It had rained sometime during the night in Vicksburg. Hearing the sound of rain on the tarp told me it was a gentle rain. Having taken two or three aspirins before trying to sleep had good results. Since childhood I had always dealt with periods of insomnia and through that had learned the value of aspirin as a sleeping aid. Through the tent opening, there was no daylight to be seen. Not carrying a watch meant it could be midnight or 5:00AM … or something in between. Well, whatever the time, I was done sleeping. Pulling my boots on (a bit weird without socks), grabbing the flashlight and the toothbrush, I emerged from the tent into the cool, damp, dark and made my way over to the toilets. On the return, I decided to make coffee no matter the time of night. I had covered the prepared fire the night before. Soon, the pot was making that splendid ‘almost done’ gurgling sound. There was enough air movement to keep mosquitoes at bay and a promise of daylight began to show through the trees. How’s that for perfect timing? Two cups of coffee would take me close to daylight.
After coffee pot cleaning (so easy with motel coffee packets), I packed up camp, putting two pieces of fruit in my jacket pockets. Refreshed the water bag, restroom again, and then putt-putting out of the campground and heading north on Business 61, which rejoined state route 61 a few miles later. Early morning, cool, very little traffic, and comfort to be had in the scooter purr. We weren’t eating up miles … with a top speed of 43 mph, it was closer to gnawing at miles. And that was on flat ground. If hills were involved, it would be more like nibbling at miles. The Mississippi was somewhere on my left, two miles or ten miles, I didn’t know. Crossed Yazoo River, a tributary to the Mississippi, and then there was lots of farmland, cultivated pastures, very few houses that I could see, but, by God, there were churches. No wonder they didn’t have houses … they spent all available money on holy pews. Little snide comment, there. Mile after mile of cultivated rectangles, punctuated by ponds, creeks or brooks or drainage ways. Decided to take a break at an intersection called Leland. No real town that I could see. Peed in a little stand of trees. Had a welcome smoke. Walked around for a few minutes and then back to the road. This countryside was not as boring as prairie, but not much better either, the prairie being tan and this being green. In time, I knew I was approaching the town of Cleveland, Mississippi, by the number of church steeples poking their way into the sky like pointed white mushrooms after a rain. Pews and steeples, steeples and pews! This morning’s run so far was just over 100 miles in just under two-and-a-half hours. Time to get fuel for the scooter and caffeine for the driver.
First the faithful scooter: fuel, check the tires, clean the windshield. Then me: coffee, add a doughnut, take a leak, have a smoke. Pay for it all and smile and say thank you (no conversation … I’m not trying to meet people right now) and I’m on the road again. Most comfortable place for me right now… on the road. There seemed to be an endless scene of cultivated rectangles in every imaginable shade of green. Similar to my thinking on the tan-colored Colorado and Oklahoma prairies, I wondered about young people in all these little agricultural towns. Was television their primary exposure to anything outside the tractor barn? Of course, these kids could catch a bus and get some of our world’s finest music, either in New Orleans, or Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee. In that regard at least, they were far better off than Boise, Oklahoma kids. Various churches were probably primary social centers, but in my experience, churches were not a welcoming force (they only pretended to be), trying instead to ‘protect’ their flocks from outside influence which might be tainted. There was no telling what havoc a deranged Lutheran or a violence-prone Congregationalist might precipitate. And please, let’s not even speak of R. Catholics, Jews, J. Witnesses, or God Forbid, Crazy Ass Quakers. Of course, my reasoning went, each church (or fragment thereof) was entitled to create its own special brand of lunacy to sell to its victims.
All these thoughts were a sign that my brain was returning to its old sweetly cantankerous status and would not long slop around in an emotional morass just because some beautiful woman was no longer with me. And all this thinking in the past hour had caused me not to remember anything of a town called Clarksdale, which I had just passed through, so our next major stop would be Memphis, Tennessee. My plan was to either find a campground with showers or an inexpensive motel. No real feeling as to whether I should spend one or two days in Memphis.
