Memphis poetry in prose

Douglas Miller Photography

Beale Street slows down around 4 a.m. The cops clear the streets around three, and I suppose the remainder of the patrons, in various stages of sobrietry, find their way out of the bars to their cars, cabs, hotel rooms, wherever their destination might be.

I go to Memphis because it speaks to me, speaks to me on a level that bypasses exposition and jumps directly to the dialogue. I have a story to finish.

This time I knew I couldn’t stand on the outside and look in. I had to become one of the characters and live it.

Five p.m.

I realize I left my sunglasses in my truck. I didn’t think I’d need them. I didn’t think I’d need sunscreen either, but the sun blazes and reflects off the pavement, burning my eyes and skin.

Scene one. The quintessential music emporium.

I walk in the shop, failing miserably at concealing my thoughts, and an elderly black gentleman approaches me. I’ve seen him before. He’s kind and gentle and moves in tandem with the beat of song playing the background. He’s dressed in white, and his whole being smiles.

“Baby, what is wrong with you? Why you got your head down?  Don’t you know you’re too beautiful to be looking so down?”

And I smile because that is what you do when someone gives you kindness.

“What’s got you so down?”

I just shake my head. He stands well over six feet tall and towers over me. He puts both hands on my shoulders, and I look up.

“You know if you don’t hold your head up, you gonna run into something.”

He holds his hand out. I extend mine.

“Where are you from?” he asks and shakes my hand, and I tell him.

“A 747 would get you here in no time.” And he laughs. I laugh too. He thanks me for visiting his city, and I thank him for being so kind.

Next door evil lies in wait, packaged in bottles, wrappers, oils, voodoo dolls of every size and assortment. For the right money, a person could buy whatever’s needed to remove a curse or to administer one. Guaranteed for health, finances, power, and love.

I’m surprised to see the store has undergone transformation. I venture through an opening and find another room of odd relics. To the far back, a beaded curtain separates patrons under the age of 18 from the secrets on the other side. I respect the veil and let my ears pick up more of the story near the front door.

Scene two. Two women, meeting for the first time, one black, one white, talking about men.

“Oh, no, the English, they keep their distance. They don’t like it when you get in their space. The Irish are like that too, but, now the Scottish, the Scottish like the Southern women. My man is English.”

They go on sharing the peculiarities of the male species.

The black lady throws back her head and laughs. “Honey, I can tell you are so East Coast.”

And I wonder why this East Coast woman is working a shop that sells t-shirts and voodoo paraphernalia.

“You have got to look me up if you get up there.”

And they exchange numbers. The chapter closes, and I walk out the door to Handy Park.

Scene three. A soon to be empty stage.

“The band is going to take a five-minute break. We’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

Figures. But I’ve never seen so many vendors. My first stop in Memphis was the Peabody. I had to check out Lansky’s. But $120 for a dress? Uh, no.

But in Handy Park, the same $78 blouses sell for $15 bucks, some $25. The African women and men call to me.

“Come inside. Come look at these dresses.”

I eye a lovely top, reminiscent of something a gypsy might wear. And before I know it, the woman has pulled the blouse from the hanger and is putting it over my head.

Too big. It just doesn’t look right.

But I spot a black dress with a hint of orange embellishment. It seems to fit my mood. And I had dreamed of orange the night before.

I pick it up. I put it back. It falls off the hanger.

“This dress. It wants to go home with you.” The woman laughs.

I laugh too and pick it up again. It is ever bit as pretty as the $120 dress at Lansky’s at about a sixth of the cost. I buy it, as well as a blouse. Both for a fraction of the Peabody couture.

I don’t like wearing anything around my wrists. I don’t like wearing rings, but I see a really unusual bracelet at another booth, again something I might find at Lansky’s with $20 or $30 price tag.

“Five dollar.”

I hand the woman a $20 bill, and her brow furrows when she cannot find the correct change. But then her face lights up, and she hands me $16. A one-dollar act of kindness for making me wait.

I smile and say “thank you.”

I roam a bit and then squeeze into an open spot at the foot of W.C. Handy’s statue to listen to the band.

“Happy Father’s Day.” The lead singer tells the crowd. “I know there are some good fathers out there. I have a good father. He never leaves me.”

And I know he’s talking about God.

“I see the children out there.”

He’s right. Handy Park is open to people of all ages, no cover charge.

“Let’s remember the children.” The singer continues. “You all dance and have a good time. But please don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your own children to see.”

And the band plays. The trombone player wanders the crowd with his tip bucket, and when it’s time for his solo, he stops and plays wherever he lands. I slip some cash in the bucket. I always remember to tip the band.

