Thursday, April 17, 2014

God’s Rifle

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 4:00 AM

I am a Southerner and a devotee of that lifestyle celebrated in the pages of glossy magazines. The delicacies of the South — the language, food, finery, and manners — interlace with the earthier elements of the hunt, bourbon, and humor: a tapestry one may explore for a lifetime and not exhaust. These present gifts are readily subsumed in a vision of the antebellum time, and one cannot help but mourn the passing of the society and culture that created them for us.

I grew up in Memphis, atop the Mississippi Delta and all the wealth that yards and yards of rich topsoil can produce. I came early to the conclusion that every man should have a shotgun, a tuxedo, a set of golf clubs, and the attendant know-how. In elementary school, we wore pixie-like costumes in the Cotton Carnival parade and waited for the arrival of the king and queen on their barge, accompanied by princesses and duchesses of the realm. In middle grades, we wore coats and ties to the Children's Ball in E.H. Crump Stadium and danced, as our mothers instructed and required, until we could run under the bleachers to fight and spit. In college, we escorted a princess for the week-long party and knew that someday we would marry a duchess-to-be.

Our schools, churches, and clubs formed the scaffolding for our lives, and we all knew each other. High school fraternities and sororities were robust, and one or another would sponsor a weekly party, at which there was live music, abundant alcohol, and inattentive chaperones. The Memphis police looked the other way, and the few unlucky enough to be pulled over were usually admonished to "be careful."

There were ball fields, gymnasiums, tennis courts, and golf courses everywhere. Even for those with private clubs or pools at home, the public swimming pools were a great draw for deflecting the brutal Memphis summer, meeting friends, and spotting the occasional celebrity.

  • Aleksander Kovaltchuk |

There were a few private schools, but the public system had a long list of graduates who had gone to the Ivy League. We roamed each other's campuses at will, riding bikes or city buses when too young to drive, taking a carload of friends along when we got our keys. We also roamed the city, from East Memphis to Main Street and the riverfront, no matter the hour or day. We'd park in a dim side street and walk 'round to the dazzling marquees of the Malco Theater or Loew's Palace for a Saturday night movie date. We stopped at Tropical Freeze, Dairy Queen, or Pig and Whistle afterward and invariably found our pals.

We loved our lives so much we didn't even think about it. We did not often mention but knew full well that our good fortune descended directly from those who had wrought the grand South from the wilderness and bequeathed it to us. We mourned their tragic disenfranchisement by "The War."

Aware of our heritage in so many ways, we were blind to the one great parallel. The grandeur of the Old South was founded upon the systematic oppression and commercial exploitation of African Americans. While slavery was not even a remote memory for me or my family, every facility and every privilege I enjoyed was a creature of racial segregation. Schools, churches, tennis courts: All were reserved for one race or the other, and those for blacks were distinctly inferior to those for whites.

"White" and "Colored" were the de facto and de jure categorizations for Memphians. "Latino" and "Asian" didn't even come to mind. In Goldsmith's department store, there were signs over adjacent water fountains: "White" and "Colored." Blacks were allowed into the Malco only through an obscure side-street entrance that led directly to the balcony. The glitter of the main entrance and the plush seating therein were for me and people like me.

Tuesday was "Colored Day" at the Memphis Zoo and, though never present on the same days, the restrooms were designated as "White" or "Colored." Dairy Queen had several front windows at which whites could place their orders. Blacks waited in line at a single window off to the side, by the dumpster.

Brown v. Board of Education may have been decided in 1954, but I still graduated from an all-white high school in 1966.

Integration had been initiated, though, and the prospect of white and colored kids dancing in the same room to the same music prompted the Memphis Board of Education to prohibit proms. The mandate that municipal swimming pools be accessible to all was parried by the city fathers' closing of them rather than have mixed races share chlorinated water. I stood within 10 feet as the elders of my church denied entrance to black worshippers.

Although some scholars disagree, Abraham Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address that the cause of "The War" was slavery. He quoted Matthew: "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." He posited "The War" as the woe for the offense of slavery and offered prayer and hope that it would pass swiftly. He warned, however, that it might not pass until "all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword ...."

The tribulations suffered by the South during and after "The War" were of Old Testament dimensions and duration. After Reconstruction, most felt that surely sufficient price and penitence had been paid. But the offenses had not ceased; they were transmogrified into those that gave me front-row seats, new textbooks, and well-groomed baseball diamonds.

The woe has been similarly transformed from that of war and dislocation to that of racial antagonism and mistrust. Sharp operators of every hue have leveraged the antagonism and mistrust to personal advantage. Having ruled autocratically, many whites abandoned their cities and left the emerging black majorities without benevolent governance paradigms.

A member of the Memphis diaspora, I look back and see her indicted public officials, her surrendered public school charter, her crime and poverty rates, and the handful of servants struggling against the racial riptide. Memphis is not the only victim, just the one best known and dearest to me. Racial tension pervades our nation — even in those quarters where Jim Crow had no official presence — and international immigration has merely produced multilateral rather than bilateral tension.

The South's natural, geographical, historical, and cultural advantages are held beyond our grasp by the current woes, and other regions are handicapped as well. Lincoln called for "malice toward none ... charity for all." Perhaps we can forgo our suspicion and resentment and each forgive the other for offenses real and imagined. As James Taylor sings in "Belfast to Boston":

Who will swallow long injustice, take the devil for a country man ...

Missing brothers, martyred fellows, silent children in the ground,

Could we but hear them, would they not tell us,

Time to lay God's rifle down.

Maybe apologies all around would be a start. This has been mine.

Richard Patterson, who spent much of his life as a physician in Memphis, is now retired in South Carolina.

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Owed to CMI

John Branston bids farewell to the Memphis Flyer.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 4:00 AM

"I love the Flyer! What do you do there?"

Going on 23 years, I still get that at least once a year. Life's way of keeping you grounded. The answer is soon to be "not much," but first a little background.

John Branston
  • John Branston

It was 1990, and the speaker at the Peabody was talking about the promising prospects of free "alternative" weekly newspapers. Bob Roth, founder of the Chicago Reader, was wearing boots and jeans and had a beard and a ponytail. So far so good. He said something about the typical alt-weekly reader buying several CDs every month. Lotta money, I nodded.

Of course, he was talking about compact discs, not certificates of deposit. For someone whose music collection was still vinyl, it was an early sign of a challenging marriage. I had recently turned 40, and publisher Ken Neill was looking for someone who could write it long or write it short and keep the newborn Memphis Flyer edgy but out of trouble while its grown-up sibling, Memphis magazine, paid the rent. I bit. First suggestion: It is not a good idea to have a local feature called "Rumor Mill."

