Friday, August 26, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 7: My First Time

As you both know, this is the semi-regularly series where I share stories about the brief time I spent driving a limousine while living in Panama City Beach on the tropical panhandle of Florida. I need to go back now to the first run I ever did before I forget it all. It's a good tale, and one I've told many times. In a way, it was the perfect job, it was the one that would define all others to come. Though I couldn't know it at the time, it epitomized every run I would ever do and characterized the position of chauffeur.

It was a wedding run, the bread and butter of the limousine trade. Typically those jobs lasted the three hour minimum: pick up bridal party at a house, ferry to the wedding site, quick wedding, drive the happy couple to the reception. Occasionally I'd wait around at the reception to take the newlyweds to their final destination, a hotel, but usually not.

This one was different, though I didn't know it yet. This one lasted all day long. I drove from PCB north, just outside of some small hamlet or other with its Winn-Dixie, post office and feed store, and little else. The panhandle of Florida is affectionately and rightly referred to as Lower Alabama, and I got as close to that physical and descriptive line as possible that day.

The bride and her family lived way out ... somewhere, I don't even know where I was, but they had some land and I pulled onto that land and right up to the double-wide trailer where I was greeted by the father of the bride. This man was just as nice as could be and beaming with pride for the day. I loaded him and his wife up and drove about a hundred yards through a field and over a rolling hill to his daughter's single-wide to take her aboard.

There was a time when I was plagued by panic attacks, and I found out that day that the worst place for one of these to hit was at 60 m.p.h. on a winding, two-lane road. My throat constricted, my heart was beating through my chest and I couldn't get enough cool air from the dashboard vents on that July day. I felt as though I were suffocating in my wool suit. And who would wear a wool suit in July? I would, it was my only one.

I drove that winding road with its tight S-curves while the father leaned through the dividing window giving me turn-by-turn directions, and I was dying. I mean, I thought I was actually dying, that I would have a heart attack at the age of 24 somewhere just south of Alabama, drive off the road and take these nice people to their great reward along with me.

(It was nearly an hour from PCB to the pick-up and then another 20 minutes or so to the wedding site and that was the longest I'd spent behind the wheel of a limousine at that point. The only other drive I'd done was to drive the boss through town to see that I was capable. I sped through the tail-end of a yellow light as it turned red that day. Still got the job.)

And then finally, blessedly, we arrived. Or, rather, we approached. I was pointed from the backseat to an entrance into the pine trees that cover as much of Florida as sand does, and was told to turn just past a balloon tied there - the saddest, loneliest, Mylar balloon I'd ever seen. I pulled into a rutted dirt drive, slowly because the trees crowded in and the passage was just wide enough to allow a 100-inch luxury car through. This drive wound through the trees, bouncing the car and, though the panic had stopped, wonder, and not a little bit of apprehension, settled in.

The darkness of the forest canopy gave way to a clearing with a mobile home just beyond and three young men waiting on the lawn before me. There was no wedding that I could see. There was no structure large enough for a wedding that I could see. Just these three boys, one with a hose and the other two with buckets and scrub brushes on extension handles.

"You're gonna pull up there and these boys are gonna wash the car real quick," the daddy said, and I turned to look at him, my pale, panicky face only inches from his fleshy head. He was serious.

Sitting in the car, all of us - mom, dad, bride-to-be and me - with a garden hose blasting the hood and doors and windows with water, brushes and soap scrubbing the roof, I began to think that this must be a joke. I expected to pull around that trailer and see my boss there laughing at me. I'm being hazed, I thought. This is some sort of virginal chauffeur ritual.

The pit crew finished and I was instructed to drive around the trailer and across a grass pasture for the second time that day. On the other side of the trailer was a wedding scene. There were folding chairs set up in rows with an aisle down the center, and a young man in his finest standing up front with a preacher and a backdrop of white lattice. I pulled the car right up to the center aisle and my faction of the wedding party exited. From the backseat of a Lincoln limousine, the bride marched right down the aisle to get hitched.

