Monday, May 15, 2006

Memphis Trip Part III: BBQ and BB King

This is Part III in a multi-part story that will detail our recent road trip to Memphis. To follow along with the pictures that accompany this blog, click here.

Remember that you can always click on an image for the full picture. And click a photo subject header to go to the blog that corresponds with that section of pictures

Saturday Night

In a group the size of the Memphis gang, it’s good to have someone who is willing to make a decision. In a group as drunk as the Memphis gang, it’s even better to have a person willing to shout that decision over the ruckus. Luckily, we had Goldstein. Fingers were pointed in every direction as we stood on the sidewalk outside our Best Western and tried to come to consensus on a restaurant for dinner. Goldstein kept pointing down the dirty alley between the Holiday Inn and our hotel. Seeing as though no one wanted to eat in a dirty alley, people (myself included) talked over him and pointed every other possible direction. Eventually he just shouted out that he was going down this alley to a place that he had eaten before and that he knew was good…we could do as we pleased. Blank stares were shared and since no one really had a better idea, we silently fell in line behind our leader.

Now, I’m a fan of the hole-in-the-wall joint, really I am. But I have to admit that even I would have never ventured down this alley to the little wooden sign just past the dumpster that read “Rendezvous.” And even if I had ventured down that alley, I see no reason I would have thought to go down the steps into the basement. I’d like to say otherwise, but without Goldstein, I would have missed out on a Memphis tradition. What I didn’t know at the time was that this particular hole-in-the-wall is known far and wide as the best dry-rub barbeque in a city renown for its barbeque. True, I didn’t sample this legendary barbeque since it is, by definition, made of animal bits. But, the red beans and rice were pretty good and the place just reeked of history. Our waiter had been working there for 40 years and mocked us in the friendly, sing-song patterns of ridicule that seem to flow so naturally in southern black culture. In short, the place was perfect. Do not let the alley scare you away from this treasure.

With full stomachs, we split up again. The bulk of the gang was heading straight to Beale Street, but Duke and I wanted to go up and finish off our Peabody Duck experience. By this point the ducks had returned to their “penthouse” and we were curious what kind of splendor they lived in up there. Now, Jet has already teased me for spending so much blog-time on these silly ducks. But the fact is that while the ducks themselves are really nothing more than ducks, I will stand by my being mesmerized by the phenomenon of the ducks. So either indulge me or skim ahead…but what we did next involved the ducks.

There was some sort of black tie affair on the top floor of the Peabody that night, something to do with the Bar Association if the lobby sign was to be trusted. But Duke and I were not to be dissuaded. We went ahead and charged up to the top floor, hoping to skirt the party on our way to the ducks’ home. The elevator dumped us into a lobby filled with black suits and black dresses. To the left was a ballroom filled with festive lawyers, to the right were patio doors that lead to the rooftop. We darted to the right as quickly as our touristy shoes would go.

The ducks were pretty boring, I’ll admit. Remove the Sousa and children and they were just some ducks in a rooftop cage. However, the rooftop view of Memphis at dusk was well worth the trip up the elevator. Clouds rolled overhead and the wind toppled large potted plants as a storm moved toward the city. A building across the street displayed colored lights that just barely read “Go Grizz” in support of that nights’ Memphis Grizzlies playoff game. We roamed the rooftop for a while and just enjoyed the scenery before heading back inside. Once inside, however we were face to face once again with the formally dressed attorneys. We tried to smile politely in our t-shirts and tennis shoes, but no one smiled back. I hadn’t remembered the elevator being particularly slow on its way up the first time, but this delay seemed unbearable. When it finally arrived, a sour looking man in black entered with us. Silence for five floors.

“I think we were a little underdressed for that party,” I suggest jovially, trying to break the tension.

He looked me looked me up and down once before returning to his straight-forward stare with an “uh-huh” that indicated he felt “underdressed” may have been an understatement. Suddenly, the mild tension was replaced by actively uncomfortable pressure. Duke and I exploded into the downstairs lobby and burst out laughing once we were out of earshot.

“I’ve never seen a tension breaker backfire quite that badly,” Duke offered.

“Wow,” I responded. “If I’d have known it was such a lost cause, I would have gone for a trumpet fart instead. It’s probably what he was expecting.”

And so, with the disapproval of a well-dressed Memphis lawyer fresh in our hearts, we strolled toward Beale Street. We found Jet and a handful of his friends seated under a neon sign in a bar with a window view of the party outside.

