Saturday, October 25, 2008

Palmer's Big Star: Part II

In my most recent post, I introduced the topic of Palmer’s Big Star, which has been in operation on Main St. in east Tupelo since the 1950s.
The mention of the store brought back a wave of memories, remarkable only if you view Palmer’s Big Star as simply a grocery store. It was that, of course, the place where everybody bought their bread and vegetables and meat. But it was much more, sort of a community gathering place.
There were several things that emerged from the dusty corridors of my memory at the mention of Palmer’s Big Star.
One of them was Quality Stamps.
Quality Stamps were trading stamps that you could collect and then redeem at a little “redemption center’’ located on South Gloster Street. As best I can tell, Quality Stamps were circulated primarily in what is referred to as the “Mid-South,’’ - Memphis and the surrounding areas of north Mississippi, west Tenneesee and east Arkansas. You may be familiar with S&H Green Stamps, which were more widely circulated. Well, Quality Stamps operated under a similar fashion.
At Palmer’s, you got a certain number of Quality Stamps for each dollar you spent on groceries. My recollection is not perfect on this point, but I seem to recall that the stamps had different values, sort of like currency. Mama was a devoted collector. Woe be it to the person who, having made a quick trip to Palmer's, did not return with her Quality Stamps.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table, licking those stamps and pasting them into the little booklets that, when filled with stamps, you could take to the redemption center. The redemption center looked much like any other retail store, as I recall. You could redeem your stamps for a wide variety of products, from house-wares to toys and games.
Mama being very practical, always used the stamps to buy something useful and sensible - pots, pans, small appliances, that sort of thing.
The one extravagant use of the stamps came when mama relented to my pleas to buy a popcorn popper. I remember pointing it out on the shelf. Mama was skeptical. We had a big pan to pop the popcorn with that had worked perfectly fine for years, after all.
But the popcorn popper was pretty cool, she had to admit. The popper plugged into a wall outlet and a big, clear plastic dome fit over the appliance. The dome was designed to be used as the bowl after the popcorn was popped. The popper had a non-stick surface, with a little metal arm that rotated around the surface to keep the un-popped kernels moving around to avoid sticking and ensure that all the kernels popped.
Mama still failed to see the need for such a device, but I suspect she thought of all the time I spent licking those stamps at the kitchen table and relented.
That night, a bunch of the neighborhood kids came over to watch the popcorn popper work its magic. Then we sat down at watched Jerry Lewis on “Saturday Night at the Movies’’ on TV.
Quality Stamps weren’t the only way to profit from a strip to Palmer’s Big Star, though. The store also featured “Let’s Go To The Races!’’ That turned out to be my first exposure to horse racing. Here’s how it worked:
With your purchase, you were given “betting slips’’ that featured the number of a horse and corresponding race. Again, the number of slips you received were based on your purchase amounts.
Each Saturday afternoon, we would pile our betting slips on the coffee table, sort them by the race and watch and watch the simulcast on the local TV station. Of course, it wasn’t really a simulcast, though. It was a re-run of a simulcast from races as such exotic tracks as Santa Anita, Gulf Stream, Belmont, etc.
In theory, if you had the winning horse, you could redeem your winning slip for cash. Again, I’m vague on the amount of money you could win. It turned out to be a moot point, anyway. We never won, although it seemed like we always had the “Place’’ horse. Of course, you didn’t win any money in the “Let’s Go To The Races!’’ for the Place or Show horses. Still, it was a thrill to have something riding on a race.
I suppose there were other grocery stores that featured Quality Stamps and “Let’s Go To The Races!’’ But Palmer’s was the only store I know of that had a Mynah bird.
At least, they had a Mynah bird for a while.
It was kept in a big cage near the store office and was a magnet for all the kids who accompanied their mama to the store. You had to be careful, though, because he was a temperamental old bird and had been known to take a nip at little fingers that were poked into his cage. We learned that pretty quick, so it never was much of a problem.
Unfortunately, though, the bird developed some unsavory habits that would eventually lead to his demise.
For one thing, he learned to whistle, which delighted the kids. Of course, it was a “wolf whistle,’’ a long, somehow lewd whistle that you normally associated with construction workers when a slender woman walks by in a short skirt.
The sensible, well-mannered women who patronized Palmer’s were decidedly not THAT sort of women, so when they walked by the bird and got the “wolf whistle,’’ it was mildly scandalous and deeply embarrassing.
The bird might have survived this indiscretion had he not picked up another bad habit.
Namely, he expanded his vocabulary to include a variety of curse words.
I do not know who taught the bird those particular words, although I do have my suspicions. I figure it was Buddy Palmer, who had the sort of irreverent personality that made him a likely suspect. But I could be wrong about that.
What I do know is that the Mynah bird soon disappeared. I don’t know what happened to him. If you know, clue me in, OK?
Another thing that distinguished Palmer’s Big Star was its link toboth Rock-n-Roll and Law Enforcement immortality. I’ll have to save that for next time, though.
Today is the best day of the year in racing and the horses are at the post for the Breeders Cup Marathon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Palmer's Big Star: Part I

