Meltdown in Memphis
“It’s the first of the month, wake up, wake up, wake up…”
October 1, –I sing this lyric to myself as I step out of the tent in Martin Luther King Jr. River Park. In September, I encountered my three Sirens: women, gambling and drugs. I spoke to the Wind and the Sun and listened to the River. Even the gentle river has rapids. So now October begins and I attempt to visualize a smooth start but I notice my sad bicycle sitting on deflated wheels and it quickly shoots a hole in my positive outlook.
I have three flat tires again and that’s frustrating but I will fix this once and for all. Really take the time to make it right. I have nothing more important to do, except breakfast. By a lake beneath these old growth oaks, it feels like Harmony Park, down past Hope and Medford there in Minnesota where Wookie Foot celebrates with the Medicine Tribe. I have the park to myself, using the restroom and plugging my phone in for a charge, leaving it there, propped up on the sink, with a can of sweet potatoes providing the weight necessary for the charger’s connection. As I walk up to take my tent down and deal with the bike, a car pulls up. Two fishermen step out. They find their place on the lake and cast out their lines. The water looks strange to me. A blue-green hue surrounds the shoreline with poop weeds in the shallows –the slimy ones that puff out and drip. I wouldn’t eat the fish from that water but one of the anglers has a grill cook’s uniform on.
Back at camp I pull the blankets from the tent, shaking them out in the wind. I fold it all up and away, sitting with my tools at this flaky green park bench next to a bike badly in need of attention. Dismantling the bike and trailer’s flats, I watch the fishermen test the water, moving around with no luck. I’m down on mine too. A bike with no wheels stands on its head. Another car pulls in and the passengers pretend they don’t see me with my tires, tubes and rims scattered about. The ladies walk around the lake as the gentlemen sit and talk by the water. I spend two hours inspecting tubes and patching holes I missed, rotating tires and preparing to pedal south.
A Mercedes-Benz on rims pulls in, bumping music. Two men step out, one with a camera. The other one has on a hat, flat brim cocked, purple power colors with jewels, designer denim low with ten inches of underwear showing and shoes, extra white. Pictures and poses, he likes to flick his chin and fiddle with his phone for photos. He never smiles though. They polish the wheels and buff the car, repeating the pulling in and stepping from the vehicle shot. This must be a Memphis rapper shooting a music video. I hope he doesn’t try to come and battle rap me right now. I imagine my own music video shoot, here in the park, talking about flat tires and rims and I could even change clothes and do a shot in the restroom with my iPhone potato charger. I go and get that now. With the bike back together and the trailer packed, I roll out.
South Memphis is a war zone. Gangs, drugs and violence have put the city near the top of the Nation’s ‘most dangerous places to live’ list, year in and year out. According to a recent Gallup survey, forty-three percent of Memphis residents say that they don’t feel safe in the city walking at night. I ride my bike through the communities along the 61 and I don’t particularly feel safe in the daylight. I’ve seen dozens of dollar stores, there’s one on every other block and I make a few stops to restock food supplies. In leaving, I notice my bike trailer rolling on a rim, again. Unbelievable! I pull into the parking lot of a dive motel. This place smells like danger, maybe it’s just the dumpster nearby. The seedy-green paint flakes from the building’s crummy exterior and I imagine snitches conducting controlled buys and slimy pimps slappin’ hoes behind the walls of this nearly condemned roach palace. Looking down on my bike, I see the other trailer tire is flat now but the three I worked on earlier seem to be fine. Taking my dry box from the trailer, I pull the wheel off and stick the box beneath the axle as a jack. It’s especially hard to get these little twenty inch tires off their rims. I struggle and sweat as a drug dealer retrieves dope from a drop spot nearby, paranoid about my being here. A woman speaking belligerent Spanish tells me to leave from behind her motel room door. She’s says I’m not welcome to work on my bike here and that she’ll call the cops if I don’t leave. She’s practically screaming and I don’t understand her anger. Now I’m angry too and I tell her to go ahead and call the cops. Maybe they’ll help me. I can’t move my bike until I have the tire back on the trailer.
