Archive for the 'Surprises and oddities' Category

Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.

The Balls of Bothell II

One of my early posts was called The Balls of Bothell. The Balls, Darl and Jeannine, lived for many many years on a curve of the busy road that runs around the north end of Lake Washington. I never met them, but like thousands or even millions of people traveling on Wasthington State Route 522 (called Bothell Way on that stretch), my wife and I had become familiar and even attached to their wooden sign, which we looked for and verbally celebrated every time we came around the curve in the highway where we knew it waited to announce their habitation at that place. It said “The Balls of Bothell” in big gold letters, and then in smaller letters beneath that it said “Darl and Jeannine”.

The sign hung from a post at the bottom of the Balls’ driveway. It was there for ages and then one day it was gone. I wrote a blog post about the sign and about our experience of the sign, and wondered what kind of people the Balls were and whether they were aware of how time and the increase in traffic on that once quiet country road had rendered strange such an exuberantly personal and inviting sign. (You know me…just wondering.) I didn’t have a photo of the sign to go with that post, and at the time I had no reason to think I’d ever see it again.

I think the Balls' sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then.

I think the Balls’ sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then. The curve is known locally as Wayne Curve.

If you go to that post and read through the comments that readers posted, you’ll see that old Darl himself eventually got wind of my post and logged in to give a shout out to all his fans, reporting that he still had the old sign and the sad news that Jeannine had passed on a few years earlier. I made a mental note to track him down and ask him if I could come look at the old board and take some photos of it, but I never got around to doing it.

Darl Ball, 1926 - 2013

Darl Ball, 1926 – 2013

Then Darl died, a fact I learned in those same comments when his relatives and friends started turning up and leaving little eulogies to him and Jeannine. One of those people was Darl’s nephew, Bradley Mitchell, who goes by Mitch and in conversation calls his uncle simply “Ball”. Mitch commented to let me know the sign had come to him and that if I wanted to see it I should come over to his home in Kirkland soon, because he was preparing to ship the sign to some relatives out of state who had the Ball surname.

I visited Mitch this past June. He is an interesting character in his own right, having himself many times been the subject of magazine and newspaper articles and television segments because of his large collection of deep sea diving gear and other marine equipment, many specimens of which fill his home. In the relatively small world of deep sea diving gear hobbyists, I’m sure his is a household name. But he clearly lives in a state of constant and enduring admiration of the man he calls simply “Ball,” and while he commented with very few words about anything related to his own celebrity, he was fairly verbose about his uncle’s life and times, and had dragged out for my perusal numerous photos and several paper artifacts from his uncle’s days in the Merchant Marine (Certificate of Efficiency to Lifeboat Man, serial number B71663; Certificate of Service to Able Seaman, serial number A120679; and a temporary American passport issued by the American consul at the East African port city then known as Laurenço de Marques, now Maputo in the People’s Republic of Mozambique).

Young Darl and his Merchant Marine buddies.

Young Darl (far left) and his Merchant Marine buddies.

I took several photos of the photographs he laid out. I spent an hour with him during which he said a lot of things that I did not write down and which I cannot now remember. I do recall him noting several times that Ball joined the Merchant Marine even though he couldn’t swim a stroke. That single fact seemed to represent the very gizzard of the man for Mitch. He also told me, something that may be of interest to history, that his was the third sign the Balls hung, that two others had been stolen over the years. I can’t remember if he said the earlier ones were smaller or larger, but I think they were not all of the same dimensions. It’s my opinion that when the stolen ones eventually turn up in some garage or at a flea market, they should be given to the City of Bothell for museum pieces.

You can read about Mitch in this April 7, 2007 Seattle Times article, and if you catch up with Mitch you can ask him all about his Uncle Darl, how the man went to Texas or someplace to buy a large piece of construction equipment — a crane, I think — and drove the thing all the way back to Seattle to use in the landscape business he’d started after the war. I would have liked to be able to relate more of what Mitch told me about him, since I had openly wondered about the Balls in my earlier post, but it wasn’t the right time and I was not on my reporter game.

Nevertheless, my main purpose was fulfilled; I got to see the sign again, which was much larger than I had remembered. And because I know there are so many out there who remember it fondly, I provide a couple of pictures of it herebelow, with thanks to Bradley Mitchell for letting me take them and use them.

Mitch Bradley.

Mitch.

Sign Number Three.

