Thursday, December 27, 2001

Parting Shots

What made Memphis more interesting in 2001.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 27, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Political chic. There have been women in Memphis who threw big parties in public spaces, like Pat Kerr Tigrett. And women politicians like Pat VanderSchaaf, Mary Rose McCormick, and Carol Chumney, who had visions of power. And women who came up through the ranks to run departments of state government, like Jane Walters. But nobody made a bigger splash or went straight to the top faster than Kristi Jernigan, Gayle Rose, and Barbara Hyde.

Many Memphians, it seems safe to say, felt fairly helpless and irrelevant after September 11th. What to do to show you care? Guardsmark CEO Ira Lipman hung a huge American flag across the front of his building on Second Street. The question now: When does it come down? And what will it signify when it does?

Throw out the racial stereotypes. The most integrated place in town is a gathering of county mayoral candidates. White Republicans are supporting black Democrat A C Wharton. Black Democrats and bastions of the NAACP are supporting white suburban businessman Harold Byrd. In Memphis this is progress.

What do military tribunals look like? Probably something like the temporary removal of federal judge Jon McCalla. In this episode of Men Behaving Badly, the no-nonsense judge got in trouble for a temper that some lawyers said made it impossible for them to do their jobs. Guarded by U.S. marshals, a panel of judges and witnesses slipped into the federal building to secretly censure him, until McCalla, according to secondhand accounts, copped the equivalent of a nolo contendere plea and dispensed several personal apologies. The inquisitors and witnesses stole away as quietly as they came and that was the end of that. Next case.

The Memphis and Shelby County Bar Association first distinguished itself with a comprehensive rating survey of local judges that nailed several slackers. Then the organization and its members showed that cops aren't the only ones who can honor a code of silence by uttering not a word of protest about the secrecy of the McCalla ouster.

More than $2 billion has been invested downtown in the last 20 years, but they can't get some things right. The trolley, for instance. The fare is an impossible 60 cents, not 50 cents, not an even buck. And it hasn't occurred to anyone to have somebody collect it outside the vehicle on the 62 nights a year when there are crowds going to professional or college basketball at The Pyramid. Like ghost ships, trolleys run empty during the morning rush hour, causing lines of cars to stop along Riverside Drive while the crossing gates come down.

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong cutting implement. Ali Al-Maqtari, from Yemen, was stopped at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where his wife was going into the army. He had a box-cutter and a story about being a French teacher visiting the U.S. After September 11th, he became the best-known detainee in Memphis, where he was finally freed in immigration court after more than a month in custody.

Non-stories. Logan Young was not indicted, unless you count the Internet and The Commercial Appeal. Roy Adams, aka "TennStud," was not sued for libel by Young. Albert Means was not all-world or even all-conference and certainly not worth a $200,000 payoff. The Pyramid was not sponsored.

They said it couldn't be done. The city engineers said Union Avenue couldn't work without changing lane directions during rush hour. They were wrong. The mother of roads now runs unvexed, more or less, to the Father of Waters.

Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey was the public official of the year. Not because he was necessarily right or wrong, but because he was a public naysayer at a time and place when it was unpopular to be one. While almost everyone else was climbing aboard the NBA bandwagon, Bailey civilly demanded answers and asked hard questions. In short, he did his job.

Robert Lipscomb was the bureaucrat of the year. Under his leadership at Memphis Housing Authority, the downtown housing projects have been renovated, rebuilt, or closed. If they were still as threatening as they once were, there would be more misery in Memphis, more crime. And developments like the St. Jude expansion, Uptown, and the arena proposal wouldn't have happened. If Lipscomb were a corporate CEO he would get a big raise and some stock options.

Two people who will earn their money next year will be those responsible for filling the 375-unit Echelon at the Ballpark apartments next to AutoZone Park and downtown's new luxury hotel, the Madison.

The former main library at Peabody and McLean will be torn down less than a year after it stopped serving thousands of people, seven days a week, year-round. The Sears building still stands 20 years after it closed. The Mid-South Coliseum is a protected historic landmark. Just as a city can build anything if the right people push the right buttons, so can it tear anything down or keep it from being torn down.

If you didn't hear Carol Coletta's Smart City on WKNO Sunday mornings, you missed the most thought-provoking hour on radio in 2001, a weekly program that manages to be of local interest without being local. If you didn't read Tim Sampson's We Recommend in the Flyer you missed the funniest thing in the Memphis print media.

