I am writing in the dark, so if you're expecting a story then stop reading.
I can't even read what I'm writing. In his mountaintop speech, Dr. Martin Luther King said, "that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars." But I can't see any stars because the lights of Memphis drown out the sky. And after he was stabbed by a demented black woman for writing a book, Harlem doctors told Dr. King that if he had sneezed he would have drowned in his own blood. He was stabbed for writing a book and shot for speaking up for garbage collectors. That's more than I can say. So I won't even try to tell a story.
I'm writing in the dark so I won't wake up Jessica. We're in Memphis because she has an interview tomorrow morning for a post-doc position at St. Jude's Children's Research hospital. For the interview, Jess has to give a speech on apoptosis-or programmed cell death. From what I've picked up, apoptosis is nature's way of telling a cell it's time is up.
While she is interviewing, I'm going to check out the town to see if it is a viable place for us to settle-see if I can picture us living there. But right now it's still dark, so I'm writing. I figured Memphis might inspire me to write a story. After all, if Jess gets the job I would have to be able to make a living here as a writer. I don't have any experience in the things that Memphis is known for-distribution, the Blues and garbage collection. If anything, it's a free weekend as St. Jude is paying for it all. St. Jude is the saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
The only thing I knew about Memphis prior to coming was what Del Cooke told me. Imagine a bald Elvis on a twinkie-a-day diet writing a weekly comic strip and you'll picture Del Cooke. He went to Memphis for a cartoonist convention thinking that Memphis was so far behind the times that they still might have the iconic Bob's Big Boy or maybe even a Sambo's. Before Del even checked in at the Peabody for the convention, he was assaulted in the parking lot. He was getting his bags out of the trunk of his rental car when three young black kids approached him. It was broad daylight. They locked him into the trunk with his baggage. Then the kids took his Dodge Neon for a joyride with Del in the back.
Del figures he spent three hours in his own trunk while these kids drove his rental car all around Memphis. That told me something about Memphis-the kids there have nothing better to do. Who knows where the kids were driving, but when they finally ran out of gas and abandoned the car they weren't too far from St. Jude's. They left the keys in the ignition and didn't take his $160 sunglasses that were on the dashboard. A laboratory technician getting off work heard Del pounding on the inside of his trunk and let him out.
After this, Del was too paranoid to leave his hotel room. Can you blame him? So all he really saw of Memphis was the inside of his trunk. And this was the only image of Memphis I had-what Del had told me about being locked into his own trunk with his baggage. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about coming to Memphis. MLK liked to steal FDR's quote, "the only thing to fear, is fear itself." But this WAS fear itself.
My fears were somewhat alleviated when Hertz gave us a Toyota truck as a rental. There was no trunk to get locked in to. The flipside was that our baggage lay exposed at every intersection we stopped at. We drove through the neighborhoods with doors locked. Observation: Memphis is black or white with no shades of gray. We'd have a choice of living in a black ghetto or white-flight suburbia, with no middle ground. Either way, I just couldn't picture it.
We arrived at the Peabody just in time for the "world famous" duck march. The Peabody has a long-standing tradition of allowing (or forcing) their mallards to bathe in the lobby fountain. When five o'clock rolls around, two bellhops roll out a red carpet and the ducks waddle to the elevator where they are taken back to their rooftop home. The bellhops use broomsticks to keep the ducks in line on the red carpet. Observation: the bellhops were black and wore uniforms, and all the spectators were white and wore fur coats. Who says warm-blooded was out of fashion? In New York, cold-blooded was the rage. Memphis was still in the dark ages. Where were the lizard skin button-ups or the alligator-skin boots? And if Memphis was fifty-five percent black, where were they?
I am writing in the dark but I can't see any stars. The glass pyramid with the searchlight pouring out of the apex is the culprit-invoking the image of the Egyptian city of the dead for which Memphis is named. Memphis on the apex of the Nile delta, Memphis on the Chickasaw bluffs overlooking the Mississippi-likened to Benares on the banks of the Ganges. Memphis is the American city of dead. Next to Dr. King rests Elvis. But they don't rest entombed in the pyramid. The pyramid houses college basketball games.