Sign Number Three.

Update 29 May 2014: This story never seems to come to an end. People keep commenting on the original Balls of Bothell post. Someone commented today, actually a comment addressed to Mitch (shown above) not to me. But it got me curious, so I did some googling and found a Bothell Reporter obituary for Jeannine that included a small photo of her, which I include herebelow. I don’t have any rights to the material, but I’m claiming “educational purposes”. I thought people might like to see a photo of one of the principles in this strangely ongoing tale. There’s also a Facebook page called “You know you’re from Bothell if…”, where the facilitator posted one of the above photos of the sign, and the comments it drew are very interesting and enlightening. One old Bothellian recalls that a photo of the sign made an appearance on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show or David Letterman’s Late Night. Also, almost unbelievably, the first “Balls” sign was made by a person named Cox.

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball, 81, passed away quietly in her sleep on Tuesday, September 22, 2010 surrounded by those she loved. Those who loved her know her long battle with illness is over and she is at peace. Jeannine will be remembered for her loving spirit, caring nature, and bright sparkling eyes. A friend to all, she lived in the Bothell area for nearly 40 years. She was an avid gardener who loved her roses and dahlias along with the birds and wildlife they attracted. Jeannine’s indomitable spirit and never-ending sense of humor were an inspiration to all. She leaves behind three daughters, Bobbie Metters, Debbie Rayburn (Buck) and Charnell Morud (Doug) and six grandchildren: Jayson, Katherine, Charles, Tessa, Carey, and Evan. Sisters Jorgia Irish, Sandra Winterburn (Victor) and their families, as well as former husband and friend, Darl Ball, are with her in spirit. All will miss her dearly but rejoice in having shared her life. Jeannine knew the true meaning of love. Her legacy is that she shared so much of that love with her family, friends and everyone she encountered. Services were held Thursday, September 30 at Purdy & Walters at Floral Hills in Lynnwood. To view the everlasting memorial visit http://www.dignitymemorial.com. Remembrances may be made to Meals on Wheels or other services for seniors.
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Following the obituary’s trail, I also found her archived remembrance page on the Dignity Memorial website, where a gallery preserves several dozen pictures of Jeannine taken throughout her life, from childhood to her last days. One of them — and again, I have no rights to it so tell me if it is yours and you don’t want it up here — is this wonderful image:

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

Blues Travelin': Part III – Kings

When I woke up I was sleeping on the street
I felt the world was dancing, and I was dirt beneath their feet
When I woke up I saw the Devil looking down
But my Lord He played guitar the day love came to town”

– B. B. King

Note: This is the last part of a three-parter. The first part of this story is here and the second part is here.

Tuesday

Tuesday I slipped out of the conference during an hour when all of the sessions seemed neither relevant nor interesting and set out up Union Avenue on my way to its intersection with Marshall and Myrtle streets. Union is a main thoroughfare running to the edge of town from the door of the Peabody Hotel, in the lobby of which, after all, the Mississippi delta is famously said to begin, so I was surprised that it was so empty of businesses.

Only a few blocks from the city center are empty lots where only old Magnolias suggest someone ever kept a business or residence here. This is actually not Union but Beale.

I did see a furniture store that displayed fine wood fireplace mantels in the windows of an old building that I at first thought was derelict, and one eatery called the Sky Grille or something like that, and I’m sure there must have been other concerns along the way, but my strongest impression was that Memphis was pretty bombed out, that it had never recovered from some long ago recession, long enough ago that commercial buildings and maybe even some nice old Victorian homes had disappeared leaving stately old Magnolia trees to stand sentinel over weedy lots in places where, if it were Seattle, shiny new condos would be opening up.

It was a little depressing, but as I’ve said before, I’m kind of attracted to urban decay, maybe because it so readily exposes the layers of time.

It was originally called Memphis Recording Service.

The layers of time have been kept from settling on the narrow building at 706 Union, which is where, in 1953 the teenaged Elvis Aaron Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service to make a record and answered the famous question of who he sounded like with the famous line, “I don’t sound like nobody.”

Sun Studio, as it later became known, has been preserved pretty much as it looked back then, and for $12 you can take a tour that leads you up a steep stairway into a room full of photos, old recording gear and other memorabilia related to the famous people whom Sam Phillips recorded here both before and after the night in July 1954 Elvis cut the version of “That’s All Right” that, when Dewey Phillips played it on his radio program “Red Hot and Blue” three days later, got so many people out of their chairs and on the phone that he was forced to play the record over and over again that night.

