I was going to write a know-it-all column about Memphis game-changers and transformative big deals this week, but I ran out of gas and am going to California for a week on account of the heat.
Instead, I am writing a know-nothing column about celebrities, who are even harder to escape from than humidity.
The AT&T/Yahoo home page on my computer keeps me in the know about things I don't know, along with occasional helpful tidbits from my colleague and office neighbor Greg Akers, who knows stuff I don't.
One day this week I logged on to see "Kardashian Wedding Video Revealed." I am pretty sure that either Kim Kardashian, whoever she is, or the addicted and addictive Lindsay Lohan ("Lindsay Lohan Wears Pippa-style dress") have been on my home page for the last 357 days in a row. So the discovery of the Kardashian wedding video did not exactly seem like the discovery of, say, a new galaxy or dirty pictures of a congressman.
I asked Greg why Kim Kardashian is famous. He scratched his head a minute and said she's Bruce Jenner's daughter.
"No way," I countered. I know who Bruce Jenner is because he won the Olympic decathlon about 40 years ago. He has muscles, a square jaw, and a shag haircut, and Kim Kardashian has nice cleavage, black hair, and black eyes.
But Greg stuck to his guns and looked it up and Bruce Jenner is her stepfather, which is close enough for me.
In addition to taking over the internet, celebrities have taken over the libraries, once a reliable escape to another world.
On the nonfiction "new releases" shelves of my favorite haunts, this is what is on tap this week: Scott Brown, who came out with a book about 15 minutes after he became a senator; Bristol Palin and, separately, Sarah Palin, the gold standard for celebrity; Suze Orman, who always has a tan and knows how to get rich; Joy Bauer, who has a diet although it doesn't look like she needs one; Laura Ingraham, whose book jacket offers this funny: "On Facebook, it's like you're trapped at a reunion forever"; Sheryl Crow, who writes recipes as well as songs; La Toya Jackson, keeping the flame alive; Jillian Michaels, who harangues fat people ("Want to know what's holding you back? Absolutely nothing but you") and looks like she could kick Suze Orman's ass; Meredith Baxter, an actress I vaguely remember, but not to worry because "for the first time she is ready to tell her story"; Ashley Judd, who I forgot; Glenn Beck, who publishes more than Newt Gingrich; and Katie Couric and Larry King, who relate stories and insights from other celebrities.
I haphazardly and half-heartedly keep tabs on these folks by channel surfing on my television newly equipped with AT&T U-verse. If they are not being interviewed or interviewing someone else, they are making guest appearances on sitcoms or reality shows. I spotted one whose name I forgot on a home-improvement show last night. I plan to ask Greg about him as soon as his name comes to me. My last celebrity lifeline is ever-reliable People magazine, which I read at the barber shop while having my hair cut. It takes exactly the same length of time to browse the magazine.
Sometimes celebrities horn in on the local news, as Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder did when they came here to celebrate the release from prison of the West Memphis 3. I am betting they will write a book about it, or at least a song.
And there are going to be a lot more opportunities when WMC-TV Channel 5 goes to its expanded news at 4 p.m. to replace Oprah. No way they can fill all that time with rapes, wrecks, and robberies, talking heads, and anchors reminding us to stay inside and drink plenty of water when it is 97 degrees outside.
Note to out-of-work college graduates: This is a good time to become a celebrity. Memphis, and my chosen business of media in particular, needs more of them. We are not going to stave off extinction with in-depth reports about parties being unable to reach an agreement about school consolidation, the "challenging" market for investing, the perennial quest of Tiger football to get better, or transformational real estate deals.
Not when Kim's wedding video is out there and Lindsay's got a new dress.
In two years, The New York Times, assuming it is still around, could be writing one of its "36 Hours In ..." weekend travel articles about Memphis that goes something like this:
Saturday morning: Shop and gawk at the Bass Pro superstore in the reinvented 300-foot-tall Pyramid on the Mississippi River.
Saturday afternoon: Lunch in Harbor Town, Memphis' riverfront planned community, followed by a visit to Beale Street Landing, the $40 million park and boat dock. Dip your hands and feet in the river, then walk Tom Lee Park and the Bluffwalk.
Saturday night: Dinner at the Rendezvous, Grizzlies basketball game at FedExForum (or baseball at AutoZone Park, depending on the season), clubbing on Beale Street, overnight stay at the Peabody.
Sunday morning: Coffee and breakfast followed by a photo session on the Peabody rooftop. Rent a road bike or electric-assisted Aerobic Cruiser for a ride to Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo in Midtown then back downtown to bike across the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River to Arkansas.
