When I decided to write these blog entries about Brandon Sams and the local Memphis comedy scene, there was one thing holding me back: I’m not that funny. How could I write anything remotely entertaining? I decided to just describe what I saw and felt—to take an anthropologic approach. Surely I had just as much right as the hilarious person to write about people who tell jokes. So that is what I did.
My older brother, Johnny Taylor, is one of the funniest guys I know, but I’m pretty serious, most of the time. A few years ago, he moved from Memphis to Los Angeles and got into going to comedy clubs. He’d see a well-known comedian like Louis CK, and he’d call me afterward to have a witness. “Guess who I just saw?” he would say. If I didn’t know the name, he sounded disappointed. If only he had a sister who was more plugged in.
The first time I visited him there, we went with our friend Savannah Bearden and my husband Christopher to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn were in the audience, and I kept sneaking looks to see what made them laugh.
The next time I visited, my brother and I went to a club tucked into a strip mall and binged on comedy. My favorite was Aziz Ansari, who was testing jokes for his upcoming gig as the host of the MTV Music Awards. When a joke was especially good, Johnny slapped me on my arm.
Last August in LA, Johnny and I sat in on a comedy podcast hosted by Doug Benson, perhaps best known for his documentary about pot smoking. The night we saw him, his guests included Dax Shepard, a few of the stars of Shepard’s movie Hit and Run, and native Memphian Chris Hardwick. (Hardwick hosts Talking Dead, the hour-long live talk show that comes on right after each episode of The Walking Dead.)
Benson’s panel shot the bull about movies, and there was kind of a fun quiz show format. Dax Shepard’s mom and dad sat directly in front of us, looking proud. I noticed his mom wore a sleeveless shirt, and her bra straps were showing. We were just a group of friends, being casual together.
Eventually, I began to wonder about the comedy scene in Memphis. Where do people go to see comedy, and who are the comics? So I became involved, you know, as an audience member. I learned that there are comedians who are just as funny as the ones I saw in LA, but here in Memphis, they can’t make a living at it, so they do it on the side, purely out of love for the craft.
I have a number of favorite local comedians. Brandon Sams is one. His comedy consists of true-life stories where the goof is usually on him. He’s hilarious and a very nice guy. A fixture at the weekly Poplar Lounge comedy nights, he also hosts his own podcast from P&H in Midtown.
I remember the first night I saw Brandon Sams perform. I had asked my friend Savannah to come with me to Poplar Lounge to see the Monday night comedy. When we got there, she pointed out Brandon and let me know he’d recently interviewed for a hosting gig at a casino. Her video production company had been auditioning local comedians—someone who wouldn’t be afraid to address a crowd of strangers. Brandon had nailed the audition, she told me. She hoped they would hire him.
“He’s really great,” she said. “He’s married, and I guess his wife is a comedian, too.”
When he got onstage, he looked a little distraught. He took the microphone from its stand, laid down on the ground and let out a great moan.
“I’m getting a divorce!” he finally said.
The reaction of the crowd was a mix of sympathetic groans and high-spirited laughter. I looked at Savannah. She looked at me.
“I had no idea,” she said.
Brandon did the rest of his set from the floor and talked about how awful the whole thing was.
Savannah and I had come to Poplar Lounge–by chance–on one of the worst nights of Brandon’s life. Still, the primary emotion I felt was elation, not pity. Brandon commanded the room and told a good story, transforming the sad details of his recent life into something universal.
I looked around the room at everyone else who was laughing, and I felt connected.
Brandon’s pain was laid bare for all to see, and we took great delight at it!
Next week’s post: Two years later, a happier Brandon takes the stage at Poplar Lounge
On a recent Saturday, I met Jeff Lee at his law office at 1303 Madison Avenue. He showed me around and talked about his approach to his work.
Here are the interview notes from that meeting:
Jeff: I’ve got some promotional items for you: a bullet keychain, a pen, a postcard. When I got a big box of these key chains, I was trying to twist them, and I said, “These are all broken!” I didn’t know you pulled them. And Lindsey, my girlfriend, was like, “Let me see one,” and I said, “Don’t worry about it because it’s broken.” [laughs] So Lindsey’s the one who figured out how the key chains worked.
She also designed this for me. It’s a postcard that shows the floor plan for 201 Poplar. [201 Poplar is the Memphis jail downtown.]
Betsy: This is handy.
It’s funny. People will pay $100,000 for a bond, but then they lose it because they can’t find the right courtroom. It’s ridiculous. There are no maps at 201. If you go to their website: again, no maps. It is so user non-friendly. There’s nothing to guide people around.
I spend probably 15 minutes a day in court saying, “I’m headed that way. Walk behind me.” People need a map! So now I’ll mail them out to the families of people who got locked up.
I troll through Just Busted for people with really serious charges. I find out their address online, and I send them my postcard with the map. It’s really for the family members, and then hopefully they’ll say, “This map was really useful. I like this guy. He’s looking out for us.”
And then I have pens. Do you want a blue one or a gunmetal one?
Did you see this ridiculous ring I bought? [He flashes a gold and diamond horseshoe ring.]
I was going to ask you about that.
I told Lindsey, “I’ve got the funniest nineteen dollar ring I bought from Amazon,” and she was like, “Don’t wear that for your picture.” But I intend to use this to impress clients.
Like you’re a big-time Philadelphia lawyer?
Yeah, Lucky Lee.