The Mississippi delta is rich with death. Fertile death that overflows its banks. Observation: the Mississippi is muddy but it flows blue. Who was it that said the only reason to move to Memphis is if you're a history buff or you're into the Blues?
The question is not whether we can live in Memphis, but whether we can die here. The question for MLK was not how he could benefit by going to Memphis, but how Memphis could benefit from his coming. I could never be so "dangerously unselfish." We come to Memphis to pursue our dreams. MLK came to Memphis to speak up for garbage collectors. We come to find a place to live. MLK came knowing he would die. His eyes had seen the coming.
It's beginning to get light now, but I still can't see what I'm writing. I can't see any stars. There are no storm warnings and I still don't have a story to tell. I pray to St. Jude to give me a story. But I am not a lost cause or desperate case. I am a privileged white male who has the freedom to choose where I live. There are no dreams to be had because tonight I cannot sleep. The only story in this is his story. History. He came to Memphis to speak to garbage men, I came selfishly for a story. But there is no story, only the beginning of an end. There is no lies, only the truth. And I am not worthy.
I was going to make up a story about a black crack-head that came to my door while Jessica was interviewing at St. Jude's. He would try to sell me magazine subscriptions and I feared for my life. Fact is, it's not really a story. It did happen. Only it happened in Tucson before we came to Memphis. It was night and the doorbell rang. Through the peephole I saw a large and dark figure with white eyes standing back from the door like he knew I was looking through the peephole at him. My initial reaction was fear, and that bothered me. So I opened the door.
"Don't worry, I ain't gonna kill ya. I'm just gonna rob ya." He started laughing. "I'm just kidding."
"You never know in this country," I said.
"This country is full a millions a lonely people who look through their peep-oles and are afraid a opening their doors whenever anyone comes a knocking."
He was wearing a navy blue suit and tie. Obviously he was a good salesman because I had the door open this long. He went into his spiel-he worked for some youth services program that kept guys like himself off the street. He needed to sell a certain number of magazine subscriptions to get a scholarship to some Negro college.
How could you say no to that? I thumbed through his catalog of magazines. "Do you have any literary magazines?"
"What do you mean, like Reader Digest?"
"Like the New Yorker, or Harper's Review?"
"No, I don't got those, but I got Field and Stream."
"I'm not interested in hunting. How about Rock and Ice? Or Climbing?"
"I don't have those neither."
I was thumbing through the catalog trying to find something remotely interesting, and that bothered me. Fact was, I didn't want any magazines and it upset me that I was considering getting one just because I felt guilty. I wouldn't give a white boy scout a chance at selling cookies. This guy was a good salesman, I'll give him that, but he had nothing to sell. Not for me anyway. So I didn't buy any magazine subscription and I wasted more of his time than if I had just never answered the door.
It's not much of a story, but it's true. I was going to stretch it and lie a bit and turn it in to a story, but it's already getting light and I am still writing in the dark in Memphis. I'm in the ritzy Peabody but I am hungry and cold. I have luxuries but I am not comfortable.
I seek the truth by seeking lies. But my story is history.
There is a true story about "My Story". The story of My Story happened back in Palo Alto in the eighties. My Story was a young angst-ridden African-American rapper from the east side. When I knew him, his dreads were just little nubs starting to grow in and he always wore fatigues. We were both in a freshman music class at Foothill community college. I'm not lying, his name was My Story. It was supposed to be a play on words, like "Mystery", but he had to spell this out to everyone. Who wants a name that you have to explain? He also attempted to rap and rhyme every word that came out of his mouth.
It somehow came to be that I traded my Casio drum machine for My Story's Suzuki dirt bike. I had a new drum machine and didn't need my old Casio. And I needed a motorcycle as my '67 Mustang had just been stolen. I never found who stole my Mustang, but that's a different story. So My Story and I traded, straight up.