Sunday afternoon: Lunch at Gus's Fried Chicken and visit the National Civil Rights Museum.
It would be a pretty attractive package of healthy exercise, history, shopping, food, unique attributes, and the river. In a presentation to the Memphis City Council Tuesday, backers called Bass Pro a "game changer" in a tourism strategy focused on Memphis attributes that are "first, best, and only."
The projected opening date for the Bass Pro Pyramid is August 2013. The promised benefits include 1,665 construction jobs, 576 permanent jobs, and 2 million to 4 million visitors a year.
And it seems to be within reach now that — dare anyone say it — the long march to the construction of the Bass Pro Pyramid has reached the last mile with city council approval of a financing package.
Those visitors better show up, because their sales taxes are supposed to pay for it. In the latest plan, the city will acquire Shelby County's interest in the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Phase One of the Bass Pro deal, which includes everything west of Front Street, could cost $185 million, with $33 million from Bass Pro Shops. Phase Two includes the Pinch District retail — for which there is no private developer so far — the convention center makeover, and an expansion of the Marriott Hotel.
The proposed $185 million bond issue is up from $125 million last November, when the financing application was filed with the Center City Commission. About $25 million of the increased cost is due to earthquake protection retrofitting.
Proposed features include an aquarium, restaurants, hotel, and possibly a bowling alley and shooting range inside the Pyramid, an elevator to the observation deck, a grand entrance from the south starting at Jefferson, boat demonstrations in the harbor, and an indoor swamp underlying the retail space.
"It's really going to be an experience, something like you have never seen before," said housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb, Bass Pro's steadfast champion for the last six years. "The collateral investment in the convention center makeover and the Pinch District retail are as important as everything else."
If the convention center and the tourism development zone don't generate enough of a revenue stream to pay off the bonds, taxpayers will be on the hook. The council's resolution authorizes "certain debt service reserve support of such bonds."
Lipscomb calls that "the worst-case scenario." To which some Memphians, if not some council members, might say, "So what else is new?" This is the same council that is under the gun for not paying a court-ordered $57 million to Memphis City Schools and cutting city employees' pay by 4 percent. And the same Pyramid that has been closed for seven years in the forlorn Pinch District.
In "Memphis: City of Choice," that is so yesterday. The mantra for the future is "build on what we are."
Pending approval by the city council and Shelby County Commission, which has to sign off on the transfer of the convention center, construction is scheduled to begin on October 1st.
Two little words. A tweet is a tome by comparison.
Here's the context from U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays' ruling in the school systems merger case:
"Memphis residents are not represented on the Shelby County Board of Education and have not been permitted to vote for its members. The question is whether such an arrangement violates the one-person, one-vote principle. It does."
Which part of "it does" don't you understand?
So there will be a new county school board and new districts that will include Memphis. And because of the constitutional violation, it will happen sooner rather than later. And the new board will have seven members unless there is a countywide referendum to increase it to 25 members or some other number.
The new board will govern one of the 20 largest school systems in the country. When the two systems are merged in 2013, it will possibly have 150,000 students, although that number, which is the approximate sum of the current enrollments, is likely to be lower. There will be some flight to the perceived stability of private, charter, or DeSoto County schools, and suburbs such as Germantown might start their own systems. I'd bet on it. The most powerful force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school.
The next two years are going to be messy. Who's in charge? Well, the future county school board, even before it is created, is going to be a player, starting now. The existing Memphis and Shelby County school boards are charged with the "wind down" of their separate systems as well as the education of their current students for two more years and the transition to a combined system. The Norris-Todd state law requires the appointment of a 21-member transition planning team. Current school board members will appoint 10 of the 21 transition planners and could run for seats on the new board. I bet some of them will.
But the result doesn't have to be a mess. A successful merger will depend on these things:
Don't fight last year's battles. School consolidation is going to happen. Accept the ruling of Judge Mays. This means no appeal from the Shelby County school board or the "no surrender" people on the Memphis board. If you can't accept the ruling, fine, get off. Support for a consolidated system should be a requirement of appointees to the 21-member transition team. As for Memphis, the double taxation for schools will last two more years. And the city and MCS would be smart to settle the $57 million in back pay and get that issue out of court and off the table.
Don't fight the last century's battles. Memphis and Shelby County have been through desegregation and resegregation. There are about 32,800 white kids in the two systems. The unified system will be majority black (unlike Hamilton County and Chattanooga, the most recent schools merger in Tennessee). There will be several all-black schools. Trying to make each school or each subdistrict reflect the overall racial profile of the merged system will drive more students out of the system. We tried that in the 1970s.
