Of Katz And Rats, Dads And Donuts
June 26th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
Last week, my friend Howard Robertson wrote a guest column for The Daily Memphian about the trade we’ve shared for the last, well, the last hundred years or so. We’ve both been in advertising and promotion for all that time, but our friendship was never based on the projects we shared; it’s been based on sharing the hope of a better city.
Reading Howard’s column took me back to an earlier column of mine, to an earlier meeting with Howard, to an earlier time.
Howard and I were having breakfast. It was supposed to be about business. Turns out it was about monkeys and parakeets and donuts and dawns and day-olds, about his Memphis and mine, about ours.
Something one of us said reminded us of Katz Drug Store and we were off, transported to that exotic world beneath the huge turning cat head, a drug store bigger than any other, barely big enough to hold all the little boy fascination crammed into its two stories.
They sold monkeys.
“Oh, hell yes I remember Katz,” Howard said. “I bought my school supplies and went to the pet department. I was poking at the monkey through the cage with a little six-inch ruler when he grabbed it, broke it to pieces, and then threw them at me. Stuck his tongue out, too.”
They sold parakeets.
Ours was named Samson. I spent hours by his cage in the living room saying one word over and over because I’d heard you could make a parakeet talk. Samson remained mum so I gave up. One day as I was playing in my room, the front door opened and my grandmother and a friend of hers came in. I heard Samson greet them. “Shit,” he said, “shit, shit, shit.”
“Oh, shit,” I said to myself.
Across Lamar from Katz was just about the sweetest place I knew. My father would wake me up sometimes just before sunrise and the two of us would go to Thornton’s Donuts, arriving just as they came out of the oven, melting in our mouths as the sun melted the darkness. Dad and me and hot donuts.
Like me, Howard went to Katz, and to Thornton’s, too, with his dad. Like me, he’d sometimes go to Thornton’s with some buddies after swimming at the public pool. Stretching nickels buying cheaper “cripples,” the insensitively named broken donuts, and “day-olds.” Marveling at the size of the fat rats out back, big as possums by virtue of living between a donut shop and a huge grain elevator.
But Howard and I were not alike. Even though we were in those same places at the same time, we were not the same. My public pool was in the Fairgrounds; Howard’s was in Orange Mound. At Katz, he’d have his water fountain and I’d have mine.
But that funky triangle bounded by Park, Lamar and Airways would be the first shopping center where things would start to change, where black and white Memphis would mix and mingle, where Memphis would start to look like Memphis.
Even these many years later, there are many who would still deny that view, refusing to see that we share each other’s destiny, but on this morning two old friends shared common memories in a way that wouldn’t have been possible when those memories were made.
Even these many years later, there are many who concentrate on difference instead of making one.
I’m a Memphian, and I had breakfast with another one just like me.
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