Fifteen years ago, 1989, was about as obvious a pivot point for me as could be imagined. Early in that year, I got married (for the second time), and at press time that one still looks to be enduring. Later that year, my daughter, Julia, was born -- to be followed, two years later, by her sister Rose. (The final lineup was two sons and two daughters -- for which circumstance I continue to count myself grateful.)
When the Flyer also got itself born that year, I saw an opportunity to segue back into one of my prior careers, which, besides journalism, had included college teaching and politics. (Included, too, though I don't normally boast the fact, was some retail work; several times a year, strangers stop me on the street and say, "Hey, you look familiar!" Normally, that's a result of the frequent TV exposure, including a couple of long-running gigs, that I got after establishing myself as the Flyer's political writer. But every now and then it's somebody who bought a pair of shoes from me at the now defunct Thalhimer's.)
My first pieces for the Flyer were free-lanced. The very first was a profile of the irrepressible Christian Right leader Ed McAteer -- who wanted 200 copies of the story after it hit the street. Later in 1989 came pieces on Pyramid hustler Sidney Shlenker, wrestler Jerry Lawler, and the now deceased political eminence Bill Farris. One thing led to another, and I've been regular as rain for more than a decade. Both the Flyer and Miss Julia have grown up a bit since 1989, and I'm still tickled to be in on both deals.
In 1989, I was a reporter for another Memphis newspaper writing about a controversial new downtown arena that was under construction and wondering whether it was symbolic of Memphis on the move or just too big and too expensive and whether the University of Memphis and maybe even a professional basketball team would be happy in it and ... wait, this is too depressing to continue.
Fifteen years ago, I was an unwitting fashion victim in Atlanta. Besides the fact that it was the tail-end of the '80s and leg warmers, bright colors, and every day cummerbunds were aiding and abetting fashion don'ts nationwide, I had something else to deal with: the hand-me-down.
I was 11, young enough to still be dressing my Barbies in evening gowns and bathing suits, yet old enough to know what was in style. And it was not me.
We lived in a tight-knit neighborhood, where most of the families belonged to the neighborhood pool and tennis club. Moms played tennis on weekday mornings; kids took lessons in the afternoons; and Dads and doubles got the courts on the weekends. In the summer, there was a swim team (practice every morning at 8). We'd pack a lunch and stay at the pool all day.
All that teamwork made for good neighbors. Unfortunately, good neighbors check on your kids when you need them to, don't mind getting your mail when you're on vacation, and will gladly give you their children's clothes once they grow out of them.
But I guess we needed them. When I was 11, my sister was 9, my brother was 6, and my younger sister was 3. If there was money to buy clothes -- and I'm not sure there was -- there certainly wasn't time.
So how much do kids care what they wear anyway? The answer is "a lot," especially when I'm wearing starched gray slacks with sharp creases and all the other kids are wearing jeans. The dress I particularly hated had tiny teddy bears all over it and a dickey almost identical to the ruffles that clowns typically wear around their necks. (By the way, the original perpetrator of this look? I know who you are.)
When my parents did buy us new clothes, they tried to prevent fights by getting me and my sister the same outfits in different colors. For years, she was pink; I was purple.
But fifth grade was the last year for matching clothes. The next year, my friends and I spent all our Saturdays at the mall, shopping, loitering, trying on dresses for a prom seven years away. Thus began "the bodysuit years" -- and I've been a willing fashion victim ever since.
So you want to know Chris Davis? You really want to know the man the M.P.D. regularly refers to as the Pesky Fly? Well, okay, but be warned: The story ain't pretty.
Myth has it that for breakfast he would eat a stack of pancakes 30-feet high, along with nine pounds of bacon, six-dozen eggs (over easy with a gallon of Tabasco sauce), and a pile of hash browns so large that in 1849 gold miners would often stake claims there. The story goes that Davis (known alternately to his friends as Pappy, Li'l Satchy, Topher, Rat Bastard, and Cool Daddy) would consume the shredded potatoes, miners and all, then spit out their picks and shovels. In fact, a collection of the regurgitated tools were once on display at the Pink Palace museum until Davis, who claimed he needed a snack, stormed into the exhibit hall and ate those too. He would wash his morning meal down with seven buckets of whiskey and then smoke 19 cigars all at the same time before heading down to the North Memphis housing projects, where in the early 1950s he was known to give guitar and singing lessons to many of the poor kids who lived there. Sadly, none, not even that greasy Presley boy, was ever able to master the unique blend of blues, honky-tonk, and gospel that Davis liked to call rock-and-roll.
