Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Life in Memphis

You read about it in the paper, sometimes, and you see it on television almost all the time, but life in center-city Memphis can sometimes be awful. I don't know what to say when I read about stuff like this.

On my own street (Monroe, just down from Sekisui), I presently live next door to a drug dealer. He has spotters and assistants at four of the six apartment buildings on the block. Traffic is low, but I always have someone I don't know hanging out just outside my apartment. Back in January the TAC squad conducted a blitz raid on an apartment across the street that netted four people, a lot of money and a very sophisticated video surveillance setup aimed at the street! We can't get folks to move into our building because they come by at night to check out the street, see what's happening and never come back. The landlord claims to be doing something, but it's been more than a year now, so you have to wonder....

A neighbor and good friend was dead in his home for three days before anyone knew. His landlord was out that evening cleaning out the apartment without trying to locate his next of kin. The guy doing the work stole everything worth anything (down to cans of food and rolls of toilet paper!); a couple of thousand dollars, at least. We found his personal papers in the street and ended up getting help from the Veteran's Hospital.By the time we located some family, everything had been trashed, stolen or picked up off the street. The landlord claimed to the family that everything was locked in storage and unavailable.

My first neighbor was a Vietnam vet with mental problems. He would regularly bring over tins of potted meat or tuna to trade for a couple of bucks to buy a beer. One Sunday morning, at a too-early four AM, I heard him screaming "Oh God! Oh Jesus!" over and over in genuine religious fervor. He spent most afternoons and evenings sitting on the breezeway outside in a chair by his door, with his tinny radio blaring, yelling incoherently whenever the neighborhood children got too near the street, like a real-life catcher in the rye. He was actually pretty nice, but like most folks with strong mental illnesses, he could be unpredictable and prickly.

A current neighbor likes to crank up his stereo on the weekends when the weather's nice or friends come over. It's a DJ quality monster that I can hear from my back bedroom two apartments over, with all the doors and windows closed. It's even louder than my television, sometimes. But, he doesn't do it all the time, and his taste in music runs to Seventies R&B and soul, and funk, which is fine by me. I figure he's a kind of karmic payback for all the years I tormented my Birmingham neighbors with my monster stereo and my punk rock. That's been one good thing about the street, is that we have very few folks who blare their stereos.

I saw a guy get shot in the ass in the middle of the block. Another neighbor was found trussed up and murdered in his apartment several years ago; he appears to have picked up someone in Overton Park for casual sex gone horribly wrong. The murder was never solved. We had an arsonist for a while, who was setting dumpster fires. He must have moved, because the fires finally stopped. Just a couple of weeks ago, a sherrif showed up at my door (gave me a fright, I tell ya) asking about an elderly neighbor in the back who had been missing for five days. He appears to have died, as his apartment was unceremoniously emptied out into the trash. Once, a drunk wandering down the street walked halfway up my apartment stairs, mumbling to himself and ignoring everyone outside, opened his pants and began to relieve himself over the side into the yard! Then he wandered off.

Remember about three - four years ago when there were pipe bombs being set off around Shelby Farms? About the same time some neighbors saw a couple of rednecks toss one into the dumpster behind what's now Turner's (Was the great but trashy River City Donuts at the time.). It blew, about 11PM on a Sunday night, loud enough to send me out of bed and the dumpster lid across the street. Flames at least forty feet high. The police and fire department came out, but oddly it didn't even make the news.

Just last fall, I heard a car screech and career into a building on the corner. They sheared off a street sign at ground level and slammed into the wood and glass front, sending the sign midway into the inside! The car zoomed off down the street, leaving some parts of its bumper at the scene, but the police only cursorily investigated. I'm guessing the driver figured paying for the damage to his car alone was cheaper than paying for the damage to the building too, and then going to jail.

It's an odd street. The west end is all cheap apartments badly managed. Lots of transients, usually, but right now we have too many empties. And one boarded up unit from a recent fire. Had I not been there, the fire department wouldn't have been called in time and the whole building, including my apartment, wouldv'e burned down. Things used to be working people and family friendly when I first moved here about a decade ago but in the past few years a succession of ex-public housing residents and several drug dealers have tanked it. I briefly had one neighbor who was such project trash she would stand outside in her purple velour nightie, cut deep up top and just below her crotch, hollering at people at the other end of the block. And she weighed close to two hundred pounds. She thought she was being sexy.

