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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Remembering "Monk" — aka Tony Cassatta

Posted By on Thu, Dec 9, 2010 at 3:29 PM

Tony "Monk" Cassatta may be the most famous Memphian that people here never knew.

Let me explain: Most people living here in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and beyond had heard stories about the odd little fellow that everyone called Monk. Perhaps some of you had encounters with him. But nobody really knew much, if anything about him: his real name, his background, where he lived.

So back in 1979, Memphis magazine published a profile of this interesting fellow, written by my pal Susan Turley Dynerman, and it was one heckuva interview since Monk had plenty to say, all right, but not many things that really made sense. In fact, the story was rather cryptically titled "Who Is This Man? — The Secret Life of Memphis' Most Visible Eccentric."

That was before I came along, you see.

His attire was as distinctive, in its own way, as my own. "You can find him bundled in four or five wool shirts on days when the blacktop is hot as a skillet," wrote Susan. "And you can find him bent over his walking stick, an oversized baseball cap cocked on his head, a stub of a cigar protruding from his small, furrowed face, tapping on car windows."

Monk, whom Susan said stood less than four feet tall, claimed to walk 50 miles a day, selling pencils, magnolia blossoms plucked from neighbors' trees, whatever he felt like doing. One reader recalled first seeing him back in the 1950s: "We called him 'Monk' because he looked like a monkey." Not a very nice thing to say, but the name stuck.

Susan somehow determined that Monk was born in Italy in 1905. Now here's the interesting part. Despite rumors that he lived on the street, every night he walked home to a neat bungalow in Midtown, where he lived with his brother and sister, who didn't want their names or address mentioned in Susan's article. When Monk was growing, up, "he always seemed a little bit different," they told Susan. "He's slow, but not dumb," insisted his sister. "He speaks two languages — English and Italian — so he can't be that slow."

Her matter-of-fact explanation for her brother's layers and layers of old clothing? "He gets cold."

Monk's own reason? "Low blood."

Susan followed Monk around for a whole afternoon, but the man who would usually spend his days standing in the middle of Poplar, shouting at cars and banging away at them with a stick, clammed up around our reporter. He supposedly was an expert on baseball, of all things, but at the end of what was probably a very long day, she admitted, "We really know little more about Monk than we did several hours before."

That's a shame. The fellow she called "an eccentric constant in a faddish universe" passed away just a few months later — on October 10, 1979 — at the age of 74. I have no idea where he is buried, and something tells me Monk would have preferred it that way.

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