Saturday, November 15, 2008

Church, Memphis Style

I'm back.

I'm also clearly making regular payments on some karmic debt these days. I can't exactly pinpoint what I did to merit the utter mayhem of this year, but I suspect it has something to do with my remarking one too many times last year about how happy I was with my life back in Memphis. A lot of people in our line of work comment on how difficult the first year is for new faculty-- new location, new people, transition from grad school life, etc., etc.-- and I was happy to report that I was blessedly spared many, if not most, of those standard first-year obstacles. I was back in a city that I knew and loved, I didn't have to find my way around or make new friends, I wasn't teaching some god-awful 4/5 load, I had great students and colleagues... in sum, things were pretty good.

And then the other shoe dropped.

So, I'm here to report that the sophomore year is also a tough one. In my case, there are a lot of contingencies that have come into play this year that have made things much more difficult than my first year. I had a wreck and totaled my car. Our department is hiring. I got my first batch of advisees this semester. I've been introduced to the myriad delights of "committee" work. I managed to catch every single illness that my little Typhoid-Mary-students have been passing around. I've somehow lost my voice about once every other week this semester. Oh yeah, and I'm still trying to write this damn book.

But, enough of the whining... here's a "good" story.

As many of you know, Wild Bill's is about my single favorite place on the planet. It's one of the last surviving juke joints in the Delta, named after Willie Storey, who died last summer. I've been going to Wild Bill's for [mumble, mumble] years, and since I've been back in Memphis, I've resumed my regular attendance. I regularly sit in with the band and sing at Bill's, as I've done for many, many years, and I realized recently that I've been friends with some of the band members (they're called the Soul Survivors) longer than just about anyone else I know. [Funny aside: I was away from Memphis, and away from Bill's, for 6 years while I was in grad school. Two summers ago, the first time I walked back into Bill's, the bass player turned to me and said, "Hey, haven't seen you in a while. Where you been?"] Here's a picture of Bill's with Bill in the doorway:

And here's a better picture of Wild Bill/Willie. The bass player to the right is my good friend Melvin.

There really aren't words for what this place means to me. It's like my "church." It doesn't matter how tired or stressed or anti-social I'm feeling, I need to go to Bill's to get restored. A couple of weeks ago, after singing a set with the band, Bill's wife came up and asked me if I had a job. I said I did, of course, not really knowing where she was going with this. Then she said, "well, honey, if you ever decide that you want to take over the Friday night set here as the singer, it's yours." That might be the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. No kidding. And then, the next week, I was sitting at my regular table in the back with some friends, and we were looking at all the pictures on the wall. (Wild Bill's walls are covered in pictures of people who have been going there since it opened.) Out of the blue, one of my friends says, "hey, Leigh, the girl in this picture looks like you with long hair." So, I looked, and as I'm sure you've guessed, it WAS me. It was me about 15 YEARS AGO!!!

Once I got over the embarrassment of the picture, I realized that Wild Bill's has been about the most consistent element in my life for almost half of the years I've been alive. It's the one place in the world that I can go and know that I will see people I know and love, and it's the one place that I know I will leave happy. Wild Bill's has changed a lot over the years that I've been going there, and some of those changes haven't been good. Bill died, of course, which was awfully sad. And the place is overrun by a lot more tourists than it used to be back in the day. Also, I occasionally see my students there these days, who almost always are fronting and say something like "Dr. J! I didn't know you came to Wild Bill's!" (like they go there all the time). What I want to say to them is, "If you came here at all in the last 15 years you would know that, so don't make me embarrass you in front of your friends." But I don't say that.

Anyway, Bill's has been my saving grace this semester. God Bless Wild Bill's.


MJG said...

Well I was there Saturday night, believe it or not. What timing! Being from here (as you well know), I consider Wild Bill's one of Memphis' "sacred spaces." Great post. The place sure is something else.

CF said...

Dr. Ma'am,

That would be a blues theodicy that you've described. Think of it this way: had "the other shoe not dropped," and had the blues not set up shop in your life, would you have been asked to sing at Wild Bill's? I think not!

What was that line in "It Came From Memphis?" "Memphis is the town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."

Glad to hear that hasn't changed. Part of me always will be in Memphis.