Rambling Snapshots: Clarkesdale
Next month: Sallisaw and Intercalary: Festivals
Over my late afternoon lunch at Rum Boogie Cafe, while I smacked my lips over dry ribs and licked the BBQ sauce from my moustache, Guru John quizzed me. After all, I was the Memphis novitiate.
“You’re in Memphis,” he began, obscurely pointing out the obvious. “Now, where do you think is the Mississippi Delta?”
My academic antennae, tingling from years of me mimicking Socrates to a variety of students’ Platos, sensed a trick question in the wind. I hesitated, angling for a clever answer that would simultaneously satisfy and deflect. Nothing conjured itself up, so I defaulted to what I really thought. “I’ve always thought it was where the Mississippi River flows into the gulf,” I replied, adding quickly with eyes on impressing him, “but maybe it is a little farther above New Orleans, where the river flows in lots of different directions. It has altered its course over the years, hasn’t it?”
“Hmmm,” he hummed. “Most make the mistake. It’s natural. When I first decided to move here from Texas, I did too. It’s about the cotton. When you visit Clarkesdale, you’ll drive into the heart of the Delta. The Delta plain starts right here south of Memphis and basically spreads all the way down to Vicksburg. The Yazoo to the east, the Mississippi to the west. The flooding and the silt make the flat land fertile. It is rich soil down there.”
“Like the Nile,” I said. “Until they destroyed it by building that dam.”
“Loam for the cotton (loam, I observed silently, is a very rare word for lunchtime conversations).” John continued. “It explains a lot about the south. Flooding. Loam. Cotton. Plantations. Sharecroppers. Hard times. The Blues.”
Cause and effect, I later mused philosophically after John entrusted me with the keys to his Beale Street apartment, after he assured me my Miata would be perfectly secure in the parking garage for the next four days, and after he returned to his home in Germantown. Sometimes the effect is intended, sometimes unintended. Sometimes we just have to make the best of what happens. How much of who we are is a choice? How much of it is chosen for us?
Which takes me to my desire to visit Clarkesdale, the womb of the Blues. Memphis for the birth of Rock and Roll, the Delta for gestating the Blues.
My friend, David, with whom I was still traveling at this Memphis portion of my trip (Francy having flown home), is schooled in his Blues. How? His family are original Atlantans (him nursed on a diet of Coca Cola and Allman Brothers). How? He’s seen Hendrix and Vaughn live in concert numerous times. How? He performs vascular surgery accompanied to the tunes of Etta, the Grateful Dead, Bessie Smith. David boasts owning the complete Robert Johnson collection. Even the full set of Elmore James. He can spot the difference between a Chess Recording and one spun by Sun Studio. David detects details. I show up wearing a new belt and he tells me so. Very strange. But then, if he is going to slice up people’s necks, it is rather reassuring to know he notices details.
David’s purpose in traveling to Clarksdale, before he had to return to home and responsibilities, was the Delta Blues Museum. David spent two hours reading every placard, digesting every display, meditating for at least 30 minutes besides the wax figure of W.C. Handy in his replica shack. I finished touring the museum in ten minutes.
Sun Studio on Saturday. Graceland on Sunday. The Mississippi Delta and the Delta Blues Museum on Monday. Clarksdale is a straight shot south from Memphis on Route 61. And I do mean straight. I drove with my knee for thirty minutes. We toyed briefly with the idea of checking out the fancy Riverboats moored near Tunica, but since both David and I nurse dim regard for casinos and the damage they have on families, we passed. Consider it our small act of defiance against our modern economy. Plantations replaced by casinos, cotton-pickers replaced by croupiers, sweat replaced by slots. Servility can be at times very entertaining and very attractive. Neon lighted shackles.
Off to the left of Route 61, seagulls swirled over and scoured the churned up farm fields, the fields pooled and damp from the overnight rain.
Coming into Clarkesdale, it took us several wrong turns until we located the museum. We could see it but we couldn’t figure out how to drive to it. Downtown Clarksdale was shut down for construction work, cutting off (we supposed) the normal entrance to the museum. We puttered around several blocks until we finally figured out that you could get to the parking lot by driving over the railroad tracks, then turn right and drive through a gravel alley. We guessed it was an alley.
Arriving, David paid the admission fee for both of us. He also paid for lunch afterwards.
Surprises arrive, but only when you allow for them. Hungry, we hoped for a decent place to grab a bite. Driving into town we noted all the usual suspects: the fast food joints you’ll find in every town. But we had arrived at the heart of the Delta and we demanded authentic Delta cuisine.
When on the road, you learn (if you are wise) to ask questions. We asked the young fellow behind the Museum cash register (where you pay for both admission tickets and souvenirs) for eatery recommendations. Local knowledge is best. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Just step outside and turn left. First building you come to.”
We stepped outside. We looked left. We saw the gravel driveway. We saw the road and railroad tracks. But the only building we saw was a dumpy old building that appeared long abandoned. Paint peeling. Shingles missing. Graffiti scribbled all over it. Beat up old sofas sagged on the cluttered porch. Confused, we went back in and asked again. “That’s the place,” he assured us.