For the next few hours we roamed from bar to bar and band to band. Fun was had and songs were sung. Duke, for his part, did a pretty good job of matching the frat boys beer for beer for a time. But, eventually he decided against pursuing them any further and wisely let them go on without him. I, on the other hand, indulged in one of the few great perks about NOT drinking in a bar. The bars all assumed I was the designated driver and kept my plastic cup full of free soda. Score! Amidst all the revelry, however, I kept a close eye on Jet even as I enjoyed myself. And when his speech reached the recognizable level of slurred and his flirting reached the recognizable level of incoherence…Duke and I made our smooth departure before any responsible action was required of us.

We visited Duke new favorite spot on Beale, Silky’s. I’m told it’s a great club…but Duke didn’t care about that. He had fallen in love with its street side hot dog vendor…the hot dogs…not the vendor himself, mind you. So, we sat on the street and chatted as Duke worked his way through two or three of the overpriced dogs. We watched as drunken girls hung on drunken guys. We watched as drunken guys sneaked glances down the blouses of the drunken girls hanging on them. And because we held still for too long, we were eventually discovered by Memphis John.

Memphis John opened up with a request for cigarette from Duke. From there he began his story. Homeless vet with the word of the savior Jesus in his heart. I’ll admit that I’m pretty jaded when it comes to this sort of show. I had talked to too many men just like Memphis John when I lived in the French Quarter in N’awlins, so I moved away and continued my people watching. Duke however was hypnotized by this street preacher and grinned sincerely as John spoke. Perhaps if I had listened, I would have realized that Memphis John had some sort of charisma that separated him from other such men. But personally, I suspect that Duke’s hours of frat chasing were working in John’s favor. At one point, I heard John lamenting all the poor people who stupidly ignored the word of Jesus to worship trees and statues and nothingness. I toyed briefly with jumping in to inject a few Buddhist trinkets into the conversation, but figured I was just being difficult. Duke still seemed to be enjoying himself so I let it go.

After about a half hour, my patience wore out and I began making gestures over John’s shoulder to get Duke’s attention. Duke wrapped up, gave Memphis John $5 and shook his hand as John made some sort of blessing. On the way back to the hotel Duke apologized for ignoring me for those ten minutes and was stunned to lean that his conversation with the sidewalk minister had lasted thirty minutes. Like I said, either John was good or Duke was drunk.

We fell asleep discussing Heaven and Hell and morality as the storm finally unleashed on the hapless partiers still on Beale.

Sunday Morning

As on Saturday, Duke and I rose early and had our Grand Slam breakfasts at Denny’s. The rest of our party was upstairs trying to sweet talk the hotel into extending their checkout to allow more time for sleep and clean up. Eventually they found their way down and we discussed our plans for taking the Sun Records tour before heading home. Since very few were interested, we loaded up the van and Duke, Jet, Ben, and I walked down Union Ave to the Sun Records Recording Studio while the rest of them ate breakfast or slept in the lobby.

Much like Graceland, there’s not a whole lot I can say about the events at Sun without turning this into an essay on Sun Records. However, I will say that standing in that building, in the very room where so many amazing musicians recorded was truly astounding. The walls just oozed history. From Howling Wolf to Johnny Cash to Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to Roy Orbison…it was almost overwhelming to try to imagine it all.

So, while I won’t go into great detail about this, I will say that it’s worth seeing if you never have. And it’s worth learning about it you don’t know much about it and you’re interested at all in the history of American music.

The Return Trip

The ride home was a bit more subdued than the ride down. The keg was empty and the radio was turned down. No one puked or spilled anything on anyone. And because of this calm, the miles ticked off much more slowly than they had on Friday. With no reason to jump out of my seat every few minutes to dodge a precariously balanced pitcher of beer as it passed over my head, my ass grew sore in the seat. And with no one shouting insults back and forth, I grew sleepy. I watched cows out the window and listened to the Hold Steady on my iPod. In the end, however, we found ourselves back at our cars behind Jet’s wedding store. The weekend was over. No one got hauled off to jail and it certainly seems everyone had a great time. I’d call the whole thing a roaring success.

