Sunday, January 30, 2011

Walkin' In Memphis

I suppose I can't assume that everyone has heard the song by Marc Cohn, “Walkin' in Memphis.”

March, 1969, Memphis, Tennessee, I pulled my bag out of the overhead bin and walked off the jet liner. I scanned the corridor looking for a friend that was to meet me at the airport. I had never seen her in person. We had been pen pals while I served in the Army in Korea. I felt both excitement and insecurity as I continued down the corridor without seeing her. I didn't know what to think as I came to the end of the corridor. I knew something was wrong, but until Andy or one of her friends found me, there was not much I could do. She didn't have a phone. She couldn't afford one.

I studied the layout of the airport restaurant as I walked in. A waitress stood close to a series of tables and booths talking to the occupants. She stopped talking as we made eye contact. The people at the tables turned their heads to watch me walk in. I did not feel welcomed, and had no understanding why I felt that way. I quickly looked for an empty section. I did not feel comfortable finding a place near the crowd. An elderly gentleman sat alone at a counter on the other side of the foyer. I approached him, “May I sit here?”

The man bowed his head then looked directly ahead, refusing to make eye contact. “Humph! You can sit anywhere you want.”

'No, Man,” I answered, “I don't want to bother you.”

“Go ahead, have a seat.” He still had not made eye contact with me.

I placed my bag on the floor as I sat in the swivel chair. I waited for a waitress. I waited. And waited. Finally, I turned to look for the waitress I saw with the crowd of people as I walked in. She was still there, still staring at me, now, with a scowl. She said something to those around her. A few men turned in their seat to stare at me. They did not look happy.

“Gosh, I know the waitress sees me,” I said to the old man. He chuckled. This time we made eye contact. “Son, you are in the wrong section.”

I looked at him, I'm sure with a totally blank face, “What do you mean?”

“Over there is where the white folks sit.”

“You are shittin' me, man.” I was shocked. I thought segregation was something of the past.

The old man chuckled in his coffee cup as he lifted it to his lips. “No.”

I thought briefly, looked at the crowd of white people, their eyes now fixed on me like missile tracking radar . “Well, sir, if you don't mind, I'll just sit here until my friend comes.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Do what you want.”

That was my introduction to Memphis, but that was not the end of it. I spent the next two weeks in Ripley, Tennessee living with a black family in the Mississippi flats. Perhaps, someday I'll talk about that two weeks of walking with my friends, being shunned by the white folks of Ripley, living and learning first-hand about racism in America and coming to new understanding of the civil rights movement at a level that news papers never talked about.

At some point in that two weeks, my friends wanted to show me Memphis away from the airport. Like the bars in Ripley, bars in Memphis were “private” clubs. This was how these establishments continued racist practices in spite of the federal laws outlawing discrimination in public places. Even so, there was a strange air of mystery, of hope, of love, and of pain. I heard the music from the bars and the restaurants as we walked along the sidewalks. I felt the soul. I loved the soul. I felt a wonderful camaraderie with my friends. There were folks along the way that did not seem friendly. I felt fear. There were other folks laughing and enjoying the night out. We walked into a restaurant. I never saw the name. It was dark. It was crowded. The owner seated us right away.

Chopped Steak. I saw it on the menu. I had never heard of it. I thought of juicy bite-sized chunks of tender steak, sautéed in mushrooms. I ordered it.

As I finished the meal, the owner came to our table. “How was my chopped steak?”

“It was very good, Sir. Thank you. But you know, for some reason I thought it would be chunks of steak. This was like hamburger.” I absolutely meant no malice. I did not expect the explosion that came. He slammed his fist down on the table in front of me and screamed, “I have been in this business for thirty years. You don't come into my restaurant and tell me I'm a crook.” He went on with a rant for quite a while. I was totally embarrassed. I had no idea that what I said was in any way an insult or an assault on the man's integrity. I looked at my friends. They looked at the table, embarrassed for me. We eventually left, but we weren't talking anymore.

We went home in silence.

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