A free paper, competing with one of the most profitable dailies in the country. Fat chance. Over the next 15 years, 16-page papers would become 28 pages then 44 pages then 96 pages a few glorious weeks. Party!

Dick Hackett was mayor, Harold Ford Sr. was between trials, and Willie Herenton was an unemployed former superintendent. "Free" was still the exception and not the rule in news, and strip-club ads supported this and other weekly papers. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, pay walls, and trolls did not exist. Our most faithful correspondent wrote upbeat weekly letters to us in longhand. Penmanship and notepads had not disappeared, the internet was a few years away, and a Rolodex and a reverse city directory were handy things to have. And the women who are now our advertising director and operations director were babysitting my children.

What, exactly, did alternative mean? The punk rocker who took a dump on stage at the Antenna club and the bond trader at First Tennessee who called a colleague a "f---ing goombah" and got sued over it were about to test our definition. Absent smartphones, the Flyer had the scoop.

"Tell me something interesting I didn't know," suggested Henry Turley. His sequel, equally wise, was, no matter who you are, "sooner or later, people get tired of your bullshit."

Soon enough, big news came along, like the Herenton cliff-hanger election, the casinos, and the Ford trial and acquittal, that let us show our stuff. The beauty of working for a company with multiple "platforms" — as we now say at Contemporary Media Inc. (MBQ magazine and joined the print paper and Memphis) — is the ability to change gears from a 10-part series to a 4,000-word story to anniversary issues to books to columns and blogs, which we once called "Bobs."

At some point, I decided I had earned pundit's rights. A cartoon I saved for years showed a columnist blindly tossing a dart at a board that read, "Today I am an expert in," with slots for nuclear physics, medicine, stocks, sports, government, and international affairs. I replaced it a few years ago with a "Doonesbury" strip wherein aging reporter Rick Redfern is asked by his son what he does if he has nothing to say, and he tells him, "Say it anyway, four times a day. I don't have a pension."

There's a lot of truth to that. "Reacher said nothing" is a good narrative device in Lee Child's tough-guy fiction, as well as excellent advice in real life, unless your job includes feeding the Web beast. Good writers are usually great reporters and interviewers — Jackson Baker, for instance. Whether selling or writing, this is an in-your-face business. I hope it lasts.

Doing work you would (sometimes) do for free and making enough to raise a family is not a thing to be taken for granted, especially when allowed to do it without fear or favor or interference. I sincerely thank my present and past colleagues, our board, advertisers, and especially our readers. The term "alternative weekly" needs to be redefined, and fresh horses are key to any going concern. The next hire should have a thousand friends and followers and zero CDs.

I have a half-finished book and some other things I want to do. I'm younger than half the dudes in the geezer bands playing Tunica. Ken Neill, a friend indeed, has offered to call me a contributing writer until I turn 65 next year and make a killing in Social Security, Medicare, and day trading.

What? No killing? But I'm an expert!

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tourist Town

Memphis is going all-in on tourism and future sales taxes.

Posted By on Tue, Sep 24, 2013 at 2:31 PM

Converting the fairgrounds to a sports tourism magnet is going to be hard. You only have to look at the consultant's report.

Not the one that came out this month justifying the proposed public/private financing for a new $233 million Tourism Development Zone (TDZ), but the one that came out in 2009 criticizing the proposed public/private financing for a $125 million TDZ. The same outfit, RKG Consultants, wrote both reports. Same property, same centerpiece — the 155-acre fairgrounds and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The earlier proposal came from a partnership led by Henry Turley, downtown's preeminent developer, and Robert Loeb, developer of Overton Square. Turley called it "the best idea I ever had," but it wasn't good enough to get city support.

The problem with using future retail sales to finance development at the fairgrounds, as RKG saw it then, was not so much the recession as the location, the competition, and the nature of retail. Fairgrounds retail "would fill a void in the local market area, however it lacks highway presence and the tenant mix to be a regional consumer draw."

Because "most all of the sales activity would be reallocated sales already occurring elsewhere in Memphis" the projected stream of sales tax revenue was "insufficient to retire $112,264,000 in bonding."

The new fairgrounds proposal, which must get state and city council approval, has no private developer and does not name the operators of the "second-to-none amateur sports venues," 400,000 square feet of "destination retail," or the 180-room hotel on the property. It expands the TDZ to three square miles, taking in tax-generating businesses that are up to a mile west and north of the fairgrounds from North Parkway to Overton Square and Cooper-Young. A bag of groceries purchased at Kroger on Union, a round of margaritas at Chiwawa in Overton Square, and a ticket for a football game at the stadium all figure into the deal.

Memphis is going all-in on tourism and big projects supported by increases in future sales taxes. In a supporting letter for the new fairgrounds TDZ, Mayor Wharton wrote "the fairgrounds project will also serve as the central hub of the city's family-tourism expansion through its developments at Graceland, Bass Pro at the Pyramid, and the Riverfront."

He makes no mention of the proposed Crosstown project which is less than a mile from the edge of the fairgrounds TDZ and is seeking $15 million in public funds. The Bass Pro Pyramid is part of a separate TDZ. Projections envision three million visitors a year.

In a TDZ, Memphis gets to keep the incremental increase in state and local sales taxes above a baseline number. The lower the baseline, the bigger the increment. In this proposal, the baseline is 2012 sales tax collections.

"The city of Memphis has commissioned the in-depth, serious research by experts." Well, commissioned experts usually tell you what you want to hear. That goes for both Turley's aborted project and this one. Turley's vision was "a place so excellent that it brings major competitions to Memphis" and team sports "as a unifying force where diverse youth find common ground." Noble thought. Think of the unified school system.

Excellence is in the eyes of the user. In youth sports, that's a car or bus full of restless teens and pre-teens and their parents. Their priorities are apt to be proximity to a shopping mall, fast food, a cheap motel with a swimming pool, and an easy-to-find location right off a major highway.

In the current proposal, I'm not sure Overton Square, boutique hotels, a 5,000-seat multi-purpose building, "exemplary architectural design," and "New Urbanist designed retail" in a Midtown "urban village" mesh with that. And if Central Avenue is "a prized site" for retail, then why is Fairview Middle School still there?

The competition for amateur team sports is fierce. In Memphis and DeSoto County, First Tennessee Fields and Snowden Grove get the baseball tournaments, Mike Rose Fields gets the soccer tournaments, and the Racquet Club and Leftwich Tennis Center go after the tennis business.

The real eye-openers, however, are the vast lighted sportsplexes in towns like Jackson, Tennessee, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and New Albany, Mississippi. The people running them know their market, and they have made deals with sponsors and coaches. You might not have heard of Joe Mack Campbell Park on U.S. Highway 63 in Jonesboro, but in Arkansas they have. Fields are sponsored by Arkansas State, NEA Baptist Clinic, Five Guys, and Delta Dental among others.