So, I’d like to take a few lines here to thank everyone on the trip for making it so much fun. Thanks to Jet for still wanting your old, married, alcohol-free, vegetarian brother along on his beer fest even after my presence was no longer needed as best man. Thanks to Duke for doing all the baby-care gymnastics necessary to get yourself out of the house for a weekend. Your presence made it possible for me to enjoy the frat boys’ company…and vice versa I’m sure. Thanks to Goldstein for handling so much of the planning and for making sure Duke and I had our own space away from the hubbub. And thanks to each of the guys who shared that van. It was a truly wonderful experience and I’m glad I got to share it with you. Oh, and thanks to anyone who actually read all three of my Memphis posts. They were long, I know. And they were basically the blog equivalent of a two hour slide show of some dude’s vacation photos. But on the up side…now I can return to my normal pattern of writing about Pumkin preparation. I have no doubt you are all quite excited ;)

The End

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Short Break from Memphis to Eat Brains

This whole Memphis story is taking longer than I thought. My original plan was so simple. Three posts in about three days and the whole story and all the pictures would be posted. As you can see…I’m two weeks returned from Memphis and there is still one post lacking. Last week was far busier than the week before and I failed to schedule my time accordingly. I’m planning to finish it tonight, but I wanted to take a few minutes to share a fun find.

My relatively nomadic friend who I will tentatively nickname Oaf and who is currently living in L.A. sent me an email last night. Due to all around laziness on my part, I hadn’t talked to him in quite some time. I don’t even think he knew about Pumkin’s existence. Basically, it boils down to me being horrible at staying in touch with my long-distance friends, but I’m glad Oaf took it upon himself to write me.

The good news for my readers is that Oaf sent me a link to a song that he said made him think of me. As a lyrical mix of Office Space and Dawn of the Dead, it was perfect for Moonshot and I. So thanks, Oaf. I checked out the rest of the artist’s stuff. While most of it was silly, there are two songs that I felt were good enough to share with all of you. “Re Your Brains” was the song Oaf sent to us and it’s worth checking out. But the real reason I’m posting this is because Taltap, Duran, FreddyJ, and Ben all need to check out “Code Monkey". I’ve had both of these songs alternately stuck in my head since last night.

Ok, now that I’ve shared that…I’ll try to get back to the task of completing my Memphis trip.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Memphis Trip Part II: Walkin' In Memphis

This is Part II in a multi-part story that will detail our recent road trip to Memphis. To follow along with the pictures that accompany this blog, click here

The Peabody Hotel

Saturday morning came far more peacefully to Duke and me than to those who had stayed out til near dawn. We woke comfortably around 8 and cheerfully made our way downstairs for some breakfast at the Denny’s attached to the hotel. We debated roaming in search of a more Memphis-y breakfast, but since I don’t eat meat, we decided pancakes and eggs are pretty much the same no matter where you go. We opted for ease.

Our main goal for the morning was to witness the march of the legendary Peabody Ducks at the Peabody Hotel across the street. I must admit that this is truly a mysterious phenomenon of Memphis and even after watching it and snapping way too many pictures of it…I still don’t understand it. On the roof of the Peabody Hotel there is a cage filled with trained ducks. They live up there in relative splendor with a padded duck house and a heated pond replete with a duck-shaped fountain. Every day at 11am, these trained ducks are marched to the elevator, ride down to the main floor, and then march themselves down a red carpet to a fountain in the middle of the lobby while the speakers blare a march by John Phillips Sousa. Hundreds of cameras flash in unison and the collective sound of “aaaaawwww” can be heard even over the Sousa march. The ducks then swim around in the fountain until 5pm, playing celebrity and posing for pictures. And then they march back to the elevator with just as much pomp and circumstance and retire for the evening in the “penthouse” pad. This odd tradition has been going on since 1933.

The website explains that the whole thing started out as a joke. So the real question is, why do we keep flocking to the lobby at 11am and 5pm. I mean, sure, the ducks are freaking cute waddling down the red carpet. But so is my dog Arlo when he plays with his chew ring, and yet I doubt I could attract hundreds of people to my house to watch th event. Basically, I figure others go see it for the same reason I did…because we’re oddly fascinated that such an event occurs. We flock because we’re amazed that others are flocking. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that does at least allow these five ducks to continue to living in the luxury to which they have become accustomed. It’s silly and utterly meaningless, but somehow it made perfect sense as Duke and I waited on the balcony, awaited a glimpse of waddling ducks.

But lest you think the ducks were all the Peabody had to offer us, there was also the tailor. The gentleman who owns the clothing store inside the hotel was once Elvis’s tailor and has one of the largest personal collections of autographed guitars in the world. He displays them on the walls of his store and it’s worth going into the Peabody just to look at all the names. Johnny and June Carter Cash, Kiss, Dave Mathews, VanHalen, the wide range was truly stunning.