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Authority Figures

Can the private sector do it better?

Posted By on Wed, Dec 19, 2001 at 4:00 AM

The New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority (NMAPBA) goes on the road this week to Indianapolis to visit that city's fancy new arena for the Indiana Pacers, taking nine Grizzlies fans and assorted media with them to check out the leg room, the sight lines, the luxury suites, and the refreshments. Whatever they like will find its way into the new $250 million Memphis arena slated to begin construction next year.

Meanwhile, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) will crank up its efforts next month to win support for a master riverfront plan, including a land bridge to Mud Island.

Both of these potential signature projects for the city came out of agencies that were specially created to take over functions that once belonged to government.

Frustrated for years by stagnation and missed opportunities, local government gladly turned over some of its authority in Mayor Willie Herenton's third four-year term and Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's second and final term.

The RDC took custody of several downtown parks, including Mud Island, and commissioned the development plan whose centerpiece is the land bridge.

The NMAPBA will pick the team to design, promote, and build the new facility for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Modeled in part after the Memphis Airport Authority, which successfully built and manages the largest cargo airport in the world, the NMAPBA (chaired by Airport Authority board member Arnold Perl) and the RDC (chaired by Morgan Keegan executive John Stokes) can tap talent from the private sector, leverage public money with private contributions, and supposedly move faster and more efficiently than government.

Fresh horses, bold ideas, and a certain gravitas are side benefits. Leaders aren't immune to criticism, but Stokes and Perl won't get beaten up in the newspaper for installing a phone in a bathroom or spending $100 for dinner on an expense account as city council members have been.

But a look back at the first year of operations for the NMAPBA and RDC suggests they have some of the same problems as government, and they create some new ones.

For one thing, they don't always get their way. Politics and compromise are still paramount. The arena site is a compromise between the Union Avenue location favored by Rout and NMAPBA members and the Linden site preferred by Herenton.

On the riverfront, brothers Kevin and Rusty Hyneman own a key piece of undeveloped property on Mud Island between Harbor Town and the entrance to the river park. Their suburban track record of dense, low-cost housing doesn't fit the RDC's vision, but, for now at least, they're partners.

Far from taking politics out of big projects, agencies like the NMAPBA and RDC can simply turn politicians from decision-makers into lobbyists, making sure their pals are awarded contracts. The politicos approve board appointments, and a one-of-ours, one-of-theirs (or one-of-us in the case of legislators who insist they be appointed to the boards themselves) mentality still prevails.

NMAPBA executive director Don Smith was selected at the urging of Sen. John Ford and others over Mike Ritz, who had the endorsement of Herenton and the NMAPBA construction committee. And when it came time to choose a public relations firm, the NMAPBA simply chose two of them, one white and one black, at a total cost of up to $320,000.

Authorities like the NMAPBA and RDC neuter government. Whatever its merits may prove to be, the Grizzlies' arena was a cram-down by a small group of men and women with money and clout. Some key political backers, notably Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and some county commissioners, won't be around to answer for it.

If the RDC goes ahead with the proposed land bridge, it will also be a cram-down. The idea was unheard of before the RDC consultants hatched it even though downtown already has acres of empty space on Mud Island and plenty of empty buildings that could be torn down to make more.

By taking the arena and the riverfront off its table, three big-ticket items are now in the hands of people outside the control of city and county division directors. The council and commission already must deal with school budget requests not of their own making. After sports, the riverfront, and education, what's left? Bit parts, often -- cell towers, redistricting, or the Communist slogan at the library.

Granted, those are roles some politicians seem to relish, but it does a disservice to others and to the legacy of public servants like Lewis Donelson, Mike Cody, Vasco and Maxine Smith, Jesse Turner, J.O. Patterson Jr., Gwen Awsumb, and Frances Coe. They fought the great battles over desegregation, busing, roads, and downtown, but they engaged the small ones too. They sat through their share of zoning cases and award ceremonies and their perspective was better for it.

An authority, by definition, has one focus and one focus only. Make a splash. Build that arena. Fill that harbor.