If football has taught Memphis anything as it aspires to national recognition, it is not to underestimate Arkansas State and "smaller" opponents.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Elvis and Racquetball

The King owned the court, but the pros made him and his mafia pay.

Posted on Tue, Sep 17, 2013 at 12:51 PM

Visitors to Graceland know it as the trophy room, but hardcore Elvis fans know it was once the racquetball court where Elvis and his "racquetball mafia" of bodyguards, personal physicians, and visiting pros would play for hours.

"Elvis walloped the ball around the court like he was strumming a guitar for the fun of it."

That's the opening line of a new memoir by Steve "Bo" Keeley, an author, adventurer, and former national racquetball champ who knew the Memphis racquetball scene in the 1970s as a touring pro. It is part of Elvis lore that the King liked touch football, karate, and motorcycles. But his love of racquetball apparently exceeded all of those and was a big part of his final years, until he died in 1977 at the age of 42.

The life of Elvis has been told so many times that you rarely hear anything new, but Keeley is no ordinary author. He interviewed Memphians Randy Stafford and David Fleetwood, along with Elvis' sports doctor and several others. After leaving the tour, Keeley got a degree in veterinary medicine, practiced for several years, then turned to full-time writing and adventure travel, hopping freight trains around the world and adopting the name "Bo," as in hobo. His books include Executive Hobo and Keeley's Kures.

Racquetball, an easy-to-play indoor court sport, was booming in the 1970s at (then) Memphis State University and at local clubs such as Don Kessinger's and the Supreme Court. Elvis, his physician, George "Dr. Nick" Nichopoulos, and Memphis businessman William B. Tanner put money into the sport and built personal courts. (Tanner's was atop the seven-story building next to Lipscomb & Pitts on Union Avenue Extended.) The Memphis racquetball mafia included bodyguards Red and Sonny West, road manager Joe Esposito, and harmony singer Charlie Hodge. The pros were hard-partying hustlers, and one once took $700 from the locals using an antifreeze bottle as a racquet.

"Elvis wore white tennis shoes, shorts, and his safety goggles, which were huge, because Dr. Nick didn't want anything to happen to his eyes," Keeley says. "He played daily, or nightly, before heading out into the darkened Memphis streets on motorcycles, with the bodyguards and the racquetball mafia in sidecars, to movies and nightclubs."

Elvis had a decent karate-strong forehand but didn't play tournaments because he would have been mobbed. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, forbade anyone from taking his picture on the court and blocked his friends from starting a chain of clubs in Memphis and the Southeast called Presley Center Courts.

Elvis would have been a natural for the cover of racquetball's promotional magazine, but he never did it. This was partly because of Parker's protection and partly because of a feud with Tanner and a rival organization and tour based in Chicago.

"So while Batman (actor Adam West), Lana Wood (a Bond girl), and Governor (Jim) Thompson of Illinois got coverage, Elvis in racquetball remains a secret," Keeley writes.

I was one of the millions of Americans who took up racquetball in the 1970s. I remember Keeley, still in his curls, was one of the stars of the tour. I never met him, but I played a few notable Memphians, including John "The Bull" Bramlett (he kept his temper after I hit him twice with the ball), future World Champ Andy Roberts (I got one point), and Tanner, who feuded with lots of people.

After Elvis died, Graceland was soon closed and the court wasn't used again. When Graceland reopened to the public, the court was filled with gold and platinum records, and a lone racquet under glass with an old, blue ball. It is an article of faith among some of the mafia that Elvis died on the court, not in the bathroom upstairs next door.

I like to think that the jocks are right. Jumpsuit Elvis was surely weary of Las Vegas. He would never see 40 years or 200 pounds again. He was back in Memphis, at home, away from the camera's cruel eye. A cry would go up in the middle of the night: "Everybody up! Let's play racquetball!" And away they would go, friends playing a game with a ball. There are worse ways to go.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

College Accounting

The University of Memphis is looking to close a $20 million gap.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 12, 2013 at 4:00 AM

Every once in a while, the college football or basketball season and the 24/7 recruiting wars are rudely interrupted by a public service announcement from an appendage otherwise known as the university.

The University of Memphis has such an announcement, and it concerns a $20 million "gap" in its finances due mainly to declining enrollment and reduced state revenue.

"We don't have a deficit," said David Zettergren, vice president for business and finance. "We are not allowed to have a deficit. We had a balanced budget in the spring, and we will have a balanced budget in the fall."

Brad Martin
  • Brad Martin

He described the situation as a "gap" instead and said the university is doing several things to "shore it up" including restructuring workloads, voluntary buyouts, and "efficiencies" on the administrative side.

"We have done voluntary buyouts in the past, but we need to do more," he said.

University faculty and staff were made aware of "the gap" this summer. On Tuesday, an email from interim president Brad Martin went out.

"A reconfiguration is required to address the funding gap and meet community work force demands, while also ensuring that tuition remains as low as possible," it said. "Beginning immediately, all vacant positions (including faculty, staff, part-time instructors, and temporary appointments) will be subject to a strategic hiring review process. This review will evaluate whether to move forward with filling positions based on the implications for enrollment growth, productivity, and overall institutional efficiency."

The announcement comes in Martin's third month on the job and when the financial fortunes, if not the won-loss ratings of the football team, are on the rise. Despite losing 28-14 to Duke, the Tigers drew an announced crowd of more than 40,000 to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in head coach Justin Fuente's second season opener. Fuente and basketball coach Josh Pastner are the university's highest-paid employees.

Academia, however, does not have the luxury of television money and boosters to pay for buyouts and more English professors. And, as the football program has shown, it is risky to raise prices for something people don't want at the old price. In June, the Tennessee Board of Regents raised 2013-2014 tuition and fees at the U of M to $8,666, highest among the six universities it governs, including Middle Tennessee State, Saturday's football opponent.

"Enrollment is down a bit, and that impacts our budget," Zettergren said. "It is a critical piece of the revenue stream."

Enrollment fell 2.7 percent last year, to 20,901. Zettergren did not have an exact number for this fall, but in a meeting last week with Mayor A C Wharton, President Martin said enrollment was lower than it was in 2009.

Student tuition and fees account for two-thirds of revenue and state appropriations for one-third, Zettergren said. A tuition increase is not seen as a good idea at a time when enrollment, especially among males, is declining. The university's focus is on retaining and graduating more students, which triggers more state funding that is now based on graduation rates and outcomes, just like public elementary and secondary education.

"As state money has decreased, we have had to increase tuition," he said. "We are in the middle of our peer group and feel like tuition is still a good deal. We really want to hold the line."

