Memphis Imperfect

Twinkle, twinkle, little flaw

[The Memphis Commercial Appeal, 17 April 2011]



I don't fit in here. But I've been trying to figure out Memphis, which is how this story came to be. It was scheduled for the Local News section but was held in limbo for weeks because of what the managing editor called a "mini-revolt" by the editors who deemed it too hostile, even though I thought of it as redemptive. It ran as an essay in the Sunday Viewpoint section, accompanying a regular photo feature called "1,000 Words," which, despite the title, has never had accompanying text beyond a photo caption. For some reason, it did not run online and will not. But I had mentioned this to a good number of you and so I figured it should be somewhere linkable. 

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But sometimes broken is better.

History is full of the awe of flaws: the crack in the Liberty Bell, the Sphinx's nixed nose, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here in Memphis, it can sometimes seem like the city is one big pile of potholes, derelicts and money pits.

It wasn't always that way.

Memphis used to be a frequent winner of the title "America's Cleanest City." In fact, the word "Memphis" means "established and beautiful," and, for a time certainly, Memphis was both.

But these days The Pyramid is abandoned, Sears Crosstown is in ruins, and in some places the city tends to slump almost as awfully as the front porch of Memphis Slim's ramshackle old house near the Stax Museum, which doesn't make music anymore.

"It seems inconceivable that the beat-down-and-bruised blues could have come from any other place — Orlando, for example, or even Nashville," said Adrian Duran, an assistant professor of art history at the Memphis College of Art.

He was offering his response to a curious state of disrepair in Downtown: The Wonder Bread bakery's neon sign has been hampered by burnout. For a while, three of its letters didn't light up anymore, and the sign read, ironically enough, WONDER AD.

"Don't you just love that?" said Duran. "Urban decay is so romantic. It's part of the American urge to make things better, the allure of rebirth.

"We're a nation of fixers. But if something is perfect, it's sort of a conversation stopper: There's no way to interact with it. It's sort of not real."

In that way, Memphis' historic city core has plenty of reality: the mash of luxe cocktails and Victorian frailty at Mollie Fontaine's, the dim and vandalized splendor of the P&H Cafe, the goofy spectacle of The Peabody ducks. One of the best known restaurants in town is in a basement in an alley.

"Something about river cities, I think," said Todd Richardson, an art professor at the University of Memphis who has been instrumental in the planned conversion of Sears Crosstown into artists' lofts. "Look at us alongside New Orleans, or even St. Louis, versus all those polished places like Nashville or Atlanta or Dallas. These places grew so fast they didn't get a chance for character, certainly not for a sense of history or purpose of place."

He mentioned the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that prioritizes deficiency, imperfection and transience.

Marcus Taylor, a transient man himself, recently found himself unemployed and drinking out of a brown paper bag at a shuttered building on Union at Danny Thomas when a reporter for The Commercial Appeal asked him his thoughts on the broken Wonder Bread sign.

It was dusk and the neon glow was visible even though the sun was still setting. He appraised the sign and then shrugged.

"I guess in a perfect world that sign wouldn't be here," he said. "But, in a perfect world, you and me wouldn't be here either." He laughed so hard that he collapsed into coughing.

But this week the sign was restored. Score one for Memphis perfection.