Another trip on the Way Back Machine, aka my high school web site, put me in touch with Tracy Nichols Lyle, who grew up next door to me in East Tupelo. Tracy is 10 years my junior, but she had older brothers that I remember well.
She mentioned that one of her brothers was the meat market manager at Palmer’s Big Star and I was surprised how many memories the thought of the little grocery store stirred.
Unlike other parts of the city, East Tupelo had its own identity, mainly because it had its only little pocket of commerce along a two-block stretch of Main Street.
Old man Post operated a barber shop on the south side of Main St. Although he cut hair for more than 40 years at that location, he only performed one haircut, as best I can tell, a tightly cropped buzz cut that every boy sported. Look at any old photos of the boys who grew up in East Tupelo and you’ll see that “style.’’
When we got into our teen years and were deemed old enough to make our own choices, we would take our business out of East Tupelo to the downtown Central Barber Shop, where the young barbers bet on football games and had back issues of Playboy Magazine you could look at. Being able to go to Central Barber Shop, where the buzz cut was never performed and you could look at pictures of naked women was considered a rite of passage among teenage boys.
Post’s Barber Shop was located right next to Johnny’s Drive-in, which was a main gathering place for breakfast and lunch. The tiny little diner only had seating for about 20. Most patrons chose to eat in their car. As soon as you pulled up, the diner’s car-hops would wait to see if you were going to get out. If you didn’t, they would approach and take your order and bring your food out to you.
Johnny’s is still in operation, I’m happy to report and there is still a Barber Shop at the same location, although Mr. Post has long since passed on. A block further south was Lawhon Elementary School, its property flanked by East Heights Baptist Church, the biggest church in East Tupelo, to the east and the Freewill Baptist Church to the West.
On the opposite side of the street, there was the post office and a People’s Bank branch.
And there was Palmer’s Big Star.
As I reflect, Palmer’s Big Star was the focal point of the community. If you lived in East Tupelo, you may or may not have done your banking at the People’s Bank. You may or may not have worshipped at East Heights Baptist Church. You may have treated yourself to breakfast at lunch at Johnny’s Drive-In from time to time, although eating out was considered quite the luxury for a lot of folks in this working class community. You may have had Mr. Post buzz your head or have had your mom cut your hair instead.
But everybody bought groceries. And while another small grocery store, Lackey’s, operated just “up the hill’’ to the east, almost everyone in East Tupelo shopped at the Big Star.
These days, it would be hard to imagine that a grocery store could be the central meeting place for a community. But that is precisely the role the Big Star performed.
J.K. Palmer and his wife, Lorene, opened the store in the late 1950s. I remember Mr. Palmer well. A very kind, gentle man, he often let hard-pressed customers pay for their groceries at the end of the month. More than once, he would simply tell a customer to “pay me when you can.’’
Try that at your local Wal-Mart SuperCenter.
Mr. Palmer had two sons who grew up in the business, Romie and Buddy. I knew Buddy pretty well, mainly because he was about the same age as one of my older brothers. Also, Buddy was one of the more interesting characters in town . In the ultra-conservative little town, Buddy was an island of eccentricity, flamboyant in his appearance, exuberant in his manner, full of odd ideas and varied interests. You never ran into Buddy Palmer without finding him captivated by some new and unexpected enterprise.
After college at Mississippi State, he returned to run the Big Star with his wife, Cecilia. A few years back, he turned the store over to his two sons, so the Big Star is being operated by the third generation of the Palmer family.
It is funny what sticks in our memories. Important things, we sometimes forget. The trivial live on, for no apparent reason. In my next blog, I’ll share a few of the memories of Palmer’s Big Star that have persisted over the years, including such important matters as Quality Stamps, Let’s Go To The Races, the Mynah bird and Elvis’s kinfolk.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Slim's Greatest hits: 2

Another reprised column from my newspaper days,this one involving unsolicited e-mail solicitations. The column was written in 2005, but remains timely as ever, don't you think?



