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Tuesday June 26, 2003 - Torn

After weeks of indecision, we've made up our minds to return to Phoenix, the Devil's Gridiron. It was an agonizing deliberation, but we have come to the conclusion that despite all of the positives for us of living in Memphis, our hearts remain in the desert.

In summary, what we like best about Memphis:

Rain and weather extremes
Trees and green foliage
The Racial balance
Memphis’ historic racial legacy
Politeness of the South
The inner city
It is my soul mate's hometown

What do we like least about Memphis? The Mexican food and my wife's breathing problems, caused by the humidity; but nothing else. It's just that we miss the southwest:

Ability to see great distances
The Mexican playa
Bug-free camping
Proximity to our children

The treed landscape is beautiful and inviting, but it closes in on you. There is also beauty in unending vistas and distant mountain peaks framed in the purple haze of an afternoon -- the desert, in short.

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Tuesday June 24, 2003 - I Shot Him, But He Deserved It

Memphis is the most polite town I've ever lived in, as well as the toughest. People will bend over backwards to be friendly and helpful, but don't ever cross them. On missing around with someone else's spouse, I'm told, you stand a good chance of getting shot. People don't necessarily do it in rage; they do it with some immediate understanding of the consequences.

"I'm sorry I shot him, but he deserved it. I lost my temper, but I'm ready to pay for it," one man said in a TV newscast.

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Sunday June 15, 2003 - Memphis Radio Stations

There are many, but we listen primarily to National Public Radio and acoustic jazz. The following NPR Radio Stations are all available right here in the 'hood, Orange Mound:

88.9WKNO, Memphis / Senatobia (NPR/BBS)
91.1WKNO, Memphis
93.1WKNO, Memphis

88.9 has news all day; 91.1 has news highlights, but reverts to classical music for vast periods; and 93.1 has a third permutation of NPR programming and music.

The best acoustic jazz station in Memphis is 91.7, but it broadcasts ball games most early evenings. The call letters elude me.

There is also a knockout all blues station that plays mostly the old blues, like the Sunday evening Bob Coratore show on KJZZ (91.5) in Phoenix.

But during the day I always fall back on WKNO.

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Tuesday June 10, 2003 - Elvis Week on WKNO

It's Elvis week again on WKNO, the third time this year. WKNO is Memphis' National Public Radio affiliate. Invariably, their fundraisers center on Elvis and Soul groups of the Doo-Wop era.

Elvis is fine, but I like the Soul groups better. Some of the classic artists they're featuring are Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Billy Paul ("Mrs. Jones"), Gloria Gaynor, Mary Wilson; but there are dozens more -- hours and hours without repeating. Aretha and Lou do a knockout version of "At Last" together.

It was one of the early things we watched back in October of last year, and it will be one of the last things we see before leaving in August. All Motown performances have been re-filmed, fresh and new, as a PBS production. All of these films are available for a price, and we wish we could accumulate all of them.

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Saturday May 31, 2003 - Hair On a Stick

This afternoon my soul mate dispatches me in a mad rush to our favorite shopping center for hair extensions, before the hair store closes for the weekend. Eight minutes from the house, it's the busiest shopping center in Memphis, a small well-worn strip mall in the inner city where Park Avenue meets Lamar near Airways. In this one place you can shop the cheapest food store in town (in limited variety), choose between three different Dollar stores, find an ample supply of liquor, contribute to the economic security of countless panhandlers, select from the largest variety of hair and hair products, and shop two stores for the finest selection of clothing available in western Tennessee3.

I squeeze through the door before they lock it behind me, and quickly locate the counter I'm looking for. It's hair on a stick, available only at the most popular hair shop in the most popular shopping center in Memphis.

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Thursday May 29, 2003 - The Great Water Main Caper

Someone in the 'hood is having their fun. Each morning I pass through the intersection at Greer and Park Avenues. Each afternoon I return via the same intersection. There is a heavy metal water main cover there, approximately twelve inches across and five inches deep. When it is in place the cover fits tightly into its metal receptacle, the top flush with the pavement of the street.

But each morning or afternoon the cover is in a different place -- upside-down in the intersection most times, but sometimes tightly covering its hole.

Who is doing this? Why will that cover not stay put? I watch for many weeks hoping to catch someone in the act. I become fixated. When taking an alternate route home I go out of my way to drive by Greer and Park just to check on the water main cover. When it is in place, it is only there once, and then it is upside down in the street again the next time.

Over the weeks I begin to notice that it isn't moving around so much as it did in the beginning. Maybe cars were hitting it, but I think they're getting used to avoiding it now. For a long time, when I avoid the cover I hit the hole; but I eventually get used to missing both.

I begin to suspect someone's joke is getting old. And then one day the cover is back on the hole -- and I never find it off again. I wonder whom the laugh is on?

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Wednesday May 28, 2003 - Of Race and Other Dubious Relations

Memphis has been a very positive improvement over the west where racial tolerance is concerned. The difference is subtle at first, but like night and day once you get used to it. In Phoenix tolerant speaking attitudes are usually betrayed by racist body language, while in Memphis, which is 53% Black, people are as a rule very polite in both vocal and body language. Racism in Memphis shows up as a clearly stated difference of opinion, or not at all. Any such statements are usually openly and quickly challenged by the other side, minimizing the frequency of recurrence. As a result, society is balanced and healthy.

This evening my wife mentions the curiosity people show concerning our mixed-race marriage. Blacks will ask her how we met, while Whites will ask me, "Where did you meet her?"

"White women always ask me what I did to deserve you," she says.

"You treat me right;" I respond. "Truth is, all white women are Sapphires."