Traveling through yet more agricultural stuff, a pickup truck passed me and someone gave a ‘rebel yell.’ The bed of the truck had a half-dozen confederate battle flags in the stake slots. I had seen many of these displayed in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. People were evidently more proud of their Confederate emblems and displays than I would have guessed. Mentioned before, my knowledge of our Civil War was very spotted, that is, a little spot here and a little spot there. One ‘fact’ I had read was that less than five percent of the southern whites were actually slave owners. I had no way of verifying that, but assuming it was true, and putting myself in place of an average white working man, my age twenty, in the South, not in 1960 , but in 1860 … why would I want to defend a system that was not doing as well as a system not too many miles north of me, and a system that used slaves and their so-called ‘free labor’ to keep MY wages down? So that was simple practical consideration. Maybe peer pressure would cause me to take up arms, but (in my 1960 thinking) if I were single (no wife, no kids,) I wouldn’t join the North, but I might just decide to go elsewhere (California? Nevada? Europe?) to try a life there. Or, if I had a wife and kids, that might be a greater incentive to pack up and head for the West Coast. But now, today, in 1960, the Confederate battle flag was really a puzzlement to me. Something I probably could never truly understand. It was a battle banner of the side that lost. Why continue to celebrate it? Then again, my view was formed from a New Englander’s upbringing and a Westerner’s mindset with a goodly amount of ignorance tossed into the mix. My thinking was that somewhere on this trip, I would stop at a library and try to find a book about the Civil War … not the various battle and military maneuvers, but more about economic and philosophical and psychological elements. These Southerners and Northerners had been, less than 100 years before the Civil War, allies against British forces. Now, today, another battle had started and was ramping up … the Battle for Civil Rights. In my mind, the end result was inevitable … the Southern mindset could only delay things temporarily, causing more hurt along the way … what a mess! A mess I would try to sidestep during the remaining weeks of this cross-country exploration.
While all that pondering was holding my mind’s attention, the scooter and I were passing a place called Mud Lake, rather a pretty spot within sight of the border of Mississippi and Tennessee, which meant I was on the outskirts of Memphis, and it also meant I was very nearly out of fuel, and also out of map. Time to stop. And at the next gas station, I did. Wow, I had already traveled about 225 miles today, a record for me and for Tony, too. Went through the mixing thing with the two-stroke oil, still maintaining that 4% mixture as closely as possible since the scooter ran so incredibly well with that ratio, and the spark plug stayed clean. Asked about any campgrounds. Didn’t know. This was his second day on the job and he was from Kentucky. Did they have a map of Tennessee, specifically Memphis? No, the only map they had was an Alabama state map and they had about twenty of those. Did he know where Beale Street was? That he did. Just continue straight and when you get to downtown, Beale Street would be a cross street. You can’t miss it. Well, that was something, at least. Sometime in the past, I had gotten an idea that Beale Street was very near Basin Street and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I was close … they were in the same nation and only 500 miles apart. Got a restroom I could use? He handed me a key attached to a thin flat board. Before leaving, I cleaned the windshield so gently. It was fabricated of some plastic which would scratch if cleaning was too vigorous. With a “Thank You, Sir”, I waved ‘Goodbye.’
Back on the road for a mile or two before I spotted a small bookstore. Aha! They would have a map of Memphis, for sure. Bookstores are never a quick stop for me. Locked up, spent a minute or two stretching arms and legs, had a smoke, field–stripped the butt, and went into that special little place in heaven called a bookstore. At last, trees on shelves … just as God intended them to exist. Smell the wonderful scent of books … of paper and ink … a breath of fresh air, no?