I stayed in the car, but a guest near the back of the onlookers didn't stay put. Just after the ceremony began, he got up and walked to the trailer and disappeared inside. When he reappeared and passed in front of the car, he looked at me, winked, and pointed to the pocket of his Levi's and the can of Coors beer he had there. It was for after he finished the one in his hand, I assumed. I gave him a thumbs up.

After the nuptials, and after the speeches given over a karaoke machine, everyone mingled and congratulated and everyone, every last one of them, took turns sitting in the back of the limousine in that grassy pasture.

I drove the bride and groom back down those winding roads to a nearby country club for the reception and stayed while they celebrated. It was a long night and I spent the time sitting in the car, standing outside the car, washing the  windows (there was no cleaning crew at the exit of the pine path), listening to the radio and reading. That is the life of a chauffeur.

At some point someone came over and stood next to the driver's side of the car, just stood and looked in until I lowered the window. "Hungry?" He twitched his head to the left. "Good groceries in there."

We ended the night back at the family compound and I settled up with the father of the bride who pulled an impressive knot of cash from his front pocket to pay the standard fare, and then peeled three $100 bills off for me. I figured this for a lucrative, entertaining way to make a living.

Nice people. Odd job. Weird, wild day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Comment

Christopher Blank recently wrote a guest column for The Commercial Appeal on the topic of those who comment inappropriately on that newspaper's website. It's not possible for me to better Blank's writing, but I would like to add a few cents to the discussion here on my blog.

This isn't personal, I'm not here to defend my own stories and speak only to those who comment on those stories. I don't engage with commenters online because it's futile. That exchange serves no purpose in bringing someone around who is intent on disagreeing and being disagreeable. And I'm not talking about those commenters who have legitimate issues with issues, those who may, in their heart of hearts, be against a new law or perceive a flaw in the legal system or really, really want (or don't want) bike lanes on a particular street in their neighborhood. I'm talking about the people who log on with the sole mission of belittling and antagonizing the writer.

I know a lot of the writers at The Commercial Appeal and all around town, and consider many of them friends. They're good writers and hard workers, and reporters don't get into this business for the glamor or to be in the spotlight. It certainly isn't for the money. They're talented storytellers and, for the most part, enjoy what they do and it's simply rude to attack them personally in a public manner.

And that's the crux of it, isn't it? It's just rude. In an attempt to encourage discourse and familiarity, almost the exact opposite is happening because of those who are not beholden to any personal or professional ethics or, it would seem, decent Southern manners. It's rude to speak in the way they do to someone who is just trying to do their job, and it's rude to allow the means to do so to persist.

I also believe it's just bad business to allow anonymous commenting. I think the practice adds no value to the experience of reading a newspaper. It certainly adds nothing to any discussion within the community, and it shows a lack of respect for the reporters, editors, copy desk, layout and everyone else it takes to get a newspaper on paper and online. It would be like owning a restaurant and allowing anyone who may or may not be a paying customer to stand in the middle of the dining room and insult your chef. That, too, would be bad business.

The comments section should be, if not done away with altogether, treated as letters to the editor are. In that situation, phone calls are made to verify who the letter writer is and then printed with full name and city. If nothing else, this takes away that cloak of anonymity for the cowards to hide behind.

There are plenty of other outlets for those who wish to react anonymously to what they've read in an attempt to make their friend(s) giggle. I suggest Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Blogger, WordPress or a third-party forum of some sort.

Now, to get personal for a moment. These comments are showing up on my column, "Because I Said So," more and more frequently. What I do is not journalism, I'll be the first to admit that. I'm not out there taking down corrupt politicians, recording great strides in business and culture for our city, or righting wrongs in the community. It's a silly little 500-word column where I attempt to make people laugh by poking fun at my kids, childhood in general and myself as a father. I don't purport to give advice, nor do I seek it. Yet the anonymous commenters show up time and again to suggest I hit my kids, to suggest I'm boring the readers with my story and, in some cases, to suggest they could do a better job - either with writing or with parenting.

