Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Village People

Every year about this time, we start to see them: the little porcelain villages, with their detailed buildings and happy mini-people, resting peacefully on a bed of artificial snow.  These are nice, predictable worlds, and even though the characters don't move, they put us into the holiday spirit with their teeny-tiny smiles.

Some time in the mid 1980's, our family first became acquainted with Department 56 Villages.  My mother-in-law Margot, my wife Karen, and our close family friend Ginna all started collecting "village pieces" at about the same time.  Everyone was fascinated by the attention to detail and vast array of buildings, accessories, and people.  Each year at the holiday season, Department 56 added more and more to the lineup, and collectors eagerly awaited the arrival of whole new worlds.  

Karen's perfect New England Village
My wife started our collections with her New England Village, which was appropriate, seeing as how she is a genuine New Englander.  Before long, I was given several pieces of the Christmas in the City Village, seeing as how I like city life.  Our younger daughter was given the North Pole Series Village, seeing as how she liked Santa Claus.  Our older daughter was started on a collection of Snowbabies, curious little ivory-colored creatures who, according to the Department 56 website, "offer countless opportunities to celebrate love, friendship, inspiration and life's memorable moments."Before long, we had a veritable Department 56 world within our house.  Meanwhile, Margot and Ginna had expanded their respective collections accordingly.  In short, we were making our own little contribution to the success of Department 56.

I remember one particular occasion that was representative of the whole era.  Ginna, Karen and I headed to Phipps Plaza in Atlanta one evening in the early 90's for a Department 56 open house, where the company was introducing its new village pieces.  One of the mall stores had been transformed into a village wonderland, and when we arrived, there must have been well over a hundred people waiting to get into the store.  Many of the pieces being sold were in high demand, since they were about to be retired from the collections.  As with any gathering of this type, you could tell that some of the shoppers were serious collectors, full-size Department 56 village people.  You didn't want to come between Aunt Sally and the Old North Church, if you know what I mean.  I could only imagine what kinds of villages these people were displaying in their homes, but then again, our own home was being transformed as well.

Karen is religious about putting up her village pieces, and they always look lovely.  Each arrangement of buildings looks perfectly to scale, and the little people are placed right where they belong, engaged in such activities as skating, hauling ice blocks, sledding (there's lots of sledding), admiring the latest lobster haul, kissing under the mistletoe, and bringing home Christmas trees.  Me, I require a little prodding to get my Christmas in the City village in place.  After all, city people are very busy, and what with commuting, checking out new restaurants, and stopping at coffee shops, they don't tend to have as much time to devote to village construction.  Nevertheless, once my village is assembled, you'll see people playing the violin, walking the dog, carrying fire truck ladders, reading the paper on a park bench, or doing their best Madeline impressions outside the Brighton Preparatory School (introduced in 1995).

My Christmas in the City
This year, my wife "strongly encouraged" me to get my village put together, so on a rather warm winter's night, when I happened to have the house all to myself, I did just that -- or at least I thought I did.  When Karen returned home, she told me that there were some issues.  The most critical problem was that I had placed all my buildings in perfectly straight lines.  I countered this by stating that in most cities, buildings are in straight lines up and down city blocks.  Nevertheless, Karen took it upon herself to rearrange one of my two village setups.  I don't know...I thought my village, a working person's village if you will, had a little something going for it.  But now, I'm not so sure.

Karen's Christmas in the City
Anyway, this whole village thing is very serious to lots of collectors out there, and many people have invested thousands of dollars in their tiny worlds.  And really, maybe that's a good thing, because even as much as I might chuckle at the obsessive nature of this particular behavior, I have to admit that I kinda like seeing the villages and their happy little people.  This is a big world with lots going on, and we don't have control over much of what happens, so it's nice to know that once a year, we can recreate a serene little porcelain world of our own.  My village people may not all be standing in the right places, but I have a certain fondness for them, and for their collectors as well.

Hope you all enjoy your holidays!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Girl from Bakersfield

Every November, I think about that chilly Thanksgiving evening in 1966 when my life took a turn. In this case, that was a good thing, because that was the night that my Aunt Ruth taught me to play three chords and a couple of old cowboy songs on the guitar. I wish I had known at the time how much I would want to thank her in the future.

