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VOL. 10 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saturday Night Scenes on Beale Street

By Bill Dries

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Some observations from three consecutive Saturday nights on Beale Street at and after 10 p.m.

Beale Street just before 10 p.m. is about bubbles. Street vendors selling bubble guns – toy guns that shoot bubbles – do a brisk business before 10. A girl in a stroller watches with wide eyes as her finger is locked on the trigger and bubbles spew forth. By the time she reaches the middle of the block between B.B. King Boulevard and Second Street, the stream of bubbles begins to slow.

The bubble business itself gradually tapers off after 10. By about 11 p.m., the balance between cigar and cigarette smoke and bubbles begins to move toward smoke and by midnight there’s not a bubble to be found. However, you can still find children – small children at that – on Beale Street after midnight. Some even in strollers.

The five checkpoints, or gates, go up before 10 p.m. even though there is no cover charge until 10. The gate operation is well organized with attendants wearing different colored T-shirts for different duties. A few minutes before 10, a man and a woman in red T-shirts take their position at the Second Street checkpoint, easily the busiest of the five. At 10, the man raises his arm like a crossing gate and looks to see that the woman across from him is situated. She raises her arm and those in the two lines move together closer to make it in before their arms come down. There isn’t any complaining when they bring their arms down together and the man relents to let a group of five women who came together make it in under the wire, so to speak.

A zydeco version of “Burning Love.”

Beale Street is a collision of music – almost none of it Memphis music or the blues – some of it live, some of it recorded. If there was a national anthem of Beale it would be Prince’s Purple Rain – walk the street for a few hours and you will hear it at least twice in different places. Sometimes recorded, but most times a cover version by a live band.

The recorded music played by DJs dominates the further you get from 10 p.m. And there are three spots on Beale where street line dancing is possible at just about any time. One is in front of the club 152 Beale. The second is between Alfred’s and Handy Park. The third is the area between Coyote Ugly and The Historic Daisy – that is its formal name, most know it as the Old Daisy. The Old Daisy’s bar is the best lit, most colorful, largest and most elaborate. It doesn’t look like it was planned that way, but that’s the way it has evolved. And it is a mixer of sorts for different groups on the street, from family reunions out late to bridal showers to just groups of people who have never seen each other before and probably won’t again. Photobombs are also a big part of the open-air line dancing.

If you like live blues that comes off the stage and works the house like it is a juke joint, the place to be is Lew’s Blue Note Bar and Grill, the last active storefront on the eastern end of the street.

Two Saturdays in a row, people were watching through the windows as a singer named “Queenie” was going through the crowd inside, singing her heart out with the deepest blues to a man whose long beard she strokes as the Cuzins 3 Band is following her lead and staying in the pocket and on stage. The third Saturday, the band is paying dues without Queenie.

In the din, those who work on Beale Street find ways to make their point without speaking. A panhandler pulls up a seat at a table on the sidewalk by Handy Café with someone he doesn’t know. After just five seconds, a bouncer looks around the corner, gestures with his thumb and the panhandler gets up and leaves.

Close to midnight, two groups of people meet on the sidewalk outside Friday’s where inside it’s a busy but mellow Saturday night with a dark AutoZone Park across Union Avenue.

“We’re from St. Louis. Is Beale Street it?” someone in the southbound group asks.

“Beale Street is it,” a man answers from the other group. “It’s whack.”

Further north, lots of cars parked on the curb and two security guards are the only indication that Memphis Sounds is having a very good night with absolutely no activity outside the club. It’s all business going into and coming out of the small nightclub.

The cruisers are a block away on Second Street where the police barricade at Union has moved down closer to Beale. But at midnight, they are just getting started.

A car at the light at B.B. King and Court Street revs its engine as the light turns green, waking a man sleeping in his encampment in a doorway of the vacant Dermon Building, a Clive Cussler paperback tucked in the handrail to the door.

There is a kind of mirage-like effect to crowds on Beale. What appears to be a crowd at the other end of the street can be a smaller group of people than thought stretched across the faux brick street at different points.

Some of the doormen can look like forlorn ghosts from the street’s past – vintage coats of white or red with a brimmed hat stand in sharp contrast to those who wear jeans, cargo shorts, debatably clever message T-shirts and ball caps. An older man in a long white coat and matching Panama hat wanders around on the street just past 11:30 a.m., looking in windows – completely ignored by the patrons around him. He’s checking out the competition to see who is doing business. The Band Box, where he works, is doing OK. A few doors down the band at King’s Palace is playing to an audience of one – who actually turned on the bandstand to face him.

The first person spotted throwing up, at least on the street itself, is about 25 minutes before midnight outside Jerry Lee Lewis’ into a garbage can with an abundance of pineapple drink containers that are very popular judging by the contents there and other trash cans in the district.

