High Water Marks

May 12th, 2016

May is a good time in Memphis. Literally.

To those who wonder why we throw such a big party when we face such big problems as a city, why we celebrate so hard when life is so hard for so many of us, I can only offer – because that’s what we do.

We live life here realistically, and enjoying each other’s company, sharing smiles and songs and food and drink in twos, and threes and thousands is really as good as it gets.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, May 13, 2016, and in The Memphis News, May 14-20, 2016



The last time I was on a cook team, the Mississippi was lapping at the top of Tom Lee Park and I’d been lapping at a number of things for a couple of days myself.

On May 15, 1983, the river crested at 39.2' on the Memphis gauge, the river and I way above flood stage on anybody’s gauge. Very early that morning, I opened my eyes and found myself alone. And on top of the bridge of a towboat, not on the bridge but on the roof, the only thing apparently holding me there was one arm wrapped around an antenna, 10 feet above one steel deck, 20 feet above another, 30 feet above the rising river.

And with absolutely no clue how I got there.

That’s when I made one of those deals, “Lord, get me down, and I swear I’ll never be on another cooking team.” Although I’m not sure the Lord was concerned with one idiot among thousands that night, even one so spectacularly idiotic, I will say this. I’m still here, and I kept my end of the deal. That was my last night as an official participant in The Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

To protect the guilty – no one on that team was innocent – and because there may still be outstanding warrants, I won’t name the team, but we did have an impressive run. In my three years, the team won showmanship twice and placed once in shoulders, no small feat for people all but unconscious during the entire competition.

Lord knows, it was and is a party.

On May 10, 2011, the river hit 47.8', the second highest on record. National networks reported that the river was (pick one) 4 or 3.4 or 5 or 3 miles wide at Memphis and that it was normally a half-mile or about a mile and that hundreds or thousands or whole neighborhoods or square miles were evacuated or leaving or fleeing for safety or watching their dreams sink or their lives go under.

Or whatever.

While the nation stared at a raging river behind the reporters scaring the grits out of their viewers, Memphians, including lots of kids and dogs, partied in front of those reporters at the water’s edge. Rather than be intimidated by the rising water, the whitecaps seemingly at eye level, people did what people around here do, they helped each other rise above it and turned the whole thing into a larger event than it was before, shared in the power of the moment.

Lord knows, we need our parties.

That capricious river out there is why we’re here, its mix of everything and the power of its highs and lows the best metaphor for our challenges and opportunities, its banks the best location for Memphis In May – a month-long celebration right smack dab in the middle of flood season.

Memphis faces whatever comes, and dances whenever we can.

I’m a Memphian, and we go with the flow.


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