To be clear, I give a shit what these people think about me or my family or my writing, but my mother reads that column online from Florida, and my grandmother from Georgia and, as they get older, my kids are reading it more and more. They enjoy seeing their names, they laugh along with me as they read what I thought of something they did or said, and then they don't really know what to say when someone with a string of initials and numbers instead of a name suggests I beat them or that I'm not a good father because of something I did or said.

There are those complimentary commenters, of course. There are those who seek me out through e-mail, on Facebook or Twitter, or approach me at the grocery store; I'm accessible. They share with me when something I wrote is the same scenario in their house or that it took them back to when their own children were small. As nice as this is, and as much as I appreciate these readers, I would be willing to give that up at the end of a column. They'll find me in other ways, these are intelligent, patient people.

Like I said, I can take the negative. I'd be amenable to discussing the matters at hand with these readers, but I won't do so with someone who doesn't believe enough in what he writes to put his name behind it. My full name is on everything I write, as are the names of the reporters and editorial staff at The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Daily News, The Memphis Flyer and every other news outlet in town and out.

But they're not just names, they're people, and they deserve better.

-- Richard J. Alley

Friday, August 19, 2011

Death of the Icons

I was barely 7-years-old in 1977 when Elvis Presley died. I remember sitting in the back room of my Aunt Jeannie's house, we were living there for a few months at the time between houses and this was my bedroom. While playing with a friend, the television was on and a newscaster announced that Presley had died. I wasn't sure why at the time, but I knew this was significant. Perhaps the news broke into a television show or the broadcaster seemed more grave than normal, or maybe they showed footage of the mass of people that had begun to collect outside the gates of Graceland. Whatever it was, I ran to the front of the house to tell my mother about it.

The days that followed were full of news footage of those crowds that refused to leave and a funeral procession miles long. There were editions of The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar with bold headlines another mile high. It was as though royalty had died because, frankly, it had.

Being from Memphis, it's almost blasphemous to recognize August as the death month of anyone but Elvis Presley. But he does share it, and the worldwide news of this icon being taken at so young an age must have overshadowed the death of another icon of entertainment. On Aug. 19, 1977, only three days after the passing in Memphis, Groucho Marx died in Los Angeles at the age of 87.

Has there ever been anyone funnier? As much as Elvis did for music, surely Groucho and his brothers did the same for comedy; for Broadway; for film; for television. Is there anything more iconic than the swiveling hips, the hair, the sneer of Elvis? Sure: the greasepaint eyebrows and mustache, the cigar, the rolling eyes, the duck walk, the wisecrack of Groucho.

I began watching Marx Brothers films as a kid whenever I could catch them on television and I now own all of them on DVD. I still love them and my kids do as well. Growing up, we had a vinyl record of Groucho at Carnegie Hall telling stories and singing songs accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch. I wore that record out as a kid. Groucho could tell a story as well as he could impart a bawdy line to Margaret Dumont.

I don't mean to say one should be celebrated over the other. This isn't Elvis vs. Groucho. Just a way to remember both and thank them both for what they meant to pop culture, entertainment, joyous rebellion and my childhood.

[Stay tuned, 1977 and the death of the icon isn't over yet. Charlie Chaplin died in December of that year ... ]

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Because I Said No

Sometimes the writing of my bi-weekly column, Because I Said So, for The Commercial Appeal rolls right off the tongue of my pencil without much effort at all. And sometimes I have to pry the damn thing loose with a crowbar.

I spent most of last Sunday, and all of Monday, working up a column. It felt like I was forcing a square peg into a round hole. I wrote three versions of the thing, I really wanted it to work. Alas, it just didn't. For stupid little reasons, in my mind, it just wasn't working for me.

Around mid-day on Monday, panic begins to set in for me if I haven't completed and polished a column to submit (deadline is Monday ... Tuesday at the latest), so at some point I pulled out a column I started a month or so ago and tried to rework that to no avail.

Monday evening, after dinner and throwing the Frisbee around in the yard a bit, as the kids were being put to bed by Kristy, I sat down and wrote a whole different piece in about 15 minutes. And that's the one you read in the paper today.