The Pesky Fly was a notorious insomniac, and so he would dig vast trenches in and around what is now downtown Memphis in order to tucker himself out, before retiring to a 27-foot bed in his vast mansion that once encompassed virtually all of what is now modern Frayser. He would "relieve" himself in those trenches, and many anthropologists now believe that this is the origin of the fourth Chickasaw Bluff and the Mississippi River. The fact is, there are very few records concerning Davis' strange life. What can be proved is that he was born in Detroit. He was raised in Erin, Tennessee. He graduated with a degree in Theater from Rhodes College in 1989. He was gainfully (and sometimes not so gainfully) employed as a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king before finally coming to work for Contemporary Media sometime in the mid 1990s. In order to gain access to his files, Davis has asked that we dispel one myth. Many people believe that theater critics are all failed actors. "Not true," Davis says. "I'm a failed fiction writer."
Davis spent much of 1989 studying, acting, directing, slinging rice at various health-food establishments, and collecting rejection letters from publishers who seemed unimpressed with his tall tales.
The Berlin Wall had fallen, Colin Powell was the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Exxon Valdez had spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska. The year was 1989, and I was ugly.
That's right: ugly. Not the kind of ugly that befalls all adolescents in that uncertain period between cute kid and filled-out teen-ager but the kind of ugly the runs deep below the scars inflicted by taunting classmates: Coke bottle glasse to handle my astigmatism, thick hair in huge braids, gangly gait, and knock-knees. While the Flyer was celebrating its first issue, I was languishing in the lower echelon of the sixth-grade popularity polls.
Since looks were out and athletic talent never bloomed on my branch of the family tree, intellect was my gift. Years of reading and writing the samples required by my father (that's another story altogether) paid off. In a winner-take-all atmosphere, I declared mental war on my classmates. The stakes were high: Junior high cliques were less than eight months away, and I needed friends. "Genuine" or "bought" didn't matter.
I parlayed my brainpower into manipulating my classmates for all sorts of things: Homework help? One invitation to a birthday party, please. Class notes? Information about the cute boy, if you don't mind. Test answers? A tube of flavored lip-gloss with just a hint of color. Thank you very much.
While these requirements were implied but never spoken, I was not to be crossed. Martha Stewart and The Donald had nothing on me. Those were the days.
In 1989, a Chinese student rebellion rose up in Tiananmen Square. I was 20 years old and in college at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, where the revolution was definitely not happening. Instead, David Duke was elected as a state representative and was gearing up for a campaign for the U.S. Senate. I joined NOW (can't quite remember the connection) and passed out anti-Duke flyers at the Mid-South Fair.
I really don't remember much about 1989, and my therapists have said it might be dangerous to attempt to do so. "What's done is done," says my chief psychiatrist. "Why are they trying to force you to relive those awful days?" I don't know why, I tell him -- something to do with a 15th anniversary issue of something. But what was it again? A book, or a play? A newspaper? No, it comes to me, and then it goes. But when I lie on my little cot at night and press my fists into my eyes to shut out the dreadful images, the phrases "deeply troubled," "emotional scarring," and "crimes against humanity" come to mind, for some reason. Then they drift away, and sometimes, if I stuff cotton in my ears to quell the dark voices always whispering at my shoulders, I seem to remember: The alcohol is cool and they swab my temples with cotton and I like that I always do that's the best part and then they make me lie back on the hard bed with my feet barely just barely touching the steel rail at the end and they fasten the leather straps around my wrists ouch this time they tied them too tight sometimes it's not too tight just tight enough to feel secure like I'm wearing a nice watch and then it's always the same It Won't Hurt a Bit they say You'll Probably Sleep Through It and I always say to myself I am NOT going to sleep through it this time I am going to force my brain to accept it like a nest accepts and embraces a nest of baby birds just like that nest in the tree outside my room then they take the smooth electrodes and clip them to the leather harness around my head it always messes my hair up and I wish they wouldn't mess my hair up even for this but they just never listen anymore then they say Ready? and the doctor turns a black knob and I try to see how far he turns it but he blocks my view of the machine every time he knows what I want to know about the black knob is it set to 4 or 5 this time but he won't let me see and then he flips the switch and the very instant I hear the switch the current flows through me it's not soft and warm like lying on the sun at the beach son at the bitch son of a bitch ha ha it's a hard jolt just like it would feel if someone threw a baseball at my head but it feels like the ball hits my head on one side and goes all the way inside and bounces around in my brain and it bruises and rolls and bounces in there at first sending off flashes of light like a sparkler and then it all goes dark and I like it in the dark.
But I'm much better now. They tell me that every day.