Aunt Ruth with our dog Pinky in 1966
My Aunt Ruth was born in the early 1920's in Bakersfield, California.  A raven-haired beauty with features suggestive of Native American heritage, she married my Uncle Richard, a young Methodist minister from Tennessee, in the 1940's, and they spent several years in West Tennessee and Northern Wisconsin before heading to Southern California, where my uncle would serve in various area churches for the remainder of his career. Every few years, they would make the trek with their three children back to Tennessee, and it was on one of their Thanksgiving visits that my Aunt Ruth brought her guitar.

I spent several summers with my aunt and uncle in California in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and I always looked forward to those visits with eager anticipation. Mornings would often start with a horseback ride with Aunt Ruth through old movie sets, some of which were still being used to film shows such as Bonanza and The Big Valley.  We would enjoy leisurely rides and generally get back home in time for lunch.  Afternoons were usually beach time, and Aunt Ruth would drive my cousin Debi's old Ford station wagon, nicknamed The Beatlemobile, on zigzag roads across the coastal mountains to Zuma Beach, where Ruth would help us set up. She always brought along munchies, SPF4 (at best) suntan lotion, and gallons upon gallons of Kool-Aid.  For a young teenager like me, it was nirvana.

Blog author flying a kite
 at Zuma Beach in 1967
Aunt Ruth never seemed to tire of taking us to the shopping mall, which was a fairly new concept at that time. Our favorite was Topanga Plaza, a short drive from our house, and she would arrange check-in times and meeting points with us, then give us free rein to stroll the mall, taking in candy shops, music stores, and Orange Julius stands. On any given morning, she might have sported a western shirt and jeans, but when we headed to the mall, Aunt Ruth always dressed up, often wearing her favorite sleeveless magenta dress, perfectly accessorized, with her lustrous dark hair arranged in a fashionable chignon.

Ruth was always either very with or ahead of her time.  She began playing guitar during the heyday of folk music.  She would sit patiently with me while I practiced new chords or some old Western song, gently suggesting how a different pick or strum here and there might improve the sound.  One evening in the 1970's, I remember her heading off to a church meeting with a rolled up foam mat -- she said she was going to a "yoga" class.  She was always tending to her fitness, and it was evident -- she was in wonderful shape well into her later years.  She and Richard maintained a small vegetable garden on their property, from which they would gather fresh beans and corn for dinner.  Ruth was always looking to enrich her life.

Nothing ever seemed to ruffle Aunt Ruth's feathers.  Once, my uncle heard of a man who was giving away free ducklings on a farm which fronted the Ventura Freeway.  Richard, Ruth and I headed there one afternoon and chased ducklings around the property until we captured enough to bring home (I'm sure that this provided endless amusement to motorists).  All was going fairly smoothly until several days later, when we went out to run an errand, forgetting that all the ducklings were locked inside a screened back porch.  When we returned from our outing, we realized the error of our ways, but rather than fret, Ruth simply grabbed a mop, some Mr. Clean, and got to the task at hand.  On another occasion, I recall her tossing burned toast out the kitchen window to an eager flock of chickens which roamed the yard.  This seemed odd to me, but to her, not a problem...they'd eat anything.  Painting during an earthquake?  Not to worry, she's only a tremor.

The last time I saw my Aunt Ruth, she was in her late seventies, and a heart problem had slowed her down a bit, but she still managed to travel with Richard from their retirement home in the Ozarks to attend the annual walking horse celebration held in Shelbyville, Tennessee.  Even in the face of severe health issues, she still had that same spirit and that same grace.

When Aunt Ruth passed away several years later, I really felt like I'd lost a piece of my heart. But I also realized that I had been given the privilege of knowing a true lady, possessed of a unique combination of presence, imagination and spirit. And I can still play "Red River Valley" the way that she taught me that Thanksgiving night.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bin There, Done That

Have you ever noticed how certain items simply cannot be lost, while others vanish almost immediately upon acquisition?  I truly believe that there is some kind of inversely proportional law governing this: the prettier or more expensive the item, the more likely it is to disappear before you've even had a chance to appreciate it, while that ugly umbrella you purchased just inside the front door of Walgreens during a flash flood will stay with you forever.  That's just the way it works.  Such is the case with our flaming red trash bin.

We live in a "close in" suburb of Atlanta, and owing to a mild climate and a preponderance of evergreens, our area remains rather green for most of the year.  Atlanta is home to scores of neighborhoods nestled into groves of trees, giving it an overall park-like feel.  And that is one of the reasons our trash bin is such an aberration: it is a bright shade of red, and it stands out like an 80 gallon traffic cone when placed at the curb.  The other, and perhaps more significant, issue with the bin is that even though we no longer use it, we cannot rid ourselves of it.  It was delivered to us when our younger daughter was seven years old, and she turned twenty-one last July.  At this rate, she will leave home permanently before the bin does.