And this is my American flag pin because who can argue with that? [laughs] Who can argue with America?
Right! No one can!
I put that pin on right before trial.
[I take a few pictures.]
Your office is great. I like the exposed brick.
I really like my office, but I had a client come in one day, and I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s really eating up the atmosphere.” And the guy says, “Jeff, you did a great job on my case, and don’t worry, one of these days, you’re going to have a beautiful office.” [laughs]
This kid came in once. He was a really nice 13-year-old boy who was out of school and trying to find some pick-up work, and he said something like, “Is the person in charge here right now?”
And I said, “I’m the only one here.”
And he said, “OK, well, when the person in charge comes, could you tell him I’d love to do some work?” [laughs] And I thought, “Boy, I need to spiff up the outfit.”
I should have told him I was the one in charge, but I didn’t want to be like, “I’m in charge! I’m Jeff Lee, and when you walk in this door, I’m the one who’s in charge.”
So you let the kid leave?
Some large law firms in Memphis have a gazillion people working for them. On your website, you market yourself as a one-man shop who’ll give your client personalized attention.
Yeah, if you go with one of these lawyers on the TV commercials, you may never talk to them. People are always surprised when they come in, and it’s me sitting right here. I don’t hide behind a secretary. They provide a good service, but a lot of attorneys use them because someone is mad at them, and the secretary is the gatekeeper. But people can come in, and I’m right here. And I give them my cell phone, and of course they call day and night, but yeah, I market my accessibility.
I kind of like to think of myself as the light cavalry. Someone says, “I need someone tomorrow morning. I should have hired somebody six months ago.” I say, “Fax it all to me. I’ll read it tonight, and I’ll be prepared in the morning.” That’s one thing the big firms can’t or won’t do.
Have you ever had a client get mad at you about a verdict?
I’ve never had anyone get mad at me. They may be mad at the situation, but they don’t ever bear a grudge against me. I have had people say, “Oh, I should have gotten Leslie Ballin.” [laughs] People complain, but I never take it to heart because I never think it’s a valid complaint. If they said something like, “You didn’t know the facts enough to present that,” then I would feel awful. But if they’re just saying, “You stink!” then I’m like, “OK.”
They might say, “I knew I should have gotten a high-priced lawyer,” and so I’ll say, “Well, you can pay me more.” [laughs] They never offer.
You actually have a good record for winning cases or arguing them down.
Yeah, I do.
What’s a typical day for you?
I usually go over to criminal at 9 a.m.
Where is criminal?
At 201 Poplar. And then, opposite there, at 140 Adams, is civil, and I’ll run over there and do a couple things. Usually by 12 or 1, I’m done with court.
What are you doing when you’re there? Are you filing paperwork?
No, you appear in a court setting and give the judge a status report on where you are. You know, bail hearing, bond or doing a guilty plea. I mean, it’s not like a jury trial. There are a lot of little hearings. I’ll come back to my office at 12 and eat lunch, and then I have a lot of appointments in the afternoon. Or if I don’t have many clients that day, I have plenty of writing to do on appeals.
How late does the work go?
I probably work until 9 o’clock at night. Every night, I remind my clients to come to court the next day or else I’ll be standing there without them. You don’t want to treat people like children, but everybody needs a little reminder.
Texting makes it easier, I’m sure.
I do a lot of that. Like, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Division 12, and I don’t really want to talk about it. [laughs] Don’t forget to bring the money.” [laughs]
And then at night, I really will troll Just Busted. I’ve got like 5,000 of these postcards.
Look at the awesome cover of this book. [He shows me a book called Drama Games, which is a guide to using psychodrama in the courtroom. The cover of the book has a decidedly 1980s look and feel, from the font to the color palette.]
That’s great. Did you read it?
Uh…yeah! They’ll have an exercise, “I am a feeling,” so then you’ll get up and present that feeling.
How many times have you used psychodrama in court?
I’ve done it at least ten times. I’ve acted from the perspective of bags of money, guns. I’ve done a hotel room.
How do you act like a hotel room?
It’s kind of hard to physically.
So you’re standing there, as a hotel room, describing a scene…
I’ll stand very still, and I’ll say, “I am room 228.” [laughs] If you look inside of me, you’ll see a bed, you’ll see…” And it’s just more like a story device. And then you’ll step away and say, “There were no human witnesses to this event, but the stories that room could tell…”
I used to think of being theatrical as having a negative connotation, you know? Like, “That’s a very theatrical lawyer,” and then I realized those are the guys who are interesting; they’re winning cases. So now I’ve learned that if you’re talking about the sale of goods, if you’re talking about medical malpractice, if you’re talking about breach of contract, if you’re talking about something unpleasant, you can at least be interesting. That’s where psychodrama comes in.
Just curious: Do you know your Myers-Briggs profile?
I read this thing that said, “The perfect trial lawyer is an ESTP.” I thought, “Great.” When people say to me, “Oh, you’re not anything what I expected,” I take that as a compliment. It’s not always intended to be one. People want a certain thing, and if they want someone to be really aggressive, then I’m not a good match. But people aren’t always looking for that, and they’re pleasantly surprised.
I just finished reading the book Quiet, which is about introverts, and it talks about people who are out in the world doing things that require them to be very social, and then you hear that they’re an introvert, and you think, “How could this be?” and apparently what’s key for these people is that they’re acting like an extrovert in the service of something they believe in. They’re able to perform for the role that’s so important to them.
