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Beale Street
in the Bicentennial Year

The Hibernation of a River City

By John Troesser

“If Beale Street could talk, If Beale Street could talk,

(A lot of) Married men (I know) would have to take their beds (bags) and walk,

Except one or two, who never drink (that) booze,

And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street Blues.”

W. C. Handy
(Parenthesis show Jack Teagarden’s added or substituted words)

Although Beale Street is talking loud today, it wasn’t saying much in 1976. Not a peep. It was deserted except for two businesses. Schwab’s Department Store was there and a single surviving Loan Office. The loan office was one of what had been many, judging by many burned out neon signs, their glass tubing shattered years ago by hooligans or irate borrowers who could never get free of their loans.

In 1976 the street had the chilling desolation of the final scenes of the movie On the Beach if you’re old enough to remember that. Had he still been alive, Edward Hopper would’ve had a field day in Memphis. It looked like his painting Sunday Morning seven days a week.

Author James Baldwin used a line of Handy’s for the title of his best-selling book (although his story took place in Harlem). The song itself was recorded by just about everybody in the 40s and into the 50s. Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and the one I was most familiar with – Jack Teagarden’s 1939 version in which he substitutes the word ‘beds” for “bags” – which makes more sense to me. It would be easier to imagine a man hitchhiking away from Memphis with his “bags” instead of a mattress on his back.

Handy, who wrote the song, stood lone guard on Beale Street in the form of a bronze statue in W. C. Handy park. There was a public restroom there at the time and it took an English author to point out the unintended pun that there was actually a W. C. “handy” in W. C. Handy Park.

If there is ever a history of department stores in mid-sized Southern cities, it should prominently feature A. Schwabs. It remains in the original location and has been here for nearly 140 years. Schwab’s department catered to Memphis’ Black community and sold everything from records to the (then hard to find) leather knee pads for gardeners. It was a great place to stock up on “Money Attracting Spray” and various aerosols that would bring back straying lovers or cheating spouses. It was also the place to go for “monkey socks” which could be easily transformed into a simian doll with bright red lips formed by the red heel of the socks.

Schwab’s is now recognized as a Memphis “institution” – a name it well deserves. While current information is available on the Internet, I can only describe the store as I remember it during my visits.

One wall of fame over a creaking staircase had records from many of Memphis’ famous or near-famous musicians – including The Spinners and Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla to name but a few. The staircase wasn’t the only thing creaking. The floors creaked too, with a beautiful “homey” creak. The floors had been swept with that old fragrant mixture of sawdust and oil. The main floor had a score of waist-high square bins – each of which had fold down circular wooden seats at two corners. This innovation served thousands of bored husbands over the years as their wives sorted through the pyramids of cotton, rayon, nylon and polyester offerings.

At the time of my visit, the staff consisted of an actual descendant of the founder, Abraham Schwab. I can’t remember his first name, but his old school graciousness I will never forget. Somehow he seemed delighted to be showing guests around, as if he hadn’t given the tour a thousand times – which you know he had. Actually in those days he was more of a curator than a salesman.

Still, there was fresh stock arriving, even if it wasn’t a daily occurrence. One of the new items that year was elastic suspenders woven with both Chinese and American flags on them. The repeated flag motif was interrupted by a design of crossed ping-pong paddles. They represented the “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of the Nixon years but never caught on with the people who actually wore suspenders – a slight mistake made by the marketers. I kept mine for years. Maybe Henry Kissinger still has his.

My host was a patient man and kept the doors to the family business open – knowing that better times were coming – someday. He waited out the doldrums and indeed, the place is still in business 38 years after my visit. I like to think my purchase of suspenders, knee pads and the (family size) can of money-attracting spray helped.

But outside the Schwab museum of needful merchandise, Beale Street wallowed in desolation. It was the year when suburban wives were painting their neighborhood fire hydrants to look like squat armless Revolutionary soldiers. Beale Street hydrants were ignored, unless you counted the infrequent attention they got from the occasional stray dog. Even the nearby Lorraine Hotel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was out of business and for sale in 1976.

The Region

My guide to many of my outings was then budding Memphis artist John Ryan, a coworker at a popular restaurant in Overton Square. Our nocturnal schedule allowed for daytime excursions to the old city cemetery, Lamb’s Eat Shop (another ancient place soon to be defunct), the Sun Record store (standing but ignored) and Elvis’ first Memphis home in the “projects.” With John’s guidance, I was introduced to Earl’s Hot Biscuits, and Jack Pirtle’s Fried Chicken. Pirtle was famous for its cheap food, but also for it’s neon sign. It was a large towering sign – a paean to the neon arts. A line of lemming-like chickens would endlessly (and happily) run into a caldron of hot oil. It was said people would drive all the way from Little Rock to “witness” the sign. Then, with the reflected light of suicidal poultry dancing on their eyelids, they would fall asleep in their cars. Upon awakening, they would stop at Earl’s Hot Biscuits before crossing the river to brag to their friends.

