Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Biltmore House

I wish I could say that the neighborhood has weathered the years well, but it hasn't. This morning, I used Google Maps to find my grandparents' old house on Biltmore Street in Memphis, and then I zoomed in for a street view. I almost wish I hadn't looked. I'm certain that the "Beware of Dog" sign affixed to the chain link fence surrounding the front yard is there for a reason, and from the looks of things, I'm thinking that these days, having an aggressive canine in that neighborhood is not so much an option as a necessity. But it wasn't always like this.

In the early 1960's, my grandfather Leslie, a grocery store owner, suffered a massive stroke which left him confined to a wheel chair. Five years later, he would suffer a second, even more serious stroke. It was sad, because Leslie was a rather quiet, calm man who always had something nice to say and was something of a practical joker. Some aspects of his life were quite interesting; for example, he had married his wife Estelle when she was 14 and he was 26. I didn't find that out until years later, when my grandmother told me that 14 was, in her opinion, just way too young to get married.

Because of my grandfather's condition after his first stroke, he needed to move back into Memphis from his country house to be closer to good medical care, so he and my grandmother (with some financial assistance from my father, I believe) moved to a tidy white frame house on Biltmore Street in North Memphis. The house was typical of many in the area, three bedrooms, a bath, a generous kitchen, and a big front porch that spanned the width of the house. Swings hung from each side of the porch, and an array of comfy chairs were placed alongside them. We spent a lot of time on the porch.

It seemed that everything happened at the Biltmore house. Whenever my aunt, uncle and cousins would visit from California, Biltmore was their headquarters. On one of their visits, my uncle, a Methodist minister, baptized me, since I had only been christened as an infant when we lived in California and was still left religiously hanging, so to speak. It was also the house where I "gently" persuaded my grandfather to surrender the TV to me for a few minutes so that I could watch The Beatles in their American TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Biltmore was where I would play with the next door neighbor Billy, at least until that one day when we were exploring under the house and Billy, in his words, "broke" his head and therefore became somewhat wary of any future associations with me.

It was the house where I played with my dear friend Sandy when she was visiting with her family from the West Coast. Sandy died from leukemia in her mid-teens and was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. I still remember the afternoon we spent spinning Duncan tops on the sidewalk on Biltmore.

Not only had I first seen The Beatles at Biltmore and collected John/Paul/George/Ringo trading cards with my cousin Debi during one of her visits from California, but on one memorable day, the daughter of my grandparents' next door neighbor, a girl six or seven years my senior, spontaneously donated to me all her Beatles albums. I hadn't asked for them, but she just did it. I thought that was amazing, and I still have all those albums in my collection.

It's funny how a house, a place built of bricks, wood, and mortar, stitched together with plumbing and wiring, can mean so much and carry so many memories, but truly, a home is of course much more than a physical structure, it's what we make of it. I would have to say that given their limited means, my grandparents kept a pretty nice house for us all. They sincerely loved us, and we sincerely loved them, and that's what the house on Biltmore was all about.

So, it may not be the prettiest house at the moment, but then again, I don't know the whole story. I'm just glad I own a piece of its history, and I hope that its current residents are making memories of their own, because that, my friends, is what seems to me to constitute living.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mother Machree and Helen Lucille

My Aunt Ida Mae outlived three husbands and one boyfriend. Divorced at 47 and living in the small Tennessee town of Trenton, she took it upon herself to enroll in a local beauty school and ended up opening her own shop, "Coiffures by Ida," in the mid-Sixties. At the time, we all asked her what "coiffures" meant, and she said it was just a fancy French word for hair styles and that she thought people would notice it more than "Ida's Beauty Shop."

Ida's business flourished. She converted the living room of her High Street house into a salon, and she proceeded to build a loyal contingent of customers who would walk up the steps to the front door, then come in for their scheduled appointments and of course, a little bit of socializing. Ida had a great air conditioner in the salon, so people liked hanging out there to take a break from the Mid-South heat. All the customers (except for her son Marion) were women, but one day, a well-dressed man came up the steps, and Ida introduced him as her new boyfriend Mac.

It's important at this juncture for me to create a mental image of Mac. Think Monopoly Man. Mac stood only about five foot six, just a bit shorter than Ida, and always wore a starched white shirt, suit vest, and trousers. He generally opted to forego the suit coat, owing to the heat, but he always wore a pocket watch attached to his vest, and he would pull it out to check it from time to time. A retired insurance executive who apparently had lived life on a schedule, Mac was well off and lived in a tidy brick house just down the street from Ida, which made walking to her house his preferred method of "courting." He was, of course, always impeccably dressed.

To say that Mac was entertaining would be a vast understatement. He was a natural comedian who spoke in a rather hybridized accent that was some mysterious fusion of Southern, Cajun and a few other things which would be hard to categorize. His expressions were punctuated by long, drawn-out vowels more reminiscent of the South Carolina Lowcountry than our part of West Tennessee, so I had to believe that he had spent some time there or in some place with a similar accent. We never got around to discussing that, though, because it was his humorous exclamations that preoccupied us. My favorite of his was one that I've never understood, even after years of searching for the meaning online. When Mac was truly surprised by something, he would contort his face into an expression of astonishment and exclaim, "Mother Machree and Helen Lucille!" He drew out the phrase so that it actually sounded more like, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL!"

