April 21st, 2016
The gorgeous old ghost castle found new knights to man the battlements. The Tennessee Brewery is coming back to life as a place to live. The once grand home, the once grand restaurant, the lost and lonely lady of a lost time has found a new suitor. Justine’s pink dress will show up at a new party, yet to be determined, but this time everybody will be invited.
The Orgels are saving both, not to be what they once were, but to represent what Memphis was and how far beyond that our imagination can take us.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, April 22, 2016, and in The Memphis News, April 23-29, 2016
MEMPHIS IN BLACK AND WHITE. AND PINK.
I’m glad Billy Orgel got engaged at Justine’s because that inspired his family to save it, not because they miss the crystal and crabmeat but because the place is personal. The Orgels didn’t save the Tennessee Brewery or turn the old #3 firehouse into a pop-up beer hall because they needed a pint. They did those things because they know where our stories come from, that our stories are worth telling, and that our imagination needs the exercise that the saving and telling gives us.
The Orgels are retelling beautiful old stories and jump starting new ones in places left for dead.
Justine’s husband, Dayton Smith, was an engineer and a colleague of my engineer father. My Justine’s stories include sitting on Justine’s front stoop listening to my father and Mr. Smith spin stories amid clouds of cigarette smoke while arriving restaurant guests had to walk around us to get in. I remember birthdays when I could take a friend to Justine’s, just the two of us, and take a cab because we were too young to drive, and ordering cherries jubilee because it had booze in it and we were too young to drink, and they set it on fire when they served it.
Howard Robertson, Sr., was a black postal carrier moonlighting as a Justine’s waiter. His son, Howard, Jr., has a very different Justine’s story I previously shared with readers.
Bill Loeb was the owner of ubiquitous laundry branches about town, and the brother of Henry Loeb, mayor during the 1968 sanitation strike. One evening at Justine’s, Robertson did something that displeased Loeb. In front of the entire restaurant, Loeb wore him out, putting him “in his place.” But that wasn’t Robertson’s place. He returned the verbal fire, shot for shot, then returned to the kitchen and quit. That took the kind of dignity and courage that says even though this will cause sacrifice for my family, I will not take it. Loeb’s brother would later see that sentiment expressed on posters, “I am a man.”
But Loeb would show his own dignity and courage. Talking with his guests, he realized he’d been in the wrong. He invited them back the following evening, and asked for Robertson. When told he had quit, Loeb asked Justine if she could try and get him there. She did, and for the second night in a row, Loeb and Robertson took center stage at the restaurant. This night, Loeb apologized. Man to man.
When Loeb converted his laundries to very popular barbecue shops, he brought Robertson on as a partner in two of them.
Those are stories from the two cities we grew up in – one white, one black – personal stories inspired by one faded pink antebellum mansion. One about privilege, the other about redemption. Both about the reality of Memphis.
But for very different reasons, when Howard and I see Justine’s we have reason to smile. Because of the Orgels, we still can.
I’m a Memphian, and I’m tickled pink.