Red Birds’ Stadium

After we were finished aawwing at ducks and gawking at guitars, we strolled in a random direction. As recently arrived tourists, we couldn’t help but see new sights no matter which direction we went, so we just meandered to the…I think it was to the right. As luck would have it, our random direction led us to Autozone Park where the Memphis Red Birds play. I just wanted to see the stadium since it really does look like a scaled down version of the new Busch Stadium, but as we got closer it was clear that the front gates were open. So we strolled inside. As we went inside it was clear that we could walk right up to the empty seats. So we did. We wandered the park for a while and marveled at the fact that they kept the stadium open and that everything seemed intact. It always makes me happy when people are left to their honor and behave responsibly. However, the complete lack of supervision and total lack of signs to discourage us did eventually lead us onto the field. I assumed they wouldn’t be happy to see us there, but we were careful not to damage the grass and tried to be good citizens despite our probably trespassing. We walked the grass and enjoyed a few photo ops in the dugout and were about to continue our street wandering when Jet finally called to let me know he was up and about.

“Where are you guys at?” he asked.

“We’re on the baseball field”

Jet’s voice when muffled as he relayed the message to someone else, “He says they’re over at the stadi…wait. Did you say ON the field?”

Literally a minute and a half later, Jet and the gang rushed down the stairs of the stadium. The boy can move when properly motivated. They instantly headed for the locker rooms and I handed him my camera. While I had no intention of pushing my luck that far, I certainly wanted to see any pictures he came back with.

Ultimately, a friendly security woman caught Jet and his friends on the field and felt that some form of back-up was going to be necessary to remove the guys from the field. I was able to talk her into not calling whoever it was she wanted to alert about the trespassing and motioned everyone off the field. It seems we weren’t supposed to go into the seating area, although how they expected us to intuit this barrier I have no idea. I was pretty sure we were pushing it on the field, and clearly the locker rooms were a violation, but I’m still not sure why they didn’t lock the gates of at least put up some ropes if they were so serious about keeping people out of the seats. Ah well. No harm done and we got some great pictures out of it.


Our next stop was the home of the King. It’s another one of those things that I can’t explain the appeal, but which fascinated me. I’m not a big Elvis fan and the house isn’t that spectacular, really. However, Elvis is undeniably one of a handful of American Royalty, more like a Greek god than a human in the legacy he left behind. So, when given the chance to take the holy pilgrimage to Graceland, I couldn’t help but go. And I’ll admit to being impressed with both the place and with the man. I still don’t own any Elvis music, but as with the ducks…it just makes sense while you’re there.

I’ll not bore you with a description of the tour. But, I will say that the decorating styles of the 1970s got more bizarre and outlandish the more money you spent. Having grown up on shag carpet, I had made my peace with the home d├ęcor blunders of my parents’ generation. But Elvis’s wealth allowed him to take these bad ideas to whole new levels of hideous. Shag ceilings, man…shag ceilings

Pre-Beale Drinking

We returned from Graceland with tired feet, so we lounged about the hotel for a while. Since half of our party had shown no interest in Elvis and had instead gone golfing, we had some time to kill before their return allowed us to head to dinner. The frat boys characteristically chose to spend this time filling up their beer reserves after the three torturous, alcohol-free hours at Graceland. What most amazed me about this period was their ingenuity for beer transport. The once-hidden keg had now found a place of honor on a wheeled hotel cart. This allowed the party to easily roam from one room to the next and added a touch of class I must say. Andy had taken to drinking his beer from a hotel coffee carafe. This allowed him to carry twice as much beer as his peers with no fear of confusing his drink for someone else’s. However, the small bit of class added by the brass keg cart was quickly washed away by Andy’s presentation

Soon, they were all sporting a comfortable buzz and were ready to hit Beale Street again. And this time Duke and I would tag along…for a little while.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Memphis Trip Part I: A Beer Soaked Van

This is Part I in a multi-part story that will detail our recent road trip to Memphis. To follow along with the pictures that accompany this blog, click here

We were supposed to have a bus. And the existence of a bus in the memories of the frat boys who made up the bulk of our Memphis road trip meant that they were unwilling to release the idea that they should be hammered by the time they arrived on Beale Street. The bus would have allowed kegs and cans and plastic bottles, so the idea of unfettered access to the frat fuel had hatched and refused to be abandoned for something so trivial as open container laws. So, rather than removing the keg as we downgraded to a rental van, sober drivers were selected and we simply hoped we didn’t get pulled over.