In our part of Fulton County (home to most of the city of Atlanta), trash collection is contracted by the individual homeowners, and each company appears to pick up on a different day of the week; therefore, on any given day, selected homes will have trash and recycling bins out for collection.  Most of these bins from the various services are green, however, so they blend in with the landscape as much as can be expected.  Sometime around 1997, we switched trash services to a company which brought us this red bin -- it was novel at the time and remained so.  We didn't use that company for long, but when we terminated their service, they never came back for their bin.  Obviously, they didn't want it, either.

Over the years, with each new service we've used, we've tried in earnest to get this bin removed, since each waste removal company provides its own set of bins.  We've kept the red one mostly out of sight in the garage, but this has infuriated my wife, because with its strategic placement along a side wall, it prevents her from opening her Jeep door wide enough to avoid injury.  Basically, no matter where we put the red beast, it is in the way.  Everyone has promised to haul it away, but time and again, it remains there like a scourge upon the landscape.  Just last week, another new service brought out their sparkling, unused 96 gallon bins, and as part of their introductory deal, they promised to remove the thing, but did they?  What do you think?

So there it sits, awaiting a haulaway.  I'm thinking that we're going to have to sneak it out under cover of night to another county, even somewhere outside the metropolitan area, where it can be discarded with no hope of return.  If we don't get rid of it soon, our neighbors, patient people that they are, are going to disown us.  After all, red just doesn't work in a green town...except at Christmas, of course.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Carrie Mae

"Carrie Mae, Carrie Mae!!!"  I'll never forget that afternoon as my venerable piano teacher brazenly pulled out into the busy street, crossed over the center median, and headed toward the oncoming traffic.  Realizing her mistake, she was able to swerve out of the way just in time, but not before instilling a notable degree of fear in her fellow teacher, who was riding in the passenger seat, and me.  Having just learned to drive, I witnessed this whole episode from the back seat, the safest part of Mrs. Sims' car, because as you may have gathered, she was a far better piano teacher than a driver.

That day, the three of us had attended the Greater Memphis Music Teachers Association meeting, where I had been asked to perform Aram Khachaturian's 1959 sonatina as a demonstration of contemporary musical instruction.  I played at the scheduled time, not knowing that only an hour or so later, I would be treated to a joy ride.  Ah, Mrs. Sims, once again, you surprised us all.

From the time I can remember, music has been part of my life.  My mother used to play piano at home and sing random little songs while doing house work, and occasionally, she would stop whatever she was doing and sit down at the piano to play "The Glow-Worm".  When she did this, she was transformed, bouncing her feet up and down on the pedals, smiling and laughing, and sometimes, even singing along with her playing.  Every now and then, she might drift off into another song, but she always seemed to come back to The Worm.  I guess that something about growing up around things like that made me want to play music from a fairly early age, so when I was eight years old, I began piano lessons with Mrs. Sims.

Carrie Mae Sims stood about four feet ten inches tall, but she ran a tight ship.  Her husband had passed away years before, and she lived alone in an immaculate little house on North Prescott Street, just off Walnut Grove Road.  She had arthritis and often had trouble walking, so a lady came to her house several days a week to help with routine chores.  Her beautifully decorated living room, replete with oriental rugs and sculptures of famous composers, was home to the upright "training" piano and a gorgeous black Steinway baby grand with matte finish ivory keys.  Piano recitals were held twice a year, during the winter at Mrs. Sims' house, and in the spring at the Beethoven Club, a midtown performing arts venue housed in a beautifully restored home on Peabody Avenue.

I remember that one day, not too long after I'd started lessons, I decided I'd had enough and told my parents that I wanted to quit playing piano.  My mother, having done all the legwork to get me started, told me that I would have to call Mrs. Sims myself to resign, so that evening, with my stomach in knots, I called her.  She was understanding, and she told me that ultimately, quitting would have to be my decision.  I told her that it was, and then a week later, having experienced severe musical withdrawal, I called her and asked humbly if I could start again.  I never looked back.

