have had a harder time adjusting to Memphis had I not immediately
come from deepest Arkansas. Memphis was “River City” without the
76 Trombones. It was “Capitol of the Mid South” whatever that meant.
It was cosmopolitan. It had (at least one) bookstore.
To me, at that time, Memphis was a sort of poor man’s Oz. The billboards
that suggested “Talk Arkansas Up!” and “Hep-ur-sef” gasoline (which
offered a small discount if you pumped your own) stopped appearing
as you approached the Mississippi River. The “Get Right with God!
And “Get U.S. out of the U.N.” signage took a brief hiatus in Memphis
but picked up again outside the eastern city limits.
The proximity of a cosmopolitan city was so exciting to some Arkansas
residents that the first town going west from Tennessee was named
“West Memphis” Arkansas. As if the rich cultural overflow couldn’t
be stopped by the river.
Memphis in the 70s you could still see the old rotted shacks along
the highway – the former homes of generations of sharecroppers –
a somewhat embarrassing reminder of hard times, but not so embarrassing
that someone would bear the expense of removing them. These homes
were in the “bottoms” – the most productive land for growing cotton
(and Blues guitarists) but at the same time, the most prone to flooding.
It was a fact that during one particularly bad flood, one could
paddle a boat from the Mississippi River to Forest City, Arkansas
– a distance of nearly 40 miles.
Memphis was my first exposure to Beech trees – massive deciduous
trees reminiscent of Live Oaks but without the year-round foliage.
Juvenile Beech Trees will retain their leaves during the winter
– not all of them, mind you, but just enough that you could be tempted
to interrupt your morning stroll to pull off the three or four leaves
clinging to otherwise bare branches. It was maddening. They didn’t
cling – they seemed to be welded in place. You could bloody your
fingers trying to take them off.
Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. Then as a Beech tree matures,
it losses all it’s leaves and all is right with the world.
But then, like old people entering their second (or third) childhood,
a Beech tree in decline will “start exhibiting juvenile characteristics.”
How did I know this? I had a subscription to Weeds, Trees and
Turf – a magazine that was big on turf (think golf courses)
but included an occasional article on trees to justify their name.
morning, after having been acclimated to Memphis’ cosmopolitan atmosphere,
I was on a morning stroll past Poplar Park. I may have been looking
for mushrooms or I may have awakened under a tree – I can’t remember
now. But I do remember seeing a purse. It was a rather bulky old-fashioned
purse, but leather and of a color they used to call Oxblood. Around
it were scattered papers – wet with dew. I examined it and found
a drivers license, a few newspaper clippings, a Gardenia scented
handkerchief and a few things (an old ticket stub from the Orpheum
Theater) that could only be of sentimental value to the purses owner.
From her driver’s license photo – the owner appeared to be really
old (younger than I am now). Her expression gave the feeling that
she was somewhat uneasy about having her photo taken in such harsh
The address on the license was given as ---- Poplar Avenue. I looked
at the street sign and noticed it was just a few hundred feet from
where I was standing. I instantly decided to return it – feeling
confident of a happy reunion and a story that I might write 38 years
The address was an H-shaped apartment building with a Spanish tile
roof, designed to give each tenant adequate air flow in a time before
air-conditioning. It was a modest three story brick building with
trimmed hedges and symmetrical Lombardy poplars on either side of
the entry. Across from the park, it would’ve been a fashionable
address in the 1940s.
I knocked on the door of apartment four and there was no reply.
But a door across the hall opened just far enough for me to see
the security chain and white hair. “Mrs. Perkins is in the hospital”
the woman’s voice stated. I explained my mission and received a
“Well, God bless you, young man” in response. The hidden voice added:
“Mrs. Perkins had a broken jaw, I heard.” “I guess I can hold her
purse for her.”
Now that I was aware it was a mugging – which, of course, I immediately
suspected by the absence of cash, I was eager to leave the purse
with Mrs. Perkins' neighbor. But she wouldn’t let me leave. “Oh,
I must have your address for Mrs. Perkins” she said. “She would
be so unhappy with me if I let you leave without getting your address.”
I protested, but there was no telling what Mrs. Perkins might do
to this woman once her pain medication wore off.
I was invited in and sat on a red upholstered chair that had crocheted
doilies on the arms and a matching antimacassar behind my head.
I’ve always been pro-macassar, myself, but I wanted to avoid any
conflict. A hand-tinted photo of a uniformed man with pilot’s wings
sat under a fabric shaded lamp. The air was vintage 1952 and for
some reason I though of Miss Haversham’s – except this place was
absolutely free of cobwebs.
I left my name and address and said good-bye, adding best wishes
for Mrs. Perkins' recovery. I received another blessing for my thoughts.
Three days later, I went to my mailbox to get that month’s issue
of Weeds, Trees and Turf (I was anticipating the promised
July center fold of crape myrtles). The magazine hadn’t arrived,
but there was a small envelope with a tasteful (not flashy) commemorative
stamp in the right hand corner. It was firmly hand-cancelled with
a “Midtown” postmark. My name was written in a filigreed script
that bespoke many hours of devoted practice. Inside was a card and
a personal note thanking me – as if I had found a beloved lost pet
or saved a relative from a horrific death.
There was also a twenty-dollar bill. Like a birthday card from a
rich aunt, it had been ironed as flat as it was when it left the
printing office. I didn’t spend it for months – thinking that someday
I might find the time to return it. But a blowout in Pine Bluff,
Arkansas removed it from my wallet and I watched it disappear into
the cash drawer of an off-brand gas station. It sat regally atop
tattered and torn and (probably) bloodstained bills.
While doing research in the city library’s Memphis Room some months
later, I came across a front page photo of a young woman sitting
atop a piano during some sort of celebration. The year was 1947
and in the spirit of the times, the comely brunette was showing
off her calves and her (then) fashionable shoes. The war had been
won and the soon to come Communist menace hadn’t yet materialized.
Newspaper could run photos like this because there was a shortage
of discord in the world. The most surprising thing of all was that
the caption not only included the young woman’s name , but also
her address – including her house number!
The woman pictured was definitely from Mrs. Perkins generation.
It was a generation that saw no harm in giving out a young woman’s
address on the front page of the afternoon newspaper - as long as
she was single. Even though I knew they were different people, my
mind continues to link the girl with her Pepsodent smile with Mrs.
Perkins and her wired jaw that I (thankfully) never saw.
© John Troesser
November 23, 2014 Column
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