Under last Thursday’s very soggy skies, an intrepid group of about a hundred students and book nerds (guess which I am) gathered at the University of Memphis to hear author Lee Smith discuss her life as seen through literature. For those unfamiliar, Lee is responsible for 12 novels and four collections of short stories with a distinct focus on Southern life past and present, but more than that, she is a good ol’ girl of the highest order: sharp, witty, sly, gracious, and, above all, a world-class storyteller. Beyond her published fiction, Lee is one of those people just naturally skilled at recounting events, real or imagined.
It’s not a unique trait, I suppose, and it’s something I’ve almost begun to take for granted since immigrating to the South, and Memphis in particular, where anyone from a woman refilling my sweet tea to a man strolling my grocery store can stun me with a perfect anecdote. (Granted, for many years the man strolling in my grocery store was Shelby Foote, but still.) We live in a town that’s constantly remembering, revising, and embellishing for dramatic effect.
Not that my countrypersons to the north don’t have a tradition of storytelling, of course. They’re more prone to confining it within the boundaries of the arts, however, where there’s a built-in defense against charges of exaggeration or downright fibbing. Taking liberties makes us uncomfortable. We’re a nice people, but I’d guess that Garrison Keillor probably wouldn’t be your first pick as a road trip buddy, and Bob Dylan isn’t really known for being fun at parties.
No, I’d wager that the urge to entertain, facts be damned, is strongest in the South. I imagine it’s been a powerful coping mechanism in an area that not so long ago saw its history literally trampled and burned. When your own personal narrative is shattered, all that’s left to do is pick up the pieces you can find and fill in the rest.
What’s great about this tendency is that everyone has a different story. Well, it’s sometimes great. Watching two elegant Southern ladies discuss the finer points of the Montesi’s deli selection in 1984 is a joy to behold, but witnessing Crips and Klanners debating the acceptable degrees of white supremacy is pretty unsettling.
The diverging stories of Memphis’s past have gotten a lot of ink in the last few weeks, but what I find most fascinating is the plot that’s developing while that happens. It feels like we’re finally able to acknowledge that our city will never have one collective memory of any point in time. The best we can do is listen to each other and try, in our various ways, to move the story forward.
As I was having drinks with Lee Smith and her family after her lecture (because I’m a very, very important writer … or possibly because I came with the administrator of her Facebook page) and pinching a nerve in my neck trying to lean in and not miss a word she said, I was awestruck as usual by the ease and pleasure and humor that Southerners bring to even their darkest tales. The most tragic details are prone to being reshaped into comic asides, or, if they don’t serve, simply thrown aside. Whether that’s selective memory, artistic license, or flat-out denial is hard to say.
In her essay “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy,” Lee Smith acknowledges and welcomes in literature’s New South, the South of small-town sushi restaurants and multilingual classrooms. It doesn’t lend itself to the same characters and devices that have had a long life in Southern lit, but really, isn’t that all for the best? Instead of overhauling history, over and over and over again, there’s a wealth of new storylines to thread together. The next chapter is just waiting to be written.
I’ve forgotten at least 90 percent of the details from any given year of my education, but I still remember the moment that my first-grade teacher tapped me on the shoulder during reading time and said I was going to the library to take a special test. Apparently it went well, because shortly afterward I was sent to the library a couple times a week to participate in a group for other kids like me, 6-year-old kids who’d gotten special permission to check books out from the 3rd-6th grade shelves or who finished their math tests in half the allotted time.
Turns out, I’m a genius. Not like that 15-year-old who created a 3-cent test for pancreatic cancer or anything, but still, my intelligence is a few standard deviations above average. It’s a hard thing to say out loud without sounding like an ass, but it’s not like I take personal credit for it. That’s just how it worked out.
I only mention it at all because there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether gifted students in Memphis will continue to receive specialized instruction between pre-k and 8th grade. The only thing more surprising to me than this service being on the chopping block was the fact that Shelby County schools didn’t already offer it.
From first grade on, through public schools in three different states, I was given opportunities to work and learn beyond the boundaries of the standard curricula. The programs had different names — GATE, TAG, Vision — and were run in different ways. Some years I left the classroom during a specific class, others I rotated, and one year I was in an entirely separate full-time classroom.