Tour guide Jason at Sun Studios.

Jason was the guide for the tour I joined of about two dozen people and he made it fun with enthusiastic storytelling and possibly the most interesting combination of face and head hair I’ve ever seen. He ran us through the key artists who recorded there — Rufus Thomas Jr., Chester Burnett (a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf), Ike Turner, and the Prisonaires among others — and told us what the significance of each contribution was, waving a remote to cause snippets of the original recordings to envelope us so we could hear what he was talking about.

A museum of Memphis music behind glass. Upstairs at Sun.

A famous story says that an amp fell off the roof rack of the car Ike Turner’s band was driving to the studio in Memphis, and even though they stuffed some paper inside it to mitigate damage to the woofer, it sounded distorted. However, Sam Phillips liked the effect and used it in the finished recording of “Rocket 88″, which became a smash hit and is regarded by some (not many who know anything about the history of music, though) as the first rock ‘n’ roll recording. I missed part of what Jason was saying when he pointed to an old torn speaker behind the glass, but I believe he was saying it was the very speaker used in the recording.

The tour ends back downstairs in the original studio, the very room where Elvis recorded his first songs, and where the exact spot where he supposedly stood that night is marked on the linoleum floor with an X of black tape. On the west wall hung a photo of the “Million Dollar Quartet”. The story there was that Carl Perkins was in the studio one day to record some rockabilly, with an as-yet-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano to fatten up the lean rockabilly sound, when celebrities Elvis and Johnny Cash both happened to stop by the studio. Phillips recorded their impromptu session and a photographer from the local paper was rushed over to snap the famous photo., which has already appeared at least thrice in this Memphis set of posts.

There's a busted up amp in the display...maybe the one that started all that damned distorted racket?

At the end of the tour, Jason stood an old microphone in the middle of the room and said it had been discovered in the back room years ago when the building was being restored. He couldn’t say for sure now, but it might have been the very microphone used by any number of celebrities who recorded there. We were welcome to take pictures pretending to sing into it, or really singing into it if we wanted.

The 40-minute-or-so tour had caused me to miss not only the conference session I wanted to skip, but the next one as well, so I had to beat it back to the Peabody, and since everyone hesitated I jumped forward and went first. I asked Jason to take my photo, and he thoughtfully counterposed my (pretend) crooning face against that of the King.

What do you think. Should I keep the day job? Photo by Jason.

I hoofed it back downtown, but since it became clear that I was also going to miss the provided lunch, I went back by Beale Street instead of Union so I could get some chow. I wanted to try some barbecued ribs. It was suddenly nearly 80 degrees and I’d walked a mile or two and was hot. The King’s Palace advertised ribs and air conditioning, and there was a family and several other parties inside, so I went in and ordered. When I asked for the barbecue banquet server Rob asked if I wanted the “dry rub” or the wet barbecue and I asked him what he recommended.

“Dry on the ribs, wet on the pulled pork.”

“Great,” I said. “Let’s do that.”

“Alright. Let’s dance,” he said and disappeared into the back.

By the time my food came out the family and the couple had left and there was just a guy at the bar. I was the lone diner in a big dark room, darker because it was so bright out on the street now. I felt a renewed pang of loneliness, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m one needy little human, I tell ya. This was the nadir of the trip, I sitting at a table alone in a huge dark dining room, like some miserable king. To make it worse, some blues band started kicking it up outside on the sunny patio, where I hadn’t even realized it was an option to sit. I considered asking them to move me to an outside table but I was suddenly weak and helpless against the voice in my head that told me it would be unseemly to trouble the wait staff so frivolously, and I couldn’t do it.

“You know how to eat this?” Rob asked as he set a big plate down in front of me. I said I was ready to be schooled. He said “Well, there’s the right way and then there’s the civilized way.”

“I want to know the right way,” I said, whereupon he told me that if I wanted to be civilized I could flip the ribs upside down and then I’d be able to see where the knife could go to cut them apart, but that the right way was just to…here he lifted his hands to his face and growled and gnashed his teeth to signify someone (a local, presumably) tearing the meat off the ribs. I thanked him for the tip and applied myself to the messy task at hand. I have not eaten a lot of ribs in my time, but I believed then and now that those were the best ribs I’ve ever had. I told Rob so when he swung by.