At the supermarket checkout counter they always assume we're checking out separately. In restaurants they often ask if we want separate checks. This is one phenomenon that exists in both Phoenix and Memphis, although personal acquaintances handle the knowledge that we are a couple in very different ways.

Stages of White Bigotry

At first, they're sure it's a fling, but after a few months most appear to have forgotten about race. This is a waiting mode -- waiting in silence for it to end. "You're an enigma," a work cohort told me. Then after a year or two, surprised it still hasn't fallen apart, they revert to very direct antagonistic comments. Finally, after a several years, they give up and accept our relationship for what it is.

While Whites in Phoenix are more likely to only cut their losses after several years, those in Memphis have mostly done it from the beginning and are usually too polished to display attitudes of any kind. That they don't like a mixed relationship is usually hidden deeply within.

Stages of Black Acceptance

At first they're curious, but never disrespectful. After a few weeks, if they observe no mistreatment of the Black partner they will recognize the relationship as legitimate. Full acceptance comes shortly thereafter, based upon the quality of the relationship.

Blacks are more pragmatic. From the start they will freely offer both individuals personal respect, as long as they deserve it -- even before their acceptance of the relationship itself. Whites will not. White acquaintances have a tendency to treat the Black person in a mixed relationship as if he or she were an outsider even to their own spouse.

Mid-South society is more balanced than southwestern society, as a whole. Dialog between the races is very direct. People say what they feel about race and don't have to rely so much on subtle forms of bigotry. As a result, there is much more tolerance on both sides. Respect is returned if respect is given. In the 100% Black society of the Memphis inner city my wife and I stand out more than we do in 95% Caucasian and Hispanic Phoenix, yet we are given more benefit of the doubt in Memphis.

Almost eight months now living in the inner city, we settle this evening into a new episode of CSI Miami. I strip off my shoes and socks. What a relief. As I lift my legs and prop my feet against my wife, I'm taken by surprise.

"Boy, my feet are white!" I exclaim, involuntarily.

My soul mate bursts out in laughter.

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Saturday May 10, 2003 - The Mexican Cuisines of Memphis

One thing they have many of in Memphis is Mexican Food restaurants. At least that's what they call them. One evening in mid winter we find ourselves looking for a change from our favorite Memphis dishes of Hot Wings, Catfish and Barbecued Baby Back Ribs. By now we're well into Mexican Food withdrawal and anxious to find a suitable restaurant from which we can obtain a periodic fix. We quickly home in on El Porton on the northwest corner of Highland and Poplar.

El Porton is the unfortunate beginning of a five-month odyssey of epic proportion, a quest from Peabody Place and Beal Street all the way to Macon. Following are the highlights, from worst to mediocre to best:

Pancho'sWorst
El PortonClose to worst
ChapultepecPalatable, but not Mexican
El MezcalFinally, Mexican food; but. . .
Taco BellBest in town, I’m sorry to say

Pancho's is a small fast food restaurant on the west side of S. Perkins Rd., about halfway between American Way and Cottonwood Rd, to the south. The food here is not immediately identifiable as Mexican, nor for that matter Chinese, Arabic or American, but appears to be an indescribable combination of two or more of these, characterized by unusual combinations, weird names and worse taste.

El Porton, on the northwest corner of Poplar Avenue and Highland, is a busy restaurant, popular among young people who wait in line for up to an hour at the carry out counter or to be seated. The menu features a fancy spread of universally popular items, which once served, are found to consist of 75% processed American salt cheese mixed with 25% ground turkey-hamburger paste. As a result, all selections taste alike. By the time the uninitiated have completed half a meal they find it impossible to go on due to the overpowering cheese and salt flavor. We ate what we could, and then rinsed our digestive tracts with a can of vegetable soup.

Chapultepec is a brightly lit mid-western style restaurant with large glass windows designed to make diners visible from the street. After our previous experiences we looked this one up in advance, called, and asked a few preliminary questions. It sits on the southwest corner of Somerset Ln. and Forest Hill-Irene Rd, just north of Park Avenue turned Poplar Pike, about as far east as you can get and still claim to be in the Memphis metropolitan area. This "Mexican" food is made from palatable American ingredients without spices of any kind, served with neither salsa, hot sauce, chips, nor chili peppers. You could have fooled me. It looks Mexican, but it isn't.

El Mezcal is, by appearance, content, and taste, Mexican food. It's about time! Like all the others, they use exclusively ground beef, but at least they have two kinds of salsa as well as green chilies and jalapeño peppers. It is a bit American in flavor but within reason, and one of their salsas is not bad! El Mezcal is located on the northwest corner of and Knight-Arnold and S. Perkins Rd.

Taco Bell may herein find itself for the very first time ever on a cuisine list. Not only that, it is the best Mexican food, however loosely defined, that we have found in Memphis. This contrasted with Phoenix, where Taco Bell, although palatable, is clearly the worst. Our favorite Taco Bells are on the southeast corner of Winchester Rd and Elvis Presley Blvd and, during the power outage, somewhere around Pendleton St. and Barron Ave.

Yesterday two Hispanic gentlemen came through the office to work on the phone system. I asked them where to find good Mexican food in Memphis.

"We don't eat Mexican food here," they responded in unison; "we go to Brownsville, Texas and eat across the border."

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Sunday May 4, 2003 - Muddy Waters and Other Weather Phenomena

Natives take Memphis weather in stride, but new comers find many surprises. To-wit:

-Autumn and winter fog and rain out-do Oregon. Memphis has more cloudy, rainy and foggy days than anywhere else in the US.
-Dew is so heavy some days that you have to use windshield wipers on high while driving.
-Sunshine increases in the dead of winter, through spring and into the summer, but frequent rains continue through it all.
-Clouds pass overhead most days like a movie on fast forward.
-Day ends in the 'hood as early as 3:30 pm in the winter, due to masking of afternoon sunshine by the canopy of trees.
-Muddy waters survive in Memphis even in the stillest of ponds and lakes. Why the water doesn't clear up is a phenomenon I don't understand.

