Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Neighbors, Those Around Us

Willie Mitchell Blvd., South Memphis
 Morgan Parks was shuttling boxes of coffee and non-dairy creamer from his van to the office of our latest Motel 6; he stopped in his tracks when he noticed the ‘big hunk of metal’ on the back of our truck. 'I figured there had to be a story behind that thing,' he mused after hearing...well, the story behind that thing. Morgan, coincidentally, was recently in Bethlehem on business and had stopped by Shanksville and the crash site of Flight 93. ‘You’ll be amazed the plane landed there and didn’t kill anyone,’ he said, noting that though scattered there are houses all throughout the area. Then came the highlight, the surprise that reminded us once again that, cliche as it sounds, you never know who you might meet in any given moment. Morgan, it turned out, was friends with a guy named Jim Sykes who had a radio show on an all-elvis station airing right across the street from Graceland. He gave us a phone number and some free coffee and was on his busy way.

The sun was high and hot when we pulled up to Heartsong Church in Cordova.
Pastor Steve Stone met us in a blue Memphis Tigers t-shirt and told us all about his experiences with the Muslim community that had bought 30 acres adjacent to his church’s land. ‘They were still in the process of building their facility when Ramadan came around,’ he explained. ‘We invited them over and told them to use our place anytime for their prayers, for the entire month.’ This was about the time Terry Jones was talking about burning the Koran. Steve and his church ended up winning the Humanitarian of the Year Award for reaching out to their neighbors. ‘It’s such a simple thing,’ he went on to say of the church’s reaching out. ‘Then CNN came and interviewed us about the whole thing, and these guys in Kashmir somehow end up seeing it and they called me.’ Mr. Stone was sweating right along with the rest of us out in the blazing hot parking lot but his smile persisted. ‘These guys said it took hours to get through but they were so moved, asking each other How can we fight these people? that they just had to talk to us.

The church and the mosque are now in the process of creating a Friendship Park, an eight-acre symbol of unity on land that bridges the church’s and the new mosque’s property.

Big Jim Sykes burst out of his 10 x 10 studio into the hot afternoon air. ‘Great to meet you guys, thanks for stopping by!’ He’d said he could give Jon three or four minutes for an interview; he barely needed two to blast out a high-energy Q&A session about the journey. In the following minutes we were invited to squeeze into his studio, packed with equipment and lined with Elvis memorabilia including what may or may not have been an actual gold record. ‘Morgan is an angel,’ he said of his coffee-shuttling friend. ‘I call a family who’s destitute, I call him up, he shows up two hours later and fills up my garage with clothes and toys. He just does things like that.’

Meeting an angel at the Motel 6 – kind of epitomizes the journey.

When South Lauderdale Street suddenly turned into Willie Mitchell Boulevard we knew we were close. Without an address though we still would have passed right by the nondescript green one-story Royal Studios. Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell met us outside. ‘Welcome to Memphis gentlemen,’ he said, putting out his hand. And for the next two and a half hours we stood immersed in the electric atmosphere of this South Memphis neighborhood with an amazing claim to fame. Fifty-some-odd years ago Willie Mitchell opened Royal Studios right there in that modest green building and proceeded to record the music of the likes of Al Green, David Hudson, Otis Clay and Ann Reebles. All the original recording equipment is still there and in use; makeshift wooden shelves held reels upon reels of music; the organ used for the song Love & Happiness sat in a prominent spot on the recording studio floor. The air of history was palatable.

Back outside brothers Michael, Jemario and Devonte Davis checked out the cross for a few moments and spent the rest of the time playing with Jon’s German Shepherd Chief. Neighbors came by on foot, in their cars and on adult-sized tricycles that looked strangely hip and cool. Many wrote prayers and messages; a jovial guy named Archie found a small metal cross on the ground; one guy kept riding his bike up and down the street doing wheelies.

‘I can only imagine losing someone like that,’ said Archie as he climbed down from the truck. ‘For their lives to come to a horrible, tragic end like that, all our prayers are with them.’ Daniel Mitchell, only three years old on the day of the attack, added his thoughts: ‘I hope everyone who lost family members…I hope they have a peaceful life.’ Lisa White held her tiny puppy in her arms. ‘Even if we didn’t lose anyone it hurt us all because we’re all Americans,’ she said. Dennis graham, Jerry Lee Lewis’s drummer, was very soft-spoken. ‘All our prayers go out to the people who lost loved ones on 9-11.’

We could have stayed there into the evening and all night. We would have liked to. Like most of the people we’d encountered along our way, we’d probably never see these people again, with the exception of Boo, who traveled around the country regularly. ‘I went back to New York City after 9-11,’ he told us. ‘I don’t want to say it gave the city a heart, but it definitely gave the city a bigger heart.’

South Memphis, around Willie Mitchell Boulevard at least, sure had plenty of heart.