A man walks up and introduces himself, “I’m Hobo Joe. It looks like you’re having some troubles. Do you need any help?” He looks rough, curly red hair, unshaven with dirty clothes. He has a bounce in his step though.
“Hobo Joe, I’m Michael Fox. I’m stranded here with a blown trailer tire but I have everything I need to fix it.”
“Get out!! You can’t be here! You two go. Go now!” says the raging woman from inside. She’s nuts! The combination of her animosity towards me and my desperate situation almost has me on the verge of a breakdown. I hold back a childish temper tantrum.
“I’ve got this lady freeeaking oout!” I emphasize this loudly as I hardly hold it together, calming and addressing Joe, I lower my voice and say, “I need a safe spot to work on this bike, man. Do you know of a place close by?”
“You can come to my hobo camp. It’s about two or three miles from here. I may be able to find a bike pump.”
“I have a flat tire on my trailer Joe.” Frustrated with his lack of understanding, I say, “I’ve got a pump right here and a patch kit.” The lady comes out finally, cursing and making threats. Looking at Joe, I hold up the wheel and gesture toward the woman’s outburst saying, “This is the problem!” I show her the flat tire, squeezing it, pretending it’s her neck and pop the wheel back into place on the trailer, putting my dry box inside and leaving with a flat. Hobo Joe tags along, asking a million annoying questions, rambling on and on. He is the most enthusiastic hobo I’ve ever met. It’s nonstop talking, ranting and all I want is peace and quiet. I spot a fire department a block ahead.
“Joe, I’m stopping at the fire department up there. That should be a safe place for me to work on my bike. It was nice to meet you,” I say.
He continues to tag along saying, “They’re real nice people and even let me dig through their dumpster. The fire chief invited me to come in and eat with the crew once. They all know me. Tell them Hobo Joe sent you. Better yet, I’ll walk you up there.”
“No offense Joe, but I’d like to be alone. The last two days have been hard, I’m irritable, I haven’t ate much, money’s low, and I’m stranded in South Memphis,” I say this defeated, sincerely with tears rolling down my cheeks. When you learn to fly it’s hard to be this low –rock bottom.
He gets it finally and says, “I understand.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out some change, handing me fifty cents saying, “You said you’re hungry, take that. I know it isn’t much but it’s something.” He counts on his fingers, looking up and to the right saying, “I still have $4 and some change. That’s plenty for a hobo like me.”
Receiving graciously is learned through giving unconditionally. Some would have rejected his offer but I see it as an opportunity to let him have the experience of this exchange and I give him honest gratitude and genuine appreciation in return. I don’t feel bad about accepting his fifty cent donation and he deserves that for his generosity. What a rollercoaster of feelings this afternoon. I think men have a sensitive period during the month like women. Well not quite like women but I feel super emotional and that small gesture was touching. It immediately raises my energy. To break off a chunk of everything you have left for a stranger is a sharing that I love partaking in. “Thank you, Hobo Joe.” I give him a hug and send my energy to him.
He wanders off the other way as I push my trailer up to the fire hall. Another character paces around on the block, OCD like with a cursing Tourette’s, angry and shouting, waving at cars passing by, signaling to oncoming traffic, dancing for a moment while flashing gang signs. He’s a strange mix of angry midnight black and a bright laughing madness. That’s a dangerous combination. I can’t tell if he’s selling crack or attempting to buy some but he appears deranged and delusional, playing out inner dialogues and fantasies of make-believe interactions with traffic. The Madman spots me and glares disapprovingly. The fire hall is locked but there’s an intercom and someone inside. Peering in through the shatter-proof glass, I see a secure and sanitary environment. It has the vibe of a hospital here in this injured place and that gives me a strange comfort as I walk up to the intercom, ready to make contact. I press the button and the firefighter opens the door, trusting and kind.
He says, “What can I do for you?”
“I’m on a bike tour on the way to New Orleans. My trailer has a flat tire. I was run off down the way trying to patch the tube. I don’t feel safe out here.” Mr. Madman yells an obscenity towards an unknown target and I ask, “Would it be alright if I used the bench here and repaired my tube?”