Some nights a thunderstorm will knock out all five main TV channels for hours; take tonight, for example. I don't mean they go off the air, I mean they might as well. Programming reverts to full-time Doppler radar.

Despite my ridicule we've grown to realize the importance of the weather programs, although it still escapes me why they need five that are essentially identical.

After a couple of days of drizzle we stop by to visit my soul mate's mother. Although it isn't raining when we arrive, the sidewalks are still wet. Mom greets us at the door, glances around the yard and comments.

"I see it's drying up today."

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Sunday April 27, 2003 - Hernando's Hideaway

Hernando's Hideaway, Memphis - June, 2003

While site-seeing around town we decide to check out a mysterious building that has stood, unchanged since my soul mate's childhood, Hernando's Hideaway. It's at the southwest corner of Brooks Road and Hernando Road, less than a block east of Elvis Presley Blvd. I am highly suspicious that the street, only two blocks long, is named after the establishment. The windowless two-story brick building has a front door that is locked and an upstairs side door that is accessible via a metal stairway that seems to sag to the outside. That door is locked, too. The building looks recently painted despite its age and a certain amount of natural Memphis weathering. The gravel parking lot is tidy, grass that dares to grow around the edges freshly cut. We study the building for a few moments, and the 2nd story marquee on the side of the building, which features a pair of what appear to be male and female cowboy figures. But it is clearly closed -- in fact we have never observed any activity around Hernando's Hideaway as long as we've been passing by.

There is a very tidy church across the street, the Old Nonconnah Missionary Baptist Church. Three men and a teen-age boy in the parking lot are apparently putting the finishing touches on some yard work. We pull in, and I get out of the car.

Brooks & Hernando - June, 2003

"Do you gentlemen have any idea what that place is across the street -- Hernando's Hideaway? My wife says it's been here since she was a kid."

"Hernando's Hideaway?" the first gentleman responds, grinning; "That place parties all night. Cars all the way down the street here. They get real low," he says, stooping and motioning with his hand, "real low." "Always keeps it tidy, though. It goes until 3:00 am. Says it'll always be cleaned up before anyone shows up for church on Sunday. I've been here 40 years and it's always been there, always clean and quiet."

The others grin.

"Yeah," one of them says, "they get down real low; but the old guy is very nice, always gets all the bottles and cans picked up before he goes home. I never been there before, but try it out -- I'm sure they'd like to have you."

I imagine the interior, a single room with a bar at the rear and a two-story ceiling, with a second-story balcony around the outside walls, all natural wood. The second story is filled with chairs around small tables, and there are tables around the periphery of the first floor with a large, well-worn dance floor in the middle. It is exactly like any number of Black clubs depicted in movies of the forties, and I can almost feel the pulse of the music and the rhythm of the dancers.

I thank the men and return to the car. My soul mate, who has been silent until now, smiles, waves, and exchanges well wishes with them.

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Saturday April 26, 2003 - Entertainment

VFW:  After years of dirty and other looks from Arizonans, we come all the way to Memphis to find a Black VFW in the inner-city. We finally spot one during an afternoon errand on Raines Road in the heart of town, and I send my soul mate in to check it out. She reports back momentarily. There are four or five people sitting around the bar, she reports, all over 70 years of age and all white. One is drinking coffee; the others lemonade. They wave and smile frantically. One energetic senior jumps up, "Come in, come in!"

Elvis:  Memphis was home to Elvis Presley, and his legacy lives on here today in the heart of the inner-city. Memphians love him, but his greatest fan is Phoenix's Dr. James D. Guest, DDS.

Music:  Memphis has an astounding musical heritage, and the music is still going strong. Phoenix, on the other hand, has the best Blues program on the radio today, the Bob Corritore show, Sunday nights on KJZZ, 91.5 FM4.

WKNO Fund raisers:  Among TV station WKNO's fund raising offerings are some of the finest Do-Wop era videos available. In addition, there's Memphis Memoirs: At The Movies and He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley.

Coffee Shop:  For mainstream eating we enjoy the Gridiron Restaurant and talking to the regulars with their various local and other southern dialects. Lately it's almost scary -- I think I'm beginning to understand what they're saying.

But as a westerner you can't beat driving around the city looking at the sites. Everywhere you look there's something of acute interest -- buildings, landscapes, businesses, homes; and if you prefer driving in the country you can't beat the gorgeous countryside around Memphis.

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Sunday April 20, 2003 - Essential Overkill

Another major exception to lackluster TV is Memphis' prolific weather forecasts. These run on all channels, although they could save a lot of money by joining forces and producing one rather than five broadcasts since they're all exactly alike except for the face and the coined terms, to wit:
 

  3 First Defense Doppler 3 Radar - with Storm Track Turbo Mode & City List
  5 Pinpoint 5 SATRAD Doppler Radar - with Pinpoint 5 Viper Mode, Pinpoint 5 Weather, Pinpoint 5 Future Cast, & Last Defense Doppler Radar
13 FoxRAD Radar Intensity - with FoxTRAX City List Gauge
24 First Alert Live Doppler Radar - with Weather 24 & Nationally syndicated Eyewitness News
30 Live Exact Track Doppler Radar - with Weather 24 & Nationally syndicated Eyewitness News (Yes, same as channel 24)

All of this is free from the US weather bureau, which has a Doppler radar system right here in Memphis. And all channels consume a square foot of space in the lower left corner of the screen to tout their logo along with the weather map. Several have full-time static messages across the entire bottom of the screen. Channel 5 masks off a full 7" on the left and 8" on the bottom for weather information. Even so, their Live Doppler Radar title overlaps the programming, and there is a notch out of the lower left hand corner of the meager remainder of the screen to provide more space for a map in the corner that is too small to contain any real information -- all while they have normal programming going on. And there is a 3-minute update during every commercial break, with two during the hour break.