“Have you tried our gumbo?”

“No, but I had gumbo up the street at Blues City last night.”

His eyebrows did a strange thing, as if I’d responded with a non sequitur, and he said “Uh…did that place have trophies out front for ‘best gumbo’ like we do?” I said I hadn’t noticed. Rob said, “hmmm, I was just checking…” with a sardonic edge and then asked if I wanted to taste some, on the house. He brought me some gumbo in a little paper taster cup. It was, I will admit, better gumbo. I finished my meal and could barely haul myself back to the hotel for the afternoon sessions.

The National Civil Rights Museum. Who knew it was controversial?

After the last session I walked south along the river, the Mississippi River, then turned east to find the Lorraine Motel at 450 Mulberry Street, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum. This is where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. (Most people say he was “assassinated” but I don’t see any real use for that word; it mainly sounds like a way of abstracting away the brutality of killing somebody.) The museum was closed by then, but I stood for a few moments acknowledging my senseless white guilt about what happened here.

There were a number of other tourists at the motel. Jacqueline Smith was there, too, at her table across the street. I had heard just two days earlier about this woman Jacqueline Smith, a black woman who has protested on the streetcorner across from the motel (often camping out) for twenty years. She was the last resident of the motel when it was closed in 1988 and she was evicted and, in the end, forcibly removed (but only, so I’ve heard, after barricading herself in her room). She feels strongly that King would not have approved of nine million dollars being spent on a museum for him nor the replacement of affordable housing for the poor in that neighborhood with the upscale condos and lofts that have been going up for years.

Where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I'm not sure if the Caddie parked out front was actually the car MLK arrived in or not.

I walked over to her crude table, which had blue tarps draped around it for covering at night. I usually avoid proselytizers and torchbearers of every stripe but what I’d heard of her position seemed worth hearing and I told myself I could give her ten minutes of my time (oooh, such largesse). She was sitting and reading a thick book whose title I couldn’t see. She was thin and severe looking. She did not look up at me. I perused her signage, which included one that said “Gentrification is Abuse”. I asked her if she could tell me her story. Without taking her eyes off her book she said “There’s a website.”

*

After the long, nonplussed moment represented by the above asterisk, I said, “Well I can read, but I thought it might be better to hear what you have to say directly from you.”

“I’m done talking for the day,” said Jacqueline Smith, turning a page.

And that was that. I wanted to take a photo of her but it would have been crass. Or I don’t know, maybe it would have been perfect. The world is beyond me to understand. Her website is a little spacey, but it’s here. The conversation I would have liked to have with her was what did she envision as the alternative to either gentrification or leaving the city to rot, since she advocates a space between — the possibility of cleaning up a neighborhood without pricing the poor out of it, of actually maintaining a poor neighborhood — the existence of which I believe developers and city fathers would surely deny.

Chris and Mike can now say they've played Beale Street.

That evening I called the one person whom I’d made a solid contact of at the mixer the night before, a youngster named Scott. He said, yes, his boss Chris and another guy had taken their guitars down to Beale and were about to play on the sidewalk. He was there with them now. I should come on over. I skibbled over to Beale — without a jacket! — and found them on a corner next to where fairy tale carriages pulled by draft horses were waiting for customers. While waiting for the boys to “warm up” I talked to Jenny and the big black horse who stood waiting to pull the carriage she had for rent.

“What’s his name?” I asked, giving him hearty pats on his thick neck.

“Cash.”

“Ah,” I said, getting the connection. “The ‘horse in black’.”

“Right,” she said. “Only it’s Bobby, not Johnny.”

Chris and Mike, one of the conference speakers, played some bluegrass numbers while folks passed by on their way to the clubs or stopped to inquire about the carriage rides. I suggested somebody put a hat out, and one of us did, and Scott and I greased it with a few dollar bills so passers-by might be prompted to throw. Then we walked over to a restaurant of some local fame called the Rendezvous, just up an alley east of the Peabody, and they all ordered ribs. The dry rub recipe is legendary here, and if you go you’re encouraged to order the brisket. One of the women told me in her sweet but not heavy southern accent that she’d grown up here in Memphis when the only places downtown that weren’t boarded up were Schwab’s Hardware and the Rendezvous.

Blue no more. Finally, this howlin' lone wolf finds a pack to run with. Photo by Matthew Ellison.