When the older woman at the front of the store asked if she could help me, I said I’d like to wander a bit and then perhaps she could help. Poked around here and there knowing I should select something. Now traveling solo, I’d have beau coup time to myself. Having a companion does take a fair amount of time. Reading would cover some of that. Browsed through the comedy section, then sci-fi, then political, back to sci-fi. Kurt Vonnegut … The Sirens of Titan. From where did I know of his writing? I’ll read it. Moved toward the front of the store, book in hand. The woman looked up from behind the counter. “Vonnegut? You know of Vonnegut?” I said I almost did. Had I read some of his work in Saturday Evening Post.? I wasn’t sure, but the name rang a very favorable bell in my brain. She said “Yes, you may have. He’s a fine writer. This is an excellent selection.” As we talked, a guy about my age walked into the shop, saying, “Hi Mom!” Then to me he said, “Is that your scooter out front.” I said it was. “It’s a Lambretta. You hauled that here from Arizona? I noticed your license plate.” No, I drove it. “Really? I’d love to hear about it, but I have to run off to practice.” He grabbed a bag from behind the counter and started for the front door saying “Bye, Mom.” She turned to me and asked if there was something else. Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m out of maps. I’d like to see a map of Memphis, but I was planning to head to Chicago as well. How long did I plan to stay in Memphis? Only one or two days. I was pretty tired, but I wanted to spend some time with the music scene. She asked if I liked the Rock and Roll stuff. I said I preferred Jazz, but I acknowledged I was a misfit and knew Rock and Roll was kicking everything else off the popularity charts … jazz, pop, everything. But I also enjoyed the Blues and particularly enjoyed Blue Grass and I knew Memphis had both. She said I could get all three, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Blue Grass and Blues in various clubs along Beale Street. They started about 8 in the evening and a few went ‘til dawn. She had a small map of Memphis, it was a freebie. After Chicago, where was I headed? Well, I was thinking Florida and then New England. She came from behind the counter and from the front window, she looked at the scooter. She turned around and said “That’s simply marvelous! You are to be congratulated!” And somewhere, she said, she had a small road Atlas hidden, give her a minute or two. It took five minutes, but she had it in her hands, mentioning it was out-of-date. I said I’d buy it … anything was better than what I had. She said the printing was so small, most people wouldn’t want it. I said I’d buy it. She said No, I wouldn’t buy it. If I bought the Vonnegut book she would give me the atlas no charge, but, she warned, no Crazy Wandering Gypsy discount … full price on Vonnegut. It’s a deal. I paid for Vonnegut and asked if I could spend a little time in that lounge chair by the window, to look at the map. Please, be seated, young man.
“We’ll be closing pretty soon,” she was saying as she tapped my shoulder. I had fallen asleep. Such a comfortable chair. How long had I slept? She said, “Nearly two hours, and if you missed any appointments, you can blame me.” I was waking up and said whom shall I blame? She said “Edith, just call me Edith. And you’re the first person I have heard use the word ‘whom’ in a long, long time, and use it correctly.” As I prepared to leave, I asked if she could point out a reasonably priced motel. She said they were all too expensive on this side of the river, but if I followed the signs to West Memphis, on the other side of the river, the Arkansas side, there would be something more reasonable within a few miles. Thanks, Edith, you have a good heart. Thanks so much. Arkansas? Better look at my atlas more carefully.
Still had some daylight. I’d get some coffee and dig into the trunk for food Stella had purchased back in Baton Rouge. Stopped at a doughnut shop for coffee, not for pastry. Of course, one would help my mood a bit. I did tank up on coffee. Used the restroom before and after. Drove to what looked like a little park. Opened the trunk and started to explore my food stash. There was some hard salami, crackers, dried figs, dried apricots. That was a good start. As I dug around, I saw a corner of Stella’s envelope left for me. It had only been a few days. I’d leave it be for now. Finishing my little picnic, I put the little bit of trash into my jacket pocket, back onto the scooter, and directed the scooter and my thoughts to Beale Street.
In no time at all, it seemed, I was at the intersection of my route and Beale. While there was daylight remaining, I’d explore the street with an eye to where I could park Tony Lambretta securely. I turned left and slowly cruised along Beale, trying to look at every club, business, sign and doorway. Have to be careful. Easy to run into things when you brain is occupied with things other than traffic. Drove about a mile until I came to Riverside Drive and the Mississippi River. So that was one end of Beale Street, I supposed. Turned a 180 and retraced that mile, continued across my highway for another mile or so until Beale ended again, this time in a residential area. So Beale Street was only two miles long. Might have figured that out from the map if I hadn’t fallen asleep in the bookstore. Still driving slowly and trying to be observant without killing any old ladies walking across the street, and seeking a good scooter spot, I spied a perfect place in an alleyway not far from Fourth and Beale to stash Tony. Which I did, using the cable tightly around a concrete-filled post.