Heaven forbid there should be a real thunderstorm, because you can kiss all programming goodbye in exchange for full-time weather reports featuring, you get the idea, their Last Offense Doppler Radar. While Memphis weather is often underrated by newcomers, there is no doubt that it is more important than in many parts of the country; however, the redundancy provides over-kill at its finest.

Programs are interrupted every few minutes to show you a weather map. Whether tornado, hail, snow, thunderstorm, rain, drizzle, cloudy, clear or sunny you can count on the peace of mind of viewing for yourself the latest Doppler radar map, which is often completely void of activity -- even when there's no weather at all -- is that called total blandness?

All of the channels have the latest computer graphic manipulation software, too, which they use during most broadcasts whether there's anything to report or not. So the nearly daily minor rainstorms receive about the same intensity of coverage as a Caribbean hurricane. Isn't that crying wolf?

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Thursday April 17, 2003 - Railing Against "Reality"

So what's so special about Memphis Broadcast TV? Truth is, I thought you'd never ask. Here's the lineup. Does it look like Phoenix, or what?

  3 - CBS
  5 - NBC
10 - PBS (WKNO)
13 - Fox
24 - ABC
30 - UPN
50 - PAX

Yeah, right down to the channel numbers; but what about originality? Well, across all channels it's about 50% "Reality" shows and other childish competition, for example:

Fear Factor - Participants eating disgusting stuff
Joe Millionaire - Drab dating detail, ad nauseam
The Weakest Link - A game show in which the best performer looses
Survivor - A popularity contest in an entirely unnatural setting

Fear Factor is a show designed for children between the ages of five and nine. Or didn't you grow out of that by the time you reached tweenhood? Joe Millionaire takes us back to all of the nauseous dating detail we were finally spared upon leaving teenhood. And the winner will receive $1,000,000; Oh, how glamorous; how realistic! Then we finally reach adulthood with The Weakest Link, or do we? The primary purpose of this "reality" quiz show is to ignore the most capable individuals in favor of the most devious. Finally we have Survivor, a back-stabbing popularity contest in which everyone lives in caves and runs around naked in the jungle. Now there's reality! Gimmie a break.

Cold and vindictive may be popular in a mob, but how many of us live by mob rule? As we reach adulthood we realize it takes more than eating worms to be the most capable individual. All of these, in fact all reality shows we've seen, provide a variety of ridiculous unrealistic settings in which to accommodate popularity contests among the most psychotic and devious participants available. This isn't survival of the fittest; it's survival of the lowest common denominator - the least mature, most obnoxious, least intelligent and most trivial-minded. Charles Darwin be damned; in one generation human evolution has made a giant leap backwards. Humans don't come from monkeys; monkeys come from humans. So much for "reality."

I, for one, do not believe the so-called "reality" shows are as popular as their promoters claim. If they are, why do they need to be advertised twelve to twenty times per hour? And I don't believe anyone over fifteen who's not institutionalized watches them; there are thousands of more realistic movies to watch if you want realism, and they all convey real lessons of life. In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, There's more to life than "please rinse and spit". If you're that bored, go out and do something exciting -- get a life of your own.

In summary, "Reality" shows are a vast intellectual wasteland -- the armpit, no, garbage dump of the communications industry. But ah, well, what do you expect from the producers of Jerry Springer and Street Smarts?

So Memphis is no exception to the rest of the country; no wonder most Memphians prefer sitting on their front porch and visiting in the evenings.

Now, the other 50% of Memphis television programming, except for weather broadcasts, is detective and trial shows -- and about half of these are forensic.

CSI (Las Vegas)
CSI Miami
Law & Order
Law & Order - Special Victims Unit
Law & Order - Criminal Intent

JAG is turning forensic as I write; but then again, so is Law and Order.

So there you have the main substance of Memphis weekday television. Weekend television is all cartoons and sports, and that's all anyone needs to know about that. All of this, I am sorry to say, is the same as everywhere else across the country.

So what's so special about Memphis Broadcast TV? There are two minor and two major noteworthy exceptions. Both minor exceptions are on channel 5. Todd Angkasuwan's What's up with that?, in which he explains peculiar events in the news for those who may have missed the point -- which is most of us, and Does It Work Thursday with Andy Wise, in which he tests dubious products that appear to be designed to sell rather than to work. Think wise -- Andy Wise!

The first major noteworthy exception to lackluster TV is channel 10, WKNO -- the local PBS station. WKNO's fundraisers are among the most entertaining in the country, featuring vast amounts of high-quality material on Elvis Presley (a local hero), and on Memphis history. Memphis has a rich ethnic background dating from the 1800's, and Memphis played an important role in the racial struggles of the sixties. The WKNO fundraisers are alone worth a move to Memphis for a year.

Otherwise, every time I turn on television I think I'm in Phoenix. And Seattle. And New York, and Waco, and Omaha. . .

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Saturday April 12, 2003 - I Trump! (and it ain't Donald)

Bright and early in the morning there is a knock on the door while I'm eating my breakfast. I'm not dressed yet, and it's only 11:30; can't a man have any peace? My soul mate runs for a robe while I crack open the door to see who it is.

"Good morning!"

It's the satellite TV neighbor; you know, the one from across the street that supplements his income at the expense of his neighbors?

"Good morning; how are you this morning?" I respond through the crack in the door; "Just a moment -- I have to get some clothes on."

