fragments of an attempted writing.
This video captures something of the life of South Memphis.  My shop is on the train tracks that literally divide Orange Mound (South Memphis hood) from Midtown, and a lot of my coworkers live in Orange Mound.   The narrator is now attending Lane College, which is the HBCU in Jackson, TN where both of my parents worked (dad as a career counselor, mom as librarian) for a couple of years before they moved to Memphis.

Memphis has, to paint with a broad brush, two large swaths of "bad" ghetto (there are pockets of such across Memphis, and there are not so "bad" areas within each, so this isn't really accurate, but for the sake of simplification...) Orange Mound in the south, and Frayser in the north.  My brother was a cop in the South Memphis police precinct (Raines Road Precinct) for a good while, so I've heard stories both from the perspective of a cop and from the perspective of my coworkers who live there.  I live on the Raleigh/Bartlett border in the north, and have taken classes at the community college extension campus and spent a lot of time with coworkers in Frayser, so I know the North side better.  Plus my mom was librarian at the "worst" public elementary school in Frayser (and in the whole city, so it was said, they have since shut it down) for years.  Both Orange Mound and Frayser can be quite beautiful, especially in the spring when the flowers are in bloom, and later in the summer when the crape myrtles bloom.  Memphis is an interesting city in that there is flora everywhere, and as seen in the video there are pockets of "woods" throughout the city.  It's not all concrete.  There is something about the rolling hills in Frayser, and the large number of pine trees there, that I find quite peaceful.  The food (especially soul food and BBQ) in both north and south sides of the city is often sublime.  I'm attending a community BBQ some friends of mine in Frayser are putting on in a couple of weeks at a COGIC church there, and my mouth is already watering at the thought of it.

There is a heaviness in the aesthetic of Memphis that is hard to describe (and by "Memphis" I mean real Memphis, not East Memphis, which is Disneyland Memphis for rich white people).  Part of it is the anatomy of summer here, the visible weight of the humidity - that great oppressor.  Part of it is the goddamn brokenness of everything here- govt, roads, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, churches - anything you need to work for you doesn't here.  There is that hauntedness and a woundedness seen in many of the souls who grow up in or next to the sorts of hells noted in the video.  There is that completely disarming mix of hopelessness and mirth seen.  There is the always lingering possibility of violence (that is everywhere in this city - I never, a dozen years ago, would have thought if possible that I, former Catholic Worker, would become someone who didn't leave home without gun and knife).   But, despite and because of that heaviness, there is the singing shown at the end of the video, there is a palpable joy to be found in South and North Memphis that you notice if you stick around long enough, longer than the ghetto tourism of white Christians from East Memphis (or its satellites in trendy Midtown neighborhoods and Mud Island) or eastern suburbs churches doing pat-themselves-on-the-back projects on the occasional afternoon.  It is a joy that makes no sense, and it certainly isn't a joy that makes everything OK or worth it.  It is a completely useless, gratuitous joy, the existence of which makes one wonder at the absurdity and beauty of human beings.  

29 comments:

  1. Charles LLoyd, the great saxophonist musician, ( whose music is cosmopolitan embracing everything from Africa to Greece),is from Memphis. What do you think of him?

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    1. There are some Lloyd songs I do like well enough, but a lot of his stuff, especially along the fusion end, I lump together with that movement which turned jazz from serious, sophisticated, intelligent music into elevator music.

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    2. I heard Ben Webster in an elevator in a department store in Tokyo.

      Ellington once said there's two types of music, good music and the other kind. LLoyd's in the first type considering the sidemen/women he's brought to attention.

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  2. By definition, ain't no soul food in Memphis.

    Soul Food only exists in locales like NYC, Chicago, San Fran and LA. In Memphis, the term you're looking for is...

    ...Food. Their is good food, and BBQ, in Memphis.

    One of the worst things about the destruction of the local in favor of "the American way" is that as whites get more and more Americanised, one of the last things they had in common with the rest of us is being lost to them, to their loss. The other being that as they "discover" food their parents forgot about, and make it "fusion soul food" or whatever they tout food for white folks as in broader America, the price of oxtails are so damn high that the last luxury of the poor is priced out of our reach.

    Pot likker and cracklin' bread keep body and soul together in a unique way.