That’s a good point. For example, in high school, I didn’t want to be in theater. I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. But when you get in front of the jury and it’s somebody else’s life, you’re like, “OK, get over yourself. You can’t sit back and hold it against the audience if they want to be entertained.” If they want to be entertained, then I’ll be entertaining—for my client. But I don’t go home at night and think, “I want to do stand-up comedy” because I don’t have that desire to be up in front.
There are so many lawyers who are extroverts, and they’re ready to shoot from the hip. I’m not like that. By the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt stupid about it, I’ve practiced it, I’ve talked to people to death about, “Am I really going to do this?” And then I go out there, and I know if I do it and it’s going to work at all, I’ve got to commit 100 percent. I mean, it’s a calculated move if I’m going to do something so far outside the comfort zone.
Back when I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought that I would be transactional: draft contracts, wills, trusts… And I remember when I was a first-year law student, and I worked at this firm in East Memphis. It was really funny because there were two groups in that office, and the lower floors were the transactional lawyers, and the higher floors were all the litigators. And there was such a different power scheme. I mean, all the people on the lower floors were only interested in having a mayonnaise sandwich. We were ready to go to lunch and, otherwise, just drafting, and you would never see us come out except to use the bathroom.
And then the litigators were throwing their jackets on the shoulders and saying, “I’m going downtown!” [laughs] And they were basically in charge of the firm, and everyone was in awe of them.
And there was a moment when I thought to myself, “Thank God I’m not going downtown.” [laughs] I didn’t care if it made me a second-class citizen in that office, so long as I didn’t have to go downtown.
But now I’m getting comfortable with this trial work, and I enjoy it.
Jeff Lee and I met at the Trolley Stop Market to talk about his law practice. He was punctual and wore a suit. The restaurant was crowded. We waited patiently for a table and ordered. Our meals came quickly, but our waiter hadn’t provided us with napkins or silverware. We didn’t mind too much.
A first reminder brought us napkins but no silverware. A second reminder brought me silverware, but none for Jeff. Meekly, we gave up and made due. I handed my fork to Jeff for his mashed potatoes and used my hands to pick fruit from my cup. Still, it was a good meal.
The most well-known defense lawyer in Memphis might be Leslie Ballin, the Harry Dean Stanton lookalike, who never saw a high-profile crime he didn’t like and who probably eats waiters for breakfast. My friend Jeff was cut from a different cloth. He’s a nice guy defense lawyer and comes by it naturally. He’s been a nice guy since I met him in high school and probably even before that.
He’d recently stumbled upon a defense technique called psychodrama and offered to tell me about it.
“To defend your client properly, you can’t just say your client didn’t do it,” says Jeff. “You have to give the jury something else to latch onto.”
Psychodrama involves acting from the perspective of another person or thing, and if you do it right, it takes your jury out of the courtroom and into the scenario you’re dramatizing. It also looks a little silly. Because while some defense lawyers will act out the part of a witness or the victim, they’re just as likely to act the part of a chair, gun, stove or eagle flying overhead.
But acting the part of a kitchen stove can make jurors take notice.
“The jury leaves the room, and the first thing they talk about is that goofy thing you just did and how silly it was, but then they say, ‘How about that argument?’ Now all of a sudden, they’re focusing on exactly what you wanted them to, and it removes you from the realm of ‘which lawyer do I like better.’”
Jeff first heard of psychodrama at a law seminar. He thought the technique seemed ridiculous, but during the course of the seminar, he changed his mind. During one session, the facilitator asked for a volunteer “who has something heavy weighing on your heart.” Why anyone would volunteer such personal information in a crowded space, Jeff has no idea, but one woman did. She confessed her father wouldn’t stop using drugs.* It still weighed heavily on her heart.
A man was picked to play her father, and the two sat across from one another uncomfortably.
“Tell him what you think about him,” the facilitator said.
“I’m angry you won’t stop abusing painkillers,” she told the stranger. That’s when the facilitator stood behind her and did what was called “mirroring,” which was written about in a creepy little poem by the father of psychodrama, Dr. J. L. Moreno, near the turn of the last century:
“A meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face.
And when you are near I will tear your eyes out
and place them instead of mine,
and you will tear my eyes out
and will place them instead of yours,
then I will look at me with mine.”
The facilitator stood behind the woman and grabbed her shoulders, yelling at the father, “I hate you, you asshole! You ruined our lives! I’ll never forgive you for what you did as long as I live.” Then the facilitator asked the two to switch places. Now the woman played the dad, and the “dad” played her.
“How could you do this to us?” the man said.
The woman was now face-to-face with her own anger. According to the rules of psychodrama, she had become her father, forced to defend his position after having caused years of pain.
“I can’t stop,” she said, “You know that I love you even when I can’t love myself.”
“By the end of it, we were all bawling,” said Jeff, “It was just a reenactment, and we all knew it, but we were experiencing the emotions instead of being told, and that’s very powerful.”
Jeff used psychodrama to defend a man who killed in self-defense. Without the technique, Jeff would have probably asked the man, “What would you say to John Doe if you could talk to him?” And his client would have mumbled, “I would tell him I’m really sorry,” but the emotion would be blank.
Using the psychodrama technique, the question is a little different. Jeff tells his client on the witness stand, “I am John Doe. Tell me what you want to say to me.”
The face of the accused changes at that moment, as if he sees a ghost.