At that point I space out while he sets right into a pitch. I cower behind the door scrambling with the robe my wife brought me. When I swing it open he's still going on, making me sort of wish I had waited another forty minutes.

". . .and the special is on all month; if you buy now. . ."

"Oh, I'm sorry; we just went out and bought a rooftop antenna and put it up in the attic."

"You're not getting any more channels with that," he counters.

"For sure," I respond, "but we've decided not to subscribe to any TV service. You see, we're leaving Memphis in August. . ."

"It only costs $45 for the first three months," he continues.

". . .and the broadcast channels have been so good lately," I lie. "Only $15 a month, huh?"

"No, $45 a month; that saves you $9, and there's no. . ."

He sure is persistent -- I'll give him that. But the truth is, TV just isn't a must-have for us.

"Sorry to string you on for so long."

"But there's no telling how long it'll be before the next special. . ."

His voice trails off, like I've finally gotten through.

"I wish we could have gotten it; I'll let you know if we change our minds, but it's only a little over three months until we leave."

"Ok, you take care now."

"You to," I reply; "have a nice day."

He turns, shuffles down the steps and recedes across the front lawn. I close the door and return to my cold breakfast.

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Sunday March 30, 2003 - The Lumpy Liquid Mystery

A couple of mornings ago we find a gallon jar sitting on the front walk about six feet from our front steps. Must be some kids teasing us. We make a point of not being observed looking at it, and go back and forth all day as if we don't notice it. I eventually inspect the jar up close in the cover of darkness. It's half full of thick, brown lumpy liquid of unknown origin. It looks like something Derwood’s mother, Endora might have conjured up back in the sixties. Voodoo, I joke. Is this how they treat a hot mama in this neighborhood? We leave it there to see what will happen next. Nothing.

Before dusk the following afternoon the jar disappears, and then it reappears at dusk, moved some three feet laterally into the grass. We still haven't observed any kids anywhere nearby. We leave it there in the grass another day, passing it numerous times on the way to and from our vehicles without giving it a glance. No one seems to be watching us, so that evening I move it to the garbage can to be picked up the next morning, today. The matter ends there.

If it was a potion intended to create some sort of negative aura about our house, there are no signs that it worked.

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Saturday March 29, 2003 - The Mystery of Tchulahoma and Other Phenomena

The mystery of Tchulahoma continues to haunt us. It's a street that is there some weekends and gone on others. We like Tchulahoma because there is a beautiful lake there where local fishermen enjoying a weekend outing can catch a bucket-full of Brim (Crappie). And we like walking around the lake, about a 45-minute leisurely endeavor. The area behind the lake features a few acres of mowed grass enclosed by dense forest on three sides, a nice place for picnicking. But the mystery is why Tchulahoma is not always there.

It's a simple matter to get there. All you do is go south on Airways past Democrat Road, and if it's going to be there you'll find yourself on Tchulahoma by staying on the widest branch through the airport and never turning off. Once you clear the airport you'll pass the Federal Express installation with the numerous umbrella frames set high on poles surrounding the facility -- umbrella frames about six feet in diameter with no fabric on them. We have no idea what they're for and I'd like to take a picture of one of them, but my soul mate cautions that a man was arrested a few months back for pointing a camera at the installation, so I suppress the urge. And if you pass the umbrella frames, then Tchulahoma comes next.

This morning we head out with a small picnic basket, miss Federal Express entirely, and wind up on Winchester. Drat! Not there today? I roll down my window and wave down a gentleman walking down the street with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder and a briefcase in the other hand. "He'll know," I assure my sole mate.

"Sir, can you tell us how to get to Tchulahoma?"

"Well. . . ," he starts -- it is the voice of Algonquin J. Calhoun2. "You head north on Airways. . .uh, you continue on down Winchester and turn left at. . .uh. . .you go east on. . .uh, uh. . .  You can't really get there from here," he wails.

"We suspected as much," I assure him.

We eat our lunch in the car before returning to the street and then head north the way we came. Shortly we're passing Federal Express and the umbrella frames. We should turn around, but at this point we just head on home. There'll be other days. . .

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Tuesday March 18, 2003 - Déjà Vu. . .

My soul mate departs mid-morning.

"I'm going shopping out on the Peay," she announces on the way out.

"Hang on," I call after her; "If we're going dancing this weekend do you know of a taxi company here in Memphis?"

"No," she responds.

"Come to think of it," I continue, "I think I've seen some of those Hispanic taxis like they have in Phoenix -- Cora's or something?"

My sole mate stops and looks back with a startled expression on her face.

"Why would I come all the way to Memphis to hire a Hispanic taxi?"

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Monday March 17, 2003 - Where It's At . . .

A lot has been said about the streets in central Memphis, and among them Poplar Avenue. But following any of the railroad tracks through town in any direction will expose you to the real traffic flow in the central city, and much more. The railroad tracks are really where it's at.

Many thoroughfares throughout the city wait for trains just like you and I do. But remember those capillary streets? The majority of bridges and underpasses are on neighborhood capillary streets rather than on the main thoroughfares, and while you're waiting for a train and wondering why traffic isn't backing up behind you, the tiny capillary streets never slow down.

How do you find those innocuous little crossings? Just follow your nose, and the tracks. . .

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Monday March 10, 2003 - Finally Broke The Code!

Actually, it's not really a code, but more like a recipe. Pick up a package of dry Linguini. Break it into short pieces; add water, and cook until done. Pour through a strainer and spread out on a plate, and voilà! You've got a perfect Memphis street map!

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Tuesday March 4, 2003 - Capillaries

Did you ever wonder how to get from Elvis Presley Boulevard to Airways? Or vice versa? Two thoroughfares and no way to get between them. You can drive south past the interstate and take Brooks Road, or go a little further and use Winchester; or you can go north to South Parkway East which takes you back south and across to Bellevue, and you can cut off a little of the extra distance via Lamar. But how to get directly between them?