So the scooter was within a walking mile of just about everything on Beale Street. My plan was to walk purposely, neither in a hurry nor strolling, close to the River, cross the street, walk all the way up the other side, then cross the street again and walk back to the scooter. That would be a half hours’ walk or a bit more and night would be upon us. My intent was to find someone of knowledge to direct me to the bar or club for the music I wanted to hear. As I did that walking circuit, I noticed that Beale Street looked a little on the touristy side (of course, tourists had to be catered to for financial health) and somewhat on the seedy side, a little rundown. But that was OK, too. Finally, near a club advertising “the best in Rock ‘n’ Roll”, I stopped at a sidewalk trash barrel to rid my jacket of major debris. Threw away some wrappers and came across a five dollar bill. How the hell did that … oh, I know, it was that beautiful bunch from Down Under … the Aussies in New Orleans. Those sneaky bastards slipped my fiver back in my jacket as I left the bar. Well, I’d have a drink on them and quietly toast them. So, “the best in Rock ‘n’ Roll” pulled me in. Recorded music going right now. Just a few people at the bar. Sitting on a stool about halfway down its length, I put my five dollar bill on the bar. A group of musicians was doing a sound check on the small stage and a bartender named Moretti (from his badge) came over. Before he could say anything, I said “Ciao, Signor’ Moretti, come stai ‘sta sera?” He laughed and said with a big smile, “Buona Sera and that’s all I know in Italian, and no, I wasn’t named after a beer … it was named after me. Now what’ll you have?” I said, “That’s a good line, keep using it. First, I’d like a dark draft beer if you have one and second, I need a little advice. He said, let me get your drink first, then we can talk, it’s slow in here right now, but another hour and it’ll be busy.” As he served my beer, he said “The advice?” I explained being on the road, that I wasn’t really ’into’ the whole Presley thing, but wanted to witness some of it. Told him I really did like the Blues and also Bluegrass. Which of these places should I try? He then asked what kind of music I listened to the most. I answered with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Dave Brubeck, … he interrupted me with “Jesus, you are a Jazz man. OK, just hang on” and he left to serve another customer. I took a sip of that refreshing beer. The band was going through the sound check and damn, they were loud. A few minutes later, Moretti returned with a 4 by 6 card. On it, he had written two club names, their street addresses, and the numbers 1100 and 200. He explained this was the best I could do this evening. Stay in this bar until about 10:30 and endure the music, although this group did have some good stuff. Go to this club (and he pointed at the upper address) at 11:00PM to catch some pretty good blues until about 1:30AM, then (pointing to the other) go to this place, give the doorman a dollar, tell him you’re a friend of Moretti, and listen to some excellent Bluegrass until the sun comes up and you don’t have to buy any booze there … just listen to the best Bluegrass in the world. “Can you handle an ’allnighter’, paisano?” You bet I can and I stuck out my hand, saying, “Moretti, my name’s Rosano.” He responded, “Rosano, my pleasure, I’m an old Jazz Man myself, used to play trumpet quite a bit, studio work, gigs in Nashville, St Louis, Chicago … but there isn’t much for a Jazz man today. We are obsolete. Rock ‘n’ Roll has really kicked our asses.” I knew that. It was sad, but it was true. Finally the band started their first set and Moretti was right, it was to ‘endure’ for. I listened carefully and I could see the appeal, but for me the lack of finesse was a powerful force. The two guitarists (one on bass guitar) were young, sounded like they practiced and worked at it, and both had some good moves. The drummer was loud, but that’s about all. It was the bass guitar keeping the beat, not the drummer. After an hour, with the band taking a break, Moretti came over and said “One of my other customers ordered a coffee. I can’t make less than two cups at a time. If you don’t want the other, I’ll have to toss it. You’ll need it tonight.” I gave him a thumbs up and said “Black, please.” He brought it over, took my five, returned with five ones. I said, indicating the money, “wha … “he interrupted and said “I got you covered, Mr. Jazz Man.” The place was getting busy, I stayed for a few more pieces, then putting a dollar under the coffee cup, I caught Moretti’s attention, waved and went out onto Beale Street. A little too early for the Blues location. If I were going to stay up all night, I wanted to have a clear head, and yet felt almost obligated to have at least one drink in each place. No biggie, but I’d walk around between stops and get some stretching. Purposely I went past the scooter to see if it was OK. And of course, it was.
