(IT IS HARD FOR ME TO BELIEVE THAT IT WAS 44 YEARS AGO--oCTOBER 1969-- I WENT TO LIVE IN MEMPHIS--IT TURNED OUT TO BE ONE OF THE BEST DECADES OF MY LIFE!)
Joan said to me, as we drove out to the airport, "Remember you already have three strikes against you. You are Gay, you are Jewish and you are a Yankee. The only thing saving your ass is that you aren't Black!"
It was the 4th of July weekend in 1969 and I was flying to Memphis for the weekend to see if I wanted to move there permanently. I wasn't doing too bad in New York, working part-time as a waiter and part time as a lecturer for Weight Watchers at which I was very successful. I had lost 100+ pounds in 1967 and later that year Bernie had shown up at one of my classes. He worked at the main office of WW helping train franchisees. We spent that Christmas together and then we got an apartment between 2nd and 3rd avenues in the 30s. In 1969 Bernie decided he wanted to buy a franchise and Memphis, Eastern Arkansas, Western Tennessee and Chattanooga was the best of the few areas still available. He wanted me to go with him and help get it started and build it up. Addie, and Joan, told me not to trust him, to get it in writing. I trusted him and didn't get anything in writing but that's for another blog.
Bernie picked me up at the airport and we took I-40 and I-240 to the Holiday Inn on Poplar Avenue and I fell in love with the city. One of the first questions I asked, and never got an answer, was why was West Memphis in Arkansas? And that was just the start of 9 years and 10 months living and working in Memphis, Tennessee.
The only thing I had to lose when I left New York were friends and I knew we would keep in contact and we did. I moved to Memphis on October 12, 1969 to become the Director of Operations for our franchise area. I, well Bernie, rented an apartment not too far from the Holiday Inn I had stayed at. I, also, learned that Memphis was the home of Holiday Inn and the original was still on Summer Avenue not that far from our main office.
In spite of Joan's warning being Jewish wasn't something 'bad' in Memphis. There was a good size Jewish population and many of the upper and influential families were Jewish. One of the things that did surprise me was that in one of the Memphis suburbs, ironically called Germantown, there was the largest Jewish Community Center in the 'Bible Belt'.
For almost a year we worked 24/7 to make WW a success and we far exceeded our goals. When I had time I would run around discovering things about Memphis that surprised me and little by little I got to learn the city. The gay life was more plentiful than I had expected but aside from 3 gay bars it was mainly behind closed doors and most men were leading double lives, but more about that later.
To this day I will never forget the first time I saw The March Of The Ducks in the lobby of the Peabody hotel in downtown Memphis, They were a famous tourist must. Every morning the elevator would come down from the roof of the hotel nonstop to the lobby, a red carpet would be laid out and music would be played on a recorder as the ducks would march out of the elevator to the fountain, spend the afternoon there and then near the evening would be marched back to the elevator and up to the roof. To see group of tourists watching ducks march to and from an elevator, taking pictures of them was, and still is, one of the funniest sights to be seen anywhere.
This New Yorker was taken aback by the size of the supermarkets which, to my eyes were humongous, and couldn't be afforded in New York and not to forget the 'lift' which raised your groceries up so the customer didn't have to empty the basket.
There was so much more to discover about this beautiful city. I always felt that someone ran behind the cars picking up any debris thrown out by the occupants. There was no doubt in my mind that every home and business owner got up at 6 AM and mowed their lawns. Every Spring the city became a perfume factory with the aromas of the jasmine, tulip magnolias, irises, hyacinths, gardenias and roses, just a few of the many blooming plants, trees and bushes that over take and make the place seem even more magical.
Before I talk anymore about the city I came to love, and fell in love with, and fell in love in, I must say that strike against me as a Yankee worked in my favor because everyone wanted to hear my 'funny' accent and my classes were always full.
So much to share, so much to talk about, to tell you about Memphis: Justine's, The Four Flames, Pappy's Lobster Shack, the Shelby Motel, J-Wags, Whitehaven, the red light outside my door, opening my own business, Theatre Memphis, Overton Square and Park, the first place I saw a revolving restaurant, a city full of things to see and do and people so warm, outgoing and in your face honesty and so much behind doors and all the lies that go into making a life and a city. In the 70s I saw Bette Midler take a staid audience and turn it wild as if to say, "There is no stopping Memphis," and there wasn't.
Part 2--the places tourists see and those they don't--brown bagging booze---small jazz clubs--revitalizing downtown--Mudd Island and the Pyramid--of course, Elvis--the Southern Belle still lives as does the Southern Gentlemen and don't take their softness as a weakness--so more to come.