The only consistent reference I've found to either of the two ladies mentioned in this expression is a definition for Mother Machree. This was the title of a 1928 silent film about a poor Irish immigrant who moves to America. Helen Lucille was not the name of any other character in the movie, and a web search only reveals obituaries for people by that name, none of whom seemed to have acted in movies, although I suppose that would have been possible. At any rate, this Helen Lucille appeared to have had quite an influence on Mac.

# # #

The green neon lights shone against the black night sky on the quiet highway outside Milan. Mac had decided to take Ida, my mother Peggy, my cousin Marion and me out for ice cream, so here we were, off this deserted highway at some place that had "Freeze" in its name. Marion and I ordered soft serve cones dipped in chocolate, and as soon as we had them in our hands, we started devouring them. Mac, on the other hand, ordered a large cone of plain vanilla soft serve, and when the server handed it to him, we all stopped to behold its glory: there, resting upon the top of a humble wafer cone, was a veritable tower of ice cream. It must have been at least eight inches high. Mac looked at it, then with a swipe of his right hand, removed the top half and dumped it onto the ground as he exclaimed, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL! No way I can eat this much cream!" We laughed so hard and so long, until we finally jumped back in Mac's Caprice Classic and returned to Trenton, full of frozen deliciousness.

Mac was not a good driver. My mother especially hated riding with him, and for good reason. He would run out in front of other motorists, veer intentionally off the side of the road, and jiggle the steering wheel back and forth, all the while saying, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me!" Mac loved to go to buffets on Sunday, so whenever we were in Trenton, he would take us out, insisting that he drive one of his Caprice Classics (as you may have imagined, he had several over the years). These trips were always nerve-racking ordeals. One day, Mac wanted to take me out for a personalized tour of Trenton, and my mom reluctantly agreed. Our brief expedition was highlighted by a drive through the town cemetery, where at one point, as the car veered off the drive, Mac commented, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me, right here in the graveyard!" We got back home, and when my mother found out where we had been, she was not amused.

But despite his reckless driving, Mac had a good heart. He and my Aunt Ida had some fabulous times together, and until his passing in the early Seventies, he was a constant source of companionship and amusement, not only to Ida, but to us all. Mac was really and truly Ida's boyfriend: after her divorce, she focused on making a living for herself and raising the one of her two sons who still lived at home, and she did well, so Mac was like the icing on the cake. He was a classic gentleman who would come courting at predictable times, and even though not formally a member of the family, he seemed like one to us. After he died, his survivors had little to do with Ida, and although at first she was hurt by this, she recovered in short order and found another husband, and when he died, yet another.

Which brings me back around to the point of this story: we all encounter people in our lives who leave on us a lasting impression. At the time, it seems that they will be with us forever, but in truth, we must take advantage of the time we have with them. In my case, I have never met another Mac, although my eyes are always open for someone else of that ilk. I would love it if that were to happen.

Oh, and one more thing: If you know or can find out who Helen Lucille was, please let me know.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Random Access Memory

In the 1970's, there were no such things as iTunes Radio, Pandora or Spotify. The concept of digitally stored, streaming music was unimagined. Besides, computers hardly seemed an appropriate delivery mechanism for music -- they were used for things like sending people to the moon and back. Those of us who liked to browse music just for the sake of the auditory experience had to use turntables or tape players.

One day, way before I was old enough to drive, my mom took me to the downtown branch of the Memphis Public Library. I can't recall exactly what prompted this trip, but that's how we were, striking out every now and then on a mini-adventure. My parents had always encouraged me to read, so I was a regular at the library's Randolph Branch, within walking distance of my house, and the Highland Branch, a favorite of mine owing to its tall, dark shelves and the overarching scent of old books which permeated the place. But on this one particular afternoon, my mom and I headed to the Main Library at McLean and Peabody for a little something different.

The downtown library was quite large compared to the one in my neighborhood, and after we finished selecting a few books to check out, I happened to look through this one doorway and found something I hadn't expected: a music room that was absolutely chock full of LP's. There were walls of them, and a card catalog which helped to locate the album you were looking for. I felt like I had found a pot of gold.

I had studied piano since I was eight years old, but I'd always played only the pieces given to me by my teacher, and I hadn't had the chance to broaden my horizons that much, so when I discovered this vast repository of music, I was enthralled. It's hard to understand today, given our ability to invoke random access to anything at any time, but finding all this music in one place was actually somewhat overwhelming. I browsed for a while, then selected a couple of albums to take home for a listen. Two weeks later, I brought those back and checked out more, and the process continued.

Before long, I was driving, and together with my friends Tim and Lewis, fellow school band members since seventh grade, I would head to the now newly remodeled Main Library and its large, quiet music listening room, which now housed all those earlier albums and more. For its day, the music room was well outfitted and featured rows of study carrels for private listening. You would select an album, then take it to your carrel, where you would play it on a individual turntable through headphones which were massive by today's standards. You could listen to any album in the room, of which there were thousands, at random. It was very much like today's music streaming services, except that you had the added bonus of holding a physical album cover and reading the liner notes while the music was playing.

In the next few years, Tim, Lewis and I made excursions to the Main Library a regular part of our city explorations, and in this way, we expanded our listening habits in a way that I suppose otherwise would have been impossible. For me, I think those early days set the precedent for how I would later seek out new and unfamiliar music while still maintaining respect and love for the old stuff.

Today, streaming makes almost any form of music readily accessible. I can only imagine what would have happened had we had these kinds of services in the 70's. I probably would have become permanently attached to headphones and would never have left the house, except to go down to the coffee shop. Wait...we didn't have those back then either. Come to think of it, how did I make it this far anyway?

Happy listening, friends.