I get a lot of e-mails. Most of them are junk. Some, though, warrant a response.
Here is one that qualified, followed by my reply:
I am writing you this letter with due respect and heart full of tears.
We have not met previously but I am asking for your assistance after I have gone through a document that speaks so good of you.
I am Miss Kumbo, 21, from Liberia, but at the moment staying in the refugee camp here in Dakar, Senegal due to the war problems in my home country. I need your assistance towards helping me to retrieve my late father’s financial inheritance presently in a financial firm, and transfer it to your personal account.
My most important concern is for you to assist me (in coming) to your country to continue my education.
The amount is $9.3 million. I had occasionally called the financial company for the release of the funds to me and they told me that due to my refugee status I cannot alone process it.
Rather, I should look for an aged foreign representative to apply for the release.
As soon as I hear from you we shall discuss your percentage . . . Please e-mail me through my personal e-mail: . . .
Best Regards, Kumbo.
Dear Kumbo:
First off, I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my mother about a year ago, so I can sympathize. Our circumstances differ on one major point: Mom didn’t leave me $9.3 million. My inheritance turned out to be two frying pans, some Tupperware and a ’93 Mercury Sable that needs a water pump.
Your status as a refugee evokes sympathy since I, too, am a refugee. I had to leave my native Mississippi when I said, in a moment of reckless candor, that NASCAR was boring.
I am surprised that you have documents that portray me favorably and can only assume the document you refer to is not The Letters to The Editor section of this newspaper.
As I understand your email, you want my help in getting into this country. Getting into this country, especially Arizona, does not appear to be difficult. I suggest you concentrate instead on getting into Mexico. It's a snap from there.
As for your desire to have $9.3 million deposited into my account, my only reservation is that it may cause several bank tellers to suffer coronaries when they see that my account has a balance above $1.97. But I'll risk it.
Tell the financial firm to send me a check right away.
By the way, I am surprised to discover that refugee camps now offer Internet access. A sign of the times, I suppose. Do you have Starbucks, too?
Anyway, I’m happy to help. After all, what are aged foreign representatives for?
Regards, Slim

Friday, October 17, 2008

TV worth watching - imagine that

There are few things that are a greater waste of time than watching TV. I watch a lot of TV anyway.
I really don’t know why I watch TV as much as I do. Usually, I find that I watch TV sort of by accident. TV is just sort of there, mainly as background noise. At a certain point, something on the TV will divert my attention for a moment, perhaps as I am pausing to reflect on a passage I’ve just read in a book or while I’m folding laundry or eating my dinner. Well, the next thing I know, I’m sitting in my easy chair and the 10 p.m. news is coming on and I realize I haven’t moved in three hours. I almost always feel mildly disgusted at having been so easily lured into watching a series of silly sit-coms or ludicrous hospital/crime dramas.
Now that I am no longer in the newspaper business, I’ve given some deep thought about exploring other writing genres, including TV writing. Inspired by shows like “E.R.’’ and “Grey’s Anatomy,’’ I have come up with a twist on the genre that I believe could be a very successful show.
My idea is to have a show about a Bordello where the main characters routinely slip off into a store room or closet and practice medicine. What do you think?
Well, I was watching one of those hospital dramas last night when, much to my surprise, I detected something truly literate in the script. In these instances, the pleasure is always enhanced by having found it in a place you least expect it.
But sure enough, as Thursday’s episode of “E.R.’’ came on, I found myself exposed to what many literary critics consider the greatest of the epic poems - The Book of Job.
I’ll try to reconstruct the scene, as best I can recall it.
The opening scene follows one of the doctors, Abby, as he arrives for her shift at County Hospital in Chicago. The scene is constructed in such as way to convey a sense of hopelessness on Abby’s part. Regular viewers know that Abby is one of the original characters on the show, which is in its final season. Abby started out as a nurse on the show, but is now a doctor. (In TV land, you can complete medical school between seasons, of course). A recovering alcoholic, Abby seems to be very disillusioned with life as an emergency room doctor, where she is daily exposed to the carnage normally associated with a hospital emergency room in a big, crime-ridden city.
Abby looks worn and world-weary as she arrives in the chaotic emergency room. The narrator quotes Job as Abby wanders, zombie-like, into the ER. At first, I do not recognize the passage because, I suspect, it is read from a contemporary translation that I do not use - most likely, “The Message’’ by Eugene H. Peterson. But when the narrator says “what I've dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life,’’ I know that he is quoting the Book of Job.
Now, if I had been the writer of that show, I believe I would have stayed with the King James Version, which is almost always the most poetic of the translations, although not always the easiest to understand.
But that’s a minor criticism.
The narration ends and we watch Abby as she goes through what we find out is her final shift at the hospital. She is moving to Boston to be with her young son and doctor/husband. Abby seems ambivalent about her impending departure. On one hand, you sense she is disillusioned by the grim realities of her job. On the other hand, you sense her affection and admiration for the other doctors and nurses. Over the course of the hour, Abby comes to the defense of a stressed-out young nurse, saves a guilt-ridden teen from suicide and provides encouragement to another weary doctor. And somehow, a flicker of hope seems to ignite in Abby.
At the end, Abby - box of personal effects in tow - says her quick goodbyes and heads out to the street, where her husband and child are waiting to greet her.
The narrator picks up, again quoting the Book of Job, with the series of rhetorical questions that God offers Job as a response to his complaints and accusations.
It was, I felt, a beautiful, thoughtful, literate handling of the story.
And it was on a TV show.
Imagine that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Slim's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1