“Sometimes I’ll coax my clients along and barely touch them and say, ‘You killed me,’ almost in a whisper. The clients’ lips tremble. They begin to cry. They say, ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ but you can barely understand them because they’re bawling. There’s something about psychodrama that gets the emotions right to the surface. It’s good storytelling, that’s what it is. It’s the difference between showing and telling.”
Jeff says you don’t need props with psychodrama. It’s all very minimal. He likens it to the staging of Spoon River Anthology, where the characters stand and speak in a stark space, with only their words to fill in the facts of their lives.
No one wants to be in the room where a crime takes place, but psychodrama puts the jury members squarely there, and once the jury is in that room, they tend to look around for a while. “What do I see here?” they begin to wonder. “What would I have done under the same circumstances?”
That’s when Jeff Lee, the defense lawyer, has his audience exactly where he wants them.
* Facts slightly altered for privacy.
Next post: Jeff Lee gives a tour of his Midtown office.
I have a friend named Jeff Lee from high school, and I don’t get to see him much. He and his girlfriend, Lindsey Cross, are hardworking entrepreneurs—Jeff with his law practice at 1303 Madison, which is a one-man shop, and Lindsey with Mrs. Post Stationery at Chickasaw Oaks Plaza.
When I do hear from Jeff, he always shares a story of an eccentric client or a funny courtroom gambit. He has a good sense of humor and a gift for storytelling, and he makes lawyering seem like great fun…most of the time.
Some lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom, but Jeff is different. He arranges pleas for his clients, but if the deal isn’t good or he otherwise thinks his client is getting the short end of the stick, he’ll push for trial. From the moment he agrees to a trial, he dreads it. That sick-in-the-gut feeling keeps him working hard, so by the time he steps into the courtroom, he knows he’s prepared.
If, God forbid, I should ever be accused of a crime, I’ll call Jeff Lee to be my attorney.
A Facebook message I received from Jeff in late October made me realize I wanted to write about him for this blog. I’m posting the message here in its entirety because I think it would be a shame not to:
As always, my practice has taken more interesting turns – I’ve had several recent victories representing sex offenders, and I’ve become the “go to guy” for alleged Memphis perverts. I would have preferred to be “Attorney to the Stars,” but I somehow ended up as “Attorney to the Sex Offenders.” But I suppose it beats “Attorney to the Scrap Metal Thieves who obviously have no money.”
The nice thing about these cases is that nobody else wants them, and the defendants are usually grossly overcharged, so I can actually get somewhere at trial. Most of these cases should be dismissed for lack of evidence, but the DA doesn’t have the steel to do it.
I’m trying to reinvent Jeff Lee into a high-profile, big personality, big money lawyer. I’ve been suiting up with a big obnoxious pocket square and wide stripe ties, visiting inmates in jail, and telling them that I’ll take their case for $5,000 and not a penny less. It only has to work once or twice and then the word will get around! You know if a guy has an attorney that cost that much, he won’t shut up in the jail about it. I already tried the ‘courteous and generous reasonably priced, try to help the down-and-out defendant’ attorney, and there’s no market for that guy. These days, I’m reading books about ‘closing the sale’ more than how to write a winning appellate brief.
In my last few trials, I’ve brought big poster board exhibits and done some really zany stuff. I got these ideas from the National Criminal Defense College in Georgia, where they train you to do stuff like roll around on the floor and do a closing argument from the point of view of the crime weapon: “Hi, my name is .22. A lot of people have been talking about me today, but nobody ever pointed me at the victim – that was my friend, .45. I couldn’t see anything from the glove box where my owner left me all day.” It’s so stupid that people can’t take their eyes away. You wouldn’t believe that it would work, but it’s getting amazing results with bored, frustrated jurors.
By next year, I’ll either be on the front page or the funny page, but at least I won’t still be broke! That’s the hope, at least!
Back when I lived in Minneapolis, I had the exquisite bad luck of living next door to this prince of a guy, so I have the utmost sympathy for victims because I feel like I was one. I won’t recount the things he did, but I will say that when I wasn’t actively terrified, I had a free-floating anxiety that made the rest of my days in that house a misery.
So there’s that.
But I believe if you’re accused of a crime, you should have the ability to mount a defense, and the job of the lawyer is to help with that. Being a lawyer is a good profession…and a fascinating one. And I wanted Jeff to tell me more about what it’s really like to be a lawyer in Memphis–the unvarnished truth.
Next week’s post: Jeff Lee argues from the point of view of a loaded gun.
This is a record of Hall family life in early October 2012, before Ramona came.
Kate Hall likes vintage fabrics and nautical things. Her husband Luke likes skulls and heavy metal. Together, they make sewn and silkscreened goods and sell them under the name Hall in the Family.
“It’s a very eclectic mix with my flowery purses and his evil masks,” said Kate.
They do their work at home in Cooper-Young. Kate’s sewing table sits beneath a window facing their front yard. She finds time to sew during breaks from school, where she works as a librarian.
“Early in the morning, I’ll get up, take a shower, eat breakfast and then open the windows,” said Kate.
Even though she’s inside sewing, she still feels part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
“A while back, I was sewing,” remembered Kate. “It was pretty early, and this guy walked by with two dogs, and his dog went to the bathroom in our neighbor’s yard, and he didn’t pick it up. So I walked outside and berated him.
She grew thoughtful.
