I took an overnight train from Chicago to Memphis. I didn’t sleep much because the guy next to me wouldn’t stop moving. He was constantly twitching or talking or fiddling. It wasn’t hard to see the monkey on his back. I almost asked him about it, but it sounded like he was trying to shake it, heading to his mom’s in Memphis for a bit. If he didn’t want to talk about it I didn’t want to make him. He was nice too and I was glad I hadn’t just shut him out after first glance. He tried to help when my phone froze. He offered me his blanket. Part of me wishes he had told me his story but mostly I just wanted to get what little sleep I could. It was the first full train I’d been on and that made it a lot harder. So I slept fitfully and woke to a sunrise coming into Memphis. I got off the train and walked over the edge of the parking lot to take a picture of the sun rising over the rougher side of Memphis. Turned out Memphis had a lot of rough sides. After I took a photo of the sunrise I started walking out of the train station, but a guy who was unloading baggage on the train ran over and stopped me.
“Don’t leave in that direction, you’ll get robbed as soon as you leave the station.” He points me to the staircase out to the north that lets you out in the nice part of downtown on Main where there are coffee shops and people dressed for work. I thanked him and headed the way he’d pointed.
“This is Memphis after all,” were his parting remarks.
Yes, this is Memphis. Where Blues and poverty are side by side in no coincidence. Memphis has a rough history. In 1870 it was the second biggest city in the south and yet it still had no water system or a way to remove sewage. It was growing a reputation for being poor and dirty, and then yellow fever hit. Anyone who could left the city, leaving only those too poor to move. The population went from 40,000 to 19,000 in just a few months and most of those remaining got yellow fever.
The crisis had skimmed the middle and upper class people out of the city, leaving poverty in it’s wake. Since then the city has struggled with poverty and crime, often in the top ten most dangerous cities. In an FBI report based on crimes statistics from 2013 Memphis passed St. Louis to be labeled the third most dangerous city in the country. I don’t know the details of these statistics and how things might have changed since 2013, but I certainly got a lot of warnings while I was there. Don’t go south of that intersection. Stay in these parts of town. Working for the public defenders for so long I know how people’s fear can grow out of proportion, but there was no way for me to tell if that was the case here. I was curious though, about what lay on the other side of those lines in the sand.
These are the kinds of places that gave us the blues. Out of poverty and misery came something beautiful. I like to think that blues music can sort out who’s had real struggle in their life. I never liked the blues until I worked at the PD. Things had to get rough for me to understand it. Now I see it as a sort of litmus test. If someone likes the blues then odds are we’ll understand each other.
Memphis had an odd mix of people. Walking downtown I saw a lot of white people in business suits, fancy cafes, and tall glass buildings. Then I’d go into a restaurant and all the servers were black. It made me uncomfortable. Class seemed to be split down painfully clear racial lines. This was something that I knew, academically, but I’d never seen it. I’d never sat in a cafe and watch racism eddy around me like muddy water. I don’t mean that the people around me were racist—I don’t know if they were or not. It is the whole system of wealth, and who has it, that’s broken. And not just in Memphis, it just felt clearer there for some reason. More apparent.
It is one of my core values not to turn away just because something is hard to look at. Poverty isn’t pretty, but we can’t ever improve it if we don’t acknowledge it. In our world, you have to stare darkness in the face before you’ll ever see a sunrise.
I’ll get off my soapbox now. Thank you for sticking with me for this.