The merged system will have a lot of new school buildings, from the inner city to the suburbs. This is the positive result of the funding formula for school construction and capital improvements. Twenty years ago the big schools issue was air-conditioning. We have made progress.
The merged system will have a lot of new money. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other private foundations are pouring millions of dollars into Memphis to improve the quality of teachers and administrators. That wasn't there 10 or 20 years ago.
Tennessee and Memphis are laboratories for public education. In addition to the Gates Foundation, they've made a big commitment to Teach For America in Memphis, Nashville, and the Department of Education.
We're learning from mistakes. Tennessee and other states are getting a waiver on No Child Left Behind. The emphasis on drill-and-kill testing will be relaxed, not that there won't be more pain.
The economy favors public schools with good reputations. It costs $10,000 or more per kid per year for private school. Scholarships will draw some poor and middle-class kids to private schools, but space is limited.
Public schools must sell themselves as the option of choice. They won't hold everyone who's there today, but with leadership and good teachers, the merger can work.
It was 100 degrees the other day when I flagged down Curtistine Chiozza as she delivered the mail.
C.C., as she is known to friends and customers alike, was sweating under her white pith helmet, bandana, blue uniform, and heavy bag, and, as usual, she was smiling her killer smile. She was near the end of a 10-hour day that began at 7:30 a.m. with two hours of sorting letters and packages followed by eight hours of delivering them along her route in Midtown. Monday's bag is usually the heaviest of the week.
"The breeze ... it's just not happening," she said, pausing briefly from her rounds. "Today seems hotter than any other day this summer."
In her black boots and thick socks, she walks like a woman on a mission, which she is. She hustles, always, in the proverbial heat, cold, rain, and snow. I have never seen her walk slow in the many years that my house has been on her route. Honk at her, as many of us do, and she waves and smiles. If there is a harder-working or more pleasant government employee in Memphis I don't know who it is.
C.C., 40 years old, started with the P.O. in 1992 after attending Southwest Community College.
"I never thought I'd stay this long," she said.
She went full-time in 1997, and the job helps her raise her two kids. She would like to stay with the Postal Service but knows full well that snail mail is on the endangered list and that the oft-ridiculed agency lost $8 billion last year. For now her job is safe, although her route is changing and some of her colleagues are likely to be laid off.
The Postal Service said last week it will review 10 percent of its retail outlets for closing, including six in Shelby County. And that was before the debt ceiling deal that would cut more than $2 trillion in government spending over the next 10 years.
"Make no mistake, this is a change in behavior from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut," said Tennessee U.S. senator and former governor Lamar Alexander, as debate began in the Senate Tuesday.
While Congress was hammering out an 11th-hour deal, C.C. was toting her bag of packages, credit card offers, catalogs, political post cards, solicitations for anything and everything, bills, badly needed checks, and the dwindling volume of personal letters that used to be called "Minnie mail," as in your dear old Aunt Minnie.
"It seems like the whole economy is kaput," C.C. said.
It sure does. Unemployment in Memphis is 12.1 percent, and it's going to get worse when the federal, state, and local government budget cuts kick in.
The paradox is that we're buying jobs and capital investment at Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric Power with tax breaks. These jobs may or may not go to people who now live in Memphis. At the same time, we're cutting government jobs that are the backbone of the middle class in Memphis.
The Postal Service and the library system are two government agencies in the crosshairs, both battered by technology and changing personal habits. City of Memphis budget cuts will cost 43 part-time library employees their jobs and reduce hours at 14 libraries.
I understand that cuts must be made. The Postal Service is a tempting target, with its share of incompetents. I spent more than a year in "mail hell" because of a forwarding screw-up that sent my mail to Montana and wrecked my credit rating. While anonymous bureaucrats bungled, C.C. was my last line of defense, personally scratching out the forwarding instructions on several pieces of mail, re-addressing them, and adding a stern note to no avail.
I have a similar soft spot for librarians, especially the ones at the Cossitt Library downtown, near where I work. That branch is an unofficial day shelter for homeless men, and the librarians maintain order and treat everyone with kindness, patience, and dignity, including the occasional sad soul wandering past the shelves talking to himself.
Social work isn't in their job description, but librarians do a lot of it.
Now, get ready to cut, cut, cut. But there will be a price. So let's do it carefully and think, think, think.