“So I feel like I’m still participating in the outside world, watching my shows and making stuff.”
When Kate and Luke moved into their home three years ago, it was kind of a disaster, but they figured they could fix it up, and they have. Their house is charming.
Kate says her favorite Wes Anderson movie is The Royal Tenenbaums, set in a rambling pretend home in New York City. There’s a room in the Tenenbaum home hung with images of Margot, the adopted daughter. Each was painted by her brother Richie, who adores her, hopelessly.
“My brother sent me a still from the movie and said, ‘This is what your house reminds me of,’” said Kate, “and I could see what he meant. There was lots of color.”
Kate’s walls are crowded with family photos and art, including paintings by Andrea Manard, a local artist who’s a favorite of Kate’s. The furniture is older, with a mix of styles and eras. The kitchen curtains are made from vintage aprons.
When I visited in October 2012, Kate and Luke were preparing for the arrival of their first child. They’d bought Ramona’s furniture set from an estate sale and were in the process of painting everything a light gray color.
If the nursery carried this family’s hopes for the future, the dining room was a tribute to the past. The dining table belonged to her great-grandmother on her mother’s side. The chandelier above it was forged by Kate’s great-grandfather on her father’s side, who had an ironworks business in Forest Park, Illinois.
Kate can’t ask her great-grandfather about the chandelier. He’s dead now and beyond asking. But the Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis recently found clues to the history of the lighting fixture that also hint at the industriousness of the man who made it.
“We took it to get cleaned and painted, and they found it was made up of three or four different kinds of metal,” said Kate. “It was leftover from things he’d done for other people, and then he put something together on his own.”
Kate has inherited her grandfather’s craftsmanship. Her sewing work includes brightly colored bibs, baby blankets, coasters, bookmarks, stuffed animals and purses, yet her personal style is more subdued.
If I close my eyes and picture Kate, she has a black bob haircut with bangs. Even when the details change, the overall look is consistent. She resembles the Morton Salt Girl and dresses a little like her.
She wears a great deal of black.
“I feel uneasy otherwise,” said Kate. “I might put on a flowery t-shirt, but I’ve also got big black boots, and it might just be that I never graduated from the nineties.”
She seems comforted by a certain amount of predictability. Kate says she enjoys sewing because if you stick to the pattern, nothing bad happens.
“Cooking and sewing are both good because if you can follow all of your steps, then it will come out looking good or tasting good,” said Kate. “Same with being a librarian—it feeds my need to be organized but still coming out with a good product.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t sometimes innovate.
“A friend wanted me to figure out how to do a tool belt for her, and it needed to be girly,” said Kate. “It was the first thing I did that was all trial and error, not from a pattern. And they’ve gone over really well, especially with teacher friends.”
If Kate is careful and methodical, then Luke is spontaneous. The day I interviewed Kate, Luke was putting the finishing touches on a corn hole game. That’s the game where you throw the bean bags into the hole. He’d never made one before, but it wasn’t a big deal for him.
Luke designed costumes for Theater Memphis for five years before becoming a geologist. These days, his silkscreened t-shirts comprise most of his creative output. His most popular seller is the 901 shirt, where the zero has been replaced by a skull.
901 is the Memphis area code, and while it’s tempting to think the t-shirt offers social commentary about crime rates in Memphis, Luke insists he wasn’t trying to be deep.
“I asked him, ‘Do you like skulls?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” said Kate. “He grew up listening to metal and hardcore, wearing things with skulls.”
Luke designs his t-shirts with a friend named Andy Morris.
“He burns the silk screens upstairs,” said Kate. “We have a little finished attic. He calls it his bromain.”
“Actually, I think the outside space is the bromain, and the upstairs space is the brojo, like dojo,” said Kate.
Luke does his sewing in the garage.
“He doesn’t sew so much anymore,” said Kate. “I say that, but he’s about to make someone’s wedding dress.”
Kate describes the bride and groom as friends of theirs who are “kind of tattooed from head to toe.”
“I think her dress is gunmetal gray with red,” said Kate. “So she’s getting exactly what she wants. The groom is a plumber, so he’s been re-plumbing our house in exchange for the dress.”
Luke also paints Day of the Dead family portraits.
“He’ll take little things about the people and use it in the painting,” said Kate. “Our friends Barry and Genie and their family love to go to St. Louis, so you’ll see that in their painting. Luke included the clothes they wear, and Barry always has the creative facial hair, so that’s in there too.”
I think about what a Day of the Dead portrait of Kate and Luke would look like. Luke might look like a metal head. Kate might have on big black boots. Their cute dog Digby would be sitting right beside them. Perhaps there’d be a sewing machine in the foreground.
And there in Kate’s arms, you’d have little Ramona. On Dec. 27, 2012, she was born. Ramona is the smallest thing in our portrait, but she’s so important.
Already it’s hard to imagine a pre-Ramona time. Kate and Luke are sleep deprived; their memories aren’t so good anymore. What was life like before Ramona? It’s getting really hard to say.
On Oct. 7, when I sat down with Kate Hall in the living room of her Cooper-Young bungalow, she looked calm on the outside, but something dynamic was happening on the inside. She had hit her twenty-ninth week of pregnancy, and strange and marvelous things were afoot. Her baby now had eyelashes, and her eyes could move. Her head had gotten bigger to accommodate her growing brain.
