The Ghosts of Memphis

By  |  July 13, 2014
Photograph by Brian Anderson, April 2011 Photograph by Brian Anderson, April 2011

The sign across the top of my father’s old clothing store still says Murray's, as if my father, known to his customers as Mr. Murray, hadn’t been dead for fifteen years. But the last time I walked down South Main Street, a new sign on the front caught my eye. Hand-lettered. For Sale. Call 901 and then a number so familiar . . . my father’s number. He sold the business and the building long ago, but he must be wheeling and dealing from the grave, trying to sell the building one more time.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The streets of downtown Memphis are filled with ghosts. Elvis roars by on his motorcycle, his black hair curling back like the musical notes on his iron gates, the city’s Most Entertaining Ghost. He’s eternally hopeful, eternally looking for a good time, and he finds it every August when Memphis holds a week-long party on the anniversary of his death. Officially known as Elvis Week, Memphians call it Dead Week. If you should meet Elvis (and why not? he turns up everywhere), be sure to hop on, grab onto that black leather jacket, and enjoy the ride. Just be aware that the charity checks he passes out so generously can’t be cashed in any earthly bank.

E. H. Crump, who ran Memphis with his political machine from 1910 until his death in 1954, is the city’s Imperious Gentleman Ghost. Boss Crump has snowy white hair and round glasses, a deceptively gentle demeanor, and his apparition wears a boater and carries a cane. Boss Crump knows his way around ghosts; he worked closely with them even before he became one. When he beckoned to the graveyards, the dead—both black and white—rose up, made their way to the polls, and voted for Mr. Crump’s man.        

Mr. Crump still thinks he runs the place and he likes his city quiet. That’s how you can tell a native Memphian: we never honk our car horns. I was born the year Boss Crump died, and if I so much as contemplate honking at an eighteen-wheeler, I feel his bony finger tapping at my shoulder and my hand sticks to the wheel as if paralyzed. But the quiet city Mr. Crump insisted upon is no more. Now, even the Memphis night is noisy. When the last bars close, the FedEx planes take off and the rumble of their jet engines fills the night sky.

And then of course there is the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the city’s Martyred Ghost. The man came to Memphis, but he had no intention of staying. He came to help the striking sanitation workers. Heaven knows they needed help.

We were all on edge that spring. We had an obstinate mayor who wouldn’t back down an inch to save the city. And then the snow—sixteen inches in one night. More snow than we had ever imagined, even in our wildest longings. It was a bad sign, like a Biblical plague, and at the same time it was magical, wondrous, an extraordinary gift from the sky. The snow hushed the city and granted us a reprieve. That snowstorm prevented Dr. King from coming to Memphis; it pushed him back toward safety. But then the snow melted and he arrived.

The city was already simmering, and with a little stir, it boiled up and over. Memphis was a stain on Dr. King’s non-violent soul, a regret he carried the last weeks of his life. He wanted to return and hold a peaceful march, so he overcame his misgivings—some might call it his better sense—and came back to Memphis, determined to make things right.

You know what happened next. The motel balcony.

I was babysitting my baby brother for the first time that night. I was thirteen. It was early April, and I could hear the thunder cracking and booming outside. It sounded like the storm was coming closer, and I turned on the television, as my mother had directed, so I would know if a tornado was headed our way. After the newscaster announced Reverend King’s death, he said that busloads of Negroes armed with shotguns were heading for the white suburbs to take revenge. The television news got the story wrong that night. We’ve been getting it wrong ever since.

After his first march led to smashed windows and looting and left one young man dead, he wanted to march again. But Memphis was a tough proposition, and now he’s stuck for eternity in the city that bedeviled him. How can he leave, when his motel bed is so neatly made up for him night after night? How can he go back to Atlanta or on to someplace easier, more restful, when Memphis still simmers with racial tension? How can he take his ease when the country is still fighting over the right of public workers to organize—the same battle he came to Memphis to lead forty-six long years ago?

In that rich, emphatic voice he employed so well, he told the striking workers: “You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” He came down hard on crime and lingered over rich nation.

It’s the sin the city has to live with. We coaxed him backWe didn’t warn him to stay away. We let it happen here. Black Memphis. White Memphis. It’s rare when both sides of town feel bad about the same thing; his death is the thing we need to somehow expiate so we can move on.

 

Reverend King and Elvis and Mr. Crump are just our famous ghosts, the public phantoms we share. Like everyone else, Memphians have their own private ghosts. Mine is tall and skinny and bald and wears black glasses—the same ones that are back in style. My father’s long-legged ghost strides up and down South Main, checking out the front windows of the other clothing stores to see how they are dressed. He is pleased when a new retail tenant moves into one of the empty storefronts, and keeps an anxious eye on the number of customers going in. I feel sure he approves of the paint job on the building he left us, and the new steel door in the alley to replace the one the rats chewed through. But he does wonder why, fifteen years after his death, we still haven’t placed a marker on his grave. This is a serious omission, I admit. He’s buried in the Temple Israel Cemetery, but it’s not an easy place to find, and I have never visited his grave since the hot July afternoon when we shoveled dirt into it.

Were circumstances reversed, he would have taken care of the marker promptly, one year later, according to the Jewish custom, even though he wasn’t religious. Our failure to do this worries him. Not for himself, but for what it says about us.

 

Now and then, the ghosts sit down together for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Reverend King smiles encouragingly as Elvis flirts with the waitress. When she ignores him, Elvis finishes his pie quickly and roars off on his motorcycle. Mr. Crump and the Reverend are in no rush. They have all the time in the world to talk politics. They start with the things they agree about, that Memphis has turned into a dirty, noisy city and that the young people they pass on the sidewalks dress strangely. Their conversation moves on to the way people speak to one another, even national leaders. The art of disagreeing politely but forcefully seems to have vanished.

Then my father joins them, folding his long, thin body into a chair. He tells them he’s an optimist, that downtown hasn’t looked this busy since he first arrived after the war, that young people actually live and shop downtown these days, something he dreamed about four decades ago. The waitress comes and he orders the lemon meringue. Mr. Crump is having the Boston cream and Reverend King the pecan. My father’s ghost is bewildered by the way people today talk about taxes. Not that he ever wanted to pay a penny more than he had to. But being a citizen and a taxpayer—that was part of how he thought of himself: a man who grew up in hard times, delivered papers in Atlanta, sold popsicles on Jacksonville’s beaches, worked his way through college selling ladies’ shoes, served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, then moved to Memphis and became an American who could pay his share. The taxes due were the proof that he really had turned a loan from my mother’s boss into a successful business, and although he might have complained about his tax bill, he was also proud.

I see them there plain as day, slowly stirring cream into their coffee cups, their bare heads reflected in the glass, for all three have set their hats on the rack by the door. My father’s bald head leans down toward the other two. I know the kind of gravestone he would want, something simple, something that marks his resting place clearly, but doesn’t call attention to itself. And I swear that this year, I will order it. But I have no illusions that a proper gravestone will bring his spirit to the cemetery. When I want to find him, I walk the storefronts downtown on Main Street. As long as I don’t go in, he could be standing in the back of Murray’s behind the counter, greeting a long-time customer who has just walked in.


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Carol Spindel teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Illinois and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She is the author of In the Shadow of the Sacred Grove and Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots. A native Memphian, she now lives in Urbana, Illinois.