Calvin called and told me Richie was coming to town. Calvin was calling a meeting.
There are a number of reasons for getting out of town for college, out of the warm blanket you’re wrapped in to something less restrictive or out of cold circumstances to something warmer, out of the suffocating sameness of safe and familiar, out of yourself to find you. Little reasons – like nobody else does your laundry, makes you study or go to class, makes you chicken soup or makes it all OK. Big reasons – like taking responsibility, taking chances, taking on the world, taking a look at things and people you’ve never seen before and the realities they represent.
After I told the story, the instructor said I could take Richie my notes but he’d have to show up for the mid-term with proof or he’d flunk him. Showing up wasn’t easy. The class was on top of the Hill at UT, an impressive climb even without crutches. Richie had broken his ankle and I’d been covering for him in our American history class. He’d also broken his jaw in a fight, so he had impressive wiring above to complement the huge cast below.
The week before the mid-term, I had another story. The big cast was gone, I told the instructor, replaced by a smaller one but, I continued, Richie was in an Atlanta hospital. Some guy took a swing at him at the Georgia Tech game, and Richie was so busy hitting him that he didn’t notice the guy was even busier waving a razor blade across Richie’s stomach.
“Won’t make the mid-term,” I said. “Won’t pass,” the instructor said.
The next week I showed up for the mid-term. So did the show-and-tell disaster that was Richie. To an amazed instructor and an appreciative class, Richie showed cast, crutches, wired jaw and, with a flourish, lifted shirt and one side of a bandage to show a roadmap of fresh stitches painted in perfect UT orange disinfectant. Somewhere behind the wires, Richie was grinning.
And he aced the mid-term.
Richie was a tough guy, his whole life a real fight. His high school in Baldwin, N.Y., was then and now one of the nation’s top ranked and UT made a presentation there. Richie was impressed, and the South wasn’t just out of town, the South was another planet.
It took him two years working a Coca-Cola delivery route to earn enough to register. When his money ran out, he’d go back to the Coke truck. When he’d saved enough, he’d come back to us – sometimes for two quarters, sometimes one.
The other night, Richie came back to us from Long Island, back to old friends back here from college. First, I saw an older man with two hip replacements, I saw a cane, I saw a struggle. Then I saw the smile. “Danny,” he said, and I saw Richie.
I’m a Memphian, and I once had Richie’s back in history.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.