Martin's executive team, he said, does "not want to alarm people" but does want to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the broadest audience in a campus forum in October.

The University of Memphis is participating in "Graduate Memphis," a project started in 2012 by Leadership Memphis and the Memphis Talent Dividend to increase the number of adults with college degrees.

The thrust of the program so far has been on the benefits to individuals and the city. The new message, with some urgency, is on the benefits to the universities and our biggest one in particular.

Now back to our regular programming.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Teacher Town

U of M president wants a public high school on campus.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2013 at 11:12 AM

If University of Memphis president Brad Martin has anything to say about it — and he does — there will be a new optional high school on the campus in a year or two.

In a meeting with Mayor A C Wharton last week, Martin proposed a college prep school that would have a high entrance requirement and specialize in training future teachers. Such a school would complement the SCS Campus School for 330 grade 1-5 students and the University's College of Education, Health, and Human Services, which Martin envisions becoming an all-honors college on the rigorous Teach For America model. Like private schools and charter schools, it would attract supplemental funding from philanthropists.

There is a need for such a school, and Martin is the person who can make it happen. He is on a one-year appointment as interim president of his alma mater. He was chairman and CEO of Saks Inc., served five terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives after he graduated from college, and runs a venture capital firm. Rich, politically savvy, and connected, he could do anything he wants, wherever he wants, and he wants to do this here.

The optional schools program in the former Memphis City Schools started 38 years ago and includes such schools-within-schools as White Station High School and Central High School. There are 44 optional schools in all, but the only all-optional school by academics — that means you have to make high grades and test scores to get in and stay there — is grades 1-8 John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven.

Nashville has two academic magnet high schools that select students by test scores and a lottery. The former Shelby County Schools system does not have optional schools. The Hollis F. Price Middle College High School is a non-optional public school with 143 students on the campus of historically black LeMoyne-Owen College.

The former Memphis City Schools system is 93 percent minority and 95 percent Title 1 schools. That means they're poor. The former Memphis school system is more segregated than the former Shelby County Schools system.

The labels can be confusing, and they get even more confusing when you throw in charter schools and Achievement Schools District "failing" schools, and private schools. All of this innovation is happening, of course, in the Year of the Big Change to the unified Shelby County Schools system, which is likely to disintegrate next year when the suburbs bolt.

Let's time travel back to 1981 when a young, idealistic administrator at Memphis City Schools was setting the stage for a bold new school improvement program backed by the Ford Foundation. This is what he wrote.

"Surveys indicated that the private school parents perceive the Memphis City Schools as being unsafe, having poor discipline, and lacking an environment conducive to academic excellence. In addition, the chamber of commerce has cited difficulty in attracting new businesses and industries to Memphis because of the poor image of the public school system."

When that was written, MCS was 76 percent minority enrollment. Now as then, most parents who live in Memphis and can afford it send their children to private schools or move to the suburbs.

Bike lanes, free concerts, pro sports, and trendy restaurants are nice, but parents of school-age children don't buy a house because it's near Local or the Greenline. What Memphis needs to repopulate the middle class and rebuild its tax base is public schools that can compete with private schools. If I were running a private school in Shelby County or starting a new suburban public school system, I would be thanking my stars every day that Memphis has defaulted so much.

Without the suburbs in the unified system, we're back to the old "public" equals "poor" mindset. There are exceptions, however. Wharton has a grandchild at Idlewild Elementary School in Midtown, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has a daughter at Idlewild, and school board members Billy Orgel, Dr. Jeff Warren, and Dr. Kenneth Whalum support Memphis public schools with their children as well as their rhetoric.

A high school on the U of M campus would give faculty members and staff another public school option for academic high-achievers who now go to private school. Enlist the experts. Do the graduation speech in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. Track down former Memphian Bob Compton, creator of the schools documentary Two Million Minutes, and hire him as a consultant.

That would be a magnet, and Brad Martin is the man to do it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sticky Number: $5.54

ESPN and cable companies have overplayed their hand.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 29, 2013 at 4:00 AM

Some numbers we never forget because of their place in history — 9/11, 11/22/63, 12/7/41.

Some we shouldn't forget but sometimes we do, like your spouse's birthday or your anniversary.

And some numbers are unforgettable for personal reasons for certain people, like the day Elvis died (8/16/77), the price of the first McDonald's hamburger (15 cents), the length of a marathon (26.2 miles), and perfection on the SAT (1,600).

Sports fans thrive on numbers. If you don't know the significance of 61, 714, .400, 16-0, the 4.3 40, Game 7, or 23 feet 9 inches, you are probably not a fan of baseball, football, or basketball. Sports nuts have a head full of numbers implanted in their brains at an early age and now on their mental hard drive from years of repetition.

That brings me to ESPN. The number $5.54 is the monthly charge subscribers pay for ESPN in a bundled cable television package. The Weather Channel is 13 cents; Comedy Central is 18 cents. That $5.54 from 100 million homes adds up to $6 billion a year to ESPN and its parent company, Disney, according to a series in The New York Times this week.


The $5.54 fee is a sticky number in a complicated story. It enables ESPN to pay billions for long-term rights to pro football, major league baseball, college football, and the U.S. Open tennis tournament going on now in New York. As the series explained, ESPN buys up and "warehouses" more games than it can show to keep them from competitors. Because money talks, it can dictate what time and on what day games are played, such as this Thursday's match-up of Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, the University of Louisville's slate of Tuesday night games, and the University of Memphis' Wednesday night game with Cincinnati on October 30th.

Let he who is without sin throw the first spiral, preferably at the know-it-all noggin of Keith Olbermann. That person, however, would not be me. I have logged way too many hours watching sports, from major ones on CBS back in the day to an occasional obscure one on ESPN3. And if à la carte ordering ever replaces cable bundling, ESPN will probably be back on my plate if the price is right.

What I hate to see is the overriding influence of big money and sports on how we spend our time and tax dollars and how we set our priorities. The college football coach with a $3 million annual contract will be as quaint as the coaches who made $45,000-a-year 30 years ago. Within a few years, I expect to see a multi-year contract for $100 million, paid collegiate athletes, autograph-for-pay shows hosted by teenagers, Game Day every day of the week, and a schedule of games and hype from morning to midnight to feed the national sports lust.

A couple of things could derail this. One of them is that $5.54, a number that competitors, politicians, reporters, and customers can zero in on to sum up their frustration. We're not rational creatures when it comes to fees. We accept our property taxes, sales taxes, and utility bills but get upset over small components or increases. So it is with our bundled bills for cable, phone, and internet service.

Another one is technology, which will make it easier to stream events to a television screen without hooking up a special device or enlisting the help of someone with more know-how than yourself.