Preparing for a recital was a big deal -- it required months of practice in order not only to perform the piece accurately, but as we got older, to add a level of interpretation in order to produce a more finished, polished work.  Mrs. Sims could be tough, yet she was always encouraging, especially when we played our best and added those special touches.  She might chastise me for using too much damper pedal, falling behind the pace of the metronome, or not curving my fingers enough, but she would also compliment me on my interpretation of Chopin.  Sometimes, during a late afternoon lesson, I would catch her drifting off to sleep as I played some prelude or nocturne.

Each year, eight to ten of Mrs. Sims' students were expected to participate in "The Guild", an organization formally known as the National Fraternity of Student Musicians.  During the course of a year, we had to memorize ten pieces, be able to transpose a piece (change it from one key to another), and be able to sight read, that is, play a piece that we had never seen before.  Each year in May, we performed our pieces from memory, produced our transpositions, and sight read a piece one-on-one for a judge, who then scored us on a 100-point scale.  Mrs. Sims had to have a certain percentage of students reach above 95% in order to maintain professional accreditation with the Guild's parent organization, so the pressure was always on.  I did this for approximately five or six years, up until the time I was a senior in high school.  I remember the relief when the judging was complete and how that always gave me a ticket to enjoy the rest of the summer.

As the years progressed, I picked up more instruments, and having a background in piano definitely helped in that regard.  My first foray outside piano was the guitar, which I started playing when I was eleven.  My Aunt Ruth came through town from California with her guitar at Thanksgiving, and on the first evening of her visit, I asked her to show me a few chords.  I was instantly hooked.  My parents gave me my own guitar for Christmas that year, with the understanding that I was to keep up with piano, and several days later, I bought a Mel Bay guitar book and started teaching myself to play.  Before long, I found myself in my first band, a group of sixth graders known as the Fantastic Four.  Junior high brought the trumpet, and in high school, I picked up the French horn.  I was always playing something, and when I was sixteen, I started playing guitar in a band that accompanied a group at my church known as the One Way Singers.  That period was to become one of the happiest times of my life.

When I eventually headed off to college at Northwestern, I knew I would be missing home, so I packed my "portable friend", my acoustic guitar.  On the afternoon that I moved into my dorm, a tall guy with a red afro in the room across the hall saw me walking in and said, "Hey, wanna pick some tunes?"  That broke the ice, and pick tunes we did.  Clay and I spent countless hours playing the likes of B.W. Stevenson and Dan Fogelberg, and before long, we'd found a few other musicians who would stop by and jam with us after we'd finished studying (or sometimes before we'd started).

I am so thankful for music.  Over the years, it has brought me self-confidence, inspiration, camaraderie, and some of the deepest feelings I have ever experienced.  It has been one of the most important influences in my life, and I think that truly, I owe much of that to those early days with Mrs. Sims.  Her dedication to the appreciation of music and to performing it well set an example which I have always tried to follow.

The second movement of that Khachaturian 1959 sonatina ends with an ethereal, pianissimo F sharp, played up toward the end of the keyboard, an octave above the staff.  I can still hear that note echoing in my memory, and it is supremely beautiful.  Every time it comes back to me, I think of Carrie Mae and the house on Prescott.  And if I sit very still, it seems that I can even hear the tick-tock of the metronome, sitting on the corner of that old upright piano.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ringing in the Fourth

Kyle Davis rang his backyard dinner bell every Fourth of July at noon.  It's not that it couldn't be rung at any other time, but on the Fourth, its hallmark clang reminded everyone in our general area that we had something to be celebrating.

Kyle lived next door and was the renaissance man of our Memphis neighborhood before we actually even knew what that term meant.  Employed by the Tennessee Department of Conservation, he would ride a city bus to work downtown and back every day, and on his short walks to and from the bus stops, Kyle had a unique penchant for picking up curious items that he might find lying along his path.  Sometimes that might amount to a handful of nuts and bolts or some random machine part, but fairly regularly, he would find some object that he couldn't identify.  He would approach me in the afternoon and bring out the item, asking if I knew what it was.  More often than not, I had no idea, but I found his endless curiosity fascinating.

The best find that Kyle ever brought back to his house was a lawnmower chassis from which the engine (and all related parts) had been stripped.  His wife Kitty hounded him relentlessly about putting the mower in the trash, but he couldn't bring himself to do it -- it was as if he'd discovered the mother lode of abandoned junk, and he wanted to preserve it.  Finally, one day, he took the mower remains to the curb, hung a pair of old boxer shorts over the handle, and placed a sign beside the mower, offering it to any taker with the stipulation that it was only to be used for cutting fescue.  It was a trademark Kyle move.