Walking, observing, catching bits of music now and then, I could see Beale Street was a bit tired, a little bit worn. And yet, this was a genuine music focus point, really a national treasure if someone cared enough. Walking past a small eatery triggered some growling in the depths of my soul or was it my stomach? I’d have some food to go with my beer. Barbecued beef burger and a cup of coffee. By the time I finished lingering over a coffee refill and a couple of smokes, it was time for my Blues venue. Found it easily with Moretti’s note as guidance. Walked in, a moderately-filled place, music already started, sat at the bar, got some dark beer in a bottle, put money on the bar and stayed with that beer and that music for two hours of nonstop Blues. One number was not sung, but rather was a Blues poem spoken in rhythm with the music background subdued, and, at the same time it was conversational. Heartfelt. Remarkable, I thought. Had never heard anything quite like it. Quietly sensational. I was witness to a unique American art form, the Blues, diverse in its origins but certainly it was its own form. The musicians seemed so honest in their performance, whether the lyrics were sad or playful or downright dirty, they were sincere. As a fifteen minute break was announced, I paid for my drink, tipped the bartender and returned to Beale Street.
Back to the little diner for a quick cup of coffee and then toward my Bluegrass address. Found it with no problem, followed Moretti’s instructions, giving the doorguy a dollar and mentioning Moretti. He gave me a big smile and said, “That Moretti is someone special. He’s my buddy.” The place was very basic, a room with folding chairs, a stage elevated by no more than six inches. Three or four microphones, not much else. At the back of the stage, against the back wall, was some sort of curtain. On stage were five or six bar stools, some ordinary wooden chairs, a small bench, in a casual arrangement, no, a haphazard arrangement. The men, standing or sitting, were tuning a couple of fiddles, some guitars, at least one banjo, a mandolin, two bass fiddles. This was going to be a jam session. There was no band, it was a group, a gathering. One of the guitarists walked up to a mike and said simply, “Well, here goes.” He began playing, and was soon joined by one bass player who carried his fiddle forward. Next came the violin and a banjo. So within a space of sixteen bars of music four musicians were performing as a quartet. For more than an hour, these guys, so extraordinarily skilled, came forth in different combinations and provided such excellent music. Started and ended selections with almost no conversation. I had no idea how they decided who would play what tune and when. I marveled at not knowing. The musicians had their own telepathy. Each musician had multiple chances to display his dexterity with his instrument. Various people walked onto and off the stage and performed. Completely mesmerized as someone stuck a beer in my hands. When I reached in my pocket for money, they waved no-no and said “Friend of Moretti”. Sometime around 3:30AM, a guy sat next to me and banged into me. I looked at him. Big smile on his face. I said, “Moretti, how the hell are you?” We shook hands and slapped each other on the back. The Bluegrass started up with another tune. Moretti talking into my ear asked, “Good stuff, eh?” I said, “The absolute best.” He said, “No. Not yet, but soon. Scruggs is coming by. That’s why I’m here.” Me: “Scruggs, Earl Scruggs?” Moretti nodded yes. Oh Man! Two or three more tunes and then a few hollers and some applause and Earl Scruggs, who had to be the premier banjoist in the world, stepped away from the curtain, where he had been half hidden (maybe tuning up), into a group that was already deeply involved in a breakdown. So splendid, so quick, really a blazing banjo rendition which sounded like he was picking with eleven fingers. So, without pause, Scruggs played along with various combinations on four or five different tunes and then waved and said, “Thank you everybody!” And people gave him a big cheer and they started the music again. Moretti said “So paisano, what do you think?” I said, “I’m stunned. Completely stunned.” Moretti said as he offered his hand, “Good. Gotta go. See you around, my friend, and Remember the Moretti!” And he was gone. The music never stopped for more than a few seconds. What has always fascinated me was the musician mindset. Their brains are indeed different. How they talk to each other and understand one another and anticipate each other’s moves, and do this through their magnificent music … well, to me, it’s just miraculous. I stayed to the end. They wound it up, someone on stage announced that his instrument couldn’t work when the sun was up. I went and took a leak before the crowd lined up behind me. And that was it. People milled around and slowly moved out into the dawn of Beale Street and dispersed. Every other place on the street looked closed.
Returning to Tony Lambretta in the cool of dawn, happiness glowed all around, surrounding me. It had been a marvel. And I was one happy clam. The scooter seemed untouched. Unwound the cable and got the helmet onto my head, so filled with the magic of music. More than wide awake, I started the Lambretta, headed back to pick up my old Route 61. Then with sunshine at my back, a slight breeze in my face, I crossed the Mississippi into West Memphis to begin a new day. Someone should make a movie which uses a scene like this for its beginning or its ending or both.