My cable was out over the weekend and I had to have a repairman come by yesterday morning to check it out. Because the cable company gave me a window of 10-noon to expect him, I was at home still scrambling to prep for my 1pm class when he arrived.
My cable repair guy was a black man, in his early 50's I would guess. After the standard "good morning" niceties on the porch, I explained what was wrong and invited him in. He walked in and noticed that I had materials about the "Jena 6" strewn all over the table and he asked why I have all that stuff. I told him that I teach a Philosophy and Race class at Rhodes, and I wanted my class to realize that a lot of the things they are reading are still relevant today. He said, "Boy, I could tell them some stories..."
And then he told me some stories.
Turns out, Mr. Wilkins (that's his name) was one of the first groups of schoolkids "bussed" to the white schools in Helena, Arkansas as a part of the Freedom of Choice desegregation plans. The recent stories of the Jena 6, in Mr. Wilkins mind, immediately transported him back to that time. He said until he was in high school, he really thought "nigger" was just a part of his name. He said that he distinctly remembers wondering what the difference between the water in the "white" fountain and the water in the "colored" fountain was, and whether or not that was something that he could ask in science class. He said that before the school integration, his neighborhood was a model of a thriving black economy, and after integration, it was a mess. We talked for a long time.
At some point in the conversation, Mr. Wilkins noticed my guitars sitting around and asked if I played. I said "not very well" and then we talked about music for a while. Mr. Wilkins always wanted to play guitar, but he's left-handed and said he could never figure out the upside-down guitar playing. He said his mother was a pianist (and a piano teacher) and she used to play a lot in Memphis and the surrounding Delta. She was actually pretty famous, he said. So, I asked, "what was her name?"
For a second, I thought to myself, "no way, it can't be that Muriel." But then I asked him, "did she ever play at a small place in Mississippi called the Hollywood?" And Mr. Wilkins told me what I had already suspected but couldn't quite believe: yes, she's the Muriel from the song "Walking in Memphis."
For those of you who don't know, there's a part in the Marc Cohn song "Walking in Memphis" that goes:
Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood/ and they brought me down to see her, and she asked me if I would/ do a little number, so I sang with all my might./ She said "Tell me are you a Christian child?"/ I said "Ma'am I am tonight"
Here's the whole song:
Before he left, we exchanged numbers and agreed to have lunch sometime soon. I invited him to come talk to my class whenever he had the time.
After he left, I thought to myself, I really love this city.