Boredom is another possibility, but I wouldn't bet on it, despite the Alabama student who told The Wall Street Journal, "You can do other things on a Saturday, like get a head-start on your drinking."

Funny line, but ESPN knows better. The 30-somethings who will be running the show for the next generation were schooled by the masters of marketing and politics. And they have probably watched and forgotten more about sports on the 24/7 cycle than their parents ever knew, which is saying a lot.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revisiting the March

Ten Demands from 1963 that set the civil rights agenda to this day.

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 2:41 PM

This is the year of big anniversaries in American history: the 150th of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 50th of the Kennedy assassination and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

The publicity has already begun, but, unless you are at least 60 years old, you probably don't remember much about the day that more than 200,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Every baby boomer remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated, but the march, billed as "a new concept of lobbying," wasn't like that.

How remarkable — and successful — it seems from the perspective of 50 years. The full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There is nothing in the organization manual about guns, drugs, martyrs, or affirmative action. All of the organizers were men. Sponsors were limited to "established civil rights organizations, major religious and fraternal groups, and labor unions." The bad guys were "reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress," including Senator James Eastland, a segregationist from Mississippi who was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

Publicity was not taken for granted. Supporters were urged to distribute leaflets "by duplicating this item at their own expense." Buttons cost a quarter.

Three events that year magnified the impact of the March. In June, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. In September, four little girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Kennedy called for passage of a civil rights bill in June and was killed in November. In Memphis, Henry Loeb was in his first term as mayor. Schools had been desegregated by a dozen black students in 1961.

What was the march about? Media accounts will focus, understandably, on Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, the crowds, Kennedy, and the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and Marian Anderson. But there is no better answer than the 10 demands in the organizing manual. This is one Top Ten list that is well worth reading:

1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.

2. Withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.

3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.

4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.

5. A new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.

6. Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.

7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.

8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.)

9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.

10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

The main organizer was Bayard Rustin, who kept a low profile because he was gay and a former member of the Communist Party. King was one of 10 chairmen and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The march set the civil rights agenda for the next 50 years. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed and steered to passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter has been extended and amended by Congress four times, most recently in 2006.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act regarding federal oversight of elections in states (including Mississippi but not Tennessee) and local governments with a history of discrimination in voting practices as unconstitutional. By a 5-4 margin, the court ruled that the guidelines were good law at the time they were enacted but are no longer necessary.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Not Looking Up

Is the high-rise downtown office building obsolete?

Posted By on Tue, Jul 30, 2013 at 2:09 PM

The Memphis skyline looks great in those golden-hued pictures taken from the other side of the Mississippi River or in an aerial shot taken at night when the lights are on at AutoZone Park.

The trouble is that several prominent buildings from the Pyramid to the South Bluffs are empty or emptying out. The skyline shot is a bit of a fake.

The 100 North Main Building is the tallest building in Memphis. By our standards, it is a skyscraper. The view from the 34th floor looks down on Civic Center Plaza, the Marriott Hotel, the convention center, and the Pyramid, where Bass Pro Shops has plans for an observation deck and restaurant at the apex.

But the 1965 office building with more than 400,000 feet of space is sparsely occupied, mostly by lawyers who work at the courts. The lobby is barren except for a concession stand and a few parched potted ficus trees. The escalators don't run, and the elevators run so infrequently that some tenants worry about access to the upper floors in an emergency. There are no tenants at street level. The revolving restaurant on the roof is long gone, along with the Union Planters Bank sign (the bank was never a tenant) that gave the illusion of occupancy.

Building manager John Freeman declined to talk about any deal that might be in the works to sell the building, which was on the market for $20 million in 2006, but said he might have news in August. The owner lives in California and could not be reached for comment. Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission located across the street, said tenants are being notified that their leases will not be renewed. "The building has been neglected over the years and desperately needs improvements," he said.

Reinventing a building that was as bland as its name in its best years "is a tough one." Suggestions include a combination hotel, condo, and apartment building.

"The best market now in downtown is multi-family apartments," Morris said. "But that is a huge building. I don't think it would be profitable or cost effective to turn it into apartments. The proximity to the convention center helps. We need more hotel rooms. That is a possibility."

Chuck Pinkowski, a consultant to the hospitality industry, has spoken to the owner and is not optimistic.

"It would be very expensive to retrofit it," he said.

Job sprawl and office blight have taken a huge toll on downtown. It is more than likely that, within a year or two, Civic Center Plaza will be bracketed by two empty office buildings. The 12-story state office building on the north side of the plaza has been declared obsolete in a state report, and its 900 workers will be moving, possibly to another downtown building.

Nearby, the owners of the Lincoln American Tower and Court Square Properties have said they are facing foreclosure without extended tax breaks. Raymond James is laying off hundreds of employees and shopping for space in East Memphis to use in negotiations when its lease runs out at 50 Front Street next year. One Commerce Square lost its main tenant, Pinnacle Airlines. The Sterick Building next to AutoZone Park has been vacant for 25 years and, like other abandoned buildings, is not counted as leasable space in the reports that put downtown office occupancy at 84 percent.

"I don't think the theory of an office tower is obsolete," Morris said, citing the positive stories of AutoZone and First Tennessee, both of which own and occupy their buildings. "I have not gotten any credible information that Raymond James has made a decision. The advantage downtown has is that market rates are less. But the downtown office market is very weak, in contrast to the downtown residential and entertainment markets, which are doing very well."

Indeed, the signs of new development can be seen this summer south of the train station and along the future path of the Harahan Bridge bicycle and pedestrian trail. Developer Henry Turley has cleared several acres for apartments and has been goading other property owners and the city to improve cleanliness, lighting, and safety so that visitors "wouldn't think the city died in 1945."

If you look out instead of up, things are looking up.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Brains, Money, & Football

Rhodes College A.D. looks at the world of big-time football.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 23, 2013 at 2:17 PM

Rhodes College versus the University of Tennessee in football? Not a chance, but the idea of a small liberal arts college playing a Southeastern Conference powerhouse is not far-fetched.

Last year, Wofford College, an academic powerhouse in South Carolina, with 1,549 students, played SEC bully South Carolina, coached by Steve Spurrier, and lost 24-7. This year, Samford University in Birmingham, with 2,750 students, will play Arkansas.

Granted, there's a special factor in each case. Wofford's big donor is alumnus Jerry Richardson, a former NFL player and owner of the Carolina Panthers. And Samford is in Alabama, cradle of SEC football and home of the annual "Media Days" lollapalooza in which a thousand or so sportswriters compete to find the most trivia.