I still hadn’t digested all the barbecue I’d eaten on my late lunch, so while everyone else ordered ribs and beer I presided over a pitcher of cola. The evening waxed convivial and the laughter rang out. I was wedged in tight against the wall, my new friends having accepted my presence there as though I had merely been misplaced and had now caught up with them. They were smart and funny and friendly, and I wondered why it had taken until my last night in Memphis to hook up with them.

Blues Travelin': Part II – “Yo Bob…”

I’m goin’ to the river maybe by and by
yes I’m goin’ to the river, and there’s a reason why
because the river’s wet and Beale Street’s done gone dry”

–W. C. Handy

Note: This is part two of a three-parter. The first part of this story is here.

Monday

The sun came out the next day and it got even warmer. I didn’t notice right away because I was in conference sessions all day and took my midday meal at the Networking Luncheon, in which each table has a topic and you can choose a topic based on something you know a little about, or don’t know about but want to know more. Getting to know other tech writers for some reason has been very difficult for me (I’m the lone textsmith at my company and I’ve been there since the late Precambrian), so I always take advantage of the luncheon to try to make some tech writer friends. I sat at the “Flare” table (Flare is a help authoring tool by Madcap Software that I use) in order to chat with other Flare users.

The Mississippi River between buildings of downtown Memphis. Arkansas is yonder.

I met several nice people; a guy whom I have actually encountered and been helped by in online support forums for Flare who goes by the handle “docguy”, and a woman named Amber who’d flown from Melbourne Australia at her own expense to participate in the conference because her company couldn’t afford to send her and she wanted to be here. She told me when I ran into her later that I had something stuck in my teeth. What would the world be like without Australians?

Fried green tomatoes right out of the skillet. Step on up.

A mixer on the roof of the hotel was scheduled for early evening, and because of the rain of the previous evening the talk all day had been about moving the event inside if it was yucky out. But when I stepped out of the elevator hall onto the roof — being met there of course by a friendly, freshly pressed hotel staff member who smiled and asked how I was — I was shocked at how warm the evening was. The sun was heading down but still very bright and the only clouds in the sky were cheery little cumulus puffs. Aside from the annual February Tease Seattle’s been uninhabitably cold so far this year, consistently ten degrees colder it seems than normal on any given day. Standing on a rooftop in the evening without a thick coat in Seattle would be impossible at this time of year (most times of year, in fact), and I was a little disoriented. Coat-lag.

I mingled for a while, actually did a good job getting out of my shyness and engaged some more folks in banter. It helped that a debate broke out about the propriety of putting sour cream, bacon crumbs, chives and grated cheese on fried green tomatoes, which were being fried up in front of our noses right there on the roof. I thrive in situations like that, though that’s not to say that my lively additions to the melee helped clarify anything. Incidentally, I had never had FGTs before and I could have eaten them all night. I normally give a wide berth to passing fried foods, but this was definitely not a time to stick to dietary principles. I hoisted the When-in-Rome and hove to in the lee of the tomato bar.

Beale Street on a night when it's not raining...wall to wall blues fans. This is the outdoor patio of King's Palace Cafe.

A street artist captures siblings for a visiting family.

I tried to find some people to link up with for a dinner outing, preferably over to Beale Street, whose thunderous music reached our ears riding the warm breeze from several blocks away (this was another surprise: it seems that often when you’re outside in Seattle, all you hear are freeways). I knew someone would have to be going out to eat, especially on a night like this, but discovering them was the problem. Many of the speakers hang out together, and while they are not necessarily aloof they also don’t make announcements about their dinner plans. Also, some people come to the conference with some or all of their colleagues. I had no one, and while it was fun to be on an adventure — I enjoyed traveling solo in my twenties — I missed my wife and daughters and felt a vague sense of dread as I headed to Beale Street alone again.

The difference a little water makes on Beale is unbelievable. Gone was yestereve’s rain and in its place were mobs of people, standing on the sidewalks, crossing the street (which is a no-car zone between Second and Fourth), even one guy doing flips down the center of the street — you know, head over feet in fast arches like a gymnast — and crowding around the bars and tables and stages in the restaurants. I wandered around a bit just taking in the various sounds, perusing the gift shops that were all full of Elvis and Betty Boop and tacky jazz and gaudy blues gear.

The music venues are one after another on Beale.

