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.