Kyle and Kitty had built a beautiful den as an extension to their original home, and it was here that Kyle displayed some of his more notable treasures.  One that I remember in particular was a mastodon tooth, which he had placed prominently on the fireplace hearth.  Kyle prided in showing off his den to visitors, and I would always tell people in advance about the tooth, so that when Kyle showed it and asked if they knew what it was, they would have an answer at the ready.  This was a joke between us all through the years.

One summer, his son Bob convinced Kyle to replace the old family car with a fire engine red 1966 Pontiac GTO.  Sometimes, if Kyle was driving to work and the weather was nasty, he would offer me a ride.  The looks I would get wheeling up to the school in this car were priceless -- I'd be good for the whole day.  Kyle was meticulous about caring for his home and possessions, and the car was no exception.  I do not ever remember seeing any dirt anywhere on its surface -- it simply gleamed.  We used to enjoy the irony of the oldest couple on the block having the coolest car.

We lived through many experiences together, both good and bad.  On a chilly weekend afternoon in November of 1963, I was watching television as Lee Harvey Oswald was being escorted from the basement of the Dallas police headquarters to a county jail.  Suddenly, from out of the crowd, Jack Ruby appeared and shot Oswald to death.  I ran outside and told Kyle, who was working in his yard.  That weekend, which had begun with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on a stormy Friday, is etched forever in my mind, and in those pre-Internet days, when something big would happen, we would always check with the neighbors to see if they'd heard the news.  I'll never forget that day and Kyle's shocked expression.

But life in the neighborhood was typically tranquil, and Kyle and I had many good times together through the years.  When I would come home from college, he was always one of the first people to check in with me to see how things were going.  In some subtle way, he was an inspiration to me -- I think it had to do with his curiosity about the world outside his own domain and his willingness to talk to anyone and everyone about those interests.  For whatever reason, it made an impression on me, and every year on the Fourth of July, I remember my kind, spirited neighbor, pulling the long white rope to ring his dinner bell.

Happy Fourth to you all.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Wine Hike

It was a Groupon deal.  For my birthday last year, my wife Karen found this online offer that seemed to be right up my alley, since it blended two of my favorite activities, walking and wine consumption, into one day-long adventure.  According to the deal, we were supposed to drive to Fort Yargo State Park in Winder, Georgia, and from there, we would be ferried via some unknown conveyance to the starting point of a hike that would take us to Chateau Elan Winery, at which we would have lunch, then return back to where we had started.  I wasn't sure how many miles this would be, but all in all, it sounded like a good way to spend a Saturday.  Given that the Groupon offer was only good for one year and that my next birthday was quickly approaching, we had to go ahead and schedule the hike.

Victoria Bryant Lake
One thing I've learned from many years of working and living is that one must be prepared for the unexpected.  And so, when I heard that our destination had changed from Fort Yargo to a certain Victoria Bryant State Park "somewhere out I-85", followed by a hike to "some winery out there", I went with the flow.  We awoke early and headed to our favorite Norcross coffee shop for our morning breakfast, then set off up I-85.  A little over an hour later, at about 11:00 AM, we arrived at Victoria Bryant State Park, where we purchased a day pass and found a nice parking space.

Although the hike was scheduled to start at 11:00, at least for a while it seemed that we were the only "wine hikers" there.  The park office featured a nice oil painting of a lady whom I assumed was Victoria and a small cooler filled with Klondike Bars and Drumsticks.  There was a stand of rod and reel kits and a rack of t-shirts, along with a table full of fishing thingies, and since I don't know much about fishing, I'll leave it at that.  Within several minutes, we had exhausted the available entertainment options at the office, so we ventured back outside to wait for our wine tour guide to appear.

At 11:30, there still was no guide, and by this time, several other Grouponers had arrived, among them a couple who appeared to be regular hikers, a man who was a big University of Georgia fan, and two young ladies who worked together in a doctor's office.  Several of the more resourceful people started examining the park trail map, thinking that we might have to do this thing on our own.  Karen suggested that I call the winery to see if we could find a number for our guide, so I did that.  The winery indicated that we were not on the Saturday tour schedule and were actually supposed to be there on Sunday, but to "come on out and it would be okay".  This was not particularly reassuring, but just as my concern peaked, up roared our guide, an energetic little man of Middle Eastern descent, ready to lead the expedition.