It's not the end of democracy as we know it. But it is a different way of doing public business, and the shortcomings may become more apparent next year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Holiday Cheer

The man who owns AutoZone.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Maybe Memphis should call its proposed new basketball arena the Edward S. Lampert Arena. Or how about the Edward S. Lampert Pyramid? Or the ESL Liberty Bowl? Or all three? The least Memphis can do is give him a key to the city to go with the red sweater he wore at AutoZone's annual meeting Thursday. Because in four years he's bought 30 percent of our second biggest company, and at AutoZone's recent price of $73 a share, that's roughly $2.25 billion. Lampert, 39 years old, doesn't own the stock all by himself, of course. He heads an investment group in Connecticut, ESL Investments, that includes some other rich people. But he's on AutoZone's board of directors, and since 1997 he's bought 30,687,265 million shares, giving him, today, 36 times as much as company founder J.R. Hyde III. After more than five years in the stock market doldrums, AutoZone caught fire in 2001. It started the year at $25. This week it was $73. In one day last week, it gained $12, which is more than many items cost in AutoZone's 3,000 stores. That made AutoZone the No. 1 stock in the entire Standard & Poor's 500 Index this year. And it put employees and shareholders in a good mood at Thursday's meeting which featured Christmas music, an American flag, a sea of red sweaters, and a couple of rousing AutoZone cheers. "Despite what some have said, this is a very high growth, robust, dynamic industry," said CEO Steve Odland. A story you won't hear on ESPN: while stadium sponsors including Enron, PSINet, Trans World Airlines, Fruit of the Loom, 3Com, United Airlines, America West Airlines, and Conseco flirt with bankruptcy, the namesake of Memphis's AAA baseball stadium tripled its market value. What's the difference between Memphis, Houston, Baltimore, St. Louis, Miami, Boston, Indianapolis, Phoenix, and Miami? Our corporate sponsors, AutoZone and FedEx, are solvent. Several explanations have been offered for AutoZonešs big upward move, none of them very satisfactory.
  • AutoZone beat the earnings estimates of the analysts who cover it for brokerage firms. In September, their consensus guess was that AutoZone would earn 56 cents a share last quarter. In October, says Emma Jo Kauffman, head of investor relations for AutoZone, "we knew we would beat that" because sales were better and margins were higher. So the analysts bumped their estimate to 60 cents. The actual number was 76 cents, a 20-cent improvement over the starting figure. But this says as much about the murky areas of corporate accounting and "guidance" to analysts as it does about fundamentals. Clearly, it is better to beat low expectations than meet high ones as far as stock price is concerned.
  • Comparable store sales were up nine percent, "which is huge," says Kauffman. But they were up five percent in 2000, which was good enough to lead the CEO's letter in the annual report, and the stock stayed around $25.
  • CBS Market Watch opined that AutoZone "is among the handful of companies that actually stand to benefit from a weak economy" because drivers keep their old cars longer and drive more. This, however, ignores the strong new car sales this quarter because of zero-percent financing. And in an interview in September, Odland told me it is "sort of a myth" that the company does better in bad economic times.
  • AutoZone bought back 53 million shares last year. If you take shares out of circulation, earnings per share increase. But this is old news. AutoZone has been buying back as much as $400 million of its own stock as far back as 1998, and the stock generally stood still. From 1995 to 2000, it was one of the worst local stocks, with a $100 investment falling to $96.
  • AutoZone has lots of new items and is putting high-margin stuff in easy access places. Sorry, but the 2000 annual report brags about the merits of reducing store inventory by nine percent. And selling Doritos by the checkout counter, which is the new new thing at my neighborhood AutoZone store in Midtown, hardly seems revolutionary. That leaves the Edward S. Lampert Effect. Lampert, a Yale graduate, got his start at Goldman Sachs & Co., working for future Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. "His people spent hours researching our stores," says Kauffman. He bought and waited, then bought and waited some more. By 1999 he was what is known in finance as the board and changes in management. "Good companies eventually do well in the stock market," Lampert said after the meeting. In 2000, CEO John Adams and President Tim Vargo announced they were leaving to spend more time with their families. Adams, who attended Thursdayšs shareholder meeting and by some accounts set the table for the good news of 2001, gets $575,000 a year until 2006 so long as he doesn't sell auto parts. CFO Robert Hunt is also retiring, as is director Andrew Clarkson. All of them have stock and options worth several million dollars. Odland came aboard in January, 2001. Last March, Lampert bought another seven million shares at $26. He finally sold 1.3 million shares of his holdings last week at $75. In ten years, AutoZone has grown its revenues to $4.8 billion. It was a hot stock for three years, splitting two-for-one in 1992 and 1994. Then it moved sideways for six years. This year it was hot again. What really changed was perception. That's what matters in the market, as AutoZone stockholders toast Edward S. Lampert this holiday season.