The east end is all nicely maintained, single-family homes, with SUVs parked outside, though you rarely see any of the families outside in their yards. Very rarely. Loeb Properties owned a couple of empty lots in the middle of the block that for many years were vacant and functioned just like a pocket park for the street. Wonderful in the summer, under the shade of a 100' high oak. They recently built a pair of spec houses. The people who bought the first one only stayed for a few months before they put the house back on the market. Still, that house is directly under that oak, right on top of the root system, and right in the path of lost limbs if we have another Hurricane Elvis.

The dichotomy is striking between east and west. You'd think the rising prosperity of the east would bring up our end, but the two halves keep moving farther apart.

Traffic is a real problem for us, being one block off Union. Lots of folks taking shortcuts of one kind or another (Belvedere, Madison, Poplar) and speeding through. It was a real worry when we had more kids on the block, especially in the afternoons. Typical modern urbans with radios going, phone in one ear, not watching the road, roaring down the street in a real hurry honk honk! Sekisui parking overflow is another problem. They get packed on Friday and Saturday and the suburbanites just park anywhere they can, blocking sidewalks, drives, etc, and ostentatiously worrying at the folks walking past them, the folks who live here!

I don't have a problem walking around day or night, but then I'm six foot, three hundred pounds, with a buzzcut and a permanent scowl. That buys me a lot of caution on the part of criminal opportunists, I've learned. That and my bossy, middle-class whiteman demeanor. Lots of folks just assume I'm in charge of something and so aren't eager to mess with me. They also assume I'm ex-military, which is fine by me. Like I said, I don't often get messed with.

But I do worry about breakins when I'm not home. I got a rude shock a while back when someone I'd seen down the block, who'd been living there a while but I hadn't met yet, was able to tell me my daily and weekly schedule in pretty good detail. It surprised me how many folks have eagle eyes and a jealous watchfulness. Now with all the drug and hooker traffic of the past few years, I worry about opportunity crime. Like the crackhead neighbor when I first moved in who stole a rocker right off my front porch just a couple of days after I bought it. I've had any number of plants taken as well. Anything that can be turned into a rock.

It probably sounds more dangerous to you than it really is. It certainly horrifies my middle-class family that I love living here. But I do. The endless blocks of cookie-cutter, anonymous condo buildings downtown and on Mud Island, and in the county out East, irritate me. How do you tell some one how to find your particular cube? "Take the first right. Go to the back. Count three buildings and I'm on the corner upstairs in the one just over from them." Sheesh.... Every, every, trip anywhere requires driving; often a lot of driving, just for simple errands. I can walk to everywhere I need: bank, post office, laundry, lots of restaurants, grocery stores, other shopping (Home Depot!), book stores, movie theaters, you name it. Midtown is the only place that offers that convenience. Murphy's nearby has outside festivals several times a year which make it hard to sleep, but the music's frequently good and it's free. Sometimes the bands playing inside are loud enough to hear over here!

I like the blurred rushing noise of traffic, the occasional ambulances and police sirens rising up together in the night like the howling of wolves, the snatches of conversations passing by, bands playing in nearby clubs, the even rarer horns from Mississippi River traffic like ghosts of history, the parade of homeless. (Though I've noticed in the past nine months or so that the neighborhood's homeless are vanishing. I wonder what's happening?) The trade-offs are real and sometimes costly, but the benefits are worth it. And we do it without hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidy and tax breaks from City Hall, and propping up by numerous quasi-public agencies!

Take that, Downtown! You guys are the doughnut hole to the chewy rich goodness of Memphis. We don't have the benefit of every tourism and PR effort to prop us up. Nor the ceaseless rah-rah of the daily paper. We have the intentional neglect of our City's leaders, thank you very much. Downtown has the spit and polish, the self-inflated importance, the plastic Disneyland version of Memphis; we have the funk, the genuineness, the damp sweat of an endless Memphis summer.

Midtown really is Memphis, and it definitely takes a certain amount of character to live in it. Not the enclaves of fearful white prosperity dotted around like forts on a map of 18th century western America, but the real, hurly-burly Midtown. Where you and the homeless guy down the block have a nodding acquaintance. Where you know how to get across Union Avenue traffic during rush hour. Where you have neighborhood institutions and they know you, too.

Welcome to Memphis.

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