The baby had also reached a new stage in neuron development, becoming increasingly sensitive to changes in light, sound, taste and smell. This meant that little Ramona—because that’s what they had decided to name her—already had likes and dislikes.
Kate asked me if I wanted something to drink, and I told her water would be great. She cradled her belly for a moment, reflexively, and went back to the kitchen to get it.
People say babies are miracles, but I’m not sure. I do think they’re pretty wonderful. I’m in awe of how they got here and how their personalities form.
My foster son gave a little cry of complaint from where he sat buckled in his car seat. He was one day shy of being four months old. I could tell he was sleepy, so I put a blanket on the sofa and laid him down to rest.
Kate sat back down, and we talked.
Kate was a school librarian, and her husband, Luke, was a geologist, but they did sewing and silk screening on the side. They had launched a Facebook page called “Hall in the Family,” where they promoted their wares.
Luke had gotten a lot of sales on his 901 shirt, where the zero in 901 had been replaced by a skull.
Kate had good luck selling her bibs and baby blankets.
I had always adored Kate and wanted to post about her craft work. I liked the idea of a married couple starting a crafts business together, right before having a baby. Those two couldn’t stop being creative!
Kate had taken up sewing when she 28, at a pivotal moment in her life. She had moved from Memphis to get away. She hardly knew a soul in the Bay area, save her friend and roommate Will.
“Were you lonely when you lived there?” I asked.
“Yeah, extremely,” she said.
But the move to Oakland had felt necessary.
For the past three years in Memphis, she’d been waiting tables at the Beauty Shop on Cooper Street. Back then, its waitresses wore bouffant wigs.
“I was working at this nice restaurant, but it was somebody else’s creation. I was 27 and waiting tables with a wig on my head and a Sociology degree,” said Kate.
She also had a few classes toward a masters in teaching, but says it “wasn’t a perfect fit.”
Kate said she needed to get her head out of Memphis, and that’s why she moved. In California, she encountered hundreds of people per day—all strangers.
“I would go to restaurants and eat alone and go to museums alone,” said Kate.
She’d go most of the day without speaking to anyone, so when she finally did speak, her voice sounded strange to her.
She took a sewing class by herself—something she never would have done back home.
“If I had been in Memphis, I would have waited for a friend to do it,” said Kate.
Some of her first sewing efforts spoke to her homesickness.
“I sent postcards home with stitching on it using the sewing machine,” said Kate.
It was in California that she decided to be a librarian.
“I was waiting tables out there, but it was different because I was exploring and thinking,” said Kate. “One day I thought, ‘I really wish I could work at a bookstore.’ Then it was just like a light bulb. I knew I wanted to be a librarian.”
Not all of her friends back home were surprised by her career choice.
“Some of them were like, ‘Duh,’” said Kate.
All told, she lived in California for only six months.
“It was pretty stupid because I took everything I owned out there with me and then paid good money to move back,” said Kate, “but the move served its purpose.
She felt more independent now. She’d found direction in life and a creative outlet.
“If I had the chance to do it all again, I would,” said Kate.
Years ago, my friends Lori and Sheri made what they called “fake cakes” for friends. The cakes commemorated important life events, like marriage and childbirth. They were decorated to the hilt, except there was no actual cake inside—the center was foam. The point of the cake was the keepsake value. The fun of the cake was the trip to Mary Carter.
The cake decorating company offered hundreds of cake toppers—everything from hula dancers to football players to brides to naked King Cake babies. You could make a cake look pretty silly with all that stuff, so Lori and Sheri made lots of silly cakes.
When Sheri learned I was profiling people along Summer Avenue, she said, “Go to Mary Carter cake decorating store and find out why their sign still says they sell paint.” So that’s what I did.
Mary Carter has been around for 54 years in the same location at Summer and Malcomb, but at first, it sold paint, not cake supplies.
On Saturday, Jan. 5, I went inside and spoke with a woman who looked like the owner and asked if she was Mary Carter.
“Mary Carter was the name of the paint company,” she said. “My name is Kathy Faherty.”
She tried to explain. Her husband’s parents had started the business in 1959. At some point along the way, her mother-in-law had become disenchanted with paint. She liked cakes better. For a few years, the store sold paints and plaster crafts alongside its candy molds and cake tins. But frivolity beat practicality, and soon the transition to confection was complete.
“Is your mother-in-law named Mary Carter?” I said.
“No,” she said. “It’s the brand name of the paint company.”
The cake decorating store had kept the name of the paint franchise it used to be, and no one had gotten sued. I’d never heard of such a thing.
Kathy was a fun lady with a quick laugh—exactly the right person to run a cake and candy supply shop. She told us we could browse all we wanted, so we walked from aisle to aisle, touching pretty much everything.
She had cake toppers, frosting, sprinkles, cake pop mix, candy molds, cookie cutters, baking cups and a big vat of something called “Glucose.” She had silver candy balls that looked like bullets and pre-printed edible paper you could put through your copier so the top of your cake would look like a photograph.
The secret of Mary Carter’s success is that people love coming here. The store has created its own traditions. Kathy and her husband, Jim, lead cake and candy making classes. Her daughter-in-law, Toni, creates themed candy displays for the glass shelves in the front window.
“Each season she has a new display,” said Kathy. “People come in just to see.”
Kathy and Jim are the second generation to run the supply company. Toni and her husband, Chris, are the third. Moms come in year after year to let their children pick their cake themes. Kathy has watched the kids grow up.
