With the Memphis blues again

This article was originally published in the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise in 1987.

His dirty white shirt was open, his teeth brown and broken. He somehow stuffed himself and his imitation leopard skin bedroll into the tiny Ford Escort and we begin to roll towards Louisville. 

I picked him up alongside Interstate 71 just south of Cincinnati because I was drowsy and wanted company and also because he was about the most forlorn and harmless person I’d ever seen. 

He, for the most part, wasn’t much company. 

We both spoke English, of course, but our dialects varied greatly; I understood little of what he said. For 40 minutes we rode without speaking while Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty songs blasted out of the car’s rear speakers.

Finally I turned down the radio and asked him where he was going. I had to ask him to repeat himself several times, but eventually I was led to understand that his destination was Memphis. 

His name was Charlie Washington and he was returning home from his mother’s house in Cleveland. He had been hiding out there for the duration of the Elvis-death celebration in Memphis. 

Guys like Charlie, who live mostly on the street in Memphis, are quickly shoved out of sight when the tourists are in town to mourn the King. 

Charlie Washington cuts grass for a living in Memphis. He buys food, gin and cigarettes with the money he earns. 

As best we could, we commenced to have a conversation. I told him I was headed to western Indiana and could take him only as far as Louisville.

After a few minutes Charlie asked me my name and held out his hand in friendship. 

We shook and I told him my name. He did not understand. I told him again, speaking slowly and with more volume. Again, he did not understand.

“Mike Dillon,” I said. “Dillon. You know like Bob Dylan.“ 

Suddenly his head jerked around, his eyes narrowed and he looked me over slowly.

“You’re Bob Dylan? “He asked. “Oh man.” 

“No, no,” I said, “My name is Mike Dillon. It’s like Bob Dylan, that’s what I was saying, that it’s like Bob Dylan.“

It was too late.

Charlie would glance slowly out the window, then turn back to face me and shake his head in wonder. “Bob Dylan,” he kept saying. “I heard of you, man.” 

I tried again to explain to Charlie that I was not, in fact, Bob Dylan, but the language barrier was too much to overcome. 

“Listen,” I said, “if I was Bob Dylan I’d be riding, not driving.” I jerked my thumb towards the backseat and repeated slowly. “You dig? Writing not driving.”

He did not dig and sat in silence, glancing at me occasionally from the corner of his eye. 

I thought about showing him my driver’s license but did not think it was such a good idea to pull out my wallet and leaf through twenty dollar bills until I found it. 

Instead I turned the radio back up. Connie Francis was belting out “Who’s Sorry Now?”

We rode on without speaking.

When we got to Louisville a bloody sun was setting over the wide Ohio. I pulled over near a city exit to let Charlie out. 

He tossed his imitation leopard skin bedroll out into the roadside cinders, called me sir, shook my hand and asked if I could spare some money. 

Because I was traveling on the newspaper’s account I could not afford to be generous. I pulled a few wrinkled dollars from my pocket and gave him the rest of my cigarettes. He did not give me a receipt. 

I asked him if he knew anyone in Louisville. He said he didn’t. He said he would sleep on the street and resume his trek in the morning.

He closed the door to the car but then stuck his head back in through the window and looked at me in puzzlement. 

“What Bob Dylan be doing in Indiana?” he asked. 

I shook my head and shrugged. 

“Making a record,” I said, and then reached over and turned the radio back up.

I drove away and watched in my mirror as Charlie diminished and then disappeared. 

Where do they bury guys like Charlie when they die, I wondered. 

The answer, I suppose, is blowin’ in the wind.


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