We’d just exited the annex to the National Civil Rights Museum; the part of the museum housed within the boarding house in which James Earl Ray had been staying on April 4, 1968 and from which he unleashed a .30 caliber bullet that traveled across Mulberry Street and entered King’s right cheek as he emerged from room 306 onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In this single act of domestic terrorism, Ray also unleashed what I believe to be a horrific case of collective PTSD, the effects of which we continue to suffer from today.
The previous few hours had been emotionally exhausting for me. I have known about my true history since my teenage years so the information wasn’t new, but experiencing the museum’s various exhibits; the photos, audio recordings and video, and remembering the evil and terror my forefathers endured always leaves me emotionally stripped. I looked forward to chillin with a cold beer and some good food, and going through the photos I’d taken that afternoon.
We walked along N Main Street in a neighborhood just south of downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Because the Lorraine Motel had served black people during segregation times, I wondered if the neighborhood had been predominantly black. It was obvious to me that this area of town had been ravaged by poverty, neglect, misuse and ignorance over the years, but recently had been chosen to make the transition from utter desolation to trendy cultivation. I noticed more than a few newer businesses in the brick buildings lining either side of N Main Street that looked as if someone had taken care to preserve the structure, the bones, but had changed everything else about them. The renovated buildings had a cool vibe, but lacked soul. The whole place smelled of gentrification.
We wanted to get some soul food so we headed toward a little place that also looked like it had recently been renovated, called 99¢ Soul Food, on a tip from a brotha smoking a square outside another gentri-business, a barbershop boasting the name of former NBA player, Penny Hardaway. Ugh! 99¢ Soul Food was closed! I’ve found, when traveling outside major metropolis areas of the country, that many restaurants close at 3pm after lunch service is over, and reopen for dinner service at 5pm. Back in my hometown, I can get a meal in most restaurants anytime between 10am and 10pm. But on this day, in this particular city, it was my unfortunate luck to be on the verge of hangry during this two hour siesta.
We decided to walk around the cute, up-and-coming neighborhood until we found a place that was open, and matched our speed, style and, most importantly, our hunger for good comfort food. After being disappointed by another diner, The Arcade Restaurant, which was also closed, we came across a gastropubby looking spot called The Vault. My fellow traveler pushed open the large, silver door made to look like the door of a bank vault and we stepped into a cozy, old time saloon inspired bar, heavily dominated by wood in that neo-rustic décor that’s so trendy now.
I was so looking forward to plopping down on one of the empty bar stools and ordering a beer. Just as I was about to give my throbbing feet a rest, the bartender stopped me from sitting. Evidently, I’d been about to cop the seat from a gentleman who had temporarily abandoned it in order to take a leak. No matter, my friend and I sat in two empty seats along the adjacent side of the bar, began to settle in and peruse the beer list. I was just beginning to work my brain around what foods and beverages might make the next 60 to 90 minutes most enjoyable, when I heard a raspy voice coming from my left. The voice was attached to a squat, fat, older, white, bald man who was asking my travel buddy, “What are you gonna buy me to eat?”
“What?” my friend replied, “She’s paying for me. You askin the wrong person.”
“She’s payin’?” little old man said with more than a twinge of incredulity. I could almost feel a warm splattering of urine from the pissing contest that might be about to go down.
“Yeah, but I owe him. So It’s all good.” I said. Another friend of mine recently made me aware of how uncomfortable he feels when he goes out with any woman and she reaches for her wallet to pay for or split the check. This, whether she is a friend, relative or a lover. Since then I’ve been hyper-sensitive to this type of situation. But my fat little bar companion cared not one bit about how his rude, intrusive and insensitive questions might be received.
The man then asked us if we were married. “No”, I said. “But we used to be.”
That bit of information completely shocked him. The man’s eyes literally popped out of his head, “YOU were married to HER?!” he asked, in his raspy southern twang.
I wasn’t quite sure what he was implying with the carefully chosen inflections he used on certain words. I didn’t bother to ask either. We assured the man that yes, indeed, we had been married up until about 9 years ago. We’d raised a son who had recently gotten married himself and given us a wonderful daughter. The little old guy was intrigued and so we began to tell him a little more about ourselves.
“What do you do?” He asked me.
“I’m an artist.” I said.
“A what?” He asked.
“An ARTIST. A starving artist.” I said, and laughed.
“That doesn’t make sense. Why are you payin for him then?” the little round guy said, but before either of us were given time to answer, he asked my ex-husband, “Well what do you do?”
“I’m a finance manager at a car dealership.” Said my ex. The man’s eyes bulged again.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s the finance manager. He should be treating me right?”
“So what are y’all doin here in Memphis?” He asked. We told him that we were visiting from Chicago, on a road trip, simply bumming around the city.
The man was still trying to get over his shock at our whole ‘story’. He asked several times if we were ‘for real’, and so I felt the need to whip out photos from my son’s recent wedding. The man peered with squinty eyes at a photo of my ex, posing in a sharp gray suit and a big smile, with our son and new daughter-in-law. He squinted at my iPhone screen, then lifted his gaze to eye my ex as if he were figuring some incredibly difficult calculous problem.
“Are you two stayin in the same hotel?” He asked.
“Yep.” I said.
“Same room?” He asked, again appearing to be in stage 3 shock.
“Yep,” I said. “We rented a one bedroom Airbnb with a kitchen and a couch.” The fat little bald man blinked and stared blankly at me. I assumed he had no clue what Airbnb was, and that he was still trying to wrap his little mind around the ‘shocking’ details of our story. He pressed on, asking more silly questions about our sleeping arrangements for the trip and about our lives.
“Did you argue when you were married?”
“So y’all are REALLY friends now?”
“What does your son think about you two bein friends?”
“Hey, would you like to go to a klan rally?” the impolite man asked, with a sneer edging his upper lip and a malicious twinkle in his bugged out eyes.
Wait. What? Yes, you read that correctly. This weird little bug-eyed man thought it would be amusing to ask, after we’d told him that we’d just come from the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, if we wanted to go to a secret meeting of domestic terrorists who targeted people like us.
I’m the type of person who assumes people have good intentions until they show otherwise and had made the same assumption about this guy. But at this last question, I wasn’t so sure. Neither my ex nor I wanted to get into a discussion about race with this dude. My response to his klan rally question could have been to curse his little ass out and send him packing to the other side of the bar. I do believe if I’d chosen to respond in this way, that the white bartender, who later informed us that the squat man was a regular and completely senile (No shit!), would have taken my side in the matter as well.
Considering that I’d just spent several hours inundating myself with images, thoughts and sounds of the brutality, violence, rape, murder, terror, and theft committed upon my ancestors by the kkk and likeminded individuals, I’m sure anyone reading this would understand if I slapped the little man right across his fat face and threw a drink in it.
I didn’t slap him though. Neither did my ex-husband. Nor did we throw a drink in his face. Nor did we raise our voices at him, or call him a cracker ass racist, or move to the other side of the bar to be away from him. What I did was stare straight back at him, my own lips curving upwards into a sneer, looked directly into his eyes, and said, “Only if we can bring a shotgun.”
My ex-husband laughed at my response, took another sip of his corona, and waved the bartender over so that we could place our food order. Our world will always contain hateful individuals. You can’t do anything to stop someone from hating you. But, you can certainly stop them from terrorizing you.