Boom Box spotted on the street after midnight. It is held by a man with a blue baseball cap on sideways. The box is turned off as he goes directly to a garbage can, lifts a small plastic cup out of the way and pulls out a used “yard” (yard-long tubular drink container) that still has a bit of a green concoction in the bottom. A few steps away and after a very tentative taste, he walks confidently east into the crowd passing by another young man with a baseball cap swinging a Diver bucket from Silky’s, the street’s other large volume container of alcoholic beverages when a plastic cup – even a “big ass” cup – just won’t do. The yards also come with a handy strap to put around your neck.

Sometimes the yards contain a luminous blue concoction that would explain the two men we see making their way into the crowds – one striding forward confidently across B.B. King Boulevard toward points east with his companion closer than a step behind holding upright a syringe, without a needle, containing the blue liquid ready for action at any and all times.

As people line up at the B.B. King Boulevard entrance on the last Saturday night of June on Beale, a funeral wreath on a stand is on the sidewalk by Rum Boogie Café – a reminder of the death of Memphis Police officer Verdell Smith a year ago last summer at the intersection.

Smith was killed when he was run over by a car driven by a man who allegedly shot three people on Downtown’s north end.

The band at Rum Boogie is in a band groove – as in The Band – playing Ophelia to a packed house while across the way on the patio at Silky’s the band has a horn section, which prompts them to try some Earth, Wind & Fire covers.

Street preachers have been an institution on Beale Street since before the district’s revival in 1983. With the district’s revival, the preachers went to court for access to Handy Park and won, although they favor moving through the crowd with large banners warning of God’s wrath with images of sinners burning in hell. Being heard over competing voices is part of the tradition of street preaching. But on the only Saturday we saw them, they were not trying to compete with the sound systems.

They do at one point take the spot of the “silver man” – the street performer who looks like a robot or a statue depending on your perspective. He doesn’t move until you hand him money and this is vastly entertaining to many people. Some of his customers try to get him to blink or react, including a woman who rubs her breast to draw his attention away from her friend, who gets a flower from the man in silver. He gives up the spot near the Second Street checkpoint to take a break, giving a fist-bump to the guys running the bubble gun stand as they hand him a bottled water.

A dozen purple-shirted men are on the northeast corner of Handy Park on the other side of the fence preaching from the corner as cruisers going west on Peabody Place line up single file and get adjusted to the new street lines in place for the next year.

The preacher in the center of the group is drawing a bit of interest. “Down here in these clubs…” he shouts, with the rest of his point drowned out by the Amen corner around him. A few people on the other side of the fence in the park turn around and then lower their heads to get back into whatever is on the screens of their iPhones.

Meanwhile, several men in traditional Muslim garb were on the Beale Street side of the park talking closely and fervently with individuals and referring to passages in the Quran. The man listening has a few questions that prompt comparisons to common points in the Bible and Quran.

Police in front of Handy Park have a glass pitcher of ice water atop one of the patrol cars. Dyer’s and Wet Willie’s have lines to enter for drinks. A block away, two other patrol cars are parked directly in front of 152 Beale.

There are those who come to Beale and those who work on Beale and if you cross the line there are probably going to be consequences no matter who you are. Witness the cops several years ago who were watching cruisers come through the district with spinners and then pulling them over a few blocks outside the district to shake them down. And then there are the numerous lines crossed when bouncers have to get involved. Otherwise, those working on Beale tend to move faster, with no people watching unless it is someone else who works on Beale.

A woman wearing a white jacket with the words “Spoil Me with Loyalty, I Can Finance Myself” drops hard, face-down just past the Second Street checkpoint. She stays down for a second or two, long enough for several strangers to come to her aid and help her up.

The Strange Cargo storefront looks much different with the statues and other trinkets back-lit and only the blue trim lights glimmering on the exterior. Across the way, the gold lettering on the dark A Schwab storefront picks up a shade of that blue. The storefronts are another reminder that Beale, at this point, is really not about shopping.

One of the flower vendors walks by the alley by Black Diamond and spots another flower vendor – a minute later that rival flower vendor is elsewhere in the district on what is presumably not someone else’s turf.

After you pay the $5 cover charge to get on the street there is still a cover charge at the individual clubs. That can range from $2 to $10 and the cover varies over time depending on how full the place is. “You don’t love me?” a man says to a bouncer as the negotiations over a cover charge end without a deal. There is also a business in back-alley access to some clubs, with solicitors for some of the businesses approaching people in line at the checkpoints to offer them access. Meanwhile, 152 Beale does a separate wanding for guns at its entrance, even after the ones at the checkpoints.

The front of Handy Park is generally conceded as the turf of the street’s photographers, who come with backdrops to commemorate the evening on the street. They earn their money trying to snap pictures from the proper distance as oblivious crowds walk between them and their subjects. “You’re killing me,” one photographer says forlornly as he waits for a group that has paused there trying to determine where to go next.

It’s easy to spot groups on Beale. The groups wearing red family-reunion shirts. A group of woman with white tops lettered with the word “Divas.” And then there is the bride’s party in black leotards with red tutus. The tops are custom-lettered “Our Main Bitch Is Getting Hitched.”

There is never any return entry onto Beale without paying the cover charge again. Not even if you cite an empty Diver bucket as proof. And there is no appeal.

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