Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Rising

It’s a great time to be a Memphian.

And it’s a scary, uncertain time to be a Memphian.

The inevitability of these two situations happening at once is, of course, very Memphis indeed.
photo by Chip Chockley

On the plus side, our lone big-time professional sports team has not only made it to the playoffs, but ground their way through to a first-round win over the number one seed. The city that essentially forgot the Grizzlies existed a few months ago, except to note their comically long losing streak, is now behind this group of underdogs. Maybe it’s our Hoosier-like innocence about the difference between college athletes, who we’ve always supported, and the NBA, but Memphis seems to be not only excited about the team, but also protective. Professional basketball doesn’t usually lend itself to the feeling that these are “our hometown boys,” but there’s something like family loyalty in the air these days. It’s reaffirming and, I’ll admit, a little disconcerting. We’re not a group-think, high-hopes kind of town. When anything goes too well, for too long, we get a little nervous that we’ll have to pay for it later.

Speaking of … how about that Mississippi River? You know, that three-mile-wide expanse of rushing water that has decided to come on up and mosey down Beale St. himself. (Rivers are male, right? Ol’ Man River and all that?) It’s hard to even get past the sheer spectacle of the situation, but when you do, the realities are dispiriting. Damage is occurring that our already-strapped city will be hard-pressed to repair. People’s homes, schools, and lives are being disrupted. And all this on top of a month of storms that many residents are still recovering from. Navigating surface streets still requires weaving around the piles of lost limbs and chainsawed trunks that can’t be contained on the sidewalks until pick-up day. We’re just a damn mess.

But sometimes being a mess has its perks. Like when the President of the United States chooses to give the commencement speech at your high school to honor all the ways in which students have risen above it all. The same year Michael Heisley declared that the Grizzlies were in rebuilding mode, the administration of Booker T. Washington High School reformed their core systems to not only serve the students in Memphis’ poorest zip code, but to guide them toward success. Over the last three years, the school’s graduation rate has shot from 55% to over 80%. And on May 20th, President Obama is going to stop by to tell them how fantastic they are. Now that’s a true Cinderella story.

Which brings us right back to the Grizzlies. Now tied up with Oklahoma in the second round of the playoffs (I write, as if I have any idea how many rounds there actually are or have paid attention to the NBA since Michael Jordan retired. The first time), it’s getting scary again. The equal proximity of success and failure does not sit well, because Memphians know which way our luck tends to lean. The mere fact that this many Memphians are attentive and optimistic is in itself a bad sign, because all of our best stuff happens when no one is really watching (see: the success at Booker T. Washington, the Million Dollar Quartet, or Jake Gyllenhaal buying cinnamon rolls at the Farmers Market).

The trademark Memphis fatalism has seeped into me over the years, and it’s now natural for me to assume that anything that brings the city together will lead to crushing disappointment, generally within a two-week span.

With that in mind, I suggest that we all turn our backs on the Grizzlies and cheer the Mississippi on to keep on getting higher. And then meet back on Beale in a couple weeks (or months? Three fortnights?) to celebrate a victorious team and a thoroughly dry downtown.

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