The keg was cleverly concealed under our luggage in the van. Just an innocent pile of suitcases and duffle bags with a pump and a hose peaking over the top. However, within 20 minutes of our departure, such deception was rendered meaningless. You see, one of Jet’s friends named Faddler had sat in the bartender seat. This was perhaps a bad decision. Faddler was honest enough to admit early on that he has a bad habit of spilling beer at parties. And that’s without the benefit of a moving, swerving, braking van to compound the issue. So, by the time we escaped the St Louis area, the floor was covered in beer. Every person in the van had at least two or three huge wet spots from spilled beer. Conversations routinely came to a screeching halt as cold beer was accidentally dumped down someone’s back. And poor Faddler would have been hard pressed to find more than two inches of dry space on his whole body. No matter how well the keg was buried, piles of luggage could not hide the overpowering stench of beer soaked clothing and upholstery.

In addition to the difficulty the van added to drinking, its distinct lack of a bathroom was equally problematic. The bus was to have a bathroom on board to accommodate the continuously full bladders of heavy drinkers. The van, on the other had, was forced to make multiple stops. We quickly abandoned the idea of waiting for gas stations, opting instead for the instant gratification of country roads. A few of us less exhibitionist types would run for the tree line while the majority of the frat boys seemed to find great joy in facing the road. Many a poor farmer out for a country drive was shocked that day to see a line of 8 guys urinating in his general direction.

It was on the last of these wilderness stops that I found my access to the tree line was blocked by a gully of stagnant mud. As the frat boys assumed their normal routine, your modest narrator stood and looked for a suitable place to cross. Suddenly, Jet rushed past me in a full sprint. He was heading straight for the tree line and was clearly unaware of the gully. He hit the water in full stride before anyone could react. His sandal sank into the mud which stopped his foot mid-stride. Suddenly, all his forward momentum was propelling my poor drunken brother straight down toward a face flop into the muddy bank on the far side. I watched for a stunned moment as my brother flailed drunkenly in the grime, attempting to find his footing. Once it was clear that he was neither able to manage on his own nor receiving any help from his fraternity brothers, I started looking for a safe spot to cross. As I made my way across, he came close to standing on two occasions only to fall again. His sandal was buried beneath the mud and he couldn’t decide whether to go after it or continue on toward the trees for Plan A. His indecision led to more falls which were greeted by howling laughter from the dry side of the gully. I helped him to his feet and sent him on toward the trees. As I dug his sandal out with a stick, he stumbled around mumbling, “I don’t know what happened. I just don’t know what happened. What happened?”

I will admit that at this point my thoughts were, “This is NOT how this weekend is going to go.” You see, I have a fairly low tolerance for overly drunken behavior. One of the many reasons I quit drinking was my refusal to participate in behavior that led to this sort of recklessness. I’m not going to tell people they can’t behave this way, but as the “responsible one” I resent being the one that so often has to clean up the mess. On the other hand, I’m not going to leave my brother wallowing in the mud while the group that chanted “drink, drink, drink” laughs it up and offers no help. So, as I help Jet clean up a bit, I decide that I’m going to work hard over the course of the weekend to keep from being in positions that require me to play babysitter to the drunk. Everyone on the trip was an adult…I endeavored to respect their decision to drink like that by staying away from the aftermath. For the time being, however, I was stuck in the van with them, so I played nursemaid. I figured at this point, the worst was behind me, but Jet had a few more surprises up his mud caked sleeve.

Once we got him back in the van, Jet passed out. We sat him next to the door so that any puke that might make an appearance could be directed to the rubber entrance step so as to maximize the ease of cleanup. I should admit that despite my aversion to drunkenness, I was actually enjoying the ride. The mood was light and most of Jet’s fraternity brothers are really great guys. My spirits were therefore on the rise, having recovered from Jet’s loss in his one-man mud-wrestling contest. We crossed the Mississippi River on Hwy 40 and had just entered downtown Memphis when Jet suddenly bolted upright. “I’m gonna puke!” We had just pulled to a stoplight as he reached for the door. I was not overly alarmed, my expectation of the event was that he planned to puke out the open door onto the street. Hell, I appreciated the fact that I’d have less to clean up. However, Jet had other ideas. He rolled out of the van and into the intersection’s turning lane. By blind luck alone, there was no traffic in that lane. Panic washed over me as I leaped out of the open door and dragged him to the grassy embankment where he proceeded to vomit on his shirt and arms and hair. I waved the van on and told them to circle back.

Duke informs me that complete pandemonium broke out in the van as they pulled away from the intersection since only a few of them were coherent enough to understand that the plan involved coming back for Jet. Screams of “We can’t leave Jet!”, “Why the F*ck are you driving away?!” and other such verbal abuse were hurled at the driver and no amount of explaining could calm them until the van completed its circle.