Shrugging, we cautiously approached the dilapidated joint. It seemed an old, disused furniture store. It was a squat two story building with a sagging porch roof. No cars were in sight to hint to us that diners might actually be inside. I let David step up on the porch first in case the wobbly steps collapsed under his weight. Timidly, we squeaked opened the door. A pleasant hostess turned and welcomed us to Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. Catfish and fried green tomatoes were the specials for the day. The outside graffiti continued inside. It continued around the door jamb. Onto the walls. Across the bar. Up the posts. Along the tables. Onto the stage. On the light fixtures. Over the toilets. The scribbles were names. They were messages. Grab a marker and leave your mark. Have fun. Make your mark. I have dined at the Ground Zero. If we didn’t have to hit the road as soon as we did, we would have played a little 8-Ball too.
You never know what you find till you take a step and try.
David had wanted to see the Museum. My purpose simply was to visit the crossroads. The crossroads of Routes 49 and 61. The famous crossroads. The infamous crossroads. The devil’s crossroads. The crossroads where, according to legend, song, and rumor, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. Johnson really didn’t, but…
Robert Johnson, so the story goes, came to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to become a great Blues musician. The man knew what he was doing and what he wanted. I wonder how many of us sell our soul to the devil without knowing it, without going to the crossroads at midnight. Many of us sell our souls in broad daylight.
It remains strange indeed that Robert Johnson’s burial place to this day remains a mystery. Three cemeteries claim that they are the site of his grave. The man is marked by three tombstones.
Southeast of town, late morning, we came to the crossroads. I saw no devil. I saw only gas stations, traffic lights, and the guitar-topped monument indicating where old Routes 49 and 61 intersected. Do three guitars painted blue, bolted on top of the street sign by metal brackets, and pointing in three different directions constitute a crossroad? I always assumed a crossroad meant you had to choose one of two ways. But then, if one intersecting road is crossing over the other, the roads forming a +, and if you’ve already come from one of the directions, then I suppose it is a choice between three. Do you go straight? Do you turn left? Do you turn right? You never can go back.
There are many restive late nights when, unable to rest, I wonder how did I get to where I am. I remember and wonder. What if I never had come home to attend that party and met Elaine? What if I had decided to attend George Washington University instead of Hobart College? What if I had kissed Jackie Schilder? All these algorithmic possibilities may lead into alternative universes, but so what? I’m still in this one. Most decisive of all, what if back at the end of 8th grade had I been too timid and too compliant to run for 9th grade class president of Junior High? Why I decided to try I simply forget. I just did. Mike, Roger, and Doug passed around my petition. They begged barely enough names to make me eligible. Most of the students who were asked in the hallways couldn’t put a face to my name.
Class president was responsible for running the student council comprised by officers elected from every homeroom for all three Junior High grades. Class president met with the principal every now and then. I liked the principal. My father happened to be school board president at the time. Dinner conversations often led to us talking about some of the issues the board had to resolve. Class president even introduced every school-wide assembly. Public speaking was required.
Who was I? I was just some anonymous little schnook. My gang of guys and I rarely received invitations to the parties at the homes of all the cool kids. It wasn’t as if I was Ricky Sprague. He got invitations to all the parties.
Even if I were invited to the party, would I know what to wear? What to do? What to say? Talk about awkward. Ricky Sprague, on the other hand, was an experienced Spin-the-Bottle player.
It wasn’t as if I was one of the top athletes at school. Ricky Sprague started in the backfield for the football team. I played soccer. I played halfback on the second squad, and only was called off the bench to sub in for a few games toward the end of our losing season.
Come school dances, I was one of those boys who only agreed to attend because my friends were going. Moral support. You going Doug? We’d arrive at the gym and sit slumped in our folding chairs watching the girls dance together. We’d saunter off toward where they were selling soda to lean against the wall, hands jauntily stuck in our front pockets. We’d snicker when Doug would make rude noises pretending it was Roger’s fault. Ricky Sprague got to dance with the girls. Ricky Sprague actually knew how to dance. The Twist. The Freddie. The Monkey. The Frug. He even had a girl-friend. The jerk. Ricky’s girl-friend was named Karen Cherington.
Karen Cherington. We’d see her in the hallway and, with blush, crush, and flush, discover how puberty percolated. Karen Cherington was the reason most of us boys began to stop reading “Boy’s Life” or Spider-Man comic books and began scrounging around for other kinds of magazines. Karen Cherington. Blond. Perky. Smart. Best of all, when she wasn’t wearing a plaid skirt she’d be wearing cute pink culottes. She swayed in entirely new ways.
Of course, guess who else was running for class president? Ricky Spague. Guess who was running for class vice-president? You guessed it. Karen Cherington.
Over the loud speaker at the beginning of gym class they announced that I had won the election. We were standing around in our gym uniforms near the track. We were svelte in our tight and snug blue shorts and reversible blue and white jerseys. Mr. Butz, our gym teacher, grumped at us to get running. He whistled. We ran. I outpaced my entire gym class and circuited the track three furlongs before the rest of them crossed the finish line. I was a stallion.
Next spring, after our final student council meeting, Karen Cherington came up to me in the stairwell, leaned over, touched her hand on my shoulder, and kissed me on the cheek. There’s been no going back to the sidelines ever since.
Perhaps the third way pointed out by that third blue guitar is what happens when you don’t choose or aren’t aware that it is a choice.