Try Ball Road, but it goes from four lanes down to half a lane through a residential neighborhood, then returns to its vigor before turning north into Norris. Take Norris the opposite direction and it ends in the Defense Depot. Find Ball and head back, but it doesn't go through that narrow part; instead, it turns south and changes into Ketchum Road. Alcy is pretty straightforward from E.P. back until it turns north to Ketchum; then you have to make a right turn at a stop sign to get to Airways. Dunn isn't bad, headed west, but if you don't jog right you wind up headed south on Perry, which doesn't go to E.P. The jog right looks like it dead ends in an alley but proceeds west until it hits the railroad tracks; then you have to take a narrow diagonal lane through thick trees the last four blocks to Elvis.

Person Avenue is straight all the way, except for three little problems. From Elvis you have to jog north a quarter block before you're on your way, and then at the other end you have a 15 mph jog left and then right to reach Airways. Oh yeah, and when crossing the railroad track you have to turn north if there's no train and then right at the first street. If you don't you wind up going north to South Parkway East and then have to come back down Lamar to reach Airways. On the other hand, if there's a train -- and there always is -- you can take Rozelle or Ragan to the Parkway, but you know what that means.

Truth is, the screwy system works. The importance of capillary streets in Memphis cannot be overstated. They're those little neighborhood one-lane streets a block long to one cow path short of a mile. Many thoroughfares end in a neighborhood with no connecting streets of equal size, but traffic somehow manages to get quickly between them without bottlenecking. Vehicles spread out, each one choosing a different capillary, and come back together where the next thoroughfare begins -- and there are no traffic backups in the central city.

Now when it comes to distance driving, Memphis streets don't go anywhere, but there's always one that will take you directly to where you want to go. In the unlikely event there isn't, you probably have no business going there anyway.

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Sunday March 2, 2003 - Howcum?

Howcum East Parkway is on the north side? And howcum North Parkway is west? And howcum South Parkway East is on the west side, and there isn't any South Parkway West? And howcum Southern Avenue is on the north side?

Howcum Danny Thomas Boulevard turns into Thomas Street on the north and Wellington Street on the south? And Wellington feeds Willoughby and Winston? And Elvis Presley Boulevard changes into Bellevue and Pansy Street on the north, but goes all the way into Mississippi on the south? And Stage Avenue turns to Stage-Delano Road, then Delano Avenue, which turns into James Road, then Stage-James Road, then Raleigh-Bartlett Road, then back into Stage Road and on to Chattanooga?

And Interstate 40 turns into Sam Cooper Boulevard from the east, then into Broad Avenue, which ends in Overton Park?

And Jackson Avenue starts as Auction at the A.W. Willis Memorial Bridge, which comes from nowhere; and turns into the Austin Peay highway. Howcum?

And, really, does the Austin Peay?

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Saturday March 1, 2003 - There's a Strange Element of Truth In It, But. . .

In discussing the origins of concepts and businesses with a Memphis native, I can't help smiling at the differences I pick up in expressing linkage. In Phoenix, for example, it's "based on" and "based in", while in Memphis it's "based off," "based out of," and "based around." And Memphians drive like they talk: with deliberation and a drawl.

One native I regularly commute with is describing how to get across town.

"You have to drive east in order to get south, in a matter of speaking."

Back in her childhood the city was informally viewed as several chunks referred to by inner-city folks as "North", "South", "East", "West", and others. "South" referred to a certain section of town rather than a direction.

As we approach Winchester driving south on Elvis Presley Boulevard she continues, "Go down Elvis Presley to White Station." This means go from Elvis Presley to White Station by taking the next street, or Winchester.

On our return trip we're still way east of the inner city.

"To get back," she says, "go south."

"But when you're east," I respond, "you have to go in the opposite direction to get home; that would be west."

"Yes," she says, "but trust me -- you have to go south to get west."

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Tuesday February 25, 2003 - Routing of the Outing

I have to run across town this morning. The route I choose hangs on whether I mind going without radio reception -- following a network of high tension power lines and substations -- or whether I think I can beat two or three trains to the crossings. Ultimately, I elect the trains and NPR. I can't hear the program when the trains are passing, but the reception sure is great.

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Monday February 24, 2003 - The Original 70's Adventure Game

Every few days I wind up on Poplar Avenue a mile and a half north of us. It's duck soup getting home; you can take any number of streets to Southern -- Reese, Greer if you don't mind a series of "speed humps" (not bumps, but humps, as the signs explain), Lundee / Fenwick / Cherokee -- well, there are a few feathers left in it; the trick is getting through one of the underpasses. But every time I try to go the other direction -- Southern to Poplar -- I wind up in Chickasaw Gardens. It's a bunch of twisty little roadways, all alike. According to the map the trick, as with the fantasy computer game, is "don't go west"; but that hasn't worked for me.

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Sunday February 23, 2003 - I'm Glad You Asked

Dear J & K:

>  What sort of town is it where you two are living now?
>  Big, still the "urban maelstrom" you had before?

Memphis is big, but more like 15 miles across rather than 50. There is heavy traffic in the out-lying areas, but not in the inner core of the city where we are. It's a very interesting place to live and to drive in. Most major through streets run in different diagonal directions, more or less outward from the hub of the old city close to the riverfront. Streets change names every few blocks in many places. Residential streets of a given name are only a few blocks long, and the name is never repeated again further out in either direction; so the street name is all you need for both east-west and north-south location. A few even split like the letter "Y" and keep the same name for both branches. Some streets running roughly parallel twist back and forth with each other, swapping sides. Part of the reason streets change names every few blocks is because when a street changes direction or moves over a block it takes on the name of the street it now lines up with -- but not always. And finally, some major through streets will go relatively straight for several miles across the city and then turn and go down a gopher hole just before reaching another major through street. For example, Airways Avenue and Elvis Presley Boulevard are parallel and about 1.5 mile apart; but there is no direct way between them -- you start out on a major cross street and wind up forced to go through small neighborhoods, make many turns, etc.

