VOL. 129 | NO. 242 | Friday, December 12, 2014
Back to Normal
By Dan Conaway
NORMAL. AGAIN. Last week, Bob Loeb and I took a stroll through the 1950s in the reality of 2014.
Then, we would have been in the middle of the indoor pool at the Y on Walker – earning first the Minnow designation and, finally, the coveted Shark, running the block home, hair dripping in freezing cold, to show the little medal to Mom. Now, we’re in the middle of the relocated Peddler Bike Shop.
Then, we would have stood in front of the Dairy Queen, brown derbies in hand – staring across Highland at the neighborhood and neighboring heartbeats, Toddle House, furniture store, jewelry store, record store, barber shop, movie theater, dime store, hardware store, bakery, two drugstores, two grocery stores. Now, we’re standing in front of Chinese take-out, staring across at a fading neighborhood, neglected and abused, the heart figuratively and literally burned out.
Then, we would have been stepping into Fletcher’s Drug Store beneath the stamped tin ceiling and across the tile floor to the soda fountain for a nickel root beer, or sneaking into the Normal Theater after the movie started, or collecting boxes behind the furniture store to make a fort. Now, we stepped into and over the decades-long-frat-house-party detritus of Newby’s gone dark, the promise of the original brick walls and that tile floor peeking out here and there through the dreck and kitsch.
Bob seems to feel there’s enough heart here for life and he’s looking for a pulse. He asked me along to tell him what the patient was like in her prime. If you don’t think he’s good at this, it was Loeb alchemy that not only got Overton Square to breathe again but to sing.
My grandfather built a house here a century ago in a new community called Normal, named for the West Tennessee State Normal School, a teachers college that would become the University of Memphis. My mother, aunt and uncles grew up in that house. My brothers and I grew up there. And even though the mass of Channel 13 now occupies our yard, the house more than 50 years gone, I can still see its rooms, hear its echoes.
Some of my heart is still there.
Just north, dirt is about to turn on a mixed-use development called Highland Row, a bit toney for college students, but a big boost for the area. Bob Loeb understands that the old Normal center isn’t a row, it’s a strip, and college students are its present and future. It doesn’t need fancy, it needs real. It doesn’t need a lot of phony makeup, it needs to clean itself up and move forward, taking advantage of who it is, where it is, and what’s coming. And be cool about it.
One of Bob’s sisters is married to one of my cousins, and another is married to one of my daughter’s oldest friends, so, like true Memphians, we’re damn near related.
Take care of Normal, Bob. She’s family.
I’m a Memphian, and I know from Normal.
Dan Conaway is a communication strategist and author of the print and audio book “I’m a Memphian.” Reach him at email@example.com.