Thursday, June 30, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 6: The One That Wasn't

I've written here before about my time as a chauffeur in Florida and the celebrities that I've driven. While watching some old footage of a USO engagement on Turner Classic Movies last night, I was reminded of the biggest celebrity that never made it into the back of the car.

Bob Hope by Al Hirschfeld
I got the call one day that we'd been hired to drive Bob Hope around for a weekend when he'd be in the area for his annual event entertaining troops at Eglin Air Force Base outside Ft. Walton. I was as excited as I'd ever been about a job, more excited about meeting Mr. Hope than I had about any other celebrity I'd driven. Certainly more than KC and his Sunshine Band. In fact, in the shadow of Hope, there were no other celebrities. He was a direct line to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Myrna Loy, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn ... all the greats, and he was as great as any of them. This was 1995, so he would have been in his early 90s, but just to be around him, responsible for getting him from here to there, would have been quite an experience.

Alas, it was not meant to be as the event was canceled. Or, at least, his staying at the hotel we worked with in Panama City Beach was canceled. The story I was told is that that very hotel was to be occupied the same weekend by O.J. Simpson, who had only earlier that week been found not guilty of murder. You'll remember the first place he went after the verdict was PCB where his girlfriend lived. Dolores Hope, the story went, got wind of Simpson's impending occupancy and, instead of subjecting her husband to the certain media circus that would ensue, she canceled the whole thing. I don't know if this story was true or not, but I like to think that the Hopes had enough integrity and taste to not want to be associated with any (alleged) murderer.

On a side note, I took a group of attorneys from the Alabama Bar Association that was staying at that hotel out to dinner one night in a 15-passenger van and Simpson was entertaining guests at that same restaurant. I stood around outside and chatted with his body guard, the tall, swarthy looking brute seen in all the footage of Simpson going here and there after the verdict.

I would have much rather spent that time talking with, or just in the presence of, Bob Hope.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chapter One of Chapter 16

A while back, Margaret over at Chapter 16 (an online journal dedicated to books and writers, and supported by Humanities Tennessee) asked me to write a story on how the flooding in Memphis had effected the people here. I had to turn her down, even though turning editors down is the last thing I ever want to do, because I knew she needed the piece in a timely manner (the river had crested and we were already in the waning days of water) and I was just too busy with some other larger projects.

She was kind enough to offer another assignment a few weeks ago and I accepted. She asked me to write a feature on Victoria Ford, daughter of former state senator John Ford, and part of the Ford political dynasty, though not of the machine itself.

Victor had recently won a national Scholastic Art & Writing Award for five essays chronicling her young life, and that of her siblings, within this controversial and broken family. The award has been won in the past by the likes of Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates.

I spoke with 18-year-old Victoria at length on the phone and found her to be intelligent, funny, optimistic and grateful. If you've seen any of her family members' antics on the local news or read of them in the papers (John Ford is currently in prison for charges of bribery), you know what an amazing leap this is. Her course is set and, if she follows it, she will go far.

See the story here, and below.

“You may not understand this now, but she isn’t coming back. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Day after that. And no, she hasn’t left anything behind—a sticky note on the refrigerator door or a quick message for the answering machine, her voice a distant echo calling your name and mine. Nothing.”

So begins the award-winning essay “To a Restless Little Brother Calling for Mama in His Sleep,” one of the five essays that last month helped Victoria Ford, eighteen, win a national Scholastic Art and Writing Award—and a $10,000 college scholarship. Past winners of the prestigious award include Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, and Truman Capote. For Ford, the awards ceremony, held May 31 in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, was a moment to remember, one that surely marks the beginning of a life of creativity and success.

Victoria’s last name might not be so well known as the literary giants who took home the Scholastic prize years ago, but it already carries a kind of notoriety in her hometown of Memphis. Harold Ford Sr., the first African-American Tennessean elected to Congress since Reconstruction, was her uncle. Harold Ford Jr., now retired from Congress, is her cousin. Other family members have been elected to the city council, the county commission, and the school board in Memphis. Victoria’s father, John Ford, was a state senator for three decades, another cog in the familial political machine.