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”

I’ve heard this song before. And my mind wanders to another venue, another singer, another town. And I wonder who she is and why she’s gone.

I take that as my cue, and I close the chapter.

Tomorrow will be another chapter and another song.

Cinderella always gets the diamond

Cinderella always gets the diamond.

Monday we traveled to Memphis so that I could gather background information for what I hope will be the second of a series of books about teenage traceur and journalist TJ Westbrook. This time TJ is on a mission to resolve the mystery behind a gang-related drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of his childhood friend Tyreese.

My trip itinerary was simple. Go to Beale. Eat ribs. Listen to music. Walk wherever TJ might walk. Meet people. Talk to people. Gather details, lots of details.

And I did all that, but a serendipitous meeting with a colorful carriage driver opened a portal to a world of story I never knew existed.

I have a pretty wild imagination, so I’m always thinking what-if. But when I met this guy, my thought process went beyond, way beyond, what-if. Talking to him was almost like talking to a ghost. The experience was surreal.

I have been to Beale many, many times, and I’ve admired the carriages on numerous occasions, and I have ridden them more than once. But I had never seen a carriage decorated like this one. It was the gaudiest and the most beautiful carriage on all of Beale.

Picture lights and decorations from a Mardis Gras float. From the moment I stepped up and took my place on the velvet seat, the driver spun one yarn after another, taking me back to another time, leaving it up to me to discern truth from fiction.

I chose to believe it all.

Angels rested atop of the carriage. According to the oh-so-charming David, our driver, they dated back to World War II. They belonged to a relative, perhaps one of his grandparents. According to his story, when the Germans invaded Orleans, France, his kinfolk hid away in a church, taking with them a few of their belongings, including these whimsical angels decorating his carriage.

The war was hell upon the surrounding area and destroyed everything and everyone in its path, except the church and its inhabitants. His family hid there for days until the German soldiers found them and threatened to make examples of them.

But when a ray of sunshine shone through a hole in one of the broken stained-glass windows, it beat down upon the breast of the angel, creating a glimmer that caught the attention of one of the German leaders. He was so moved by the experience that he ordered his men to leave. The story and the angel decorations survived and rode with me today.

David told us one story after another. It was dark, and I couldn’t see to write in my little black notebook, but his tales mesmerized me. I was fixated on his every word. I only wish I had my digital voice recorder.

He took us to a little park and stopped by a fountain he described as the most beautiful thing in all of Memphis. It was a statue of Hebe, the mythical Greek goddess of youth, given to Memphis as a gift from France, as a symbol of hope and healing after the city suffered a a horrific yellow-fever outbreak.

He launched into another story, and then stopped. He turned around and looked at me and explained that his “Mardis Gras” carriage was good for only a few rides and that he had to work at keeping the pieces glued on.

David then held out his hand and presented to me what looked like an old, old piece of costume jewelry in the shape of a large jewel.

“When the angel cries, Cinderella always gets the diamond.”

It was a gift, totally unexpected, with a meaning I do not understand, but it was a gift that launched a thousand ideas that will find their way into my current WIP or the next.

Priceless.

The evening didn’t start out so great, but it was coming to a magical close.

For starters, earlier that night the police pulled us over and gave us a ticket the moment we arrived in town. We were driving on expired tags. We’re both teachers. We both work from sun up to sun down, and we both just forgot to make time to pick the new sticker. It was an honest mistake.

I have to take some of the blame for the second time we were pulled over that night—again for the expired tags. But this time we had just left a place called Voodoo Village, quite possibly the scariest place I’ve ever been in my life.

It was my idea to go there so late at night—stupid me, stupid idea.

Prior to our trip I did a little Internet research about “interesting” places around Memphis, places that TJ might travel as he searches for the person who killed his friend, and I talked Kenny into checking it out. (That’s kind of my MO, sad, but true.) Tonight’s rendezvous reminded me of Adam and Eve all over again—Eve tempting Adam to take a bite out of the a forbidden fruit, to go to a forbidden place. I learned my lesson.

So when the policeman pulled us over in the pitch black night, Kenny didn’t want to lie.

“Sir, why are you in Memphis? Who are you here to visit?”

But Kenny couldn’t tell him the whole truth. I was wearing black and carrying a little black book. By all appearances I could have been a Caucasian voodoo priestess. Just imagine how this answer might have sounded.

“Mr. Police Officer, we just left the Voodoo Village.”

Just how quickly do you think we would have been seated in the back of the officer’s patrol car? So Kenny went with the next best answer.

“Officer, I came to eat ribs.”

 The officer stared at him for a bit, fired a few more questions at him, eyeballed the ticket and then allowed us to pass with a salutation.

“Welcome to Memphis.”

