The man saw his reflection in the shop windows. As he walked down the sidewalk in Memphis, he noticed the gray creeping more and more over his temples and above his ears. His wife could still pass for a woman in her thirties, even though she was 50, like him. Well, 51, he corrected himself. She is one year younger.
Why did he look so much older, he wondered. He had married a smart and beautiful woman, he had six children who made him proud and he was about to finish his 27th year in a job that still challenged him. Maybe that was it.
Memphis was slowly waking up from the pandemic. Concerts were still missing and restaurants needed limited seating, but Beale Street had come back to life with its blues spilling out of doors as partygoers freaking out the streets. The man and his wife avoided most of it.
The historic South Main was more their style now. The long, winding walk took them slowly past buildings constructed in Art Deco and Georgian Revival styles. To their left was the National Civil Rights Museum with its spellbinding crowned balcony. Restaurants and shops lined the street in front of them. The man’s wife was a terrible customer, a trait he appreciated. She didn’t have the patience to try on clothes or spend a lot of time looking around. She looked out a store window, spotted some melon-colored pants, and said, “Wait here.” So he did.
Ten minutes later, the woman walked out of the store wearing the pants she had just bought. “I thought I would dress for you tonight,” she said with a wink.
The sun had finished its genuflection until daylight and the sky turned purple. Music and laughter resumed, seeming to climb sidewalks and alleys. They walked shoulder to shoulder, the position of a couple together for a long time, brushing against each other in silent consent.
“What is that?” the woman asked, gesturing to a bright yellow and green sign with white letters that read: “Earnestine and Hazel’s Sundry Store.” The bricks of the dilapidated building, rubbed with rain and sweaty shoulders, seemed to barely hold together. The man’s wife looked out a window to see a long bar, a few simple tables, and a lonely jukebox.
“Let’s go,” she said without waiting for a response.
“Where’s the miscellaneous store?” The man wondered softly. He knew that if he said it out loud, his wife would respond with a sarcastic comment. They did not know the legendary Earnestine and Hazel’s, built at the end of the 19th century as a church but which quickly turned into a dry goods business. The story is that Abe Plow opened a drugstore there in the 1930s, just before launching the sun lotion company Coppertone. Once his business started, he donated the building to two cousins, Earnestine and Hazel, who ran a beauty salon upstairs.
Earnestine and Hazel opened a jazz cafe downstairs and reportedly ran a brothel. Just another tourist trap, he thought, reading newspaper clippings on the wall as he waited for the bartender to finish pouring the drinks. He found his wife sitting by a jukebox, listening to any squeaky tune. A waitress walked by and said, âWatch out, this jukebox is haunted. Of course it does, the man thought, shaking his head in the direction of the tourists who fell for it.
âLet’s go upstairs,â the woman said. “They’ve reportedly kept it the same since it opened.” The husband nodded and with drinks in hand they climbed a creaking curving staircase. The second floor was dark and they had trouble adjusting their eyes. A long row of rooms anchored to one side of a dark hallway with peeling blue paint exposing old bricks below.
The light appeared at the end of the hall and they turned to her. Going through a door, they jumped on “‘ello there!” A man stood behind a small bar, his dark skin contrasting with his white hair and beard. Dressed in a black waistcoat and a light shirt, he smiles.
âMy name is Nate Barnes. First time ? “
The man nodded, introducing himself and his wife. Tall windows looked out onto the busy street below, and neon lights reflected like Christmas decorations inside the small room. A few mismatched chairs stood haphazardly around rickety tables. “Are you all good at drinks?” Nate asked.
âYes, sir,â the man said. “Are you back to the heart of the matter?” “
“My first night back to work. I was away for a year but got my second shot and all that. First night back,” he repeated.
The man nodded, sipping his Jack Daniel’s. “How long have you worked here, Mr. Barnes?”
âTwenty-seven. I’ve been doing this for 27 years and love every minute of it. Meet people, pour a few drinks, have a little fun. Never boring, that’s right,â he said.
The man stopped. Twenty-seven years. He pulled himself together as his wife looked around for more newspaper clippings. âWhat’s the secret to making the most of these 27 years? ” He asked.
“It’s no secret,” Nate replied. “Just know that you’re lucky to be able to show up every day and do whatever you want to do.”
The man nodded again. âYou are right, Mr. Barnes. Thank you.
“Why?” Nate asked.
âClarity,â the man said.
Later, the man and his wife came back downstairs and sat down by that old jukebox again. He looked at her in the dancing light of color and noise and smiled. He sipped his drink and noticed for the first time a sticker on the side of the jukebox next to him. “Live a great story”, we read.
Suddenly the jukebox turned on. No one had been around. Music burst out and the waitress turned around shaking her head.
The man looked at his wife and she smiled.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.