Among young African Americans growing up in Memphis, Victoria’s story is far from typical. Memphis is a city with higher-than-average rates of poverty, drug use, single-parent homes, and criminal recidivism, but Victoria grew up in a two-story brick home with a mother and father. She attended an above-average city school.

All families have skeletons, however, and all families weather their own storms. The problems of Victoria’s family were played out on television newscasts and above the fold on the front pages of daily newspapers in the state: in 2005, FBI surveillance caught John Ford accepting a bribe which would amount to $55,000 when all was said and done. During Victoria’s childhood, her mother, Tamara Mitchell-Ford, was imprisoned three times on DUI charges. In 2008, when John Ford finally reported to federal prison, Tamara Mitchell-Ford was already in a state penitentiary.

Victoria now lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with her aunt, Megan Mitchell-Hoefer, in a lively home with six other family members and “always something to write about.” She attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a school that her fiction teacher, novelist George Singleton, describes as being a lot like “that bad TV show Fame.” Prospective students must interview and audition and present portfolios of creative work, he says, “so it’s hard to get in.”

“She’s very well-rounded and balanced,” says her aunt, Mitchell-Hoefer. “She’s very family-oriented, she’s a homebody.” This, despite an atypical family home. Also atypical is the way Victoria deals with the spotlight, the skeletons. Her essays tell the story from her point of view, from that of her brothers and sister. They are emotional and impart details from within the home and, in some instances, within the very closet where she has struck up a conversation with those bones. She is candid, unapologetic, sad, and hopeful. She misses her father; she worries for her mother.

Tamara Mitchell-Ford was pregnant with Victoria’s brother, called Johnjohn, when she went away to the correctional center for the first time—“her vacation, as she liked to call it,” Victoria recounts in an essay titled “Like Nothing Else In The Known World.” It’s an essay in which she also writes of her brother’s birth and how quickly she, even as a preteen, learned to change diapers and babysit for ever-increasing amounts of time.

“I bounced Johnjohn in my arms before his nap,” she wrote. “He cried, tears running down his cheeks and over his dimples. I learned that he just needed a rhythm. I’d lay him across my stomach, hold his head close to my chest, and pat his butt. Sometimes I sang. Once he fell asleep, I’d be gone with him.” The essay ends with Victoria’s discovery of empty bottles of booze hidden around the house, and with finding her mother in a car left running in the garage.

It’s easy to understand her protectiveness toward the now six-year-old Johnjohn and why she considered putting off college for a year or two to look after him. Advice from her teachers and aunt changed her mind: “I had a long conversation with my teachers at the Governor’s School about it—we’re very close—and my teachers said, ‘It will work out; your brother will have a place to stay; you have to go to college; you have to get an education.’ They were really supportive.”

Mitchell-Hoefer, whom Victoria calls “a hero,” echoed the faculty: of course Johnjohn would stay with her.

This fall Victoria will be part of the first-year class at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was very set on going to a school in North Carolina to stay close to home because I really wanted to be with my little brother,” Victoria said. “When I got into Penn, I thought, ‘I think this is right.’ I need to be someplace that’s big and someplace that has lots of different types of people and different programs that I can immerse myself into.”

Victoria puts a happy face on nothing that happened before she got to South Carolina and the safe confines of her aunt’s home. In “Letter To My Father,” she is probably the most blunt: “I just don’t feel like I know you as much as I want to” and follows it with “rather, the internet knows more about you than your own daughter.” She cites a Wikipedia article and blogs that contain no mention of his children. What comes through in Victoria’s writing is a painfully honest innocence. She loves her family, but she doesn’t ask readers to forgive them, or even understand their shortcomings.

To help the healing, she reads the poets Larry Levis, Matthew Dickman, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman, and the fiction of Richard Ford, yet she is still unsure about her career path, undecided as to a college major, though she is certain that writing will be involved. Singleton thinks he sees the future: “She’s won most of her accolades in non-fiction and poetry, but I kind of think she’s a stronger fiction writer. In years to come, I would imagine she would be writing fiction.”