“Absolutely. This neighborhood isn’t the best place to get a flat. You’re safe here though. Would you like any water?”
“Thank you. I’d love some water.” He returns with a cold bottle from inside and lets me get to work. With the trailer wheel off again, I inspect the rubber and find some little thorns stuck in the tire. They were probably thrown onto the street by mowers running over sticker bush. I pull them out with pliers and watch the traffic pass. I woman with bleached blonde hair walks by for a second time, a working lady, ragged and strung out. Prying the tire off the rim is way harder than it should be. I give up and roll a cigarette. Another lady walks by, young and beautiful, she has the style of an uptown girl, curly dark hair and a sexy walk, she makes her rounds and it’s hard for me to believe that she’s a prostitute. Another working woman joins the parade. My gypsy hooker finds a trick and gets in a car with a stranger. What a career choice.
The sirens blare and the doors on the fire hall open wide as trucks leave down the 61 in route to an emergency. It makes me wonder what my life would have been like if I’d finished college and became a firefighter. To live at this hall and respond to the fires in a war zone like this would be horrible. Hookers and drug dealing gang members hang out in your front yard while you’re called to the scene of an arson inferno. These men risk their lives running into the flames of burning crack houses, serving the people, even though their efforts are far too often unappreciated. Going to school in Duluth, I trained at the Gary campus of Lake Superior College in the Fire Science program. I took EMT training, hazmat certification, firefighter one and two, building and fire code and apparatus operations. The campus is a state-of-the-art facility and run by real firemen, current and retired. A garage full of trucks provided the opportunity to learn how to drive the apparatus, double-clutch and pump water from different locations. A mock 747 jet sits in the pit, run on propane gas, we fought fire with foam, simulating the response to aircraft fires involving fuel. We also fought real flames in trailer homes donated to the school. Opening the nozzle on the head of the hose and feeling the water’s power is a rush. I turned twenty on September 11, 2011. I was with my dad, roofing a house, listening to the KQRS morning show’s Tom Bernard when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center buildings. In the aftermath of that tragedy, with hundreds of firefighters dead from their efforts in New York, I dropped out of college with only a year left, devastated and scared. I caught a felony one year later, sealing my decision not to be a firefighter. No felons work Civil Service jobs unless they’ve been presidentially pardoned. Even though I’m temporarily broke and stranded, I know for sure being a fireman wasn’t the life for me. Seriously, I’d rather be right here with this flat than wearing the helmet and shield.
A funeral procession holds up traffic. Maybe no one died, I don’t know –what day of the week is it? This might be a motorcade for a politician. A limo with heavy security pulls into the lot across the road from the fire hall. A wealthy important man steps out in a tailored suit with bodyguards and switches cars. Security directs traffic away from the exchange, standing in the oncoming lane and waving cars around. They take over the area obnoxiously for a moment before moving on and I wonder what the big deal is. He could be African royalty for all I know, but this is certain: he and his entourage represent the opposing side of the wealth spectrum, the anti-Hobo Joe and Mr. Madman –the Anti-Fox. I swear I hear a gunshot. Maybe someone’s exhaust backfired but the motorcade proceeds northbound and leaves me with my judgments.
The thorns that pierced the thin rubber on my trailer tire have put some new leaks in the tube. I pull them out with my pliers and find the holes using the last of my patch kit to seal them up. Fire trucks return as I finish inflating the repaired tube. I give them a wave and pedal south, going into a Family Dollar to snatch a box of Snickers ice cream bars. They’re cold on my crotch as I walk by a busy cashier that never saw me in the first place. A half-mile down the road, my trailer has a flat tire again and I coast into a busy Walgreens parking lot. Plopping on the curb in the shade eating ice cream, I have two bars back to back, as two children watch, waiting in a parked car next to me. There’s three or four left and I take the box to the kids. They have the window rolled down and I hand them the ice cream bars. “I already had two and can’t eat anymore. Here, you can have the rest,” I say handing a young boy a box of ice cream. You’re not supposed to take candy from strangers but he makes an exception this time and there’s even one for mom when she returns from inside. She smiles at me before driving off.