As a bonus, though, I'm offering the original (version three) here. Maybe it - or parts of it - will show up in the CA at a later date. Maybe not. I'm just making this all up as I go.

Last weekend I took my sons to the Summer Twin Drive-In. During intermission of the double feature, we watched the advertisement for the concession stand – a piece of archival film spotlighting soft drinks, pizza and hotdogs from the 1970s – and I told them that this was where I first saw “Star Wars” as a six-year-old boy. I also saw “Grease” there and, if memory serves, a re-release of Disney’s “Dumbo.”

I went on to tell them I saw “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the Park Theater, “Ghostbusters” at the Paramount in Eastgate Shopping Center, “Romancing the Stone” at the Plaza Theater and “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Highland Quartet.

When the movies ended that night and we lined up to exit the rutted and potholed drive-in, it was after midnight and my sons wished me happy birthday. Newly 41, my capacity for buckets of popcorn and gallons of Coca-Cola had outlasted that of those venerable venues.

Around the table the next evening amidst gift wrap and with a cake on fire, I asked the kids if they knew who the president of the United States was when I was born in 1970. “George Washington?” Joshua answered.

His piece of cake was delicious.

I told them that the year I was born Richard Nixon was president, Henry Loeb was the mayor of Memphis, we were at war in Vietnam, The Beatles had just broken up and Apollo 13 barely made it back to Earth.

They stared back with a mixture of confusion and sugar. These are the subjects of movies and documentaries, links in a browser that will take them to songs, audio of speeches, cast lists and countless facts and figures.

How is it possible you were alive then? they wondered. How were you able to stay awake through a double feature?

I napped.

The times of our lives can be marked on a calendar and they can be archived alongside world events and pop culture. History comes alive for children when we give them the context for it. These personal touches act as anchor in the vast sea of time and recollections in an ambiguous “past.”

I recently watched the final shuttle launch with my kids streaming on a laptop computer the size of a spiral notebook and told them of watching the first in a fifth-grade classroom on a television the size of the teacher’s desk.

I can pass along the “where were you” moments of the shootings of a pope, a president and a rock-n-roll peace icon, and can tell them where I watched the Berlin Wall come down, Live-Aid and nothing at all when an ice storm quieted things in Memphis.

My memories sink into their memories, into their own gray matter wiki of facts and comprehension, even though much of what I tell them is met with that same sugar-glazed look I’m sure I had when my elders began their own stories with “In my day …”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Second Line

[Warning: spoilers]

I recently watched season one of Treme. I'm a huge fan of The Wire and had high hopes for David Simon's series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. While I don't think Treme is as engrossing as The Wire yet, the characters and dialogue are just as well written and the look is as honest as gritty.

With all of the sadness and loss that the hurricane wrought (both real and fictional), and with all of the joy of finding lost loved ones and coming to the realization that the city - the essence of New Orleans - was not completely washed away, the most poignant scene for me was the very last of the season.

During the second line procession after Daymo's funeral, the camera stays on Ladonna who seems in a trance. She watches the others move and dip to the brass band leading the march and slowly she begins moving with them. She starts to feel the groove and sway with the bass drum, trombone and trumpet until she's finally moving along with the other mourners, flinging her handkerchief from side to side. Ladonna grieves, in these last few minutes of the episode, for Daymo, but also for Creighton and Toni, for her own damaged marriage, for the pain of waiting so long to learn Daymo's fate and what it has done to her mother, and for New Orleans herself (both real and fictional, it seems).

The New Orleans funeral second line must be something to be involved in with so much sadness coming through that somber trombone and laying someone to rest above ground, so close to life. And yet it must be filled with joy, too. All of New Orleans is joy: the music is joy, the food is joy, the people are joy. You can't keep that down in a parade whether it's through the Quarter or leaving a cemetery, and Simon and the great Khandi Alexander as Ladonna, do a fantastic job of summing up the entire series in those final minutes.

