A Note On My Birthday
October 18th, 2019
(published in The Daily Memphian)
We sat on the edge of the loading dock behind the main library and went through the pages of the book together. Pausing to figure out what we were looking at, where it was, what’s there now.
He was African American and younger than me, probably about 40 but that’s decades younger than me, so I remembered many of the places pictured and he didn’t, and I had what old men like me love; an audience that was interested in what I remembered, the pictures and places coming back to life for both of us in a shared moment.
The small book was “Memphis Movie Theatres” by Vincent Astor. It was on top of a big box of books I was donating to the library. He worked at the library and was taking a break out back when I pulled up. I won’t tell you his name because I guarantee he was out there with me longer than that break was supposed to last.
I was going to take the book back home because it was inscribed and I hadn’t intended for it to go in the box, but now I knew the book was staying with him. He saw magic there. Places he’d never seen in a place he’d lived in all of his life.
As we talked and looked and laughed, I realized that he not only didn’t know about the old movie palaces and neighborhood theatres, he didn’t know about what’s there now. He didn’t seem familiar with the current Memphis, much less the old one. But it wasn’t that at all. He didn’t know about my Memphis, my reference points old and new, and I didn’t know about his, his city compass mostly south to north, mine east to west.
Different worlds in the same world. Different cities in the same city.
Last week I had a birthday – a big one – and birthdays can be reflective. What’s changed and what hasn’t. The technology I’ve seen and yet paper towel dispensers still don’t work. Becoming a food city and yet decent onion rings are harder to come by. Coming so far and yet trying so hard to go back.
Progress and no progress.
And last week I got a note from my friend, Howard Robertson – I’m calling it a birthday card. He was remembering when he was 21 and trying to figure out what to do and his father arranged for him to get a tour of an advertising agency. I was the older, experienced guy assigned to give him that tour. I was 23. In the note, Howard said that tour and my enthusiasm convinced him that world was where he belonged. The real reason for the note was to give me the news that his son, Ryan, has just been named one of the “Top 40 Under 40” nationally by Ad Age – if not the bible of advertising, certainly the hymnal – and Howard was trying to say I had something to do with getting the family going in advertising. Buddy, you and Beverly and a community – and Ryan – did this. What I think you’re saying is thanks for being there from the beginning and for knowing how hard, and hopeful, and fun it’s been. Right back at you, and give Ryan a hug for me.
Howard and I have always had our differences – he’s taller, but I’m cuter – he’s African American, I’m Viking white – but we’ve always been able to bring differences together for more effective communication in the projects we’ve shared in the city we love since that agency tour in 1973.
There’s a guy on a loading dock, on a lot of them, and people on corners, thousands of them, a nudge, a notion, an opportunity, and a belief in themselves away from changing everything.
The progress we want doesn’t depend on knowing our place; it depends on sharing it.
I’m a Memphian, and my city and I are having big birthdays this year, and we’re both far from through.
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