The hike had been billed as an "easy walk", but even as a regular walker, I would consider this trail "medium".  It was apparent early on that our guide, whom I shall call "T", was used to this sort of thing -- he was like a windup toy with well-defined calf muscles.  There were long stretches of uphill paths, spots where we had to finagle our way across rocks and streams, and pieces of trail that consisted mostly of tree trunks.  But we reveled in the fact that there would be wine at the end, and of course, during the hike, there was the promised lunch.

Because "T" was a renaissance man with a strong affinity for organic food, our lunch (which he had brought in a small backpack) consisted of turkey on flatbread, fresh kale, carrots (I think), and goji berries.  "T" had trouble saying "goji", so we started calling them "hoochie-coochie berries".  This elicited much laughter from the group, especially when I indicated that after consuming them, I had started to see colors.  One of the young ladies in the group chimed in, "Yes, you eat them, and you go, 'Where are my pants?'"  That seemed to break the ice for all of us, and we decided that we kind of liked this organic food, after all.  I even had a second flatbread sandwich.

After the rest period, we again hit the trail and completed the hike, which I would guess to have been somewhere between five and six miles.  At the end, we struggled uphill to the parking lot, except for "T", who ran up about eighty stairs to get back to his car.  Having witnessed that show of athletic prowess and realizing that it was beyond my good sense or abilities, I was relieved that it was time to visit the winery.

We had directions, but we found it easier to follow the maps on my iPhone to direct us to Boutier Winery, in the community of Danielsville, Georgia.  OK, now...I'm a city person at heart, and I can find my way to almost any nook and cranny of the city of Atlanta, but this place was out there.  We pulled into the parking lot, put on flip-flops, and headed into the air-conditioned wine tasting room, where we were greeted by a nice Irish lady named Mary.

Mary and her significant other own the Boutier Winery and an adjacent bed and breakfast, and we were not disappointed with the wine selection.  The wines, mostly fruit based, were given clever names such as Diva'licious (peach), Absolutely Sinful (peach ice) and Skinny Bitch (blueberry).  We sampled a wide variety of the offerings and went home with four bottles for the cellar.  At the end of the afternoon, we had to agree that this wine hike thing was a fairly righteous idea, even if it didn't exactly start on time or follow the initial plan.

And so I say unto you: yes, you can visit your local Trader Joe's for some Two Buck Chuck, or you can browse the aisles of Total Wine for just the perfect wine to accompany your pheasant under glass, but listen up: there is nothing to beat walking one's buns off, eating hoochie-coochie berries in the middle of nowhere on a really hot day, then heading home with some wine named Skinny Bitch. That, my friends, makes for an afternoon.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Let's face it.  Some people are downright scared of urban America.  Others passively observe it, maintaining a healthy distance.  Still others take part in the rich fabric of life on a grand scale.  Such was the case with Luther.

Norman "Luther" Knox was, in the strictest sense of the word, a gentleman.  He would wander into my father's grocery store, Hogue & Knott #3, every Saturday at about 9:00 AM with his typical greeting of "Ho, now!", ready to purchase libations for the day.  In Luther's case, libations consisted not of vodka martinis, but rather two ice cold quart bottles of Busch beer.  I worked at the store as a cashier on Saturdays while in high school, and Luther would always seem to direct himself to my checkout lane.  He would buy his beer and then get distracted talking to someone else, so I would hide the bottles behind the counter for a minute just to pull his chain.

There was nothing fancy about Luther, other than the fact that he always wore a sport coat and a nice hat, which was always positioned at a jaunty angle.  Luther dressed this way because his ostensible daily mission, other than consumption of both beer bottles by noon, was to cart groceries home for the ladies who lived in the neighborhood.  The charge was a flat rate of one dollar.

The neighborhood itself, centered on the corner of Lamar and Willett in southwest Memphis, was resplendent in the trappings of urban life.  It boasted numerous laundromats, barbecue places, shops which displayed Christmas lights all year long, and sidewalks worn down by the foot traffic of generations.  True to the patchwork nature of so many cities, it also bordered a quiet, affluent neighborhood whose residents would periodically emerge from their stone-faced mansions to pick up a loaf of bread or a six-pack of Coca-Cola at our humble establishment.