That’s an opinion shared by her aunt, the elementary-school principal who knows promise when she sees it and imparts sound advice for anyone considering a creative vocation: “I think that she’s going to dibble and dabble in other areas, but I think she’s going to come back around to writing. It is something that she is passionate about, she loves it; anything you love, no matter how much money you may make doing it, you’ll always be a happier person when you’re doing what you love.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"A Collection Large and Full of Treasures"

This is how freelancing works in this town:

I was working with photographer Justin Fox Burks on a job for the Memphis Flyer last January and he suggested I contact Rhodes College because they use freelancers for their magazine. I contacted my friend Stephanie Chockley who works at Rhodes and gave me the contact for Martha Shepard, who edits the magazine, and she said she'd be delighted to work with me. The first assignment offered was one on the college's acquisition of the Shelby Foote collection of papers, memorabilia, manuscripts, etc. This was perfect. I'm a Foote fan and, as I've written before, I used to sell him his pipe tobacco years ago. Martha put me in touch with C. Stuart Chapman, Rhodes alumnus and biographer of Foote, for a sidebar and as an invaluable resource himself.

And then yesterday that article went online and can be read right here.
As moves go, it wasn′t such a great distance. Only a little over two miles to be exact, from the study of a turreted, fairy-tale-like house on East Parkway to the Gothic, shady campus on North Parkway. Nevertheless, the acquisition by Rhodes College of the Shelby Foote Collection of writings, papers, hand-drawn maps, photos and memorabilia is such that it will take researchers and students on a journey through decades worth of history, stories and lessons.

It was a memorable experience to go to the Paul Barret Jr. library on the Rhodes campus and be able to hold a first edition of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and the hand-written manuscript for September September. The hand-drawn maps of Civil War battles and troop advancements were something I hadn't expected, and a treasure to see, a real insight into the way Foote worked. The same goes for the spiral notebook that held some notes and, for lack of a better word, doodles.

For anyone who appreciates literature and what goes into writing a novel (not to mention a 1.2-million word narrative trilogy), to stand in the hushed, paneled room of a library and hold such items is nothing less than spiritual. It was very much like being in church.

It was a pleasure to work on this story and with those at the college, and I wish to thank Martha Shepard, Justin Burks, Elizabeth Gates, Stephanie Chockley, Tim Huebner, Marshall Boswell, Ken Woodmansee and Stuart Chapman.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tale of the Taco Bell

There are a thousand different reasons a person might take up a pencil and jot down his thoughts, his dreams, the story of his life or someone else's. Ego, tragedy, catharsis, the need to make people laugh, think or cry are all good enough reasons.

For me, it's all about seeing my name in print and standing back as the accolades wash over me and that, my friends, is what happened to me yesterday. Last April I wrote a story about the Taco Bell Tuesday Club for The Commercial Appeal (Taco Bell Tuesday Club: Old friends swap reminiscences, tall tales at weekly gathering). The club is a group of mostly septuagenarians who all hail from the same neighborhoods, schools, ethnicities or businesses in Memphis. They gather every week to tell lies and eat tacos and, for most, it seems to be the highlight of their week. Their numbers have grown, ninety-plus now, and in no small part to their story that ran on the cover of the M section two months ago.

Their de-facto leader, Ernie Barrasso, called me shortly after it ran to tell me how much they all enjoyed and appreciated the story, which was very nice of him to do. I don't get many of those calls, but when I do they seem to be from older people, people who are genuinely pleased and grateful to have their story told. I just enjoy hearing their stories and being able to share them. Barrasso asked me to come by the Taco Bell at Poplar & Estate in East Memphis to pick something up he had for me. I told him I would and then promptly forgot. I felt awful that I forgot and told myself I'd stop in there on some subsequent Tuesday, but, of course, I could never think to do that.

So when he called me last Monday and asked if I could come by the next day, I promised him I would. And I did. He quieted down his troops to re-introduce me as the one who wrote the story, he drew my attention to the poster-size story from the paper that now adorns the Taco Bell wall and he presented me with the framed photo below. It's a picture of Barrasso selling Elvis a car on So. Third Street and it is signed by Ernie Barrasso himself. It now commands a prominent place in my office.

I didn't go to college, didn't know anything about journalism school, really, and have no formal training as a writer. I'm just a young man with a passion for the written word and the dream to be recognized as the bard of burritos, the de Tocqueville of Taco Bell.

See you next Tuesday?