Memphis in May. What does it mean to you? Mud-encrusted shoes from Music Fest? The thick, sweet pall of barbecue smoke that hangs over downtown on the month's third weekend? Fireworks at the Sunset Symphony as the finale of "The 1812 Overture"? All of the above?
My first trip to Memphis was in May 1992. I was in town for a job interview, and I came in a day early to take the measure of this mysterious (to me, anyway) Southern place. I drove all over town, and I was dazzled by the azaleas, the lush greenery, the towering canopy of massive oaks stretching across the Midtown streets.
Downtown was not impressive then, but I'm a nature boy at heart, so that didn't bother me much. I cruised around, checking out the green areas on my map, which led me to Shelby Forest and to Shelby Farms, where I walked along the Wolf River. It's not exaggerating to say that Memphis' green spaces helped swing my decision to move here.
That evening, I visited a friend who lived in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. As we sat on his porch, a mockingbird sang ceaselessly, the loudest sound I could hear. There was no traffic noise, just the occasional rumble of a FedEx plane.
"I like this town," I said. "I like the way it feels."
I've learned since, of course, that May doesn't last all year, that it's followed by heat and humidity that will melt your socks. (But then there's a gorgeous autumn that stretches for months.) And I know, of course, that climate and green spaces and access to nature are only part of the story. This city has problems, as most cities do. But that's another column.
I want to write about what I call the "perfect day." It happens every May. I can't tell you when, precisely, but I know it when I feel it. It's the day when every single tree and bush is fully leafed, before the predations of bugs, heat, and drought have had a chance to do their damage. It's the day I step outside, and the morning air is cool, the sky a clarion blue. The joggers are smiling, and they don't know why.
It came this week. The trees were as green as the first green. The irises were in bloom. A mockingbird was scat-singing from a magnolia's crown. A fat white cat lay sunning on the bricks.
The perfect day. The real Memphis in May. I took a breath and said to myself, "I like this town. I like the way it feels."
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."