    Other disturbing trends? The WalMarts and Shopping Mall have replaced the Big Store and the Feed and Seed. The radios now are filled with a cauterwauling that obviously has its roots in our music, but isn't really music. (White "musicians", I am looking at you, not hip-hop "artistes", although its about as bad. They can't pick an instrument because they've been spoonfed corporate crap over radios and tapes and CDs and now iTunes. They can't even sing to themselves when they do have to hit a lick at a snake.) And now we have a generation of kids who don't call me a "dirty Indian" because they forgot their "supposed to be better than" me, and they just see a white boy because they can't get past the shallow surfaces of things. It seems like they've just replaced one kind of racism, the one they inherited, for another far more insidious kind. A southern Black man used to know who hated him because they'd come up and tell you, almost pridefully. Now, nobody's racist at all, and yet its all still the same. Learning to lie to yourself ain't no kind of improvement.

    I'll take the nasty, dirty Old South over America any day. When you know your enemies, it makes it a lot easier to make friends across racial lines, in a perverse sort of way.

    Hezekiah Garrett

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    1. I mixed my pronouns in my parenthetical. All the "theys" should be "yous", to keep it coherent. Its all directed at White folks, although its just as true of Blacks. Blacks used to could pick banjo and guitar and saw fiddle better than anybody. Now they synthesize so much of their music just like white folks.

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    2. With regard to food and Memphis, you have absolutely no fucking idea what you are talking about.

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    3. Never been to Memphis, but you name one "Soul Food" that's not just "food" to the older generations of folks, regardless of color, and I'll ride out there just to kiss your hairy white ass.

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    4. I admit this is one of my sorest points, because of a question I hear often: "Whats Indian food?"

      Um, corn, beans, tomatoes, squash and government cheese, I guess. I've never found a better answer, mostly because I don't want to see done to grape dumplings what was done to oxtails.

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    5. No, I'm not going to do that work. You come to Memphis and find me one black person over the age of 60 who does not use the expression "soul food" as a common idiom. So what if it is a neologism? It is a term that is now culturally entrenched.

      And Memphis is the center of the soul food universe - we have the highest % of african americans of any city over 200k in the South, we are a gothic, depressed formerly industrial town, with the highest rate of food insecurity of any city in the U.S. (yes, this is related to soul foodedness), right next to the largest okra and rice producing state, we have more native black Mississippians living here than in any city in Mississippi, etc., etc., etc. I can walk from my house to three restaurants that have "soul food" on their signs out front, two of them spray painted, and don't live in the soul food epicenter of Memphis.

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    6. Work? If eating is work, you're too damn lazy to draw breath, son.

      So you agree it is a neologism (Praise God for Rand-McNally or you and I wouldn't have a common language), and one forced in from outside? My only point.

      Poke salat, collards, turnips greens and pot likker, oxtails, hoppin john, cracklins, pigs feet (smoked or pickled) okra (boiled or fried) 150 kinds of tomatoes, 40 kinds of green beans, october beans, purple hulls, crowders, yeller squash, mac and cheese, gravy and biscuits, country ham, hominy, grits, cornpone and on and on I could go.

      That's just food. Until America comes along and decides it can't be food, 'cuz coloreds eat it. "What do you call these disgusting dishes?" "Why, that's soul food, man. it cures what ails ya."

      Yeah, my point stands. And I'm thankful for it too. I bet that thing hasn't been washed properly in ages.

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    7. And the great thing about that list is its mostly Indian food, except the rice and okra and a few other things which came over from Africa, and the Almighty Hog, the only clean, decent, and intelligent thing that came over on all your damned boats.

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    8. See, the "cultural entrenchment" (who talks like this? Can you publish a glossary for me? Do your co-workers out on the loading dock ever want to bash your skull in just for... let me consult Mssrs. Rand and McNally again... obfuscating?) is the problem, especially where food is concerned.

      We have SO MANY OTHER THINGS worth digging trenchs and facing off over. Food used to be the one thing we had in common, even if my grandfather would take his plate out on the porch at his coworkers houses so he wouldn't have to share a table with white folks. The plates were the same regardless. Everybodies shit stinks, but ours all used to smell the same at least.

      Now white folks eat, what? Burgers? Pizza? Fettucini Alfredo?

      (I have a lot of Eye-talian friends as a result of my involvement in a Catholic cult back in the day. I never tired of hearing them rant "Cazzo, who is this Alfredo, and why have you let him ruin pasta? Porqo Diaz!!!")

      That's one sure sign you have a real Culture, and not a mishmash of intellectual abstract bullshit. You're willing to cut a man from his jewels to his adams apple over food. Not from hunger, but because he has the wrong attitude about it.

      Hezekiah Garrett

      Hezekiah Garrett

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  3. " It is a joy that makes no sense, and it certainly isn't a joy that makes everything OK or worth it. It is a completely useless, gratuitous joy, the existence of which makes one wonder at the absurdity and beauty of human beings."