Back at my intersection, traffic had slowed to watch as Jet made horrible animalistic noises and spewed bile down the hill. For my part, I tried to stand as nonchalantly as possible so as to indicate to anyone looking that there was no major emergency here. I didn’t want anyone to think that he was seriously injured or even worse that I had done something to him. My acting must have been pretty convincing since a police cruiser turned its spotlight on us at one point and upon being persuaded by my relaxed manner into believing there was nothing worth his notice here, continued driving. I will admit that I was particularly glad to have the cops drive away. My worst fear at that moment was that the van would circle back while I tried to explain the situation to the cop. Drunken, puking man on the side of the street I can explain. Drunken shouting men hanging out of a van…I’d be hard pressed to smooth that one over.

Duke arrived at my side at about this time and together we helped Jet to a nearby park bench. Having discarded much of the beer he had so diligently consumed, Jet suddenly perked up and announced, “I feel good. Really, I feel good. I don’t know what happened, but I feel good,” as he wiped off his face and hair with his shirt. We loaded him back in the van and cruised on toward them hotel.

This presented a new dilemma. Checking into the hotel with this many drunkards, one of whom was coated in beer and vomit was…well…embarrassing. Jet kept trying to have the clerk explain the mystery of the Peabody ducks to him, waving his hands in the air to indicate that it didn’t make any sense to him. I completed the paperwork as quickly as possible. My one consolation was that being two blocks off Beale…they probably get this a lot.

Duke and I quickly unpacked. We were the only people on the trip to have only two people in a room. Jet and Goldstein, the frat’s unofficial “responsible guy” and co-planner of the trip, were kind enough to realize how annoyed we’d be if we had to live with their shenanigans all night. We had a beautifully secluded little room down the hall and around the corner from everyone else. A lucky break. We took the few moments of silence to call our wives to let them know we were safe. I then called Jet to let him know that Duke and I would be dining by ourselves. Duke and I then literally snuck down the back stairs which were blessedly right next to our room and sought refuge in the Route 61 Bar and Grill around the corner.

We walked around Beale and had a pretty good evening. We even ran into the guys again briefly. Refreshed by our dinner away from the inebriation, I was again able to enjoy their company.

I would like to show you some pictures of this evening’s roamings…but I can’t. And there’s a mildly interesting story behind the noticeable absence of pictures. (Yes, Duke…I’m gonna tell it one more time).

Flashback to the hotel: Duke and I are getting ready to make our secret dash down the back stairs. I reach for the camera and Duke exclaims, “You’re not taking that camera down to Beale Street are you?”

“Well,” says I, “yeah. Why not?”

Duke looks at me as if I’m insane. “You just look like such a tourist.”

“I am a tourist.”

“But tourists aren’t down there right now,” he explains. “And if they are, they’re not acting like tourists at night. Bring the camera tomorrow.”

I concede the point. While I am quite comfortable with my geek-like nature, I figured he might have a point.

After dinner at Route 61, we headed down to Beale Street. The first place we go, the very first place…is a touristy gift shop. Now, I figured we’d just browse and maybe buy some things for our housebound loved ones tomorrow. But no, Duke begins buying. So now, we’re carrying gift shop bags down Beale Street. I think they knew we were tourists. So, in the end I can’t even give you a good reason for having no pictures of that evening. I guess it was just not a good day for disguises. The beer spillage wrecked the well-concealed keg and the gift shop bags wrecked the well-concealed camera. Alas.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Denny's Funeral

I’m sorry to subject my readers to two full blogs about this. I know I need to sit down and finish writing about my Memphis trip, but my mind keeps going back to my family members in their time of sorrow.

We gathered yesterday to mourn the passing of my cousin Denny Reaves. We were to meet at 11 at a park in Topeka and a more reasonable man would have left Thursday night. But Thursday was Moonshot’s birthday and I didn’t want to shortchange her special day. So, I set the alarm for 4:20 and hit the highway by 5AM. It turned out to be a bit earlier than necessary, but I didn’t want to get stuck in Kansas City rush hour traffic, so I left plenty of time. I arrived around 9:30 and was able to sneak in about an hour nap in my Mini while I waited for the rest of the family to roll in.

The service was informal, but nicely personalized. We spread his ashes on the banks of a small lake in a park he liked while listening to Steve Miller sing “of the pompatous of love.” And because he was an avid Frisbee golfer, we all wrote a message on a disc and one of his buddies launched it into the center of the lake. It was fitting.