I saw a sign for gumbo outside a cafe that looked like it had a few free tables and got a sudden hankering. I asked the man standing outside with menus how much for a bowl of gumbo. He flipped the menu around  a few times trying to find the price, mumbled that this wasn’t his normal joint, he was working several places this evening. I asked where he normally worked, and he said the Blues City Cafe. He said the gumbo over at Blues City was exceptionally good; the recipe had been stolen out of Baton Rouge several hundred years ago. I didn’t necessarily believe this but I liked the idea. On the other hand, I had already walked by Blues City and it was crowded to the gills because of the live music. This place had no music, at least for the moment, so I went in and sat at a table. I waited a while for someone to say something to me, offer me water, something. Then I waited some more. There was a woman behind the bar and a young man moving around quickly doing something with buckets, but no one seemed to be minding the customers. A group of girls that had come in before me still had not yet been addressed either, though they were involved with their phones and didn’t seem to mind. I’m kind of a stickler for service, so I left after about eight minutes and walked up to Blues City.

Gary Hardy and the Memphis 2. The math adds up. On the screen is a photo of the "million dollar quartet" -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins with guitar, Johnny Cash and Elvis on the keys.

The front door was mobbed. A grey-bearded older gent asked me for how many and I said one, and I could see that that was not what he wanted to hear. He told me to hang out a bit. Several parties of more than one were waiting on the sidewalk by the door, the place was so packed. The man came out after a few moments and suggested I go into the other door and order at the bar, the menu was the same, so I went around to the other door and took up a seat at the bar. I ordered a bowl of gumbo and listened to the show. Gary Hardy and the Memphis 2 were on stage. They have a habit of playing a few notes of a song and then pausing while Gary regales the audience with some interesting history about the performer. When I came in he was telling the scandalous tale of Jerry Lee Lewis, and after that they played a number of Johnny Cash songs, and Gary sounded a lot like Johnny, really.

The gumbo was really tasty, hot, though salty to the point that the flavors were a little overpowered, if that’s possible (I thought salt was supposed to enhance the flavors present, but this salt seemed to have a voice of its own). Maybe whoever the recipe was stolen from let it be stolen so the thieves would perish of thirst on the run? As the clientele shifted around me over the next half hour, it came about that a woman was sitting on the stool next to me and her husband was standing behind me. I offered him my seat and in so doing pulled the pin on a torrent of southern-fried friendliness. He wouldn’t hear of rousting me from my seat but I told him I was about to square up and skedaddle, and he asked where I was from. He and his wife were farmers in Kentucky and had stopped in Memphis for a treat. They had eight thousand acres of wheat, corn and soy. They wanted to buy me a beer for the road and I felt bad declining. We chatted loudly over the antics of Gary, who was now saying that the U.S. government had systematically eradicated the name Billy Joe from the earth by inducing country singers to kill off characters with that name in song lyrics. (As proof, he asked for a show of hands how many people named Billy Joe were in the crowd and there were none. Q.E.D.)

Dr. Feelgood play to a crowded room. I had to elbow people aside on the sidewalk to get this shot.

I didn't go into the Rum Boogie Cafe, but it had one of my favorite signs.

I felt a warm glow from my interaction with the farmer couple as I headed back to the Peabody, and it made me wish I’d just hung out with them for a while, or that they’d showed up before I’d eaten. I realized afresh how eating alone is just one of the worst human experiences, an unnatural situation despite how often it occurs. I loved the gumbo and the music but what was the point? It doesn’t feel worth it to travel if I have to eat by myself. It really made me feel blue. I had the blues. I had the Memphis blues on Beale Street, because I couldn’t turn to my soul mate and say, “hey, you wanna hear my favorite palindrome? It’s ‘Yo Bob, mug o gumbo, boy!'” and because she would already have heard it a million times.

To be continued…

Blues Travelin': Part I – The Best Kept Secret

Just walkin’ in the rain
Getting soaking wet”

–The Prisonaires

Because a family of ducks lives on the roof, and because the ducks are trained to ride the elevator down to the lobby thirteen floors below and waddle the length of a red carpet to the fountain in the lobby’s high-ceiling’d center, the Peabody Hotel on Union Street in Memphis, Tennessee is world famous. It is a lovely building, having been resuscitated, like many other buildings in the city, from the twin devastations of an economic recession and an ill-advised urban renewal program in the 1970s that together nearly emptied the downtown of business. Two blocks south, Beale Street had fallen by that time into such decay and abandonment that few would have recognized it as the home of the blues. Among the few businesses that were hanging on by the skin of their teeth were a family hardware store that had been run by the Schwab family since it was founded a hundred years earlier by Abraham Schwab, and a barbecue joint called the Rendezvous that specialized in what they call a “dry rub” in those parts, as opposed to a wet barbecue sauce.

