“Working the Streets” Downtown


At age 20, I moved from Jacksonville, FL to Houston, TX and then two years later to Memphis. Both of the prior cities were large and very bland, with no real character of their own. Most residents of both cities were not natives; in fact, in Jacksonville it was so rare that the few people who had been born there would sport stickers on their cars that said “Native”. Neither city felt truly Southern due to the large numbers of Northerners and Midwesterners that populated them. I found Memphis to be different; most residents were from here or from the surrounding rural areas.

Soon after my arrival, I became a bicycle currier in downtown Memphis for about a year. It was a very exciting job, riding my bike throughout the business district, up and down streets, through alleys, in the rain, heat, or snow. When it was cold, I loved feeling the warm steam coming up from the sidewalk grates as I pedaled over them. I have so many memories from that year downtown: the busy business people hurrying to and fro, street festivals on the Mid-America Mall, getting to know some of the homeless people I would see every day and hearing their stories, taking breaks in Court Square to feed the squirrels with nuts bought from the Kress store, famous for its “Whirly-Q Luncheonette”, and the smells and sounds of life in a vibrant business community.

I read the Commercial Appeal every day to get to know my new city. I had begun that habit in Houston, as it was a good way to feel an attachment to a place and less like an outsider. Soon, as I made my deliveries downtown I began seeing the actual subjects of the articles I was reading about in the newspaper. I might see Mayor Herenton in the lobby of City Hall, the County Commissioners in chambers, or find myself standing in line at a bank behind the Chief Public Defender (and future Mayor) AC Wharton. I would see colorful characters, some involved in scandals, around town such as Harold Ford, Sr., Ricky Peete, Riley Garner, and others. Each day could hold another chance encounter with the people I was reading about each morning. I rode elevators with Joe Birch as he chased stories downtown, and with the ‘alien from the planet Zambodia’, Prince Mongo, who was barefoot with rings on his toes. I often saw a young Leslie Ballin striding to Criminal Court to defend one of his many illustrious clients.

I fell in love with the architecture of downtown Memphis and its juxtaposition to the natural beauty of the river and the soybean fields stretching away behind it. It all felt so unique to me, and viewing farm fields from the city seemed symbolic of the urban/rural vibe of the city. It spurred in me a desire to know more about Memphis and its history. I began to read everything I could about it. I soon found myself giving historical driving tours of Memphis to my friends and family from out of town. We might go to Elmwood cemetery to see the memorial to the Yellow Fever victims, to the interstate underpass near the Convention Center where the city really began, to the Peabody Hotel which Prince Mongo tried to buy at auction in the 1970s, or to see the Lorraine Motel and the protester Jaqueline Smith.

I have seen a lot of changes in Memphis in the many years since my bicycle courier days, but my love of this unique place has never changed. Learning about the city gave me a love of history in general, and I am now here at the university to earn a degree in History. There is still a lot about Memphis for me to learn, and it is still exciting.