The wonderful thing about "the store", as I knew it most of my young life, was this juxtaposition of people who had nothing with people who had everything.  One of our customers was a prominent opera singer, while another was an elderly woman named Margaret whose demanding care for her blind husband never diminished her sense of humor.  My dad would box food for Margaret every year at Christmas and present it to her when she least expected it.  Dad took care of his customers.

But I digress a bit, in that the subject of this story, the aforementioned Mr. Knox, delighted in quoting the Bible at length during the slow afternoons.  Luther was extremely well-versed in the Bible and could quote passages along with chapter references.  I don't know if he was ever a preacher, but he would have had no problem filling that role.  To top it all off, Luther's favorite expression was (and I had never heard this prior to my time in the store): "Luther stick a fork in it.  He don't care who he stick it in."  When I questioned him one afternoon about his quizzical mantra, Luther responded that he was not referring to himself, but rather to Lucifer, who given his eternal dwelling in the Bad Place, would by definition stick a fork in anybody, at any time.  The problem was that Luther was missing some teeth, so it took me a while to distinguish "Luther" from "Lucifer".

Anyway, Luther helped carry us through many a day and night at the store.  He would hang around, laughing and talking with everybody, a gentle and kind man to the core.  It is strange to think back on it, but I know that in some small way, I took Luther's wit with me later as I moved away from home to Chicago to attend college.  There were many sub-zero nights when I thought of him and wondered if he was still hanging out at the store.  I hoped he had a good heavy coat to keep him warm.

On one of my first visits back to Memphis during a break, I headed over to the store in the afternoon. To be honest, after months of living in the rarefied academic air of college, I couldn't wait.  There stood Luther, with his back to me, preaching something or other to the cashiers, tending to their long lines of customers.  I sneaked up behind him and grabbed him by the shoulders.  He spun around, beamed at me, and gleefully exclaimed, "Ho, now!"

All was right with the world.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Last Ticket

When I left the office today, I hopped into my car, checked the temperature, and seeing that it was a balmy 76 degrees, I dropped the top and loaded up a heady mix of music to accompany the ride home.  I was cruising, weaving through the Old Alabama Road traffic on a beautiful afternoon, and looking forward to leftover homemade pizza for dinner.  As I neared home, I dropped into Chastain Cleaners to pick up the laundry I'd left over a week ago, and when I walked into the shop, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.  It was a simple hand-lettered sign that read:

Store Closing
Pick-up Only
No Drop-Off
$10 Credit Card Minimum

Granted, in these trying economic times, it's not unusual to see businesses fold, but this one was different.  The proprietor, a tiny lady about my age named Kyung, was one of those people integral to the fabric of a neighborhood, a hard worker who always had a smile, regardless of the weather or the line of customers waiting at the counter.  I could be rushing in on a Monday morning or slogging in at the end of a tough day, but Kyung's smile healed all, not to mention the fact that the work done by the laundry was always flawless and ready on time.

I would typically walk in with a stack (read "pile") of shirts and trousers, and Kyung would ask for my phone number, hand me a yellow ticket, then tell me when to pick up my laundry, always apologizing if the order would take more than a day.  She always remembered the area code and the exchange, but would ask for the last four digits with a little giggle.  When I would go to pick up my clothes, I would never have my ticket, but Kyung would again ask for the phone number, then retrieve my order in an instant.

Some summer afternoons, the laundry was like a steam bath...I couldn't understand how the staff could stand it.  On frosty winter mornings, the constant opening and closing of the door forced Kyung to wear a heavy gray jacket.  Still, she smiled and patiently awaited my recitation of the phone number.  Sometimes, when I'd stop to pick up my order and the weather was a little dicey, a staff member would take my clean clothes to the car for didn't always happen, but I was grateful for the gesture whenever it did.

So today, as I walked in ticketless to pick up my laundry, I asked Kyung what happened and why she was going out of business.  She told me that the rent on her little shop was a thousand dollars a month, tough to afford in these times, and then she stated simply: "I'm just tired...I can't do it anymore."  I didn't know what to say, but I wished her good luck, and she reached across the counter to take my hand.  As I shook hands with her, I reflected on how many times her smile and good cheer had made my day, and when I exited the shop and got back into my car, I couldn't find the right music to play, so I drove home in silence.

There are so many people out there who work long hours and earn a modest income, yet always seem to have enough spirit left over to share with others.  Kyung was one of those people.  I hope that everything she has ever wished for comes true.

As for me, I think I'm going to save that last ticket.