We live in a neighborhood mostly established in the thirties and forties. It's called Orange Mound (many places in Tennessee have "Mound" in the name). Most of the houses in our neighborhood are built about 2.5 feet off the ground and have those old gas furnaces built into the floor -- with only convection to move the heat around the house -- no ductwork. And of course, there's a full attic.

If you don't mow the yard here, you get trees and bushes in a year or so -- not to mention thick grass about 20" tall in about a month that you can't even drag your legs through. As a result, everybody mows and prunes regularly, and the city looks very well kept. Most neighborhoods, ours included, have a canopy of old-growth trees dating from before development. They're gorgeous, and of course they drop their leaves in the fall and winter.

The most positive thing here is the strong Black identity. I would guess that half to two-thirds of the people in Memphis are Black -- one of the few towns in the U.S. with such a high ratio. Our immediate neighborhood is about two-thirds Black. You can go miles in any direction -- all of the inner city and a fair share of the outlying areas and small towns around -- and never see more than an occasional White person. This includes the entire infrastructure, such as police, radio and TV personalities, businesses, etc. People are self-assured, polite, and seem very stable. It's good for kids, and good for the community. And as a result of the ethnic balance, there is much less apparent racism in day to day living and much more open group to group confrontation in politics -- burying people whose primary interest is shallow, blatant bigotry; the result, a much better community balance. The biggest noticeable difference for me is the politeness. Everybody is exceedingly polite. People go out of their way to be helpful and polite and fair in treatment of each other.

The fastest growing non-Black community here is Hispanic. I'm a little surprised at the number of Hispanics in the area. Although it isn't a drop in the bucket compared with the Phoenix area, there are enough that a lot of stores and particularly the governments have bi-lingual programs.

As to eating out, Soul Food is where it's at. It's succulent and delicious. There are a lot of Mexican restaurants, but I have to rate the Mexican food at the bottom -- it sucks; but more on that some other time. But it is hard to find the mix of healthy foods I'm used to seeing in the food stores. They don't seem to have discovered healthy eating yet. They love their barbequed beef and pork and chicken; and you'll never find richer and more fatty sausage -- boy is it good, but terrible for you, I imagine. I'm sure we'll find where to buy these things; but as yet, they're hard to find.

Well, gotta go.

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Saturday February 15, 2003 - The 'Hood

Yards grow faster year-round in Memphis than well-watered Mile-a-Minute Vine grows in Phoenix in the spring, and we have a hard time keeping up with the mowing. The problem is exacerbated by all of the perfectly trimmed yards around us, because most of our neighbors mow at least twice a week. For example, the neighbor next door to our left, a single Black man of about 30 who is seldom home, mows and trims his yard about every other day. The gentleman two doors from us on our right mows equally often, and frequently volunteers his efforts to the elderly White lady between us. "She's a good neighbor, and it only takes a minute," he says, minimizing the importance of his efforts.

Today there is a knock on the door about mid-morning. It is a neighbor from across the street and down four or five houses. He brightly wishes me a good morning, and explains that he is working on his car and needs a vice-grip to proceed. Somewhat wrinkled and in his forties or fifties, he looks like first generation African with steel blue-black skin, but he sounds like most of the other people in the 'hood -- southern. I dig out my vice-grips and offer him my long-handled water pump pliers as well. He accepts both and is off to finish the work.

As we head out for an errand a small boy of about seven parks his bike at the curb and approaches me. I recognize him as one of the regulars in the 'hood, living up the street a few houses on our side. He asks me if I have any money I could give him. It's an unfortunate result of the state of race relations in the U.S. -- from what he has heard on the street he thinks all Whites are rich and gullible. There is, of course, a significant amount of truth to the myth based on the amount of unemployment among Blacks and the comparative income between Whites and those fortunate enough to find work. It is definitely a White world, and White employers, even many of those who consider themselves to be non-racist, frequently take as much advantage of it as possible, whether unintentionally or otherwise. He's well dressed, and I shame him by asking if his mother knows he's out asking me for money. He hangs his head and leaves. From what I've seen on the street he's a good kid, normally well mannered and respectful of adults. He just has a little to learn about street truths in a middle-class neighborhood.

First Snow in The 'Hood - February, 2003

My soul mate, waiting in the car, asks me what that was all about. I tell her, and she recalls that when we were moving into the house she overheard one of the boy's friends pointing us out and remarking to him that she must be a real hot momma to be with a White guy. He probably picked it up from an older person. She holds Blacks to a higher standard than Whites -- they should know better than to resort to such characterizations.

I am aware that my soul mate receives many more intolerant comments (as well as looks) from Whites than from Blacks, and apologetically tell her so. I have long since noticed that in judging our mixed marriage Blacks are more distrustful of my intentions than bigoted, and quickly accept our relationship once they're sure it's genuine. Whites, on the other hand, remain bigoted over a period of years, their belligerency growing with time, their hate message most often directed toward my wife. Whites should know better, too; but disappointingly, most act like cattle rather than exercise an ounce of intelligence.

We return from our errand a couple of hours later to find the returned tools prominently perched on our porch railing.

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Wednesday February 12, 2003 - Interpersonal Communication In The Workplace

The Southern workplace is a strange permutation of that of the West. People seem to have a different way of communicating than I would have expected. I might have thought it was unique to my company, but my wife reports the same mentality on her job. Whatever; I don't get the general acceptance of the inefficiency it causes.

