The Blues of Memphis

The world has stared in horror on video screens at the murder in Memphis of Tyree Nichols. How could such an event happen? What type of culture creates people who could exhibit such a lack of human empathy when confronted with the beating death so many participated in?

I lived in Memphis for nearly 10 years. It was where I had my first job, at a chemical plant north of the city, and I lived in two apartment complexes and a house near the University of Memphis campus (I’ll always want to describe the school as Memphis State.) I was a part of the city, but I see now how much of the city I did not visit. At my plant, the racial divide was there, but it seldom was a primary concern. I can only recall one time where the violence and crime affected us, and that was when one of the operators didn’t show up for his shift. Turns out it was because he had been abducted by some folks as part of a drug transaction gone bad, and he had been locked inside of a trunk for over a day. From what I know, he was fortunate to ever leave that trunk alive. But that turned out to be only one of many instances of him not complying with corporate expectations, and he was fired shortly afterwards. This was the guy who went in and plugged up a hole on a leaking ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. It was clear that he was fearless. But. He was ultimately not a good fit for working in a chemical plant.

I crossed paths with different parts of Memphis society from time to time. I coached our company team in basketball in the city rec league one year. Now, you must understand that Memphis is crazy for basketball. That’s why the NBA franchise there has done so well. And we did have several good players on our team, including the intern whose brother was on the Memphis State team. The only reason why Alfred was not playing major college basketball was that he was only 5’7”. When he went back to school, we picked up another guy from the drafting and blueprint room, who was about 6’4” and a professional kick boxer. He was a terror on the boards and on defense. Sometimes I think the only reason for me to coach was to allow me to call my own number, and play my 2 minutes per game where my only skill was standing still and letting someone charge into me. There was once where a guy who resembled a matchstick, about 6’6” and 66 pounds, came at me, and I distinctly remember his knees clipping my shoulder. He went down and I’d thought I’d killed him, but except for the foul he got, there were no consequences. Our team was undefeated going into the playoffs, where we encountered an older white referee, who immediately perceived any deception as traveling. I was very upset with that ref who took us out of the tournament. But that was only a partial meeting across cultural and racial lines, and I left the games to go back to my almost exclusively white apartments.

I let race wash over me during my years there. When I bought a house (back in the days of 15% interest rates), I ended up in the white neighborhood between a country club and Memphis State.  It was a nice neighborhood, and I never had any concerns about walking at late night down to the bars that a major college attracts. I would imagine my concern level would be elevated now, with an increase in street crime and the general decline occurring in the nearly 40 years since I lived in the city.

That was the thing. I lived in Memphis, but there was a whole part of the city I never set foot in. I remember driving through one neighborhood, where I saw the sign on a diner advertising the bologna sandwich. I could only wonder about a restaurant that thought enough of bologna to feature it

To say that I lived a life of white privilege is easy to see now. I participated in the party scene in the Nutcracker Ballet, and was asked back to be the king in the following production of Sleeping Beauty. There I was actually on the stage with members of the American Ballet Theatre. These are not the type of cultural events frequented by the majority race in Memphis. I lived in the city before the renovation  and resuscitation of Beale Street. So I had to make do with the Overton Square area for bars and restaurants appealing to my demographic (white, male, aged 25-34 at the time). For heaven’s sake, I saw more bluegrass bands than I did blues bands. How much more can you deny the local culture.

I lived in one apartment complex for over 5 years. Back then I would explore on my bike. Just on the outside of the complex was a street that could have been taken directly from the pages of William Faulkner. Henrietta Street it was named, and the contrast between the then new apartment complex cheek to jowl with the houses of sharecroppers was jarring. I only remember riding my bike down that street once. Not because I was scared, but just because I had so little in common with those who lived there.

With the recent beating death by police in Memphis, it is evident that the divides I saw in my time in the city have deepened over the decades.  I will always love the city and remember well the smell of hickory smoke down by the Mississippi river during the Memphis in May barbecue fest. There was something powerful in hearing Old Man River sung by a black performer as part of an outdoor orchestral concert. This city is where I learned how to barbecue, and how to be a responsible homeowner. But there was much I failed to discover, mainly because I never really shared my life with the majority of the residents. Now I can only shake my head in dismay at the actions shown repeatedly on television.