Kathy says she never wants to switch locations because, here on Summer Avenue, they’re centrally located.
“Everyone knows the store,” said Kathy. “It’s old, but we’re clean.”
Later on, I looked up Mary Carter Paint Company online and found this old jingle sung by Jim Reeves, a popular country artist of his day. He died in 1964, right around the time Mary Carter went belly up as a nationwide paint franchise. The song made me laugh because the lyrics are simple and sweet. They hearken back to the old days.
The big reason I wanted to write about Summer Avenue is because of a man named Tyrone Dowdy.
His pro boxing name is T Dowdy The Intimidator, but far from intimidating me the first time I saw him, he made me wonder what his deal was.
I first saw him shadowboxing at the corner of Summer and Highland. He had the air of a showman, and I watched him from my car—riveted—until the light turned.
Over the course of several weeks, I would see him in that same spot, jabbing away. He wore boxing gloves and shorts, and his arms were extraordinarily muscular.
There’s a thin line between being a striver and being delusional, and on Summer Avenue in Memphis, that line gets crossed—a lot. Was the man on the street corner mentally ill or training for a fight? I wanted to know.
When I tried to meet him for the blog, I couldn’t find him for a long time. I began to think he was a phantom—someone I couldn’t conjure if I was actively looking. Then on Christmas Eve, I made my usual lap down Summer and back, but instead of giving up afterward, I decided to search the side streets. There he was, at the corner of Highland and Tutwiler.
He had green tape on his hands, and he held his boxing gloves. I pulled up, asked him if could interview him for the blog. He smiled and said yes.
I’m happy to say that Tyrone Dowdy is a real-life, honest-to-goodness boxer who’s trained almost every day for the past 12 years.
“I’m what they call a super middleweight boxer,” he said. “If I go above 167, I get fined $200 for every pound I’m overweight. That’s why you see me here on Summer. I’m doing my roadwork, like Rocky Balboa, trying to keep my weight down and build my wind and trying to get my footwork ready.”
He started as a pro at 25 years old, and now he’s 36. Some of his teeth are gold plated, and his lips are mottled from being punched so much.
He traced the line of a scar on his forehead. “That’s from an illegal blow,” he said. “That got me seven stitches, and they stopped the fight in the first round.”
He’d been battered, sure, but he had a youthful spark. He talked quickly and had lots to say.
“I’m well known in Memphis and Chicago, Baton Rouge, Gary, Indiana, and in Mississippi,” he said. “And in most of those fights, I’m either the co-main event or the main event. Do you have a phone? You can type in my name and save me some breath. Type ‘Tyrone Dowdy,’ and you’ll see what pops up.”
Tyrone says his career almost ended when it started. He’d had only two fights when the seizures began, and he spent two months in the hospital.
“Tyrone, it’s not the boxing,” the doctor finally told him. “It’s what you’re eating.”
So Tyrone changed his lifestyle.
“I was a chain smoker,” he said, “but I left the Newports behind and the Black and Mild cigars. I was born and raised off pork, and that was the hardest thing, but I quit that too. Now before every fight when I get my physical, the doctors say to me, ‘What are you doing, Tyrone? We’re the doctors, but you’re healthier than us.’”
Tyrone isn’t married, and he doesn’t have children. He stays focused on boxing, but it’s not the only thing in his life.
He shows me a tattoo on his back that says “Binghampton.”
“I’ve spent 36 years in this neighborhood,” he said, “and once I’m blessed with money, I want to give back to the kids and families here.”
He points to a tattoo on his right forearm that says “M.O.A.M.”
“That stands for ‘Man on a Mission,’” he said.
Someday, he’d like to open an auto body shop or a restaurant with his family.
He says God is his first inspiration, and Mike Tyson is his second.
People got excited to see Tyrone box. They slow down their cars to wave as he does his roadwork. He says he hears their car horns over the music in his headphones.
I ask if the attention ever bothers him. He shakes his head no and smiles.
“I don’t mind if people want to stop,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to talk about the importance of nutrition and the good word.”
I take a few photos and thank him. We say our goodbyes.
As quickly as that, he’s back to his jabs. It’s Christmas Eve, and the intersection is packed with traffic. The red light won’t hold, but for as long as it does, all eyes are on T Dowdy The Intimidator, the main event on Summer Avenue.
On the corner of Summer and Vaughn stands a little white wedding chapel with a modest steeple and a great big sign. The sign says Two Hearts Wedding Chapel and includes a phone number for booking. Hundreds of cars whizz past every day, and inside some of the cars are people who very much want to be married. They see the sign and make the phone call. Sometimes, they even show up on the doorstep.
The chapel is a spot of prettiness on a street that’s not known for it. Reverend Howard A. French has made it that way.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, when I met Howard, he’d just gotten back from lunch with Sharon, his ex-wife. She was a sweet, delicate woman with long blonde hair. She said hello and sat on the office sofa while I went with Howard to see the chapel.
He told me about their relationship.
They had gotten married in 1975, when he was 25 and she was 17, but had parted ways 12 years later. They went on to second marriages that, by Howard’s account, had “failed miserably.” In 2003, he inquired about her. Sharon was in Pennsylvania, their daughter told him, and she wasn’t happy. Howard drove a U-Haul to bring her back to Memphis, and now they’re reconciled.
He points to the chapel walls.
“She’s the one who picked out the pink,” he says.
