don't encourage it," Jean Smith says. "It's not for them. It's for us.

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