No matter how it was applied, however, the benefits of having that time to approach, explore, and challenge at a level specific to my own ability were real and lasting. I entered high school better prepared for the advanced classes on my schedule, which then led to success at the college level, where I enrolled, hung out on the Dean’s list, and graduated with honors from a top-ten university.
It’s not a direct line from 2nd-grade gifted enrichment programs to the upper reaches of academic success, nor is academic success the be-all, end-all of personal fulfillment, but at a time when public schools in cities throughout the U.S. are already struggling to graduate more than half of their seniors, are we in any position to take away tools that are actually working?
In the district formerly known as Memphis City Schools, the needs of gifted students are handled by its Exceptional Children and Health Services office, which oversees the needs of children who are outside of the mainstream for academic, social, health, emotional, psychological, and behavioral reasons. CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) is MCS’s accommodation for gifted and high-achieving students as young as age 4, and as the consolidated school district’s budget is hammered out, both this and Shelby County’s APEX (a pared-down program for kids in grades 3-8) are at risk.
Look, education is a huge issue in this area and our needs are complex and overwhelming. Some could easily argue that our focus should be on the largest groups, not the smallest. But here’s the thing. We need smart kids. We need them to get smarter and more creative and be the generation who thinks up better solutions than what we have now. And we need them here.
Dr. John Feldhusen, founding director of Purdue’s Gifted Education Resource Institute, said, “Intelligent behavior does not arise naturally; it grows through exercise and guidance. Nature may establish high potential for high levels of intellectual functioning; parents, teachers, peers, and the community provide the conditions through which the intelligence of gifted and talented youth is brought to fruition." I’m where I am today because of those conditions, and I hate to think of where Memphis would be without them.
I didn’t have a college bar, as the home of Frances Willard (founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Evanston, Illinois, was infamously low on watering holes. And since I was Mormon during my college years anyway (long story), I didn’t have much need of one.
When I moved to Memphis a year out of school, my social options felt even more limited. I was working from home and didn’t know more than a few people in town. I knew Memphis was renowned for its music, but the idea of going to clubs was a little daunting, especially since my frame of reference was Chicago’s rather d-baggy Division Street (I may not have had a college bar, but that’s where my older sister’s was).
Eventually, however, being home alone all day was more than even the most introverted Midwesterner (remember me?) could stand. On a whim, I decided to go see some guy I’d read some pretty glowing things about in the Flyer. He was playing at the Hi-Tone Cafe which, from what I could tell, was an impressively booked venue that brought in a lot of great national musicians. I was prepared to be intimidated by the space and the crowd.
It was probably raining that night, based on the fact that it rained every single time Cory Branan played the Hi-Tone. He was in a misleadingly philanthropic mood, but it wasn’t the Gummi tongues and feet he handed out to the audience that made me feel welcome. The room was a little rough and grimy, but the atmosphere was homey. Well, if your home had a beat-down pool table and a bathroom unfit for company. Still, it was friendly, warm, and completely unlike what I’d been expecting. The team-like definition of club felt far more applicable.
Since that night, I’ve spent more evenings than I can remember at the Hi-Tone. When I was laid off from the corporate world, I started booking shows for some local musicians and actually made hanging out there a part-time job. I bought my first beer there (never mind that I was 29). I saw everyone from Viva L’American Death Ray to Michelle Shocked play. For the better part of a decade, it was the college bar I never had.
Of course, even delayed adolescents have to grow up sometime, and by the time my second child was born, I found it pretty tricky to get out for an evening, let alone stay awake until an 11 p.m. show. The bar’s late band starts were so notorious that just hearing “they’re playing at the Hi-Tone” made me sleepy. And so I set the place aside in the pre-PTA corner of my mind, along with my Mini Cooper and babydoll T-shirts.
When I heard the Hi-Tone was fixing to close (the Southernism particularly appropriate for the bar’s four-month wind-down), the sliding door of that memory storage unit was yanked open again. Although closing bars people love seems to be popular around here, I really never expected a place as venerable as the Hi-Tone to fall victim to the usual small club disasters. Sure, the air conditioning was always busted and there were only four people at the Tuesday shows, but Elvis Costello played there, for Pete’s sake! As a recovering small business owner, I know I can’t fault the guys for throwing in the towel. Still, I’ve spent the last few months hoping someone would be reckless and passionate enough to pick the towel back up and mop the bar down with it.