From time to time, I intend to reprise some of my old columns for your reading enjoyment.
Here in the Phoenix area, October means it is time for the Arizona State Fair. The following column about the fair was published on Oct. 16, 2005.


The Arizona State Fair started Friday, and I asked a young colleague if she was going. She wrinkled her nose and said no; it is too noisy, too crowded, too messy, too crude for her tastes, she said.
And I thought, gee, those are the reasons I like the fair.
In our postmodern, homogenized society, our entertainment seems to have been given over completely to technology. It is impersonal, sterile, passive.
Sure, the fair is quirky, flawed, unsophisticated, hopelessly tacky. In other words, it’s like me.
Go to a mega-theme park and you are nothing more than a consumer. Go to the fair and you are a real person talking to another real person about how he grew a 385-pound pumpkin. You just won’t see that at Legoland.
For all the clutter, confusion and cheesy attractions, state fairs remain popular. Probably the most famous of the state fairs is the Iowa State Fair, an event so popular that it inspired a Broadway musical: "Les Miserables," I think it was.
So I encourage all skeptics to take another look. There are still people who can make butter out of a cow, but where else will you see somebody making a cow out of butter? Where else will you find a booth that sells 14-foot fishing boats that can be folded flat and stored under your bed? Where else can you see hundreds of livestock, thousands of crafts and food items, all the products of folks who might be your neighbors?
I’m talking about folks such as Helen Spangler and Debbie Young. I don’t know either, but I bet they both have big, fat husbands. Spangler won eight blue ribbons for cakes. Young took home five blue ribbons for bread-making.
Nancy Asper only won a third place, which I would protest if I were her. Her "Most Outlandish’’ entry was a cake that looked exactly like a cat’s litter box — one badly in need of cleaning, at that.
The fair is all about stealing a kiss from your sweetie when the Ferris Wheel stops at the top. It’s about eating foods dripping with fat and not feeling guilty. It’s about winning an enormous overstuffed animal and then realizing you have to tote it around for the next three hours.
It’s about petting a rabbit, mooing at a cow (admit it, you’ve done that). It’s about giggly girls flirting with the boys and grandpas spoiling the kids with trinkets.
It’s about recognizing all the ordinary people around you and realizing that you fit right in.
It makes me feel sad for my young colleague, who seems to have forgotten that sense of wonder in the ordinary.
Messy, loud, crowded, tacky? What’s not to like?

