It’s my birthday, and November is set in a minor key anyway. Memphis beckons again (I’ll be there in a month), so thought I’d share an excerpt from a wonderful book I’m reading, by Stanley Booth: Rythm Oil: A Journey Through The Music Of The American South. In the chapter on Furry Lewis, the author describes Furry Lewis’ job as a street-sweeper on Beale.
Furry Lewis, of course, was in the wave of first blues performers in the 1920s, who then were rediscovered, basically, with the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s. He lived for years in obscurity, except for the locals, who knew who he was, and Booth paints a riveting and haunting portrait of this one-legged guy, walking up and down Beale Street with his broom in 1966. There’s no tragedy here, except for far underneath, the deep strain of racism and oppression and poverty that runs through his tale. Furry’s attitude is not tragic. He is a survivor.
While the piece is about Furry, it’s really about the history of Beale Street.
Excerpt from Rythm Oil: A Journey Through The Music Of The American South, by Stanley Booth
Furry has been working for the City of Memphis Sanitation Department since 1923. Shortly after two o’clock each weekday morning, he gets out of bed, straps on his artificial leg, dresses and makes a fresh pot of coffee, which he drinks while reading the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The newspaper arrives in the afternoon, but Furry does not open it until morning. Versie is still asleep, the paper is company for him as he sits in the kitchen under the harsh light of the ceiling bulb, drinking the hot, sweet coffee. He does not eat breakfast; when the coffee is gone, he leaves for work.
The sky is black. The alley is quiet, the apartments dark. A morning-glory vine hanging from a guy-wire stirs like a heavy curtain in the cool morning breeze. Cars in the cross alley are covered with a silver glaze of dew. A cat flashes between shadows.
Linden Avenue is bright and empty in the blue glare of the street lamps. Down the street, St. Patrick’s looms, a sign, 100 YEARS WITH CHRIST, over its wide red doors. Furry, turning right, walks past the faded, green-glowing bay windows of an apartment house to the corner. A moving-van rolls past. There is no other traffic. When the light changes, Furry crosses, heading down Hernando. The clock at Carodine’s Fruit Stand and Auto Service reads, as it always does, 2:49.
The cafes, taverns, laundries, shoe-repair shops and liquor stores are all closed. The houses, under shading trees, seem drawn into themselves. At the Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church, the stained-glass windows gleam, jewel-like against the mass of blackened stone. A woman wearing a maid’s uniform passes on the other side of the street. Furry says good morning and she says good morning, their voices patiently weary. Beside the Scola Brothers’ Grocery is a sycamore, its branches silhouetted against the white wall. Furry walks slowly, hunched forward, as if sleep were a weight on his shoulders. Hand-painted posters at the Vance Avenue Market: CHICKEN BACKS 12 1/2c LB.; HOG MAWS, 15c; RUMPS, 19c.
Behind Bertha’s Beauty Nook, under a large, pale-leafed elm, there are twelve garbage cans and two carts. Furry lifts one of the cans on to a cart, rolls the cart out into the street and, taking the wide broom from its slot, begins to sweep the gutter. A large woman with her head tied in a kerchief, wearing a purple wrapper and gold house slippers, passes by on the sidewalk. Furry tells her good morning and she nods hello.
When he has swept back to Vance, Furry leaves the trash in a pile at the corner and pushes the cart, with its empty can, to Beale Street. The sky is gray. The stiff brass figure of W.C. Handy stands, one foot slightly forward, the bell of his horn pointing down, under the manicured trees of the deserted park. The gutter is thick with debris: empty wine bottles, torn racing forms from the West Memphis dog track, flattened cigarette packs, scraps of paper and one small die, white with black spots, which Furry puts into his pocket. An old bus, on the back of which is written in yellow print, LET NOT YOUR HEART BE TROUBLE, rumbles past; it is full of cotton choppers: their dark, solemn faces peer out the grimy windows. The bottles clink at the end of Furry’s broom. In a room above the Club Handy, two men are standing at an open window looking down at the street. One of them is smoking, the glowing end of his cigarette can be seen in the darkness. On the door to the club, there is a handbill: BLUES SPECTACULAR, CITY AUDITORIUM: JIMMY REED, JOHN LEE HOOKER, HOWLIN’ WOLF.