We asked our carriage driver about Voodoo Village, but he was hesitant to answer. He suggested the place was originally occupied by gypsies, not voodoo priests, who hung shrunken heads on the gates and the limbs of animals from the trees to scare away intruders.

Internet accounts offered other explanations. The place is everything as described, but out of respect for other people who live in the neighborhood, I’ll offer no further details. Everyone deserves privacy. (I do not recommend anyone trying to find this place. It’s in a secluded area where intruders could disappear without warning.)

NO TRESPASSING

For all I know my carriage driver could have been a gypsy himself—if he were real at all. (Note the imagination kicking in here.)

All I know is handed me a treasure.

Don’t you just love a good story?

Please leave a comment if you have a good story about a serendipitous meeting! I would really like to hear your story. I have been trying to contact this carriage driver. If you happen to know how to get in touch with him, please contact me. God bless.

Memphis mojo

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”   Samuel Johnson

Maybe it was three years ago when I took my newspaper staff on a writing adventure, a change of scenery. We took our notepads and writing utensils to an outdoor spot where no other students, staff and faculty were around, and we sat. And we listened. And we wrote.

My goal was for my students to listen to nature and to listen to their own imaginations so that they could find the story that lay dormant within their minds. I never imagined that I would be the one to benefit most from the excursion. Sitting there in the quiet of the outdoors on the bleachers in front of a ball field, I came up with an idea for a story that refused to go away.

As I sat on the bleachers in the silence, I watched my students drift away on their on journeys, and then my own thoughts flooded my mind. What if a couple of teens snuck out to the ball field behind their school to find a quiet place to write? What if they saw a couple of teachers sneaking out too? What if the students caught the teachers doing something that was clearly against school rules? What if what they were doing was so bad that it was a crime?

I didn’t actually write that story, but I did write a story about a couple of student journalists who witnessed their peers and their teachers take part in activities leading up to the deaths of three of their classmates. Actually, when I first made up my mind to seriously pursue my heart’s desire, I had two other stories in mind as well. I even started one of them, but the YA story wouldn’t go away. It latched onto my heart.

When I knew that I could not NOT write my YA story, I decided to learn as much as I could about my characters. The main character, TJ, grew up in Memphis, probably my favorite place to escape, so I went to Memphis and followed TJ’s tracks wherever they led. I’ve been to Memphis quite a few times, but I wanted to see Memphis with fresh eyes, my character’s eyes.

I started with Beale Street and headed straight for the soul food, Blues City Café and then Miss Polly’s. I go to both on a regular basis, but I’ll never forget my first visit to Miss Polly’s. I have sweet memories of greens, catfish and Joe Walsh. No, he wasn’t there.

If he were, I probably would have written a totally different story—from within my cell. I’m sure I would have stalked him the rest of the trip. Joe was playing on some West Coast stage, and I watched him on a little TV as I sat at my table that paid homage to one of the blues greats. But my laid-back experience allowed my mind to wander so that my story could develop.

During my journey I met an old man at Memphis Music, who had the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. I could have talked to him for hours. Then I stepped outside and put a few dollars in the tip bucket after watching the Beale Street Flippers do their thing.

The sun had set, and the moon had risen. I ventured into Tater Red’s, probably the scariest store in all of downtown. I don’t think I would ever buy anything there because I believe you can take the “bad” with you, but I saw what I needed to see.

Picture mojo and voodoo and then mix it with the crossroads and Robert Johnson. You see where I’m going. There’s a lot of other gimmicky, crass items in there as well, but I can’t help but wonder if evil truly lurks behind the voodoo shrine in the back of the store. I may never know, but should I write a sequel, perhaps TJ will return to his roots and tell us all.

I couldn’t miss hanging out at the Pepsi Pavilion to check out the band, and the later it got, the louder the women sang. Not the band, mind you. I’m talking about the older “girls” who had partaken in their own spirits—and I’m not talking about the ones at Tater Red’s. I wouldn’t have minded staying there until the band members packed up their equipment, but it was getting late.

I had to get back to my hotel, but before I left I took a carriage ride with a driver from Austria. He didn’t have a dog. Most of the other drivers do, but he had a cool accent and shared lots of cool stories about his life and about the history of Memphis. I could have ridden in one of the lighted carriages shaped like pumpkins, but I chose to save it for another trip. (Yes, I did go back and try out the pumpkin. How could a romantic like me give up the chance to play Cinderella?)

I haven’t taken my current students on a writing journey this year. But maybe I should do that as soon as possible. I can’t help but think of a quote by St. Augustine:

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

It’s time for me and my students to set out on another adventure. Even if we only go a few steps beyond our classroom, there is no limit where our imaginations will take us.