Since it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, I guess I should say my good-byes. I went to the Hi-Tone this past Friday to see Shovels & Rope, a South Carolina twosome (both musically and matrimonially) making their third trip to Memphis. Last time here, they played to an echoing tip jar, but on this trip, the room was packed with joyful sing-alongers. The energy was incredible as the band played their hearts and lungs out, with singer/drummer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst once exclaiming, “I can’t feel my legs!” Although they weren’t locals, it felt like every song they played was somehow about Memphis. And for that night, they were.
There are a couple more shows I hope to make before the Hi-Tone closes for good at the end of the month, and even while I look forward to them, I know there will be sadness in the mix. It was easier leaving my Hi-Tone nights behind when I knew I could still go visit them sometimes. And it was exciting to see new, strange names pop up on the marquee every week. So much of Memphis’ music is already part of history, it seems a damn shame to lose a venue that proudly celebrated what was coming next.
I’ve never attended any of my college reunions, but if in 10 years someone puts on a Hi-Tone reunion (a la last year’s Antenna Club gathering), that’s a ticket I would buy. The Hi-Tone isn’t a Rhodes bar or a U of M bar, or even an MCA bar (despite the parking overlap). It’s a bar for everyone who studies the musicology of Memphis. Although we may lose our college bar, may none of us ever graduate.
For just one moment, I’d like you to imagine something for me.
Picture, if you can, an old land-line telephone. It doesn’t have to be rotary-dial (I’ll explain what that is later, kids), but just any ol’ pre-1990 curly-corded phone will do.
Now imagine that you carry that phone with you wherever you go. It sits on the table at restaurants. It rests in the console of your car. It’s bulging in your purse when you’re at the movies.
And then it rings. Loudly. Of course you answer, because if you need to carry that thing around all the time, surely you’re expecting some important call.
Sounds kind of obtrusive, doesn’t it? And maybe just a little bit impolite.
Okay, you caught me. I’m an old crank. Or at least, this is the thing that makes me feel like one: Now that we have phones that are small enough to be ignored, they are never, ever ignored.
When I was growing up (oh, those halcyon days of the ‘80s), we had a rule against answering the phone during a meal. The implication was that the time as a family was important and whoever might be interrupting from the outside could wait. And that was even before answering machines.
But now, despite having voicemail and email and text all accessible from our fingertips, a ringing (or buzzing; oh lord, the buzzing) phone demands immediate attention. Because it’s there. Right there. All the time. There.
And even if it’s not buzzing, it has all the information. Facebook, Twitter, Google – the knowledge of the collective all in one pixelated package. Look, I understand why it’s tempting to check it out while you’re waiting for the bathroom, but can it maybe wait until after the band stops playing?
Or, let’s say, after the secretary of state stops testifying. There was something so depressing about looking out at the gallery behind Secretary Clinton’s chair during her farewell party/interrogation and seeing a roomful of people who appeared to be asleep. It was all eyelids out there. I know it was a long day, but come on. It was also history. Look up or step out.
I won’t pretend not to have a cell phone. It’s a fairly decent smart phone, even. But I don’t subscribe to the theory that having a mobile phone means I’m connected by phone whenever I’m mobile. I was phone-free in the car before Oprah even commanded it. It’s for my convenience, not everyone else’s. Except for when I’m at work, my phone is either in my purse or on the kitchen counter. One of my favorite features of my phone is that it’s too big to keep on my person, even if I wanted to.
Speaking of, y’all know those things are radioactive, right? At the risk of sounding like a hippie old crank, I can’t help pointing out that keeping a radioactive device in one’s pocket all day is perhaps not a great idea. But hey, it’s your ass.
What chaps my own ass, however, is feeling constantly on the brink of losing out to whatever call or text or feed update might be more interesting than my company. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I was raised to believe that faces come first. Even if I’m not actually more fascinating than what George Takei has to say, I’d at least like my companions to pretend. I do the same for them.
Many of my friends will read this and feel personally attacked, but let me assure them: I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about all of you. It’s a phenomenon that seems to have no lower age limit and may only peter out somewhere among the over-70s (where, clearly, I would fit right in). My grandparents, the most emergency-prone members of my family, seem to get by just fine with their old, giant, landlocked phone.
And they only occasionally take it to the movies.