Here's an example:  I get a support call that involves an aircard1. I need to perform a test, so I get out my handheld. There is only one aircard available for support calls, so with the customer waiting on the phone I go retrieve it from my cohort, Harold, who was the last to use it. Harold is on the phone, too, so I wave for his attention and he asks his customer's indulgence while he handles the interruption.

"I need the aircard."

"What do you want it for?"

"I'm on the phone."

"Who is it?"

"John Doe. Just give me the aircard, please."

"What does he want?"

etc.

It's the same thing with information; they ask the questions and never divulge the information you need unless you force the issue.

It's like I've seen in many old movies where Blacks were subservient to Whites, and I suspect it's a throwback from that legacy -- Whites keeping power from Blacks. I suspect they've done it so long in the South that it's become body language for everyone -- Whites do it to Whites, Blacks do it to Blacks, and Blacks do it to Whites as much as Whites do it to Blacks. It's a subconscious habit, I think, inbred to southerners. I don't know if they think they're being helpful or if it's still a control issue. So much for communication in the workplace.

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Tuesday February 11, 2003 - Really Friendly!

We've just settled down to a supper in front of the TV set. There is a knock at the front door. It's the neighbor from across the street; our first visitor some months back. He wants to know if I'm ready to buy the cable yet, now that I'm back at work. He still reminds me a lot of one of the actors I've seen on some afternoon soap opera long ago in my first life. On the first visit he pointed out his house, which is diagonally across from ours to the west. I space out, my mind returning to that visit.

". . .and that's my wife going into the house now."

"Oh, yes," I responded; "those must be your boys we've seen hanging out in the driveway."

I was referring to a couple of twenty-something-year-olds we'd noticed around the 'hood from time to time.

"Yes," he continued, "they're really good kids; they don't ever get into any trouble; they just hang out and smoke a little pot."

He got around to explaining the reason for his visit. He worked for so-and-so, he explained; but he also sold satellite and cable TV subscriptions when he got the chance.

"I've gotten several free months for signing up various people in the neighborhood. Right now the satellite company has a special going on -- $59 per month gets you 200 channels, including 25 movie channels, and a free cable box. The only thing you pay is the $120 installation charge."

"Yeah," I said, "and fifty of the channels are audio only. And another ten are pay-per-view channels and four are Spanish only, and four are 24-hour merchandise sales, and two more of the movie channels are Spanish only; so that takes it down to 130; and then there are the ten channels you have to pay additional money to get which aren't available except with a $59 & up package, so by my count we're down to 120 channels. And of course almost all of 'em are 40% advertisements, so you could cut that down to 72 channels. Does that include the broadcast channels?"

"No, but you can pick them up with an antenna."

"True," I said. "Well, we plan on getting either satellite or cable, but we've got to wait until I get a job. First things first. I'll look you up when that happens. . ."

I snap out of my trance and realize he's just finishing up another five minute sales pitch.

"I wish we could take advantage of this, but we're still not quite ready; I have to wait long enough to make sure my new job is working out -- that'll be within three months, max., if you can hold on a little longer."

"Sure, he says, but I can't promise there'll be a special on when you're ready."

"I understand; we'll see how to handle that when the time comes," I respond; "Thank you for coming by again."

"Alright, then; I'll check back in a couple of months. Have a nice evening."

I return to my cold supper.

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Saturday February 8, 2003 - But The People Are Friendly. . .

Out shopping a little after lunchtime, we stop at one MAPCO after another looking for a cola as we drive across town. MAPCO is one of those gas-station-mini-mini-markets that is used as a supermarket by those unfortunate enough to have sore feet or no transportation. Today they're all out of diet. I don't know if it's because everyone drinks diet in Memphis or if it's because no one does; but judging from the activity at most of the locations it's the latter.

"Most people just get something else," one helpful clerk suggests.

Moving on, we eventually reach the south side of town and pull into our favorite Taco Bell (if it's possible to have one), a few blocks north of Graceland. They're busier than one-armed paperhangers, so I take the opportunity to use their plumbing. As I'm standing there the smoke alarm gives out a single beep, waits about 40 seconds, then lets out another one. There's no one else in the room, and there's no sign of smoke -- it's the low battery indicator. As the beeps continue I suddenly realize this smoke alarm has been beeping the same way since we first arrived in town, way back in October. No matter; they're just a little more laid back here than I expected.

I return to the counter and get in line, patiently awaiting my turn. When I reach the counter, the young lady takes my order. I reach into my bag but she waves it off.

"Y'all don't have to worry a bit," she says.

"What?" I respond; being from Arizona, I don't get it.

"Don't you worry a bit!" she replies.

I stand there like an idiot for a moment trying to figure out what's going on, and then realize she's offering me the drink at no charge.

"Really? What's the occasion?" I ask.

She responds with a shy smile and a shrug. I can feel her blushing, but I can't see it because I lack the experience to detect the subtle change of color in her deep mahogany skin. This inadequacy causes me instant embarrassment, translating into a rush of heat on the surface of my own skin, according to the message provided by my nerve endings.

"Thank you," I respond, returning the smile; "Have a nice day."

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1An aircard is a small radio device which plugs into the PCMCIA slot on a handheld computing device. It is designed to allow internet connection through the existing cell phone network. Such devices are utilized to file orders with a central computer in many applications where a salesman goes from business to business taking orders.

2The Amos 'n Andy radio show, Circa 1955.

3This is not an exaggeration.

4Listen to the Bob Corritore Show live on the web, Sunday evenings 6:00 to 11:00 pm Arizona time, at www.kjzz.org.

 
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