    Friday, December 7, 2001

    Hard Lines

    A Southern Baptist minister's story of AIDS.

    Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2001 at 4:00 AM

    From his silver hair and silver-rimmed glasses to his booming voice to his corny jokes that make you laugh in spite of yourself, Dr. Jimmy R. Allen resembles any number of Baptist preachers and television evangelists.

    But when he spoke in Memphis last week he told a personal story that challenged listeners to rethink their ideas about AIDS -- not to mention Southern Baptist preachers.

    Spiritual without being evangelical, stirring without being sentimental, and struggling at times to keep his composure while telling a story he has told hundreds of times, Rev. Allen spoke to a few hundred people at Union Avenue Baptist Church last Saturday as part of World AIDS Day.

    Allen is former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the position that has been held three times by Rev. Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church.

    AIDS is an inside-the-newspaper story now, shoved aside by the economy, terrorism, and a sense of familiarity. The bigger the numbers grow -- 60 million people infected worldwide, 900,000 Americans living with AIDS -- the more impersonal the story becomes.

    "We've grown accustomed to its face," said Allen. With advances in medical treatments for AIDS, "a great sigh of relief kind of swept over our nation." The panic that swept the country 20 years ago is gone.

    AIDS came to Allen's family in 1985 when Allen was living in Nashville. His son Scott called from his home in Dallas to tell him Scott's wife and two children were all HIV-positive.

    "I didn't have any idea what the guy was talking about," said Allen. "I knew AIDS had something to do with the gay community out in San Francisco."

    Every church they went to in Dallas refused to take Scott's 3-year-old son in their Sunday school. So father and grandfather began taking the little boy to McDonald's playgrounds for "guys' days" instead. Their other refuge was the public school system, which the boy attended until he died at the age of 13.

    Allen's other grandson died at eight months. Rev. Allen struggled as he explained how the mortician would not handle the body for fear of contracting the disease. The experiences, including his wife's death from the disease, left Scott so shaken that he left the ministry, moved to Australia, and became a writer.

    But AIDS touched Allen's family again. He talked last week about his middle son, Skip, who is gay and who also has AIDS. In a TV movie, this would be the part where father and son reconcile but not in this case.

    "There is a lot of tension in our lives," Allen said. "He just doesn't see the Bible like I do."

    Allen, who wrote a book about his experiences called The Burden of a Secret, said his family's attempts to hide unpleasant facts only cut them off from the love they needed. Pointing to the AIDS memorial quilts hanging around the sanctuary, he urged his audience of 300 or so to "find a way to sing their songs."

    Sections of the memorial quilt are on display this week at two Memphis churches. Union Avenue Baptist Church, (2181 Union Avenue), and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, (620 Parkrose), will each host 20 sections of the quilt through December 6th.

    The quilt project began in San Francisco in 1987 and now includes more than 44,000 individual panels in memory of people who died of AIDS complications.

    The Memphis and Shelby County Health Department says AIDS is the 10th leading cause of death in Shelby County, killing 123 people in 1999 and 118 in 2000, the most recent year for which records are complete. Through September of this year, there were 5,122 HIV cases and 3,210 cases of full-blown AIDS in Memphis.

    For a more arresting presentation of the numbers, see the markers decked with red ribbons on the lawn outside First Baptist Church at Poplar and East Parkway -- before they are removed on December 8th.

    Without You

    Facing up to George Harrison's death.

    Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2001 at 4:00 AM

    We can say it for sure now: Any day a Beatle dies is a bad day. George Harrison is gone at 58, lost to cancer, an illness that has affected most of us in some way, either directly or indirectly. And yet it's no more comprehensible than John Lennon taken by a bullet. After we lost Lennon, many of us wondered (to ourselves if to no one else), How will it feel to lose any of the remaining ones? Although most of us have always had a favorite, the idea of the Beatles as a broken set just feels all wrong, and the 20 years since Lennon's death haven't made it any more penetrable.

    We had convenient tags for each Beatle, but each meant something only in the context of the others: John was the brilliant and difficult one; Paul was the charming and ingratiating one; Ringo was likable and good-natured.