The major thought that kept coming to me during the service was that I wish I had known him better. Oh, we saw each other at family get-togethers and enjoyed each other’s company, but it was, in the end, a very surface level relationship. I suppose it’s a fairly typical funeral thought to wish you had spent more time with the departed, but I came away from Topeka with the realization that I had missed out on really knowing an amazing person. His friends and close family got up and spoke about him, and even by the standards of funeral flattery, what they had to say about him was poignant and I found myself wishing I had a story or two to add…but no significant moment came to mind.

Many of my thoughts during the ceremony went to his family. His two daughters Skyler (5) and Meadow (3?) were lucky enough to be born to a great dad, but will probably never have strong memories of him. His mom, Bev, seemed lost as she tried to make sense of a loss that no one should have to suffer. And even his ex-wife, Rebecca wept openly.

Back at the meeting hall, I spent a few free moments talking with his older sister, Shannon. I hadn’t thought about it until I sat down with her, but I was one of the few people in the room with a similar experience in my past. I think having a kindred spirit to talk to seemed to give her hope since I do know what she is going through. I could tell her from experience that while the healing process will be tough and will never really be over, it does get better. It does get easier. And there will be a time when happy memories of him overpower the grief. I told her she was welcome to call me any time she felt she needed to, but I doubt she will. We just don’t know each other as well as either of us would like. My relationship with her is unfortunately much like my relationship with Denny…friendly, but not especially close. Technically she is my third cousin and I guess I should feel lucky that I’m as close to a third cousin as I am. But in times like this, when you want to reach out and help someone you care about, but realize that the necessary emotional bridges just aren’t in place, it’s hard not to kick yourself for squandered opportunities. I’ll probably send her an email in the next few days to reiterate my offer, just so she knows I was serious and not just making comforting funeral small talk.

The shame of the situation is that the loss seems so random. These are the details as best as we can reconstruct them. He had returned from a night of drinking around 1:30 in the morning. As was his custom at such times, he went to the kitchen to cook a snack. But this time, he passed out in his living room before the cooking was done and over the next few hours his apartment slowly filled with smoke. Due to lack of maintenance, no smoke alarm sounded. Around 3:30, the upstairs neighbor called the property manager to let him know she smelled smoke and was planning to call the fire department. The property manager told her not to call the fire department and promptly went back to bed. At 5:30 the neighbor continued to smell smoke and called the fire department despite the property manager’s ridiculous recommendation. Around 6:30 the firemen showed up and put out the fire. Denny was discovered in the closet by the front door having died from smoke inhalation. A chair had been overturned in front of the main door. This lead the local fire inspector to originally announce that the fire had not been accidental since the door had been “barricaded”. Upon later reflection that a tipped-over chair does not constitute a barricade, it was determined that Denny had simply been so disoriented by smoke inhalation by the time he woke that he could not find the front door past the chair he most likely overturned in his panic.

Such unlikely tragedies are always the hardest to internalize. So many fluke occurrences had to line up to make this situation lethal. Had Denny not been drunk, had Denny not tried to cook a snack, had Denny not passed out, had Denny maintained his smoke detectors, had Denny woke up before he inhaled so much smoke, had the upstairs neighbor called the fire department instead of the property manager, had the now un-employed property manager not talked the neighbor out of calling the firemen, had the firemen’s response time been better…Denny would still be with us.

In the end, we go on. It’s what we do as mortal beings, I suppose. It’s the price we pay for loving our fellow mortals. But we keep loving, even though we know that everyone in our life will eventually die. And since many of them will die in our lifetime, we know that grief will be a nearly constant partner in our life. However, no one in that room yesterday would measure their grief greater than the joy they had received from having Denny in their lives. So, while we mourn his sudden absence, we remember that the only reason the loss hurts so much is that we were so incredibly fortunate in the first place.

So, while Denny might not have been as big a part of my life as I would have liked, and while I’m sad today at his loss, primarily I’m just grateful for what I got.

In short…thanks, Denny, for a life well lived.

Monday, May 01, 2006

My Cousin Denny

It’s been a strange few days since last I posted. The Memphis trip went amazingly well and I am working on a lengthy blog that will do it justice. However, the weekend had a haze of sadness that tempered the good spirits. In order to properly focus on both the sadness and the fun that was had, I’ll split this into two separate blogs so that each event will get its due. Sadness first.

