The Heartbreak Hotel
May 1st, 2014
Thirty years ago in The Heartbreak Hotel – in an area just then minted The Edge – mornings were quiet. The sun bounced off the backside of the Memphis skyline, trash in the weedy lots barely stirred, ghosts of past success slept in the abandoned spaces, people moved through on their way to greener grass.
Some mornings, I’d climb out the window of my office onto the flat roof of the empty building next door, dragging a chair and a cup of coffee with me, and steep myself in that one so Memphis thing the neighborhood was so full of, that elusive thing we can all see all around us but can’t quite seem to reach.
But here’s the thing – Memphis is also full of people who never stop reaching, and that puts anything within our grasp.
As published in The Daily News, May 2, 2014, and in The Memphis News, May 3-9, 2014
HEARTBREAK HOTEL. ON THE EDGE OF THINGS.
“They’re calling this area The Edge and it’s about to explode,” Ben said.
We were looking up at The Heartbreak Hotel, a stack of bricks where traveling salesman a century ago would rest their sample cases for the night, rising three tired stories above the all-but-forgotten intersection of Monroe and Marshall – pretty much like Elvis sang – down at the end of Lonely Street.
“Maybe I’ll turn it into condos,” he said, “start with my office down here, put a swimming pool in the courtyard. Worst case, I’ll end up in an office with a swimming pool.”
That’s the way Ben Reisman looked at things, with pragmatic imagination, seeing reality and what’s possible at the same time. He’d bought the place for a song after the owners got in a fight and closed their restaurant there. They’d called it The Heartbreak Hotel, painted a picture of the King on the side of the building, and used the tail end and trunk of a 1957 Cadillac for a salad bar.
It was 1985. I was starting a creative service for radio stations and I needed an office with a creative personality, and I needed it cheap. Ben carved out a corner for me on the second floor with a couple of bay windows over the street, and I stayed for five years.
He never did put in that pool, and everything above the ground floor remained empty except for my office, but the building was full of personality. An architect, an interior designer, a fashion accessories boutique, a developer, a contractor, a home healthcare consultant, a couple of lawyers, several dogs, and a receptionist who would bite your head off.
Sun Studio was a short block away. They shot the movie “Great Balls Of Fire” right in front of us. Weekly, buses full of tourists would stop right below my window and, as we stared at each other, I’m sure the guide told them this was THE Heartbreak Hotel.
I look up at that window, the space behind it long dark, every time I pull into Tracy’s across the street so Sam and his guys can work on my car, and sometimes I think of Ben.
After we’d left The Heartbreak, Ben and his wife, Laurel, fell in love with a little girl and sued the state for the right to adopt her and won. Before the Reismans, a white couple couldn’t adopt a mixed-raced child in Tennessee. Then they sued again on behalf of all children and won again, changing adoption policy in Tennessee regardless of racial classification. Ben died in 2000, and his lawyer in those cases, Hayden Lait, was quoted in Ben’s obituary, “He just had that innate sense of what is right.”
The Edge didn’t explode back then, or even heat up, but it’s certainly getting hot 30 years later, and it looks as if Ben was right after all. After all, he did change things.
I’m a Memphian, and we’re in a better place because of Ben.