Story Worthy

February 14th, 2019

As you read this, I’ll be driving to New Orleans, so I thought I’d tell you a New Orleans story … like I need an excuse to tell you a story.

As published in The Daily Memphian

Guinea Pigs


As we walked down a narrow, dark path toward the house through the high grass, the grass was moving. Weaving really. Something was in there. A number of somethings.

“Holy shit!,” Bill yelped as one crossed our path, “Was that a rat?” 

If it was, it was a very fat rat with no tail, a furry football kind of something. We hurried up on the porch as our host opened the front door. 

“Guinea pigs,” he said, seeing our faces, “there are at least 50 of them out there.”

Bill and I were in New Orleans for a meeting years ago and we were about to have dinner with his uncle and his uncle’s partner in their home – a huge, crumbling antebellum pile in the almost Garden District fairly close to Lee Circle. This had once been a fine place in a fine neighborhood, but time and fine had long moved on. 

Think Anne Rice, vampires, and I’d like to go back to my hotel now.

The guys rented the place under bizarre but very affordable terms. When the woman who owned it died … the great granddaughter of the man who built it in the 1840’s … she left very specific conditions. It had to stay in the family, couldn’t be sold, and everything in it had to stay in the family, too. The guinea pigs were also provided for and failure to care for them or do any number of things would mean loss of trust funds. Her only child, a son who hated her, refused to live there, or do anything beyond the essential, so he rented it.

So here we were. They say the house is haunted. Well, of course it is.

As we sat in the parlor on original furniture – Victorian horsehair-stuffed torture devices – a storm was brewing outside and I was thumbing through a leather-bound first edition of Edgar Allan Poe poetry from a floor-to-ceiling bookcase of dusty tomes. Just as the Raven quoth “Nevermore,” the lights went out. 

Come on, I really couldn’t make this up.

Bill’s uncle turned up the gas. Every other light in the chandelier 14 feet above and several wall sconces were still functioning gaslights. Like everything else that evening, even the light in the room became surreal.

When the rain stopped, we took a field trip through the guinea pigs – we were assured they didn’t bite ­– to a shed out back. The sagging double doors were rusted metal and locked by a big chain in the middle. Uncle pulled the door apart as much as the chain would allow and asked me to take a look at the end of his flashlight beam.

I was looking at the bullet nose of a 1951 Studebaker Commander, or what was left of it sitting on the dirt floor of the shed on the hubs, the tires long rotted. The woman’s will wouldn’t let her son sell that either. She bought it just before she died and parked it in the shed when she got sick. We were told it had less than 200 miles on the odometer.

Some cities just naturally make stories. Others just make noise.

New and shiny get lots of attention, but seasoned and strange are a lot more interesting. Orderly and predictable are safe, but funky and unique are a lot more fun.

New Orleans and our very own Memphis are what we are because of those latter traits, and what we become will always be informed by that personality, and always worthy of a story.

I’m a Memphian, and I’m visiting my sister city this weekend.

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