But when I saw the new light poles on the almost-new artificial-turf field at NCAA Division III Rhodes, I called athletic director Mike Clary just to see what's up. "I've been associated with this college for 39 of the last 41 years and have never entertained any thought of playing at any other level," he said. "Doing something that would be more expensive and more of a cultural change from our academic and athletic balance is just not something we would ever do."

Mike Clary
  • Mike Clary

That doesn't mean Rhodes (1,808 students) and other members of the Southern Athletic Association are isolated from changes in the college football universe. The Rhodes 2013 schedule includes the University of Chicago, whose football claim to fame is winning the 1905 national championship and giving up the sport in 1939. Also on the schedule are Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in California; Berry College and Hendrix College, which will be fielding teams for the first time; and Birmingham-Southern, which pulled a Chicago in 1939 and brought back football in 2007. Off the schedule is Colorado College, which dropped football in 2009.

What the schools have in common is no athletic scholarships and the ability to make the claim that their average SAT score is larger than their enrollment.

Here are excerpts of my interview with Clary. Lest anyone think he was talking out of school, data on athletic department budgets is public information at

How did Chicago get on the schedule?
Mike Clary: Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis compete in all sports and struggled the last seven or eight years to get a schedule because so many Division III schools belong to a league. We accepted Chicago as an affiliate football member in 2015 and play them at home this year and away in 2014.

Why Claremont and the travel expense?
We struggled with this. In our old conference, we had to fly to San Antonio to play Trinity every other year. With them off the schedule, we can use those funds to fly to California to play Claremont and Pomona in 2014. With 75 people at $450 a ticket, it's about $32,000.

Why the lights on the field?
As our enrollment has increased, we have more afternoon and evening classes. Lights minimize conflicts with classes and science labs. We had been asking donors for several years and finally were able to get a gift. The cost was about $350,000. They will mainly be used for practices when time changes in late October. In the future, we will probably play Claremont at night, since they have to stay over. Normally, schools at our level don't play at night because they drive to games and if the game is over at 10 o'clock, they don't get home until the next morning.

What do you think about small schools playing big ones?
Every year, I hear from someone at those smaller schools asking about our budget. In a perfect world, they would like to be more like Rhodes, but the external pressure is just astronomical. Wofford has about 100 players, and tuition and expenses are about the same as here. Our average grant for our 100 football players is around $15,000, whether academic or need-based. So we're spending about $1.6 million.

(Note: According to public reports for 2011-2012, Rhodes spent $454,000 on football, Wofford $3.6 million, Samford $5 million, the University of Memphis $13 million, and the University of Tennessee $19.8 million.)

Is football necessary to attract male students?
Of our 550 first-year students, 200 will be varsity athletes, including 55 football players. We could recruit our student body if we didn't have football, but we like the dynamic it brings to the Rhodes community.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Power of a Penny

Warning: This column contains mathematical calculations.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 3:21 PM

A penny in your pocket or purse is trash. A penny on the sales tax or property tax rate or at the gas pump or in a slot machine is treasure.

Big treasure. Pennies have never been in the news more than they are now. The reason, of course, is that the penny figures into the taxes that fund the new Unified Shelby County School System, the city budget, and the county budget. Reporters and elected officials have pennies on the brain, and never mind that the fastest way to lose readers and voters is to make them do arithmetic.

Truth in advertising would compel us to label stories "contains math" the way gas pumps say "contains ethanol."

Which is as good a place as any to start. Gas prices are going up this summer because that is what gas prices do in the summer. There is no reasonable explanation, it just is, like rising temperatures and headlines that say "pain at the pump."

If one gas station is selling regular for $3.35 a gallon and the one across the street is selling it for $3.36, the savings on a 20-gallon fill-up is 20 cents. Drive around Memphis a bit and you can probably find price variations of 20 cents or more, which works out to saving a few bucks each fill-up and a few hundred bucks a year.

The sales tax in Memphis is 9.25 percent. Some city council members want to raise it to 9.75 percent, matching the new rate in the Shelby County suburbs. The proposed increase, which was defeated in a referendum last year, would cost consumers $5 on every $1,000 worth of purchases.

Call it a sandwich or a lottery ticket worth of added expense, but don't bet your pennies on the referendum passing if it gets that far. If it did pass, it would raise more than $40 million in Memphis. The add-on in the suburbs is enough to satisfy the legal requirement for funding municipal schools.

The Memphis City Council met Tuesday to clarify the impact of a penny — actually only a fraction of a penny — on the $3.40 cent property tax rate. Finance director Brian Collins told them the city gets $1,052,000 for each penny on the tax rate. From a property owner's point of view, a penny on the city tax rate on a house appraised at $100,000 is $2.50. Call that a cup of coffee and a donut. The council has been meeting for months to try to set the tax rate, going through entire kegs of coffee, as has the Shelby County Commission, which still has not finished the job.

We watch our pennies at the grocery store, one of the few places where the jar of pennies and coins on your dresser is worth anything. The Coinstar machines charge a 9.8 percent "processing fee" to convert them to cash or grocery credits. A sack of 1,000 pennies buys about $9 worth of groceries. The truth is that I would pay 20 percent or even 30 percent to get rid of them. My bank won't even take them, preferring to impose fees of $1 or more at every opportunity.

Nowhere has the penny exerted greater power than at the Mississippi casinos. When the casinos came in 20 years ago, the cheapest slots accepted nickels, and the places that installed such machines were derided for catering to poor people.

But a few years ago, coins and plastic coin buckets and the sound of silver dollars clattering into a metal tray beneath blinking lights and whining sirens disappeared. Coins were replaced by bill acceptors, and the penny slot machine became the most popular game in the casino. You don't actually drop in a penny at a time, but you can play a penny at a time or several dollars worth at a time. Pick your poison. Speaking from experience, the thrill is not all that different, considering that I play Vegas solitaire on my computer for nothing.

According to Mississippi Gaming Commission reports, there are 21,090 penny slots in the state. There are only 62 slots that play $50 at a time and exactly one $500 slot machine.

The amount of "coin in" wagered on penny slots in the month of May this year was just over $1,202,000,000.

If you want to know how many pennies that is, and I know you do, we must resort to the language of astronomers. The answer is more than 120 billion, or 120,200,000,000 pennies. Enough to support nine casinos in Tunica County and 31 in the state of Mississippi or build a stack of pennies halfway to the moon.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

No More Parking Meters!

Free parking would give downtowners a break and boost business.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 9:33 AM

If you think phone companies, pay-day lenders, and airlines are bad about hidden fees and add-ons, wait until you see how Memphis city government plans to gouge citizens for more bucks.

For want of a nickel to stick in a parking meter, violators face more than $200 in fines and court costs, plus a mark on their driving record that could boost their insurance rates. Either that or they can spend half a day and take their chances in Ticket Hell, otherwise known as the courtrooms in the basement of 201 Poplar.