Another vehicle pulls in and the driver has “It Was a Good Day”by Ice Cube playing on his system. He strolls by me and we say hello. It’s an ironic song for the way I feel right now, so sick of working on these wheels. I actually rip off patches from the spare tube and recycle them. When he comes back out he hands me $3 and says, “Here, take this, I wish I’d brought some loud, I would’ve given you some of that too.” He’s talking about weed. Certain marijuana has a loud odor, hence the name. I think that’s a Tennessee term. He drives off and I wave goodbye with a smile. Shortly after, a Jamaican guy parks his Mustang. I’m just finishing the repair and reassembly when he walks up to me and says, “Jah bless,” handing me $20. He runs in before I have the chance to thank him with words. Some people can just sense when another needs help. When you make eye contact and take the time to empathize, words aren’t needed. Yeah, it’s been a struggle today but I keep my head high and when cars pull up, I don’t look down ashamed. I pay attention to the work at hand as well as looking these people in the eye with my most honest, cheery disposition. It’s an unintentional street performance of attempting to be positive in the face of adversity. No instruments needed. These hold-ups have been a test of patience. I leave Walgreens before the Rasta comes out. He knows I’m grateful. I felt that he felt that.
Down the 61, I pass broken glass and roadside dumpsites, burned baby dolls and piles of rotten rubbish. I approach Mississippi’s northern border finally and I’m ready to leave the state of Tennessee behind me. Entering this new state, I think about her name and the name of the river I’ve been following. Mississippi is a word that derives from the Ojibwe language. The native spelling is misi-ziibi and it translates to Great River.
On the Old 61, a cop flies by and stops with his cherries flashing about three hundred yards ahead. A pick-up truck at the end of a driveway waits for me to pass and I give the guys a wave. They tip their hats and I ride by about ten teenagers. A few vehicles sit on the shoulder and the cop blocks the lane. Coming into a little town I notice another cop at the station and overhear him telling a guy that it was just some kids fighting. Inside the store, I get some food and beer. The friendly cashier tells me about a river campground about nine miles from here. I check my tire pressure before leaving westbound, back on the MRT. Wearing my Tommy Raines ‘Live Simply’ trucker hat, I stop for a picture with the Mississippi River Trail sign and a sunset backdrop.
The Mississippi River Trail
The sky is on fire as I pedal into the setting sun, toward the river. It’s a peaceful ride and feels right to be moving again. All the down time in the last two days has been more than sufficient to rest my legs. I’m ready to cover some ground again and I do that now, reaching the river by dark. I set up camp and build a little fire, drinking my beer. A pickup truck pulls in and parks, the driver gets out and stretches. It’s too dark to see him well so I walk over and say hello. “These bugs aren’t eating you alive?” he says.
“Naw, I come all the way from Minnesota, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Mosquitoes don’t bug me too much, that’s our state bird back home.”
He laughs and says, “Shit, these Mississippi skeeters are so bad-ass they’ll stand on two flat feet and fuck a chicken.” Spraying himself with bug repellent he offers me some too but I pass. “I’m Don Smith. I’ve been coming to this spot on the river since I was a little boy.”
I shake his hand saying, “I’m Michael Fox. I’ve been riding my bicycle along this river’s edge for the last three weeks. I started in the Twin Cities and I’ll finish in New Orleans. I crossed the bridge into Memphis yesterday morning and blew three tires. The other one blew out today leaving me stranded on the Southside momentarily. Memphis was rough on me.”
“You crossed the longest bridge in the world. It stretches from Arkansas all the way to Africa,” he says.
I get his joke but it’s not funny to me. He hands me a beer, Miller Light. Don and I are very different but we both love the river and that’s enough for now. He’s older than my dad, with a big fat beer belly pushing a pair of overalls in a white t-shirt beneath. He says “I come here every night and have a few beers, been doing it for years. It’s peaceful.” Another Miller Light cracks the silence. “I’m retired now but used to work as a truck driver for the railroad. I’ve seen the whole country but this is home.”
