I have had a variety of truncheons, knives, and batons around the house, but I have never owned a gun. My family members were not firearm enthusiasts. I had a 22. rifle on loan when I lived in the county back in the day, and got to be a whiz at knocking the "D" out of a Dr. Pepper can at fifty paces, but I never considered it as protection. My most provocative weapon is a Louisville Slugger that has been tooled and tipped to be a walking cane. Who's going to mess with a guy carrying a baseball bat? Now I know.
When Melody and I moved into our home five years ago, two blocks away from the neighborhood where I grew up, my stepson, Cameron, went to spend the night at a friend's. I was watching TV at 3:00AM, when I saw the silhouette of a large man approach the thinly curtained back door. I immediately thought Cameron had changed his mind and come home, until I realized the man was working the lock. Like a fool, I shouted as loudly as I could, jumped up and grabbed the fireplace poker and moved toward the door. I don't know who was more afraid; the awakened dogs, the intruder, or me. He ran out the back gate, that we have since secured with a lock, and disappeared. When we called 911, our backyard was crawling with young, undercover cops in minutes. This was the east Memphis creeper who stalked the Sam Cooper Blvd. area for years, a thief so brazen he took jewelry and cash from the night tables of sleeping residents. Months later, when a burglar was killed trying to break into a house's skylight while the owner waited with a gun, we were told that this was our prowler.
We made sure our security system was working well and began to turn it on at night, even while we were at home. A week ago, Cameron, who is now in college, came over to inform us that the night before, he was robbed at gunpoint. He and a friend, both Lacrosse players well over six feet, went to a field in the early morning with their gear to practice, when approached by two black men with handguns who demanded their valuables. When the boys said all their stuff was at home, they were robbed of their iPods and shoes. They reported it, but didn't expect any results. We were relieved and thankful that he wasn't shot just for the hell of it.
It was 100 degrees in Memphis yesterday, only eleven degrees cooler than Baghdad. In Iraq, sectarian violence is taking a terrible toll. Local TV station WREG reports that Memphis homicides have skyrocketed past last years' number at this date by twenty, and at this rate, we could top the record 212 murders recorded in 1993. Statistics show over 70% of these homicides are between acquaintances or relatives and have resulted from an alarming increase in the number of personal, domestic, and other disputes, not related to criminal activity. That's an awful lot of angry people out there killing each other, and we haven't begun to discuss the ominous home invasions, muggings, carjackings, and murders by actual criminals. There is a palpable fear and hostility in the air, reminiscent of 1968, and citizens are wary of the next stray bullet and are leaving the city. We rarely go out in public much since we have wearied of enduring the ongoing aggravation of others incapable of civility. After this week's bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, there has been a lot of talk about "Minnesota Nice." People in Memphis are no longer nice.
The argument about the relation between poverty and despair, and crime and drugs, is best left for another time. Never before, however, have we had such a lethal gang problem and underground drug economy. Or a thug-life mentality, promoted by hip-hop moguls to white teenagers, and accepted as reality for those in the city with little hope. The whites hate the blacks, the blacks hate the whites, and everybody hates the "new niggers," the Mexicans. Our school system is floundering while major companies open new facilities in Arkansas and Mississippi. Half the City Council have chosen not to run for reelection while the last of the elected Fords, Ophelia, can't seem to show up for work without being arrested or hospitalized. As a steady stream of elected officials head off to prison, the bedlam continues at Memphis Light, Gas and Water unabated, and the mayor is seeing messianic visions, one wonders if there is a future for our city.
Many of my friends have done more than talk about leaving, they're gone. Mostly to places where the racial discord of Memphis doesn't exist. Others have relocated to the suburbs and endure the commute, while those who are able, hang in as best they can. I can't recall any friend or acquaintance, however, expressing any joy about living here recently. Like many native Memphians, I have left the city for periods of time and returned. After all, this is where my family and my oldest friends are, and I know it's the single place where someone cares a little something about me and won't let the poor boy down,(to paraphrase Chuck Berry). But Melody and I have discussed leaving too. We have a cadre of friends from Tennessee who moved to Eugene, Oregon in the late 60s, and it certainly seems like a peaceable place to exist. Of course, we have to wait for me to paint my masterpiece before we could afford it. In the meantime, we're doing the next best thing, and I never in my life believed I would say this; I'm getting a gun.