In 1989, I was 15 years old and moved to Memphis permanently to live with my dad and new baby brother after growing up in small-town Arkansas. Memphis had already been my cultural mecca for a couple of years. I'd come up on weekends and during the summer to loiter at Memphis Comics & Records on Highland and River Records (then on Park, I believe), both walking distance from my dad's house in Sherwood Forest. I'd also hunt for records at the main library on Peabody that were from a checklist I'd made based on Rolling Stone's 1987 Top 100 issue and the Rolling Stone Record Guide (Dave Marsh-edited blue cover; the good one). In those days I was making the transition from baseball cards to music as my cultural passion, and Memphis Comics & Records was aces on both counts. (Why I was so excited to buy Harold Baines cards for a nickel a pop in their commons sections I'm not sure.)
That summer I was a precocious but introverted soon-to-be sophomore at White Station High School, spending my time taking driver's education classes, playing tennis at Audubon Park (where I never did really learn how to serve), and scoping records. My tastes at the time were divided pretty equally between alt-rock bands such as the Replacements, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies and hip-hop acts such as Public Enemy, De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys. Earlier in the year, before moving to Memphis, I attended my first concert sans parents --Prince's LoveSexy tour at the Mid-South Coliseum. But it would be the next fall that Memphis really opened my eyes. After hooking up with another new kid at school --an older guy who'd moved to Memphis from Little Rock --I began hanging out at the Antenna club. Mostly Sunday night, all-ages punk and hardcore shows, but occasionally more adventurous stuff. I saw the Country Rockers, with their drummer "Ringo," and had no idea what to think. I sat, with about a dozen other people, waiting for Robyn Hitchcock to perform, only to have him walk in the front door of the club at about 2:30 in the morning. It was, to say the least, a world unlike any I'd seen. The graffiti-plastered walls, smoky din, and Bauhaus videos blaring from TV screens ("Telegram Sam," I remember well) was quite an experience for a 15-year-old kid from Arkansas.
I don't remember being that aware of the Flyer back then, though I had discovered The Village Voice a couple of years earlier at the library when I spotted Prince on the cover of their annual music issue. It was later in high school that I became a fan of the Flyer's then-music writer, John Floyd, whose sharp, opinionated criticism reminded me of what I found so fascinating in the Voice.
In 1989, I was a chubby 8-year-old girl in Jonesboro, Arkansas, whose "fat days" were only beginning. Margarine sticks were my lollipops, and I could often be spotted sneaking spoonfuls out of the Country Crock tub in my parents' fridge. Within the next two years, I would gain so much weight I had to start a Weight Watchers diet at age 10.
But despite my oversized gut, I aimed to be a young fashionista. I rarely left the house in anything but hot-pink or orange Spandex biker shorts and crimped hair in a messy ponytail propped on the side of my head. I was the queen of puff paint and had numerous white T-shirts emblazoned with the bright, decorative glue.
I worshipped the 1980s teeny-bopper gods, like New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul, and held regular "bunkin" parties with my girlfriends where we'd spend hours singing along with every song on Hangin' Tough.
I was in fourth grade, and although I aspired to be a teacher, I fancied myself quite the playwright. I wrote several plays for my class to perform during recess, most of which were holiday-themed. I took baton lessons and spent my afternoons hunting for aliens in my front yard with my neighbor. I also spent a considerable amount of time sitting on my fat ass watching TV shows like Growing Pains and Full House with an ever-present bag of Cheetos in hand.
In 1989, I was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, earning my keep as the editor of that city's monthly magazine, the cleverly titled Pittsburgh. (Across town, Angus McEachran was the editor of the daily Pittsburgh Press.) My children were both under 10 years old, and free time was at a minimum. My daughter and I were involved in a YMCA program called Indian Princesses. I was Chief Whitewater; she was Princess Running Deer. We wore headbands with feathers and leather vests and sang Raffi songs. Trés chic. That same year, a book I co-authored called Aquarius Revisited, came out. It was about seven icons of the 1960s, including Allen Ginsberg, Hunter Thompson, Ken Kesey, and others. While interviewing them, I avoided mentioning my princess gig.
The best part about my Pittsburgh job was my all-powerful ability to give myself plum assignments, most of which involved things like fly-fishing trips to northern Pennsylvania or a memorable Dream Week baseball camp with the Pirates. I sliced a two-run double in the final game, which made my coach, Steve Blass, very happy. (I suspect a bet with one of the other coaches was somehow involved.) He bought me a beer. And I still have the Pirates jersey with my name running across the back (and down the sleeves).