ROAD TRIP TO MEMPHIS Recently, I visited my brother in Washington. His home is in the shadow of the National Cathedral, and I strolled up the hill for another pilgrimage – a bit of reflection among the 231 stained glass windows, a quiet moment shared with the 288 angels, and a chuckle or two under the gaze of the 112 gargoyles and the power of the force from the figure of Darth Vader atop the west tower. Really. He’s up there.
I noticed scaffolding – a result of the earthquake two years ago and the ongoing repairs, a $20 million project that may take a decade. The angels and gargoyles will be patient because, after all, the first stone of the cathedral was laid in 1907 and the last 83 years later in 1990.
As I entered the cool space, cool in every sense, I noticed a web of dark netting suspended some 30 feet above the floor and extending to the transepts at the center of the vast building. When I reached the transepts, I turned to see the afternoon light set Rowan LeCompte’s west rose window afire – more than 10,500 shards of glass, 25 feet across, burning bright with the artist’s abstract vision of creation.
I asked a docent, a lady about my age, about the netting. She said it was there to catch things falling from above, not big things, but little pieces of mortar and grout working free since the big shake. She said that sometimes during the day the light would come through the rose window and catch the net in such a way to make it shimmer and sparkle.
“What a lagniappe,” I said.
“Are you from Louisiana?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “Memphis.”
And then, from one of the world’s great cathedrals on the highest point in one of the world’s great capitals, I returned home.
“Memphis!” she exclaimed. “A couple of years ago, I went to Memphis with a friend. She works at the Library of Congress and we’ve always wanted to go – you know, it’s just a cool place.”
Yes, ma’am. I know.
“We drove all night, checked in, and took off. Truth is, we’re both kind of quiet, careful people, but there was nothing quiet or careful about us in Memphis,” she laughed. They evidently went everywhere and did everything. “We closed down some place singing along with somebody named Ruby…uh…”
“Wilson,” I finished.
“The very one. And then we went to the motel and collapsed. When we checked out, the clerk apologized for the false fire alarm that went on for an hour right outside our door, and offered to discount the room. ‘We didn’t hear a thing,’ I told him.”
The way you look at things is up to you. You can see a dark net and ugly pieces of mortar and grout, or you can see the color and the light shimmer and sparkle.
“I hope you know what you’ve got in Memphis,” she smiled.
I’m a Memphian, and, sadly, too many of us don’t.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them.