Parking meters are a vestige of the days when downtown really was the "central business district" of Memphis and home of the headquarters of three banks, a brokerage firm, and law firms, retailers, and professional offices that have since moved away. With the exception of the University of Memphis, your chances of getting a parking ticket anywhere else in Shelby County are nil. When I called suburban officials to ask if they had meters, I might as well have been asking if they had brothels or casinos.

"No, and the likelihood of having them in the future is slim to none," said Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton.

Metering downtown is wildly inconsistent. In addition to the broken ones, there are no meters on most of Front Street and Main Street south of Beale or north of the convention center and none in HarborTown on Mud Island. Eat lunch meter-free at Gus's Fried Chicken on Front, but bring some change and keep an eye on your watch if you eat at Lenny's a few blocks away.

The revenue-hungry Memphis City Council and the Wharton administration's response to this is to add more meters in more places and jack up fines. A $21 ticket (it was $5 back in 1996) has to be paid within 15 days to avoid Ticket Hell. Contesting a ticket means going to court, where the ticketing officer's appearance is mandatory — a double waste of time better spent. Otherwise, the violator is hit with a judgment of $186.75 in additional fines and court costs. No-shows get a mark on their license.

So, just pay the ticket within 15 days? Easy to say for those who don't share a car with family members, use a car to get around downtown for work, or know the frustration of jammed meters, parking outside the lines, insufficient change, and coping with the pedestrian and trolley mall and tell-it-to-the-judge police officers.

We are targets of opportunity. And if new meters that accept credit cards are installed, it won't be long before hourly rates are raised, hours of operation are increased from the current 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and more personnel are assigned to enforcement. The brunt of this hidden tax will be borne by citizens and visitors who patronize downtown, where some muggers carry weapons and others carry ticket books.

City Court clerk Tom Long was more sympathetic than defensive when I met with him Monday to get an explanation. Long, who has been in office for 18 years, says he is whipsawed by the state legislature and the council telling him how to do his job.

"They are looking for revenue any way they can get it," he said. "What's going to happen is people are not going to come downtown."

Long's office collects one third of fines within one year and two thirds within five years. He keeps a "Top 100" list of violators who owe $577 to $2,111 each in back tickets. Until this year, tickets were "abated" (forgiven) and purged from the system after one year.

"Our collection rate was higher before the media publicized that," he said. "As of this January 13th, no tickets are abated."

City council members, led by Councilman Bill Boyd, have zeroed in on uncollected fines and see a revenue windfall of more than a million dollars a year. This is the same council that couldn't find seven votes to crack down on tax breaks for corporations and developers. Boyd knows better than anyone how much property tax is abated, because he used to be the Shelby County assessor. He could not be reached for comment.

Downtown Memphis is not downtown Chicago or Nashville or some other city with tall buildings and actual tenants. Its pockets of prosperity are offset by blocks of blight. Businesses that choose to locate in downtown get a tax break in hopes that they'll generate sales taxes and jobs. Individuals deserve a small break too.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

“A Perfect Little Bowl”

Concerts drive Levitt Shell and Overton Park to new milestones.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 2, 2013 at 3:58 PM

An hour or two before sunset, the cooler caravan heads to the early-bird special in Overton Park. They tote blankets, folding chairs, and small children. Their destination is one of the summer concerts at the Levitt Shell.

In its fifth post-renovation season, the Shell is on course to set an attendance record, with 30 free summer concerts. There are six of them in July, concluding with the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter’s 40th anniversary concert on July 13th — the same night Robert Plant will play the Memphis Botanic Garden, where lawn tickets are $45, and the St. Jude Benefit Show, “Stage Dive To Save Lives,” is at Minglewood Hall. More than 63,000 people have come to Shell concerts this year, compared to 46,275 at this time last year, said executive director Anne Pitts.

“It’s word of mouth over the last couple of years,” she said. “People are coming to the Shell not even knowing who is playing, just for the experience and time spent with family and friends. It’s become more of a lifestyle as opposed to a music venue.”

The numbers are a calculated guess. Volunteers divide the field into quadrants and count their area several times. The all-time record was set this year when 5,800 people came to see the season opener with the North Mississippi Allstars.

Pitts says that could be broken at the season-ender, when the Allstars return with Bobby Rush, Al Kapone, the Hi Rhythm Section, and several other groups. After that, Indie Memphis will present six concert films from July 18th to August 24th featuring the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Doors, Queen, and the first public showing of a new film about Big Star.

“We have built up a reputation for the kind of production we have,” Pitts said. “Artists are familiar with the show and venue, and a lot of them are calling us now. We are not able to pay as much as another venue they might play at and tend get a little bit of a deal, or grab an artist when they’re between other cities.”

Last Saturday, the Memphis Dawls performed a nostalgic USO-style show with the Memphis Doctors Band before more than 4,000 people. It was the biggest Memphis crowd ever for the three 2001 Cordova High School graduates who regularly play for “the door” before 50 to 100 people at Otherlands and other small venues. “We go for it no matter how big the crowd is, but that huge crowd on the lawn was really exciting. That was our record-breaker,” said Jana Misener, cellist and part-time barista. The next day, the Dawls had 100 more “likes” on Facebook. Built in 1936 and threatened with destruction the 1960s and 1970s, the Shell, like the park, now has an embarrassment of riches — a marketing machine, dozens of corporate sponsors plus event-night donations, the namesake Levitt Foundation that supplies 16 percent of the operating budget, and a 2008 renovation that, among other things, replaced concrete benches with grass.

“Our Levitt Shell has become the flagship because it worked so well,” said Lee Askew of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects. “It’s a perfect little bowl. The dark side, if there is one, is that it becomes so successful that it gridlocks the park when there are two or more blockbuster events in the park at the same time.” Pitts said it’s a nice problem to have but still a problem that will require cooperation between the Overton Park Conservancy, Brooks Museum, the zoo, the Memphis College of Art, and the neighbors.

“The concerts have been great for neighbors being able to walk to them,” said Rob Clark, president of the Evergreen Historic District Association, west of the park. He said complaints involve parking, the lack of crosswalks, and litter — mainly on Tuesdays, which is free day at the zoo. There has been talk for years of building a parking garage, but “I don’t know where they would put it,” said Clark, who met with zoo officials this week. “With growth and popularity, you have to manage the negative that comes with it,” he said. “If Sears Crosstown is developed, we would see a whole bunch more traffic.”

Askew, whose house borders the west side of the park, is confident the various interests will get it right eventually. “When I moved here in 1985, people were changing their oil in the park,” he said. “The park is at an all-time high-water mark.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paula Deen and Tunica

Harrah’s Casino should give its restaurant partner a break.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 2:13 PM


TUNICA — Luck turns on a dime.