    It's a joy you can't partake in. How do you know what makes life worth it for another man? How dare anyone call another man's life raft useless? You sound more like the Jebbie Volunteer Corps there, man, and less like a Catholic Worker, to me anyway. I admit I've only observed those two from the outside, but the differences were almost palpable.

    Hezekiah Garrett

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    1. I have absolutely no interest in postmodernism.

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    2. Fair enough. I really am sorry for cluttering up your comments. You seem like a guy who likes things nice and neat and maybe is in denial about it.

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  4. Paternalism, thy name is Owen.

    Hezekiah Garrett

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    1. Are you a troll, or are you on the manic side of bipolar?

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    2. Oh, and as for paternalism, if I ever win the lottery, I am going to pay this guy to park his truck in my driveway, and I am going to eat his food three meals a day: http://www.blaxicanfood.com/#!home/mainPage

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    3. Damn, I may have to take me a trip. That sounds like good eats!

      And ding ding ding we have a winner!!! (Its not called bipolar in my medical tradition, but that's what the fever is called in white medicine, the Manic phase of cyclothymia. Bipolar disorder requires more of a break from reality than I have ever experienced. But my birth mom is Bipolar II, so fair enough.

      I hope you have a great day. I meant all I wrote, but I don't mean anything personal.

      'Cept where I do. ;-)

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    4. HezG, you feel free to write all you want here. And in the spirit of moderation, have a decent day.

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    5. No, seriously, I am departing this discussion for now to go find that truck!!!

      And I'm gonna get Mr Turner's opinion on "soul food". Is it food, or something else?

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    6. Dammit! He's off the road today. He's in Smyrna tomorrow for lunch though!!! I'll get back to you on his food. Have you ever et it, or just read the webpage? It looks like it'd be worth killing 4 men for. I'll let you know.

      Fuck moderation!!! I want to live until I die!

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    7. I just realised what you did there...

      Red Owen thinking: "How can I get rid of this annoying fucker?"

      Red Owen to Hez: "Look over there!!! A roach coach!!! Go get him boy!!!"

      (I'm more pre-modern, but post-modern works for me. Whatever it takes to get past Modernism, and all its attendent retardation.)

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    8. Until tomorrow probably...

      This http://www.pallookaville.com/ was the best roach coach in Atlanta.

      This big old redheaded GIANT hand dips his corndogs and other stuff too. Its just a rolling coronary, but he is kind of a center for "roach coach culture" in Atlanta.

      Did you know Italians call them "Lurido"? Get it? Lurid!!! Dirty!!! Like the Awffle House, kinda. Thought you might like that, since you seem to like langauge.

      See, I did so contribute something useful!!!

      I'm gonna go to bed now. I was working till 4am. Saw 2 women die, and a man who probably won't ever walk again. My work seems like such a fucking waste sometimes.

      You take care, and don't take no wooden nickels. But if a pretty girl offers you a yankee dime, snap it up tout suite!!!

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  5. I said I've never been to Memphis, but thats not precisely true. I had a BBQ sandwich at 1am in Orange Mound once in 1993, coming back with my stepdad (5'5" peckerwood who used to be comm operator for an A team) from dropping his girls off at their mama's in Cadiz. Only place open, we were starving. 4 HUGE black dudes in the place.

    They ACTUALLY let him go in the back to watch them make our sandwiches because, as he told them "I like sweet sauce, not spit."

    That man still scares me.

    I have spent some time in Bessemer though, and it may as well be the same place from what I hear.

    Hezekiah Garrett

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  6. During my last visit, I motored through Orange Mound along Park on my way to the ancient grease at Dyer's. Even the slums in Memphis have a suburban feel, and I encountered some quaint liberationist garb. It made 40-something history come to life.

    Och, I'm delighted that you're back in the saddle, and I'm doubly delighted that Hez is commenting.

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    1. I just read your blog, or at least all I can without delving into the archives. I am left with one question, and then a song in response.

      Why?

      and

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNIZofPB8ZM

      Hezekiah Garrett

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    2. Hoss, are you a crooner or a mooner? I'd imagine that highschoolers ovulated to that theme thirty years ago, but it doesn't move my dial one way or the other. Rather, it's a typical specimen of Sting's largely forgettable output. Heck, the man wails like his pecker's envying his stiff upper lip.

      Why? Let's just say that I'm a cozy little homebody who's affirming a nesting instinct in the aether.

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    3. You know a lot more about his music than me, I just remembered that refrain and youtubed it.

      Cool though, glad if I can make you crack a smile then ;-)

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