Welcome to Memphis' finest.

Of course that was then, and though the economy is ailing again now, the hotel is (indeed all three businesses are) reaping the rewards of having stuck it out through the worst of times. Busloads of tourists arrive to witness the March of the Ducks at 10 o’clock every morning, the lobby chairs and sofas are full of guests every evening enjoying the bar until late in the evening, crisply liveried staff members smile and greet you in the halls and ask you how you’re doing, the taxis come and go, the doorman in a bright red coat and a black tophat opens the door for you, and the guestrooms are clean and cheerful. The Peabody seems to be the center of Memphis again. It was the location for a convention of technical writers that I attended last week. I’m fixin’ to tell you all about it. We’ll take it in chunks.

Sunday

I was tired when I landed in Memphis, the kind of tired that catching planes all day and two-hour delays on the runway at Salt Lake City make you. But worse, I was hungry. We don’t have time to dwell on this and everyone has had bad flying days, so enough already. When I landed in Memphis the airport was shutting up its pizza and burger joints for the night, and all I’d eaten all day was tiny bags of peanuts. My head was buzzing and I was having trouble making decisions, staying focused. I had been warned ahead of time by the concierge at the Peabody that TennCo, the airport shuttle, was unreliable. She would never recommend them for going from the hotel to the airport because half the time they don’t show, but I was willing to give them a shot getting from the airport to downtown. I was already late, there was nothing to miss. I called the number but got an automated message instructing me to leave my number and a message, they’d call me back. I left my number and a message that I wanted a ride to downtown, then went to find a taxi. I asked the security man where the shuttle would be if it came, and he pointed and said, “That looks like one of their cars there!” I thanked him and ran out to a black SUV.

"Old Beale Street is coming down..." This photo was taken by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1974. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, TN-60-3.

The shuttle man was loading up the luggage of one Mrs. Fairchild when I approached him, and it turned out he was on the lookout for me. TennCo never called me back, but they called their shuttle driver and told him to keep an eye out for me. I got in next to Mrs. Fairchild, who I quickly found was one of those good-natured, long-sufffering people who make you just really happy to be an American and have them as your countryman. She was bearing up under a terrible day with a self-deprecating air of half-hearted exasperation that lacked any sign of anger or resentment. After a flying day that resembled mine, she’d gotten into the wrong airport shuttle by mistake, and when that company had figured out she was supposed to be in someone else’s rig — I guess it was a prepaid arrangement — they circled back, instead of just dropping her off at her hotel as a courtesy, and dumped her at the airport, which is where our shuttle man, Greg I think his name was, eventually found her on his second time through looking for her. Good for him, good for her, good for me.

We headed to town while Greg cooed soothing words to Mrs. Fairchild in his kind southern accent, how they should have taken her to her hotel, how a good night sleep would do her good, and when we dropped her at the Marriott he shouted to the doorman, whom he knew by name, that “this is Mrs. Fairchild, you take good care of her now.”

On the way to the Peabody Greg and I talked about old buildings. I was so hungry I could barely think. Greg pointed out his favorite building in the city, the Lincoln American Tower. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Twenties?”

The celebrity waddle. The Peabody Ducks exit the elevator and head for the fountain. The Duckmaster is in a red coat behind them.

I checked in, missing the restored grandeur of the hotel in my light-headedness, tossed my bag in a room with high ceilings and Hermitage yellow walls, and went out in search of food. It was raining but warm. I hesitated to eat at T.G.I.Friday’s right across the street from the hotel when there was surely more authentic local fare nearby, but I’ve learned the hard way, repeatedly, that when my tank is empty I get stupid, and I start trying to do too much, save money, eat healthy, eat more creatively, and I go in circles of indecision and prolong the disaster. I tore into a chunk of salmon in a sweet mango sauce and the largest florets of broccoli I’d ever seen, and left Friday’s feeling restored. I was tired, as I said, but I was not sleepy because on top of Daylight Savings Time going into effect that morning I had moved two time zones closer to the beginning of time. So I was actually three hours younger than the clock said I was. I headed to Beale Street.