A flip of the cards, a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, a turn of the reels. One minute you're up, the next minute you're down, and that goes for slot junkies and high-rollers.

A slip of the tongue can do it too if you're Paula Deen. Paula Deen's Buffet opened in Harrah's Tunica Casino in 2008. Harrah's went all in. Getting Paula out of the casino would be like getting the butter out of a pound cake. Her name and likeness are everywhere.

On the sign at the entrance just off of U.S. Highway 61. On the cardboard cutouts at the restaurant with its homey white shutters and Paula Deen photo collage. On the tables with Paula Deen hot sauce and Paula Deen recipe cards for Mississippi Mud Cake, cheese biscuits, and hoe cakes. In the Paula Deen Gift Shop, you can buy Paula Deen pots and pans, books, knickknacks, aprons, candy, picture frames, and T-shirts ("Our hoes are complimentary").

The Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau website features a three-minute video of Paula taking a chowhound on a tour.

"Do you know why I was so excited about coming to Tunica, Mississippi?" she coos. "You've got to have cooks, and I knew that these women and men were good Southern cooks."

Then she autographs the host's forehead with a Sharpie.

Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.

Last week, the Food Network announced that it is ending a partnership with Deen that began in 1999. On Monday, Smithfield Foods, known for its hams, dropped her as its spokeswoman. On Wednesday, she went on the Today show. Paula Deen's goose was cooked when a 2012 deposition became public earlier this month. She admitted using racial slurs in the past. No public figure can survive the "have you ever" question and the resulting media feeding frenzy. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni scoffed at suggestions that Deen, 66, is a product of her place and time.

"All of her adult years post-date the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she's a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares. If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness."

Sounds like somebody's got a Georgia problem. Ever used the word "cracker," Frank?

Can Paula Deen hang on in Tunica County, where 73 percent of the population is black, or with Harrah's, the biggest player in gambling in the state of Mississippi?

A spokesman for parent company Caesar's Entertainment said "we will continue to monitor the situation."

When I visited the Paula Deen Buffet for lunch this week, a black woman at the hostess stand mumbled "all right, I guess" and let it go at that when I asked her how things were going.

The buffet was doing a good business at $14.95 a head. Answering duty's call, I started with a plate of fried dill pickles, fried catfish, and chicken gumbo, then attacked Bobby Deen's "healthy" kitchen for corn bread dressing, sliced ham, cheeseburger meatloaf, baked catfish, and a cheese biscuit before finishing strong with hot bread pudding with caramel sauce and a peanut butter "gooey" from the bakery.

Then I bought a Paula Deen "Queen of Southern Cuisine" picture frame for $4.95 in case there's a Twinkies effect.

Queen Deen has talked her way out of tight spots before, such as her belated disclosure of her Type 2 diabetes. Where Bruni saw a racist buffoon in her 80-minute interview with the Times before a live audience last year, I saw a woman who could make it as a stand-up comic with a blue streak in another life. Like Oprah and Ellen, her following bridges race. One fan, a black woman, calls her "one of my four vanilla mommas." Paula is clearly touched.

The question Harrah's should ask is this: If Paula Deen is a racist, has it come out before this in her daily and very public life? Harrah's pioneered customer research in its industry and has a racially mixed workforce of more than 3,000 people in Tunica. There's your focus group.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In the Swim of Things

From afraid-of-the-water to lifeguard, thanks to Memphis community pools.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Nobody goes into the water planning to drown.

Not Annazar Nazarov, a 44-year-old Memphian who got caught in a rip current off the beach near Destin earlier this month. Or William Haithcox, 48, who went in to rescue him. Or two other people on the same stretch of beach that week.

Or Demavius Bailey, 15, and Cameron Hogg, 13, who drowned on the same day in separate incidents in Memphis community center swimming pools five years ago.

And certainly not the dozens of kids at the Bickford Aquatic Center the other day who eagerly raised their arms when lifeguard Christian Kimble asked for a show of hands from those who could swim. Trouble was, several of the same hands shot up when Kimble asked "how many of you DON'T know how to swim?"

Kimble, an 18-year-old graduate of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, knows better. He learned to swim at a Memphis community center when he was 16.

"I used to be like that," he said. "I hated the water. I was afraid of it. A lot of people automatically say they can swim when you ask them, but my definition is swim competitive [on the club's swim team]."

Kimble was one of several instructors working with some 70 kids Tuesday at Bickford, one of 17 Memphis community pools, at what was billed as "The World's Largest Swim Lesson."

"We're trying to change the culture," said Anthony Norris, board chairman of sponsor Splash Mid-South. "Swimming is not common in the minority community, but Memphis has a long history of African-American swimmers. Tarik Sugarmon (attorney) swam in college, and Willie Gregory (director of community relations for Nike) was a lifeguard. So this is more of a renaissance."

Fortunately, the swimming pools have been spared from city budget cuts. More than 5,000 Memphians have learned to swim in the last five years, and there has not been a drowning since the double fatalities that closed pools in 2008.

"Some of these kids are so frightened when they get in the pool that they start hyperventilating," said swim coach Cynthia Dickerson of Splash Mid-South. "It may take them two or three days to put their head in the water. Some of the older ones are embarrassed and may not come back after the first day. And some go on to be on the swim team and work as lifeguards."

Kimble's method combines patience and persistence.

"Once they get in the pool, I don't let them leave it," he said.

He took a group of eight kids through five steps ­­— blow bubbles, submerge face, open eyes, bob up and down, and pick up a yellow plastic shovel underwater. Then the moment of truth: pushing off underwater from the side of the pool, arms extended with hands together, and gliding a few yards. A few kids froze and others came up sputtering. Kimble's assistant, 12-year-old Kentarrius Braxton, demonstrated perfect technique with a powerful push and flipper kick that sent him nearly half-way across the pool. In two years, he has lowered his time to 1:13 in the 100 meters.

He grinned and nodded when I asked him if kids lie about being able to swim.

"I said that too," he said.

This is not unique to children or the inner-city. When I was in Florida on vacation last week, I talked to former Memphian John Farmer, owner of Yellowfin Ocean Sports. I griped about the double-red flags on the beach, which meant swimming was prohibited even though the sun was out and the waves were only a couple feet high. Drive 600 miles and the blanking-bureaucrats threaten to fine you if you go in the blanking-ocean. An ambulance roared past, siren blaring, while Farmer rented me a kayak.

"That means they pulled someone out of the water," he said.

"You think?"

"I know," he said. "There have been four drownings in Walton County in the last 48 hours," a statement confirmed by the local paper.

The all-time worst day was June 8, 2003, when eight people drowned. One of them was a lifeguard on vacation.

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