I've been to New Orleans quite a few times, but the last time was only two weeks before Katrina hit in 2005. I've been thinking of going back. I finished writing my first novel (still unpublished) last year just before I turned forty. Much of it takes place in New Orleans of the early- to mid-20th Century. I'm working on my third now and there are large portions of it that will take place in the same city and same time period. A bit of research may be in order.

This is an excerpt from that first novel, Life Out of Balance. It's part of what I submitted to be accepted into the Moss Fiction Workshop at the University of Memphis in 2010:

... He wants to drift, to let his mind wander and he finds himself back in New Orleans, awash in blues and grays long-since vibrant; a chipped and faded skin holding in a life and pulse as old as time. The city was fading with time and age and looked, not as though the salt air and sun had come to do damage, but as though the city itself had been at sea, adrift and at the mercy of the godless elements there.
            And perhaps it had been. Maybe the genesis of New Orleans, that distinctive pool’s back story, her architecture and ways still intact, begins with breaking away from France and finding herself a current, skittering along coastal Spain and making some stops along the dark continent where she picked up even more customs, habits, sins and gods. The long trip across the ocean would give her people the time to argue and fight, talk it over to come to an agreement and eventually fall in love. They slept with each other again and again before putting into port at the Lesser Antilles, all the way up the Caribbean where pilgrims and voyagers, both willing and unwilling, would come aboard with rum still sweet from the cane. A visit would be made to the Dominican, Haiti and Cuba before banking off the lawless coast of Mexico like a snooker ball and finding a pocket of relative safety in the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf would funnel her tired and restless crew into the soft underbelly of a new nation and its denizens would pull themselves to land on wisteria vines, tie the whole damn city to centuries-old water oaks hung thick with Spanish moss and declare themselves home.
            These people of the world who had come to rest at the bottom of a bottle of wine would stand together on wrought iron balconies rusted through with sea salt and proclaim aloud and defiantly to their new neighbors, “We are New Orleans and we don’t give a good goddamn about your rules, laws, morals and ways!” And they wouldn’t, either. Their speech was a mixture of French, African and Spanish, stewed up in a cauldron of sea foam, pepper and red beans as though the very Tower of Babel had been erected to throw its seamy shadow on these new and pristine United States of America. They would come to understand over time that it was no tower, but an ancient tribe unto itself which some thought from Sodom and others, Gomorrah.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Listen Up

Much of my job is spent sitting at a big, wooden desk in my home office, pacing around the house, lying on the couch and standing on the front porch staring into the middle distance. There are phone interviews and dealing with the children, but there is no office small talk around a water cooler. There is no water cooler. And neither is there office politics or mandatory birthday parties for strangers who work in Accounting. There is no leaning over the cubicle wall to ask my office mate if he wants to go to the Olive Garden for lunch today. There is no cubicle wall.

Much of the day, there is silence - sweet, sweet silence. At times, though, the silence is too much even for me and that's where the other facet of my job comes in: the sit-down interview. I enjoy this part of work because I ask strangers all kinds of questions and am afforded the opportunity to get to know someone for a brief time. I rarely sit down with a list of questions, I'm more of a conversational interviewer and these people don't even know that it's because I spend whole days - weeks, sometimes - alone and am just looking to talk.

Recently, the tables were turned and I sat down across that table from Ed Arnold for his People I Know podcast. This is a great concept where Ed asks people - people he knows (this "knowing" may only be through Facebook or Twitter, but that's the world we live in) what makes them tick, why they do what they do and what they love.

It was a lot of fun. We just struck up a conversation over cocktails one Monday evening at Le Chardonnay in Midtown. The waitress (a friend of Ed's, I can't recall her name) was great, as was Jackie Ellison of Itchy Shutter Finger who documented it all on camera. Thanks to all of them.

So, if you've got 37 minutes to spare, give it a listen. And, while you're at it, give some other episodes a listen, I am in great company with well-known Memphians such as Mo Alexander, Lindsey Turner, Steve Ross, Brent Diggs and Bill Perry.

People I Know