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.

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