I took the bike in for some repairs the next day and I just happened to take it to the same place where My Story bought it. Evidently he still had payments left on the bike so they repossessed it even though it was mine. They told me if I wanted it back I had to get the $250 that Clifford owed them. "Clifford?" Who the fuck was Clifford? They described him, and sure enough it was My Story. No wonder he changed his name.
This seemed incredibly unjust and since My Story dropped the music class, I went to his house to confront him about it. When I told my older brother Jeff where I was going, he tried to talk me out of it. It wasn't wise to go to the east side to make such a claim. But I insisted it was unfair, so Jeff insisted on coming with me. We crossed the border from rich white Palo Alto into poor black East Palo Alto in Jeff's red Toyota truck.
We heard the drum machine through the walls as we approached. When My Story answered the door, it was still playing in the background. Observation: he had three or four older brothers drinking 40-ouncers and casually watching TV. They probably could've kicked our asses, but this wasn't an issue.
"Hey My Story, I took your, or my, bike over to Barkley's yesterday and they repossessed it," I said. "They said you still owed money on it."
"Man, whad jou take it there for?
I didn't tell you to take it to where it was bore.
And now you come knocking at my door?
Now you coming to settle the score?"
"Clifford, you gotta pay the $250 or they won't give me the bike."
"Clifford? Who the fuck is he?
My name is a My Story.
My Story don't got two-fitty.
My Story is as poor as can be."
"Then if you can't pay for the bike then you got to give back the drum machine."
"You already gave me the drum machine.
The bike for the machine, the trade was clean.
Now you come and call me nigger?
Well at least this nigger ain't no Indian giver."
"I'm not accusing you of anything, I'm just saying you gave me a bike that wasn't paid for, so it wasn't yours to trade in the first place."
My Story didn't want to part with the drum machine. To be honest, I didn't particularly want it either as I had a better one. I was just upset about the principal of the whole thing. My Story looked to his brothers for help, but they didn't even get up off the couch. They just laughed at their little brother and said, "shut the fuck up Cliff and give the guy his drum machine back," followed by a swig of Olympia.
"It just ain't fair, it just ain't right
Before you had the machine and I had the bike
Now I'm giving you the machine and you got nutin' to give back.
This worlds a fucked up mess, nobody give My Story no slack."
Finally, after listening to his poetry, he gave me back the drum machine. So really there's no story, or no ending anyway. No struggle or conflict ensued. The only story is his story and who knows where My Story is now. My Story, you listening?
Jess just woke up and told me her dream. We reached a mountaintop that was issuing steam. She recognized what it was, but I didn't. She had to explain it to me. It was no coincidence-we saw MLK's mountaintop speech just before we went to bed, so that's why she dreamt about a mountaintop. Dreams are garbage collection. There's no story, so shoot me.
I want to leave my room and stick my toes in Mississippi mud but I am afraid. I'm writing in the dark even though it's light, so shoot me. My dad called Brazil nuts Nigger toes, so shoot me. I went to college with money my dad left me, so shoot me. My mom didn't take on a black tenant in our house because she said she didn't want to be alone with him in the house at night. So shoot me.
I can't sleep, so shoot me. I was afraid to answer the door when an African-American came to sell me magazines, so shoot me. I had to take a piss on the banks of the Mississippi, so shoot me. I'm afraid of getting locked into my own trunk, so shoot me. I call myself a writer but have never been published, so shoot me. I don't have a story of my own to tell, so shoot me.
I only wish I could write something compelling enough that would make someone want to shoot me. It's no wonder writers tend to shoot themselves-no one else will. Maybe My Story is reading this somewhere and means to kill me. I'd be honored to write words that would inspire someone enough to kill me. But I could never write something as eloquent as Martin Luther King speaking off the cuff in front of a podium with no script. And speaking for garbage collectors at that. What's the reward for being the most effective communicator this world has seen? Being shot in front of room 206 at the Lorraine hotel.
Mine eyes have seen Elvis's racquetball court where he played his last game. Observation: there is still a smattering of snow on the rooftops below. I'm writing in the dark in a land that is not milk and honey. There's no story here, so shoot me.