The past was everywhere in Memphis in those days. Pawnshops sold Masonic pins for $1. Hard won by Masons who had fallen on hard times had to pawn them for food. They sat there in their display cases for thirty years – little gems of Cloisonné and gold.

Word had reached me that there was a five-volume, Moroccan leather-bound edition of the Diary of Samuel Pepys (with marbled paper) at a local pawn shop. I went to investigate and in the course of our negotiations, the pawn broker took a ring off his pinkie and presented it to me. He smiled as he said “It belonged to Alistair Crowley…” He offered to let me try it on but I declined when he added: “…he was wearing it when he died.” Knowing who Crowley was, I decided I didn’t need jewelry worn by a Satanist. Forget Rosemary’s Baby – pray for that Memphis pawnbroker.

I forgot about Pepy’s Diary and left. It was a bargain at $100 but I was too creeped out by Crowley’s ring – or maybe it was the desperate look in the pawnbroker’s eye. He may have been thinking, “Please! Take the curse away!” Thinking back, I should’ve sent him to Schwab’s for some industrial strength “Curse-be-gone.”

Memphis thrift stores in the 70s could be “mined” for actual silver. Usually it was in the form of belt buckles or cutlery. Belts were .25 and cutlery was .10 per. With or without the word “Sterling” stamped on them. Widows often threw ”the baby out with the bath water” when starting their new life and / or moving to Florida.

One could buy pre-ironic bowling shirts for $1 – and I still regret not buying one from a teammate of the Ronco "Spaghetti Bender’s” team. Two-tone wing-tip shoes were .50 or $1 for the pair.

I would often drive past the Memphis Belle which at that time a static display on a large concrete pedestal. Restoration of the B-17 was a pipe dream then. But in time it was noticed, painstakingly restored to air-worthiness, had a movie made about it and then crashed and burned.

To give you an idea of how present the past was – one Memphis Chinese Restaurant still had beaded curtains - a tradition from the 1920s and 30s. To give an idea of how old everything was – the Chinese restaurant actually sold Cantonese food!

A humble brick building off Highland that had housed a YMCA branch had lost an anchor to its sign, revealing that it had once been a police substation. Indeed. A visit to the Memphis Room of the public library revealed a photo of the building in its prime – replete with mounted policemen.

It was in Memphis that I first saw the world “consort” on a tombstone. It was on a moss-covered obelisk and read (in large letters): “ORANGE SWAN.” Beneath that name it explained that Orange (or Miss Swan to you) had been the “Consort of ____________.” You can forgive me for not remembering the name of the consortee. After experiencing the mental image of an actual Orange Swan (or the beauty of whomever could’ve pulled off such an outlandish name), my mind was processing additional information.

Besides, it’s probably better that that long-ago affair be forgotten. My sincere apologies to the ____________ family.

My solitary excursions in and around Memphis would sometimes take me past the Disco Lady Lounge (1976-1976), a modest concrete block building painted with dancing Afro-American women outnumbering their male counterparts eight to one. With all seriousness, I say that the artwork was comparable to West African or Haitian signage. They should have been preserved or at least recorded photographically. Unfortunately, my working nights didn’t allow for me to see the place in action. I had to rely on my imagination and the lyrics to the immortal Johnnie Taylor song.

Past the Disco Lady Lounge was Chucalissa Park – where 15th Century Indians lived and buried their dead on the high bluffs of the Mississippi River. The Indians were “Mississippian” even though it’s a good three miles from the Mississippi State Line. No regard for boundaries – even in the 1500s!

I remember one excavation at Chucalissa that exposed (behind a thick Plexiglas panel) a skeleton with an eight-inch circular hole just below its ribcage. The hapless decedent had some later generation Indian (or a descendant) come along while he was resting in peace, and sink the foundation pole of a new hut directly through the poor fellow’s solar plexis. I found it amusing that Native American developers were also building over “ancient” Indian burial grounds. There’s nothing new under the sun (or under the ground for that matter).

Waiting tables at what was once one of Memphis’ most popular places, I would often get French tourists asking for directions to a Blues Club. Sadly, I had to tell them there were no such places – at least in 1976.

It’s hard to imagine that the successful Beale Street of today had such a forlorn and hopeless appearance in the 1970s. Besides myself, perhaps only the Schwab family or B.B. King can verify the desolation of Le Rue Beale. Both the Schwab family and B.B. have paid their dues for decades as has the spirit of W.C. Handy.

© John Troesser
November 16, 2014 Column
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