Furry pushes the garbage onto a flat scoop at the front of the cart, then goes to the rear and pulls a jointed metal handle, causing the scoop to rise and dump its contents into the can. The scoop is heavy; when he lets it down, it sends a shock from his right arm through his body, raising his left leg, the artificial one, off the ground. Across the street, in a chinaberry tree, a gang of sparrows are making a racket. Furry sweeps past two night clubs and then a restaurant, where, through the front window, large brown rats can be seen scurrying across the kitchen floor. A dirty red dog stands at the corner of Beale and Hernando, sniffing the air. A black soldier in a khaki uniform runs past, heading toward Main. The street lamps go off.
When Furry has cleaned the rest of the block, the garbage can is full and he goes back to Bertha’s for another. The other cart is gone and there is a black Buick parked at the curb. Furry wheels to the corner and picks up the mound of trash he left there. A city bus rolls past; the driver gives a greeting honk and Furry waves. He crosses the street and begins sweeping in front of the Sanitary Bedding Company. A woman’s high-heeled shoe is lying in the sidewalk. Furry throws it into the can. “First one-legged woman I see, I’ll give her that,” he says and, for the first time that day, he smiles.
At Butler, the next cross street, there is a row of large, old-fashioned houses set behind picket fences and broad, thickly leafed trees. The sky is pale blue now, with pink-edged clouds, and old men and women have come out to sit on the porches. Some speak to Furry, some do not. Cars are becoming more frequent along the street. Furry reaches out quickly with his broom to catch a windblown scrap of paper. When he gets to Calhoun, he swaps cans again and walks a block – past Tina’s Beauty Shop, a tavern called the Section Playhouse and another named Soul Heaven – to Fourth Street. He places his cart at the corner and starts pushing the trash toward it.
From a second-story window of a rooming-house covered with red brick-patterned tarpaper comes the sound of a blues harmonica. Two old men are sitting on the steps in front of the open door. Furry tells them good morning. ‘When you goin’ make another record?’ one of them asks. ‘Record?’ the other man, in a straw hat says. ‘That’s right,’ says the first one. ‘He makes them big-time records. Used to.’
Furry dumps a load into the cart, then leans against it, wiping his face and the back of his neck with a blue bandanna handkerchief.
Down the stairs and through the door (the old men on the steps leaning out of his way, for he does not slow down) comes the harmonica player. He stands in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, head tilted to one side, the harmonica cupped in his hands. A man wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane before him like a divining rod turns the corner, aims at the music, says cheerfully, ‘Get out the way! get off the sidewalk!’ and bumps into the harmonica player, who spins away, like a good quarterback, and goes on playing.
Furry puts the bandanna in his pocket and moves on, walking behind the cart. Past Mrs. Kelly’s Homemade Hot Tamales stand, the air is filled with a strong odor. Over a shop door, a sign reads: FRESH FISH DAILY.
Now the sky is a hot, empty blue, and cars line the curb from Butler to Vance. Furry sweeps around them. Across the street, at the housing project, children are playing outside the great blocks of apartments. One little girl is lying face down on the grass, quite still. Furry watches her. She has not moved. Two dogs are barking nearby. One of them, a small black cocker spaniel, trots up to the little girl and sniffs at her head; she grabs its forelegs and together they roll over and over. Furry starts sweeping and does not stop or look up again until he has reached the corner. He piles the trash into the can and stands in the gutter, waiting for the light to change.
For the morning, his work is done. He rolls the cart down Fourth, across Pontotoc and Linden, to his own block, where he parks it at the curb, between two cars. Then he heads across the street toward Rothschild’s grocery store, going to try to get some beer on credit.