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Memphis Mugging

Memphis, 1977

The 70s Mug the 40s

The times weren’t just a changing
– they had already changed.

By John Troesser

I may 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.

On approaching 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.

One 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 lighting.

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 later.

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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