Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mother Machree and Helen Lucille

My Aunt Ida Mae outlived three husbands and one boyfriend. Divorced at 47 and living in the small Tennessee town of Trenton, she took it upon herself to enroll in a local beauty school and ended up opening her own shop, "Coiffures by Ida," in the mid-Sixties. At the time, we all asked her what "coiffures" meant, and she said it was just a fancy French word for hair styles and that she thought people would notice it more than "Ida's Beauty Shop."

Ida's business flourished. She converted the living room of her High Street house into a salon, and she proceeded to build a loyal contingent of customers who would walk up the steps to the front door, then come in for their scheduled appointments and of course, a little bit of socializing. Ida had a great air conditioner in the salon, so people liked hanging out there to take a break from the Mid-South heat. All the customers (except for her son Marion) were women, but one day, a well-dressed man came up the steps, and Ida introduced him as her new boyfriend Mac.

It's important at this juncture for me to create a mental image of Mac. Think Monopoly Man. Mac stood only about five foot six, just a bit shorter than Ida, and always wore a starched white shirt, suit vest, and trousers. He generally opted to forego the suit coat, owing to the heat, but he always wore a pocket watch attached to his vest, and he would pull it out to check it from time to time. A retired insurance executive who apparently had lived life on a schedule, Mac was well off and lived in a tidy brick house just down the street from Ida, which made walking to her house his preferred method of "courting." He was, of course, always impeccably dressed.

To say that Mac was entertaining would be a vast understatement. He was a natural comedian who spoke in a rather hybridized accent that was some mysterious fusion of Southern, Cajun and a few other things which would be hard to categorize. His expressions were punctuated by long, drawn-out vowels more reminiscent of the South Carolina Lowcountry than our part of West Tennessee, so I had to believe that he had spent some time there or in some place with a similar accent. We never got around to discussing that, though, because it was his humorous exclamations that preoccupied us. My favorite of his was one that I've never understood, even after years of searching for the meaning online. When Mac was truly surprised by something, he would contort his face into an expression of astonishment and exclaim, "Mother Machree and Helen Lucille!" He drew out the phrase so that it actually sounded more like, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL!"

The only consistent reference I've found to either of the two ladies mentioned in this expression is a definition for Mother Machree. This was the title of a 1928 silent film about a poor Irish immigrant who moves to America. Helen Lucille was not the name of any other character in the movie, and a web search only reveals obituaries for people by that name, none of whom seemed to have acted in movies, although I suppose that would have been possible. At any rate, this Helen Lucille appeared to have had quite an influence on Mac.

# # #

The green neon lights shone against the black night sky on the quiet highway outside Milan. Mac had decided to take Ida, my mother Peggy, my cousin Marion and me out for ice cream, so here we were, off this deserted highway at some place that had "Freeze" in its name. Marion and I ordered soft serve cones dipped in chocolate, and as soon as we had them in our hands, we started devouring them. Mac, on the other hand, ordered a large cone of plain vanilla soft serve, and when the server handed it to him, we all stopped to behold its glory: there, resting upon the top of a humble wafer cone, was a veritable tower of ice cream. It must have been at least eight inches high. Mac looked at it, then with a swipe of his right hand, removed the top half and dumped it onto the ground as he exclaimed, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL! No way I can eat this much cream!" We laughed so hard and so long, until we finally jumped back in Mac's Caprice Classic and returned to Trenton, full of frozen deliciousness.

Mac was not a good driver. My mother especially hated riding with him, and for good reason. He would run out in front of other motorists, veer intentionally off the side of the road, and jiggle the steering wheel back and forth, all the while saying, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me!" Mac loved to go to buffets on Sunday, so whenever we were in Trenton, he would take us out, insisting that he drive one of his Caprice Classics (as you may have imagined, he had several over the years). These trips were always nerve-racking ordeals. One day, Mac wanted to take me out for a personalized tour of Trenton, and my mom reluctantly agreed. Our brief expedition was highlighted by a drive through the town cemetery, where at one point, as the car veered off the drive, Mac commented, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me, right here in the graveyard!" We got back home, and when my mother found out where we had been, she was not amused.

But despite his reckless driving, Mac had a good heart. He and my Aunt Ida had some fabulous times together, and until his passing in the early Seventies, he was a constant source of companionship and amusement, not only to Ida, but to us all. Mac was really and truly Ida's boyfriend: after her divorce, she focused on making a living for herself and raising the one of her two sons who still lived at home, and she did well, so Mac was like the icing on the cake. He was a classic gentleman who would come courting at predictable times, and even though not formally a member of the family, he seemed like one to us. After he died, his survivors had little to do with Ida, and although at first she was hurt by this, she recovered in short order and found another husband, and when he died, yet another.

Which brings me back around to the point of this story: we all encounter people in our lives who leave on us a lasting impression. At the time, it seems that they will be with us forever, but in truth, we must take advantage of the time we have with them. In my case, I have never met another Mac, although my eyes are always open for someone else of that ilk. I would love it if that were to happen.

Oh, and one more thing: If you know or can find out who Helen Lucille was, please let me know.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Random Access Memory

In the 1970's, there were no such things as iTunes Radio, Pandora or Spotify. The concept of digitally stored, streaming music was unimagined. Besides, computers hardly seemed an appropriate delivery mechanism for music -- they were used for things like sending people to the moon and back. Those of us who liked to browse music just for the sake of the auditory experience had to use turntables or tape players.