I had just left work on Thursday night when I received a call from my Uncle Jerry over in Olathe, KS. From the caller ID I knew he was calling from my great-aunt Eleanor’s house, so I was nervous. He asked how I was and attempted to make small talk for a little while, but I immediately recognized the hollow sound of shock. I was convinced that something had happened to Aunt Eleanor. Instead, Jerry let me know that my cousin Denny Reaves had died that morning.

I’ll admit I sat silent for a few seconds while I tried to continue to focus on the road. This was not an expected death…an illness death…an elderly death. This was an out-of-the-blue death…a say-that-again-because-I-must-have-misunderstood-you death…a far too young death. Denny was only 33 and died when his apartment down in Northern Arkansas caught fire. It seemed such a freak occurrence to so quickly whisk a person away and it felt uncomfortably familiar to me. I had heard my family speak and had myself spoken with that same, hollow voice when my father died in an accident just as quickly and just as unexpectedly. It takes a while for the brain to process the idea of “gone.” It takes tears, really, but for those first few days, everything else gets shoved to the side while the brain focuses all available energy toward accepting a world without a loved one in it. Everything else gets…hollow. So I drove toward home and answered Jerry’s polite but hollow questions with polite but hollow answers.

“How’s Moonshot?”

“She’s good. Belly's getting bigger.”

That sort of thing. Jerry is a fire fighter in Olathe and had probably been drafted to make all the phone calls because he was more able to keep it together in times of crisis. But together or not, his nephew had died and his stunned mind was trying desperately for a casual conversation that he probably won’t even remember having.

My own sense of loss is certainly less than that of the family members I’ve spoken with over the last few days. I wasn’t as close to Denny as many in my family. He grew up in Topeka so I just didn’t see him as often as some of my other cousins. I do remember that as a kid he had a sweet keyboard that could exactly replicate the intro from VanHalen’s Jump. He also had a collection of Masters of the Universe toys that made me seriously jealous. And he let me play with all these amazing toys, so he was quite an impressive person to my younger self. More recently we see each other maybe twice a year when my Dad’s side of the family gathers over in Kansas. We’d laugh and throw a Frisbee, but that was about it.

Despite only seeing him occasionally, I can assure you he was a wonderfully warm person. Last year, while Mr. Dingus and I were trying to launch a side business manufacturing a yard game, Denny was working as a carpenter in Fayetteville, AR at the home of a guy who managed Chinese manufacturing and shipping. Having played a prototype of our little game, Denny went to bat for us and set up a meeting. Even though things didn’t work out with the deal, it always meant a great deal to me that he remembered my business and tried to help out.

After talking with Jerry, I called my brother. I broke the news to him and we took a few minutes to talk about Denny. Then the discussion came to what we should do about the Memphis trip. We were scheduled to leave in the morning and Jet already had people at his house who had driven or flown in for the trip. I had less obligation to be on the trip except that Duke had gone through such great pains to align his schedule for the event. I was hesitant to call him the night before departure and cancel the trip since I knew he would have no interest in traveling with Jet’s friends if I wasn’t there. Jet finally pointed out that if we were going to cancel anything, we’d have to do it right then. And since the timing of the funeral had not been announced, we had no reason yet to cancel. So the decision was made to stay with the plan. We would go to Memphis and hope we didn’t miss the funeral. And if we did miss it, we would be sure to take some time out of our revelry to honor his memory.

It turns out Jet made the right call. The funeral has been delayed until Friday due to the mysterious circumstances of Denny’s death. When I left, I had assumed that he had failed to escape due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Surly, I reasoned, he had been asleep, the alarms had failed, and he died peacefully in his sleep. The fire occurred at 6:30 in the morning, so it was certainly possible he had been asleep. But that doesn’t appear to be the way of it. The fire started in his apartment and was contained in his apartment, so something clearly happened in his apartment to start the fire. Further, the firefighters did not even know that Denny was there until after they had put out the fire and found his body in the coat closet by the front door. No one has yet explained this detail. So, the funeral waits until the local examiners can figure out why he was in his closet. The local paper seems to indicate that homicide is being discussed, but I prefer to imagine that he was profoundly disoriented due to the carbon monoxide. But I’m not really sure if we’ll ever know.

In the end, the result is the same. Whatever fluke events occurred at 6:30 in my cousin Denny’s apartment have forever changed the lives of countless people. His children in Arkansas, his mother and sister back in Topeka, and the full extended family and friends spread across the country are trying to come to terms with this new reality.

I know most the readers of this blog didn’t know Denny, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you the world lost a good person last Thursday. And even though he was not a part of my daily life, my mind is struggling with the concept of his being "gone."

I will miss him.