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.
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.)
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.