Raise A Glass
September 25th, 2014
Legal lion Lewie Donelson, 92 or 93 at the time, was sitting next to me at the Wiles-Smith counter looking at the condensation on his malt and the yellow-brown perfection of his grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. “Kind of sad,” he said, “I can’t have bacon on this anymore.”
None of us can, Lewie, but we have the memories.
As published in The Daily News, September 26, 2014, and in The Memphis News, September 27-October 3, 2014
RAISE A GLASS. INSTITUTIONS ARE PASSING.
What’s your pleasure?
Maybe a chocolate malt or a single malt. Maybe a vanilla soda or a scotch and soda. Maybe a root beer or a draft beer. But these guys wouldn’t ask that question because they already knew your drink.
What’s your name?
Across generations. The very old and the very new. Maiden and married. Regular and irregular. They wouldn’t ask that question either because they already knew who and how you are.
Charlie Smith and Lafayette Draper have passed into legend and this city should mourn.
Charlie – pharmacist, soda jerk and Midtown fixture – is still very much with us, but he’s closing his Wiles-Smith Drug Store. Lafayette – bartender, friend to a city and namesake to music halls and watering holes – has gone on to a place where he’ll be the one served.
Charlie can be as prickly as the stuffed porcupine that sat atop the shelves in his store and is as conservative as the hard right humor of the cartoons taped above his cash register. But his large heart is in the right place, a place that’s been something special since 1944, something that Charlie made since he stepped behind the counter in 1962.
“Charlie!” exclaimed the man in the bathrobe with the intravenous drip bag in his hand, “can you do something with these damn tubes?” It was the middle of lunch hour at Wiles-Smith, counter full, when Ernie walked in with his problem. Recuperating from open heart surgery at home, he’d pulled his tubes loose so he did what Central Gardens has been doing for decades: he came to Charlie for comfort medical or malted. As a bonus, he opened his bathrobe and showed all the diners his truly spectacular, bright red scar.
Just another day at Wiles-Smith. And those days are gone.
“Winter,” said the bartender in a deep baritone, “so it’s scotch, right?” It was a rhetorical question. Lafayette not only knew my name, he knew I drank scotch in the cold months and gin and tonic in the hot ones. Even though it could be months or even years between the times I saw Lafayette behind the bar at a club or a party, he greeted me with my name and my drink as if I just been there minutes before, laughing about something with him as always. I’m not special, but Lafayette made the truly special, the wannabe special, and the very ordinary feel very special indeed – straight up or on the rocks.
Just another drink with Lafayette. And that bar is closed.
As I’ve said before, I believe the past and the present should be used to inform the future, but the past is not a destination and the present is past tomorrow. However, impressive things and people that won’t come our way again should be remembered – not necessarily by statues or plaques, but by the stories passed along.
And chocolate malts and single malts served with character can become legend.
I’m a Memphian, and here’s to Charlie and Lafayette.
If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.
The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.