One day, way before I was old enough to drive, my mom took me to the downtown branch of the Memphis Public Library. I can't recall exactly what prompted this trip, but that's how we were, striking out every now and then on a mini-adventure. My parents had always encouraged me to read, so I was a regular at the library's Randolph Branch, within walking distance of my house, and the Highland Branch, a favorite of mine owing to its tall, dark shelves and the overarching scent of old books which permeated the place. But on this one particular afternoon, my mom and I headed to the Main Library at McLean and Peabody for a little something different.

The downtown library was quite large compared to the one in my neighborhood, and after we finished selecting a few books to check out, I happened to look through this one doorway and found something I hadn't expected: a music room that was absolutely chock full of LP's. There were walls of them, and a card catalog which helped to locate the album you were looking for. I felt like I had found a pot of gold.

I had studied piano since I was eight years old, but I'd always played only the pieces given to me by my teacher, and I hadn't had the chance to broaden my horizons that much, so when I discovered this vast repository of music, I was enthralled. It's hard to understand today, given our ability to invoke random access to anything at any time, but finding all this music in one place was actually somewhat overwhelming. I browsed for a while, then selected a couple of albums to take home for a listen. Two weeks later, I brought those back and checked out more, and the process continued.

Before long, I was driving, and together with my friends Tim and Lewis, fellow school band members since seventh grade, I would head to the now newly remodeled Main Library and its large, quiet music listening room, which now housed all those earlier albums and more. For its day, the music room was well outfitted and featured rows of study carrels for private listening. You would select an album, then take it to your carrel, where you would play it on a individual turntable through headphones which were massive by today's standards. You could listen to any album in the room, of which there were thousands, at random. It was very much like today's music streaming services, except that you had the added bonus of holding a physical album cover and reading the liner notes while the music was playing.

In the next few years, Tim, Lewis and I made excursions to the Main Library a regular part of our city explorations, and in this way, we expanded our listening habits in a way that I suppose otherwise would have been impossible. For me, I think those early days set the precedent for how I would later seek out new and unfamiliar music while still maintaining respect and love for the old stuff.

Today, streaming makes almost any form of music readily accessible. I can only imagine what would have happened had we had these kinds of services in the 70's. I probably would have become permanently attached to headphones and would never have left the house, except to go down to the coffee shop. Wait...we didn't have those back then either. Come to think of it, how did I make it this far anyway?

Happy listening, friends.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Driving Mister Bill

Bill, my driving instructor, bore an uncanny resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, right down to his ubiquitous cigarette holder.

If you don't know who Hunter S. Thompson was, let me give you a brief introduction. Thompson was the counterculture creator of "gonzo journalism," a style of writing in which the reporter becomes involved with a story to such a degree that he or she ends up becoming an integral part of the action. He was something of a folk hero in the 60's and 70's, an edgy writer who served as the inspiration for Doonesbury's "Uncle Duke" character. He once went so far as to tell Garry Trudeau, the comic's creator, that he would set Trudeau on fire if the two ever met.

Bill, on the other hand, worked for the Tennessee Driving School on Summer Avenue in Memphis. He was originally from Detroit, a factor which most definitely influenced his driving techniques, but he had relocated to Memphis some years before he took me on as a student, and he knew the city upside down. Bill was absolutely unshakable, and that was one of the reasons he succeeded at his job. The other reason, I always thought, was that he had a biting but strangely likeable sense of humor.

Nothing phased Bill. I was a somewhat tentative driver initially, but on my first lesson, Bill took me out onto Summer Avenue, a rather major road in our neighborhood, full of commercial distractions and lots of traffic lights. He was patient, funny, and gave me all kinds of pointers: using the car's hood to align where I was in the traveling lane, watching whether people's wheels were moving at intersections, looking over my shoulder when backing up, that sort of thing. The lessons he taught me must have stuck, because I use them all even to this day.

Humor came in handy during my driving lessons. I recall one day that I stalled a manual transmission car at the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Yates Road, and I couldn't figure out how to start it. The problem was that I had the car in the wrong gear, but Bill sat there patiently as I was practically reduced to tears, while impatient motorists behind me began to show evidence of their discontent. By the time we got back home, I was laughing at myself, but I never made that mistake again, and Bill never reminded me of it.

Probably my favorite Bill memory was during an early morning lesson, when we were traveling westbound over a viaduct on Chelsea Avenue, a heavily industrial section of Memphis. Out of nowhere, another motorist suddenly ran out in front of me. I applied the brakes quickly but carefully, thereby avoiding a collision, but Bill shook his head and said, without missing a beat, "Next time, hit the SOB." I laughed, he laughed, and we drove downtown to continue the lesson.

Bill was not what you would call politically correct, and he had entire categories of drivers whom he believed should be monitored and avoided at all costs. The problem was, his list encompassed the vast majority of drivers on the road, in effect all of us, so as with many things I heard back in those days, I took that advice with a grain of salt. I don't think he meant all that stuff, anyway --  even at the time, it seemed more for comic effect.

My time with Bill was brief, but I thanked him mightily when within a decade of his lessons, I found myself commuting on some of the nation's busiest highways in and around Chicago and Los Angeles. Bill was actually very good at what he did, and some of his pointers came in especially handy when dealing with the inherent whims and weirdness of urban traffic. It's almost as if he wanted you to get inside the heads of other drivers and anticipate what they might do. Whatever his method, it worked, and before long, I found myself driving all over the place, beginning what would become a lifetime of urban exploration.

So thanks, Bill, wherever you are. I don't know if you're still alive, but if you are, I hope your driving days have been uneventful, that you haven't skidded in the rain, and that you still have your cigarette holder. Without your tutelage, I might never have driven past the city limits.