“Have you ever been to Minnesota? I ask.
“I never made it up to Minnesota. I tell you what though, a few years back two women from Minnesota were kayaking down the river and stopped here. Someone stole their gear while they came into town. They were totally stranded. Nice girls. The guys around here raised the money to buy them new equipment and we sent them on their way. We heard from them after they made it to New Orleans. I don’t remember their names now,” he says with sort of a regretful end to a great story.
“That’s amazing! Thank you for taking care of my Minnesota sisters. They’re beautiful women. I can just imagine their smiles and tears when you guys let them know you put together the money to help them continue the journey. I’ve met some nice folks along the way already. Each community has such a deep history and the river runs through it,” I say.
“Well you know where you’re standing don’t you?” Don asks.
“I’m in northern Mississippi. I know that.”
He says, “This is Hernando De Soto Park. Do you know who De Soto was?”
“Yeah, actually I do. He was the rich conquistador in search of gold and silver like that of Central America and Peru’s plunders. He was one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Mississippi River so they say.”
“That’s right. He saw the river for the first time, right here. That’s why they named the park after him. Did you know that before you came here?” Don asks.
“No. I had no idea.” I almost argue that. I was under the impression that Desoto saw the Mississippi for the first time down south by the mouth but it doesn’t matter. “De Soto didn’t care about the river, Don. He wanted gold and silver. He had dreams of exploiting the land and robbing the people like they did to the Incan Empire. He ended up crossing the river and exploring Louisiana and Arkansas before dying of fever and finding his burial-place in this water, a river worth more than all the gold and silver in the world. He didn’t love the Mississippi like we do. It was an obstacle to him and it would go mostly forgotten until Marquette and Jolliet. To my understanding anyways,” I say.
We have another beer and Don hands me some chicken wings from the truck. “Eat these, I couldn’t finish them. Just throw your cans in the back. There’s some cardboard and firewood there too if you need it. I take it you don’t have a wife or any children?”
“I should be fine Don, thanks though. I haven’t had any kids yet, never been married either –someday maybe. I’ve got some adventuring to do before I settle down like that though. What about you? Do you have a family?”
He says, “Nope. It just didn’t happen. There’s been women, never lasted, too much drama. I’m fine with being alone. You either get used to it or you don’t. I like to be able to come to the river and drink some beers or whatever and not have anyone to answer to, not have anyone calling. You know what I mean?”
I shake my head in agreement saying, “I’m still awaiting the answer to my own calling. Trying different jobs and traveling all over isn’t really congruent with the family lifestyle. To be a father will be an honor when I’m older and wiser but for now, I travel and see the world’s people. I’m sure glad I ended up here at Hernando De Soto River Park and met you. And to think, he didn’t even know the importance of what he was discovering. I didn’t know what I was discovering on this trip until recently either but I think I hear my calling, it’s too late to talk though as it’s been a long day. I’d like to be up with the sun tomorrow so I’m off to bed Don. I thoroughly enjoyed your company tonight,” I say, yawning with a sleepy smile. “Thanks for the beers.”
“Yeah, it’s about that time. Goodnight Michael. I enjoyed your company too,” he says, shaking my hand warmly. Before sleeping, I lay in the tent thinking about the kindness of strangers: the hobo, the firefighter, the gangster, the Rasta, and the river rat. My dude Mr. Clemons said it best, “Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” The kindly instincts of a traveler are also reflected in those she encounters. The folks I met today are a testament to that. I wish we could all live the dream of the traveler but then we don’t all wish for the same dreams do we?
Drifting, sleepy and dreamy, I imagine being a dad, with the most beautiful, talented little girl that a mother could wish for and I see the extraordinary way that we might interact as a family. I bestow my blessings upon the mothers and fathers who’ve poured their love into the world where I haven’t yet. Plunge into your lives as parents with a passion for exploration, just the same as I dive deep into the depths of the soul. Let us return to the surface with a report on our findings and trade our observations as I exchange my dreams with the spirit world tonight.