Beale Street, the famous home of the blues (it was originally named Beale Avenue but it’s name was changed after the success of W. C. Handy’s hit song “Beale Street Blues”) was empty*. I heard a local woman later say that Memphians don’t go out in the rain. I guess they’re not memphibious. Seattleites don’t have a choice, we can’t “wait it out”, so here I was, ready to walk on one of the most famous streets in America and hear some authentic Delta blues. The colors of the many neon signs bled in the reflections off the wet pavement. I thought it was actually quite fetching.

Beale Street on a rainy Sunday evening. "Ribs here."

Beale Street is different today from what it used to be. In the early days of the 20th century it was a business district like many similar streets in other towns, but it was in clubs and restaurants along this thoroughfare (many negro-owned) that musicians developed the style that became known as the Memphis blues or Delta blues. By the time Joni Mitchell sized it up in the mid-1970s in her song “Furry Sings the Blues” the street and its music scene had long been in decline and many of its buildings had been knocked down. Those remaining were all boarded up, with the sole exception of Schwab’s. Preservation efforts saved just two long blocks and one short one, which are now again chock full of clubs such as Blues City Cafe, B. B. King’s, King’s Palace Cafe, Rum Boogie Cafe, W. C. Handy’s Blues Hall, and Silky O’Sullivan’s. But Beale Street is now a dream of itself, a tourist attraction built by a development company out of the ashes and rubble of the neighborhood. Some people for this reason don’t consider it to be authentic. I didn’t care. This is where one of the parents of Rock n’ Roll was born (the other being country music) and I wanted to appreciate whatever was left of it in whatever shape it came in.

A man in a brown, short-sleeved shirt and a rimmed felt hat and chinos called to me. “Hey, come on in!” He was standing just outside the doorway of a dark, dingy looking club, a narrow building with a bar along the right side and a band making some bluesy music in the back, and he was smoking a cigarette. I thought he was a barker, a man they paid to “pimp” the joint, as the saying goes.

“I’m just going up the whole street checking things out right now,” I said, by way of declining, then looked up at the neon sign above the door. “Where am I?”

“This is the Beale Street Tap Room,” he said. “Best kept secret in Memphis. Where you from?”

The best kept secret? Beale Street Tap Room.

I talked with him for a few minutes and then moved on. I took a few photographs because the street is so colorful at night. As I was walking back along the street the same man came out of a different place about half a block down, having just purchased a pack of cigarettes. I asked him where that taproom was, and he said he was going back there. I told him I don’t drink and asked him if he thought they had a cup of decaf coffee for me there and he said he thought they could probably fix me up. So I said I’d check it out and we walked back to the Beale Street Tap Room.

A man with dreadlocks was playing guitar and singing Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain”, backed by a drummer and a bassist. There were one or two people sitting near the door and a couple at the end of the bar playing a little gambling video machine. Two young men sat at one of the large tables near the band and a another couple sat at the other large table. The walls were old brick and the floor was of wide planks — this was one of Beale’s original old buildings. The band played “I Shot the Sherriff” next. I never liked Reggae much and in fact I have only recently become interested — mainly from a historic perspective — in the blues, but I noticed that this band was tight, and the bass player in particular was really earning his keep.

Vince on the harp. Surprise!

I asked the bartender for a decaf joe and she turned and said something to a young man working back there with her, then walked out from behind the bar, through the club and out the back door into the alley. A few minutes later she returned with coffee in a paper cup and a handful of creams.

After the band finished “I Shot the Sherriff” my friend from the front door who I thought was the barker took a stool in front of the band and started playing harmonica and belting out a powerful rendition of “Standing on Shaky Ground”, dragging on his cigarette between verses. I was impressed. When it was time for me to go I went up and asked him his name and he said Vince Johnson. I googled him up when I got back to the hotel and discovered that not only was he Vince Johnson, but he was Vince Johnson of Vince Johnson and the Plantation Allstars. YouTube has a video of Vince sitting on the same stool in the same venue doing a different song (here), though in that line-up the only member of the band that looks familiar to me is the drummer.

I don’t know if Beale Street Tap Room is really a secret, but for me it sure was a surprise.

To be continued…

*The full genius of the title of the 1980’s hit cop show “Hill Street Blues” just now hit me.


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