Howard calls himself a type-A personality, driven to make constant improvements to the space. He’s knocked out walls, redone floors, painted, put up curtains, and added other amenities—like wedding gowns for a fair price—because he just can’t help himself. For years he’d worked as a boss at Covington Pike Honda, and customer service had been his mantra. He was still eager to please.
For a long time, Howard was an ordained minister in search of a congregation. He ministered weddings in his spare time, but longed to devote his life to it.
When he saw the abandoned insurance office at 4172 Summer Avenue, he saw a place for his dreams to take root.
“So I prayed on it,” he says. “I walked up to that storm door, put my hand on it, and asked God for direction.”
He held his first wedding on May 28, 2011.
“I’m one of the most blessed people,” he says. “I’m hardly stressed ever. I can do two weddings in a day, as long as I have two hours in between for clean up.”
To the side of the altar is a cozy reception area with framed photos of the couples who’d been married here. They are a diverse group. Some are dressed traditionally in white and tux, while others wear jeans or shorts, shiny cowboy duds or t-shirts, leather vests or motorcycle chaps.
Howard says his couples are looking for something economical. Most already live together, and some have children.
“They may not all be well-to-do,” says Howard, “but they’re united in their desire for a solemn Christian ceremony. They don’t want to go downtown and get married by a justice of the peace.”
Howard points to a photo of a couple from Belgium, who were determined to marry in Elvis Presley’s hometown. They’d flown to Atlanta, driven to the chapel on their Harleys, and relied on an interpreter.
His oldest pair was 76 years old. They were high school sweethearts who’d lost touch after the man was drafted. When their respective spouses passed away, they reunited. At their wedding, they acted like teenagers, as if no time had passed.
Howard calls my attention to a photo of a good-looking couple who had arranged to meet at the chapel but hadn’t compared notes first. In the photo, she wears a formal, albeit sexy, wedding gown, while he wears a t-shirt and shorts. They’re beaming.
This mismatched couple, the Belgian pair who couldn’t speak the language of their own wedding ceremony, and all the couples who come to him for a second marriage, or a third—he loves them for their quirks, their imperfections, and the way they’ve taken a huge leap of faith just by being here. When he tells me their stories, there are tears in his eyes. Perfection is what you shoot for, but Howard loves people for their frailties.
He urges his couples to write their own vows without looking online or thinking about grammar. He tells them to pour their hearts out and not to worry–he’ll help them get their words in order.
“These aren’t speech writers,” he says.
And that’s what’s so wonderful.
Reverend Howard A. French admits he’d like an even bigger place in Oakland, Tennessee, with a gazebo, a pond and an expanse of land. But that will come in time, he says, if God wills it.
For now, we step outside, and he points to a small pile of leaves he intends to sweep soon. He thanks me for visiting, assures me my old Honda has plenty of good miles left on it, and walks back into the little chapel on Summer Avenue—a happy man.
Each weekend, I take my foster son to North Memphis to visit with his mom. We sit in the McDonald’s, where a group of older men gather to discuss women and politics. One man in particular has the loudest voice, and consequently, I’ve come to know his pronouncements. He says he prefers dark women to light women and they must be clean.
“No offence,” he tells me.
I think he says that because I’m a white woman and not because I’m dirty.
“That’s OK,” I tell him. He’s taken a kindly interest in my little boy and always says hello.
Sometimes, when these visits are done, I just want to drive for a while.
On Nov. 25, a Sunday morning, as the baby slept in back, I decided to head down Summer Avenue, which, despite its ugliness, is one of my favorite streets in Memphis.
Summer was once a thriving, respectable business thoroughfare. These days, it’s crammed with people and shops, but it’s careworn. Here, the drivers are crazier, the signs are more garish, the streets smells are more fragrant (owing to the ethnic restaurants), the poverty is more desperate. I like Summer Avenue because it has a soul – a tired one, but still.
I saw a young man selling newspapers on the corner of Summer and National, and I pulled up to buy one and say hello.
His name was Cordarro Wilson, and he’d been working for The Commercial Appeal for four months. His Sunday paper cost one dollar, and he said people often tipped him twice that.
“If it’s raining or the weather is bad, they give me a five and let me keep the four ones,” he said.
He wore a yellow sweatshirt that commemorated someone named Ladarius Wilson.
It turned out Ladarius was his younger brother, only 21 years old, and he’d been dead for one month.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got shot in the head,” Cordarro said. It had happened in Frayser.
Cordarro’s voice was calm, but the whites of his eyes were yellow. His eyes were red rimmed, as though he hadn’t been sleeping. He had been close to his brother, he said, but at this point, he was more concerned about his mom.
“I’m the only child left on my mom’s side,” he explained. “I’m trying to help her out the best way I can. She said I need to be strong so I can help her be strong.”
I told him I was so sorry. He said thank you, and we stood there for a moment. He stared at me.
I asked him where he saw himself in five years.
“In the Army,” he said. “Most of my family is in the military. I think it’s safer there.”
Cordarro explained that all his relatives who’d been deployed were still alive. He couldn’t say the same for his relatives in Memphis—look at what had happened to Ladarius.
My name is Betsy Taylor. This is a blog about local Memphis people, friends of mine, who fascinate me. Whether because of something they do for a living or something they’re passionate about, I wanted to know more – and to share what I learned. Each month is devoted to a brand new person. One entry per week is posted about that person, until that person’s month is done.>