an alaskan yankee
in b.b. kings court
Nearly twenty years ago I worked in Memphis
Tennessee. Those were two years that passed like a decade.
An African American man walking into a bar adorned with Confederate
flags comes close to describing my alienation. Why did I go
to that damp delta town? How did a guy from Alaska end up
living on Mars? Excuse me, I mean Memphis. I’ve asked
myself that question many times. It pains me to admit this,
but my greed brought me to that foreign place. It took me
years to recover from my time in that steamy kingdom. I was
an Alaskan Yankee in B.B. Kings Court.
My wife Katy reminds me that Memphis isn’t
some earthly hell. For many Memphis is a good place to live.
The city fathers like to remind visitors that Memphis is home
to B.B. King and the music of the blues. Those are good things.
But as B.B. King said himself “…It wouldn’t
be so bad if I knew I had a home.” Memphis never felt
like home. Hell is different things to different people. Memphis
Katy, a slender brunette with a ready smile,
worked her usual magic with coworkers and neighbors, but her
magic was seldom powerful enough. She is an easy person to
like and often acts as my front person to the world, but we
were that “Northern” (I.E. different) couple from
the start. Before you place the blame on me, and my inability
to fit in, let me tell you something about my particular skill
I’m an expert at fitting into new
places. In my life I’ve had to be. When I was six years
old my widow mother remarried. My new stepfather was a military
man. He, and that meant mother, siblings, and me too, were
reassigned almost immediately. We never stayed in one place
for more than three years from that point forward. Today the
military uses more care moving families, but when I was growing
up we moved when it was convenient for the military, not for
families. Three times we transferred in the middle of a school
year. I’d arrive in the new classroom facing a ring
of staring, sometimes hostile faces. I was not big, cute,
or particularly quick-witted. I had to find other ways to
survive, and I did. My rules became: Try to be inoffensive,
keep smiling and talking, run when smiling and talking fails,
and fight only when you’re cornered. I couldn’t
articulate these rules as a kid, but I understood them. I’ve
also moved a lot as an adult. I’m skilled at adapting.
Memphis was the exception. I never fit in.
I made no secret that I loved mountains,
trees and wild things. Years of living in Alaska had instilled
a deep appreciation of nature. None of these things existed
close to Memphis. Not counting huge anthills I couldn’t
find a hill anywhere in the Memphis delta. Any trace of wild
had been scraped away by the plows of progress. Developers
were busy knocking down trees and popping up new strip malls.
Why the people in Memphis loved pulling down every tree I
don’t know, because those trees provided the only shade
in the entire region, and Memphis needed shade.
Memphis is hot. Really hot. You might think
you understand hot because of summer where you live. I’m
sorry, but you don’t. Memphis heat wraps you in steamy
suffering and won’t let go. In Memphis it’s a
hundred degrees most every day, and that’s in October.
July heat in Memphis will bring the unwary to their knees.
I worked outside, and the top of my thinly covered head often
felt like the proverbial boiled egg. My wife attributes my
mental decline to those two years of having my brain seared
over and over again.
I also discovered heat rash. I was thirty-four
years old and I found out what makes babies cry. Heat rash
burns. Trousers’ rubbing against the inflamed red skin
of my inner thighs is a torture I don’t care to repeat.
I’ve also come to believe heat rash is the real reason
cowboys are bowlegged. Limping to work, I confided my problem
to Gerry, one of my co-workers. He laughed at me. Actually
he didn’t laugh, he snickered and said:
“Don’t you Yankees know a thing?
You all heard of talcum power? I thought you Northern boys
were smarter than that, shit. Boy its hot prit near all the
time down here, don’t’ you know?”
Yes, he snickered, but neither he nor any
other local was ever outright mean to us. They thought we
were weird because of our accents and our fast paced way of
going through life. Or as my wife’s coworker said: “Katy,
you all talk too fast. You’re makin my brain throb,
slow down.” Come to think of it we thought they were
weird too, because they moved so slow and talked like they
had marbles in their mouths. We tried to slow down, really
we did, and I worked on my accent, but it didn’t fool
Being civil is a point of pride for Southerners.
The thing I learned is that southern civility is a veneer.
The warm greetings did not necessarily equate to a desire
to be your friend; it’s just considered good manners.
True Friendship offered to an outsider is a rare occurrence.
This initial warmth always confused me.
Northern people will shun you right from the start. You’re
never confused about where their feelings.
Being civil has another dimension in Memphis
and the south. That version of civil is a preoccupation with
the Civil War. For me the Civil War was, and is, ancient history.
In my mind, it is only relevant because of the echoes of slavery.
For all other purposes I find the stories of the Civil War
not particularly meaningful. But for many of my Memphis coworkers
and neighbors the Civil War just ended, and for some it’s
still going on. One day a coworker named Roger and I were
talking about how fast Memphis was growing and how many outsiders
were moving in. I’ll never forget Roger, thin, bearded,
and weather worn, telling me: “The boys should have
pushed you all out of the Mississippi Valley at Shiloh. We
all wouldn’t be talking right now. You folks would still
be living up north, sure enough.”
As happened to me so often in Memphis,
I found myself staring blankly at Roger. He was speaking English,
but I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew the battle
of Shiloh took place in Tennessee, beyond that I couldn’t
figure out how a battle that took place a hundred and fifty
years ago had any relevance to the present.
“I’ve heard of the battle of
Shiloh, but what’s that got to do with the population
growth in Memphis?” I finally asked.
“Our boys should have kicked your
boys out of Tennessee and just kept on kicking till they was
back up yonder. Thar might still be a CSA today, and you all
would be visitors,” he added.
“CSA? Oh you mean the Confederate
I didn’t say much else. I couldn’t
understand his worldview. Roger had a son in the U.S. Army,
so it wasn’t like he was some revolutionary. I stumbled
my way through the rest of our conversation, and walked away
feeling even more dazed and out of place than ever.
But perhaps nothing made me realize how
far I was from home more than my attempts to order food from
fast food drive-ups. No matter which take out place I drove
up to I was guaranteed to feel as though I was speaking in
tongues, foreign tongues.
“I’ll have a bacon burger and
a large fries. Hey, can you hold the pickles?” I’d
“What? You all want what?”
“I’d like a bacon burger,
large fries, and hold the pickles.” I tried again.
“A bacon burger, fries…”
“This ain’t Kentucky Fried,
that’s down the road.”
Totally confused I checked the menu. I
was in the right place, but apparently in an alternative universe.
I surrendered. I left with whatever was in the bag, and I
was happy to get that. My attempts to explain and correct
my order were met with such confusion that I quit trying.
My current distaste for fast food no doubt began during those
two years of culinary trauma.
The day our transfers to Minneapolis were
approved I felt the joy of a prisoner being handed his parole.
Two weeks later, house sold and belongings packed, I was driving
a rental truck heading north. My eyes were glued to the road
ahead. I looked nowhere but north. I left the court of the
King and I never looked back. This chameleon had met his match.
I was an Alaskan Yankee in B.B. Kings Court no longer.