    George was the tall, quiet one. He was also the youngest of the four, the one who liked puns and disliked fame, who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell, who could be surly and cantankerous. George was the one you could never quite be sure of. He seemed to hold himself apart from the others somehow, and yet without him, the Beatles would never have been themselves.

    He was the most unreachable, the one who most adamantly refused to belong to us. But whether he liked it or not, he did belong to us. Whether he wanted our love or not, he got it -- and has it still.

    Facing up to George Harrison's death isn't something any Beatles fan can do adequately in the space of a day. There have always been people who clamored to defend his solo work; I'm not one of them. But at the same time, it's crucial to say that the handful (in relative terms) of songs that Harrison wrote in his time with the Beatles represents a body of work that any songwriter should be proud of -- they simply had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the work of the much more prolific (and, yes, unabashedly brilliant) Lennon and McCartney.

    Right now it would just seem right to spend a whole day basking in the delicate tracery of "Here Comes the Sun," its lacy guitar work a potent metaphor for the evanescent beauty of pop music: "Here Comes the Sun" has all the poetry of a glittering spider web in the moments before the sun warms it dry.

    When Frank Sinatra recorded Harrison's "Something" in the early 1970s, he said it was the greatest love song written in 50 years. Sinatra credited John and Paul, but it makes sense that it was George -- the quiet one. "Something" is a song by a man standing apart from his love; that's the only way he can really see her as she is and that's what makes the song so heartbreakingly generous. It's as if he's asking himself for the first time what she means outside the context of himself: Can he love her forever? He doesn't know. But this moment is about her only, a creature whose beauty and innate composure have nothing to do with him -- as attributes of the soul, they will outlive him and the body he lives in. "Something" is mournful and celebratory at once, a delicate meshing of complicated and seemingly contradictory feelings. It's the kind of song that only a very private man could write.

    Some people don't feel comfortable acknowledging the flaws and foibles of the dead, but I prefer to think that coming face to face with them is the surest expression of love. Harrison often complained, quite vocally, that the public robbed him of his privacy and of a part of himself. He didn't like being famous. Even if, as rumor has it, he was plagued by money problems in later years, there's no denying that the public's love helped buy him a rather nice house in the English countryside.

    And by all accounts he was damn cheap. But what do we, his fans, have to complain about, provided we've never had to split a restaurant bill with him? His thriftiness has made for some terrific stories. In Shout!, Philip Norman's marvelous and touchingly sympathetic history of the Beatles, the band has dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Wales. The maharishi had come to the U.K. for a visit; in attendance were Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. "After a long and noisy meal, it was discovered that no one among the assembled millionaires had enough money to pay the bill. In London, they were never allowed to pay. Chinese waiters in a North Wales town clearly did not understand this. At last, with the waiters growing restive, George Harrison pried open his sandal-sole and produced a wad of £10 notes."

    Harrison was generous where it counted. He donated money and time to various philanthropic projects, including the organization of a 1971 concert to aid refugees in Bangladesh. And in his later years, especially, he faced some pretty rough challenges: He was troubled by health problems and in late 1999 was stabbed by a maniac who had broken into his home. At the time, it seemed like the last thing Harrison, bitter enough about the suffering his fame had brought him, needed.

    But the story of the way his wife cracked the guy over the head with a lamp became the stuff of legend -- an example of the strength that women can summon when they need to protect a child or their man. Her ferociousness represented something many of us feel: I'm sure there are millions of women (and men) worldwide who would wield a lamp to save a Beatle.

    Even in ill health, Harrison maintained his lanky good looks. In later pictures or TV footage of him, it was always easy to see the gauntly handsome youngster he used to be; the image of him tapping a foot in those incredible Cuban-heeled boots is iconic.

    And his exquisitely dry humor, like the love he took and made, will live forever. Whenever my husband and I pass a weird bit of mangled metal masquerading as modern art, invariably one of us turns to the other and says, quoting George's great line from A Hard Day's Night, "You don't see many of those anymore." Now he's gone, too, and we'll never see his like again. He was fab, he was gear, and forget that story about the way he hid money in his shoe: In his role as a Beatle he was generous to a fault, and we're as rich as kings because of it.

    Stephanie Zacharek writes for Salon, where this story first appeared.

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