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picture of Clayborn Temple Memphis
Clayborn Temple, Memphis photo taken 1.1.18 by BenQQ
Update: Laurie the Prophetess below

A Primal Memory: Cotton Carnival to Memphis in May

(submitted by R. Chambers, a pseudo)
When I was child The month of May brought a celebration--Cotton Carnival. The entire month was one event after another beginning with the crowning of the Queen of Cotton with her Cotton Princesses beside her everywhere. Some great social history of Memphis has been written about the Cotton Carnival.

My best friend's stepdad for 4 years running took us to the Cotton Carnival runway in downtown Memphis on the river front. There were rides and "freak shows" and of course Cotton Candy. A great part would be verbotten today, just on the grounds of racial consciousness and sensitivity. The previous generation tried hard.

Part of that erffort was was Flip Side, separate but equal in those days. It was called Jubilee.

The whole event romanticized Southern history. My memory of Cotton Carnival is a strange dream of people--all white with male teen duck tails parading about with cigarette packs rolled in t-shirt sleeves and hoop skirts. On the outside was Elvis, Sputnik, early Vietnam, lynchings and desegregation battles and movies, always movies like On the Waterfront, penetrating the ideas that rapidly would push the Cotton Carnival out of time and into memory.

I now think of the Carnival as a strange mirror of the old school contorting itself into a self congratulating, falsely reassuring mass mantra. "There there. It was always thus. It will all be alright. Have fun." Now we know it wasn't always thus.

In this socially approved construct, the Jubilee was a celebration in the black community. Their parties and crowning of the King and Queen of Jubilee, always accompanied with their princesses everywhere, mirrored the carnival. I think that Jubilee continues in an underground community of Memphis.

Sometime in the growing consciousness of Memphis, and quite a long time after the assasinations, the city put away its celebration of Cotton and all that it implied.

Now we have Memphis in May, a socially acceptable replacement to an era of segregation and an economy based on a crop. Again, on the outside, the world presses in.

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(BenQQ 4.27.18)
Just received a CC note from Deputy Director Mike Ryall, Memphis Police Department, to the people that were successful in persuading Laurie to get care. It reads: "FYI After numerous days of building a rapport with this homeless lady and through teamwork with CREA /DV/Social Workers, our Officers were successful today in talking Ms. {redacted} into voluntarily going to Delta medical for an evaluation and temporary housing. The social worker is going to work towards finding Ms. {redacted} permanent housing. / Thank you so much to the concerned citizens that assisted the MPD by notifying the Mayor’s Office regarding this need and concern. / Thank you MPD for your swift and thorough follow up. / Thank you, Memphis. "

Like Deputy Director Ryall said in response to my question if she was the same lady on which I based the piece below, he emailed he was not "100% sure." I had taken the picture without showing her face and she never revealed her last name. So, her setup being a couple of miles from my place, I struck out to see if she was still encamped. As I made the curve, I could see all that was left: Cook Out burger sacks, garbage bags, assorted trash and water bottles. Her dolly that had been packed with her things was gone. A sure sign she had departed. And she sure didn't just get up off her concrete pallet, stretch and stroll away.

During this short Laurie episode I was beginning to lose hope there was a solution, even if temporary, to her predicament. I was hoping churches could form a kind of extra-institutional "strike team" to address Laurie's needs. I wasn't successful in organizing such. People work. Have families. Little time.

Then Mayor Strickland sent me a note within minutes of story distribution offering his assistance. (His immediate predecessor asked to be taken off the distribution list after unflattering commentary. Come to think of it, I unflatter everywhere as I've done with this mayor. But that didn't stop him from weighing in.)

People say its hard to get homeless people off the street. With Laurie I frankly doubted it would happen, but his team came through, even if only temporarily. I'd personally like to see her get $1,000 a month. That might not even put her in a place with a roof. But then I want to see everybody get that a month, with other "services" jettisoned.

At any rate, maybe this was the "strike team" of individual super heroes. They didn't have to do anything. Nobody would know if they didn't. But they did.

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Laurie the Prophetess Living on the Sidewalk in Memphis

(BenQQ 4.25.18) Her strong voice comes from under a plastic dome. She had been huddled under it for the past day at least. Rain had made streams down it to soak her bedding crumpled on the concrete. What were her mental impressions after so many hours under her enclosure, hearing only the passing cars with occasional honk or yell. How long would it take an average person not accustomed to street living, simply lose it under the same circumstances? 

“Laurie, you in there?”

She has always been suspect of me until I started bringing her her favorite: cheeseburgers with large fries from Cook Out, as she specified after the first burger donation. I was one, apparently among others, who periodically brought her something to eat. 

Her plastic dome is within eyeshot of the residents of old modest homes. Perhaps someone among those gave her a thick ply water-proof tarp. I knew she would stay under it with a determined fixation until…until… 

Just how long can a sixty—she volunteered her age on my question—year old woman live on a driveway entrance leading into a grassy marsh? At night it erupts with the sound of frogs that I think feeds the snakes. She laughed about the frog chorus when I joked about it. I didn’t think a joke about snakes would be conversation inducing.

Snakes would be the least troublesome visitor to her roadside setup. She is bivouaced where drivers head toward her until they curve with the road. Its not a radical turn, but could be for a drunk. There’s no space to park on the street so I wedge my car between her setup and posts at the edge of the driveway. Rear bumper still stuck out a couple of feet, but with lights blinking, good enough.

Then there are the kids who speed by, she says, and throw things at her. I even ever briefly imagine she might get “popped” by someone following an initiation into a gang or some other similar behavior of a passing psychopath. Hence, no location given here.

By the third burger visit, I bring up a subject that I broached on the first: why not let me, or someone, get you to a shelter?

“No,” she said forcefully, her well manicured hands, gesturing downward, “I am staying here!”

“Why? Why not get someplace where you’re safe and at least not on the street?”

“I have a mission.”

“What mission?”

Silence. Then she declares, “I’m going to stay here until I’m called home.” 

She had introduced herself to me as “Laurie the Prophetess.” On my third visit I asked, just to talk, if she would give me a prophecy.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she said, laughing at my impertinence. Then she asked if I would bring her a can of Deep Woods Off, plastic garbage bags, spray disinfectant and a bonnet.

“A bonnet?” I asked. She responded emphatically, passing her hands by her head. “Yes, to keep the sun off.” She was already wearing a small hat that did a partial job. This pilgrim was thinking of small essentials, despite the dark reality of her predicament. I delivered those items, plus towels, wipes and water bottles, but no bonnet.

I then began visiting churches and calling shelters, which I learned did not answer the phone at night nor provide any counseling services even to older women on the street. I envisioned church members visiting her until she finally agreed to let them take her to a shelter. I also called the police to ask that they check on her. She said a car stopped by. She said, without comment, they had talked to her.

The media was not left off the list. A little of what PR people call “earned media” could be the spark that fires a solution--the standard reasoning why media exist, aside from advertising. I remembered an amazing story well covered of former Memphis Mayor AC Wharton trying to get an older male, best described as a hobo, into a shelter during a particularly dangerous cold snap. He responded happily from under covers lying on the concrete that he would be just fine. The cameras captured the mayor’s unsuccessful entreaties. I wonder if the candidates soon to be culled from the upcoming primary think about those like Laurie. One wouldn't say that crowd has a voting block of constituents. That alone would make it worthwhile to ask them.

So I called a published tip lines or newsroom of the two big TV stations. I’m comfortable with pitching stories to the media, having done it for years. WMC Ch. 5 always seems the most willing to listen. At the time of my call they had short staff for the weekend but were interested. WREG Ch. 3 was but had no crew available.

I didn’t see any tip line number at the FOX 13 web site but it did have staff contact emails. To be accurate, I emailed Fox that I was doing a piece about how--and how interested--the stations are to get tips from viewers. At the time this was true, but my interest in Lori was subsuming that quickly.

However, in a way, Laurie's (sp) story turns out to be about local media and how they respond to what they consider news. A woman living under a tarp on the street would be a squeaker at best unless someone saw the profile depth story therein. Unlike the hobo in the cold with the mayor trying to save him, the story didn’t have an immediate death defying bite. Cynically enough, I’m thinking the media would show up when Lori makes the real familiar and socially acceptible news in Memphis, like getting shot.

Its good there’s no law prohibiting non-conventional ways of living. That was a good one passed by the Supreme Court. Otherwise there would be roundups of thousands of street people to be thrown into homeless prisons, much like those for debtors in the bad old days. Having lived in Los Angeles for years, the homeless there are a constant visual reminder all is not well. (In California, they want even to allow people to live in residential garages not intended for habitation.)

But then we have people like the Prophetess. She seems sane or sane enough to have a conversation to express what she wants or canny enough to be manipulative. Sometimes she's even polite and says thank you. Upon questioning, she said a number of people had stopped by to do something for her. On my first pull over, another man delivers cokes but said he could not find American Spirit cigarettes as she had specifically requested. Subsequently, I saw her smoking.

When its not raining, those in passing cars can make out the eyelids under her hat. I only saw her once out of her aluminum lawn chair as I passed by. She was eating something on a concrete slab she used as a table about two feet high.

In fact, I never visited her when she was not in her chair. One time I asked if she planned to leave this location. She replied, “That would be decidedly impossible.” She never told me how she got there but I think she actually pulled her cart, from where she wouldn't say, to the driveway and stopped. Looking at her now, she didn't seem ambulatory.

I have to wrap this up. I take another sip of coffee as the sun rises. The cookies are good.

That’s the story of Laurie the Prophetess. She is hardly seen, but not invisible, except at night.


Would you like to help Laurie? You can contact me at bqq@earthlink.net.




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