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's a "Ruff'' new world

If you were to drive past the home of Mark and Ranae Salem these days, you would notice a bright blue banner with the words “It’s a Boy!’’ attached to the fence out front.
It is not what you might suspect. Mark and Ranae, whose appearances are youthful almost to the point of being spiteful, have not added to their family in the traditional sense.
Yet there is a new arrival. Just before going to bed Wednesday night, Mark went to check on one of his mares, Cowgirl, who he had moved into his small back yard in anticipation that she would soon deliver a foal.
Poor Cowgirl. Through the typically hot summer months, we had watched her as her belly swelled and her expression seemed to betray a weariness that only moms can understand.
Now, mares begin to leak milk about 24 hours before they deliver. But this is just a rule of thumb, as Mark and Ranae would discover.
When Mark checked on Cowgirl Wednesday night, there was no tell-tale signs of impending labor.
Thursday morning, Mark walked outside and a movement caught his eyes. His two angus calves were being chased by what he first thought was a big dog.
Mark looked again and was delighted by what he saw: A beautiful painted colt. Sometime between bedtime and daylight, Cowgirl had delivered. And only a few hours later, the little colt was already chasing the calves - a natural cow pony, for sure. Mark has named him Ruff-n-Ready, Ruff for short.
Since Thursday morning, a lot of the Salems’ friends have stopped by to see the little colt. He is a beautiful colt. In fact, he looks a lot like his sire, Splash. In addition to friends, other curious passers-by have noticed the colt and stopped to admire him.
Me? Well, maybe I’m getting to be a little sentimental in my middle age, but Ruff’s arrival seems to be some sort of tonic.
Last week, I was informed that the job lead I had been pursuing, a job that would have represented a major step forward in my struggle to put my life back together after the trauma of going to prison, has been put on hold. As the economic news worsened, the company decided it wise to put some of their plans on hold, and initiated a hiring freeze through the end of the year. Maybe in January, I was told. But, of course, the simple turn of the calendar isn’t guaranteed to change things. I guess there are thousands of Americans who are facing the same uncertain prospects that confront me.
So it was nice to have a distraction. When I went to visit Ruff for the first time, I brought a few snacks for Cowgirl, just to put the protective mom at ease. As I approached, Ruff moved close to his mom. But in a little while, as I kneeled down to present myself a less threatening presence to the gangly little colt, his caution gave way to curiosity. Under his mom’s ever watchful eye, he eased closer to me, finally allowing me to softly stroke his head and withers.
To Ruff, the world is a scary place. Everything is a new experience and, as a result, a potential danger. Of course, it is a dangerous world, but no less interesting because of it.
I know the feeling.
Times are hard, it is true.
But the world remains a hopeful place.
That’s important for me to remember in times like these.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

You can call me Tim

First off, let me apologize to long-time readers of this blog. Ever since I stumbled over that high school website that enabled me to get in touch with my old classmates about six weeks ago, I’ve found myself sort of fixated on those olden days - “before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook and still would,‘’ is the way Merle Haggard put it. Recent blogs certainly have reflected my mild obsession with all things Tupelo High School circa 1975-77.
I cannot imagine that there is anything more tedious than reading about somebody else’s experiences in high school. But when you consider the unpleasant turn my life has taken in the past few years, I suspect you will be inclined to understand my temptation to occupy my thoughts with the soothing recollections of my days of blissful ignorance rather than contemplate the ambivalent ignorance of my current situation.
I suspect that someday I will emerge from this nostalgic fog and take up more contemporary subject matter.
But today is not that day. Sorry.
During my correspondence with my old classmates, I have found that many of them refer to me as “Tim.’’ The reason they do that is because that is my name: Tim Smith. Of course, if you have known me fewer than 30 years, you know me by my nickname, “Stud.’’
OK. So nobody calls me “Stud.’’ Well, that’s not entirely true. One woman about five years ago, gave me that pet name. I wound up buying a set of encyclopedias from her, so I’m not sure she was entirely sincere.
Most people know me as Slim, though.
When I got into my 40s, it used to sort of offend me when, upon introducing myself to someone, the person would often ask me why people called me “Slim.’’ Well, it used to be a descriptive nickname. Back when I got it, no one ever wondered why. It was obvious. Even though I lost a fair amount of weight a few years back, I still get that question.
So, here’s the answer:
In 1975, I was a sophomore in high school and “Gopher’’ Williams, one of the upperclassmen on the football team - not knowing my name - began to call me “Slim.’’ People with nicknames are entitled to give other people nicknames, I suppose.
To be honest, I rather liked the nickname and will confess that I sort of promoted the use of it. I find now that most of the old classmates who refer to me as “Slim’’ were on the football team.
There were a couple of reasons I favored “Slim’’ over “Tim’’ or - gasp - “Timmy,’’ as my mama called me.
First, I rather liked the alliterative qualities of being “Slim Smith.’’ By that time, I had already determined that I would be a writer, most likely a sports columnist at the New York Times if not the latest manifestation of the great, brooding Southern novelists of that era.
I felt “Slim Smith’’ was the sort of distinctive, memorable name that you associate with great literary figures.
The other, more practical reason, that I preferred “Slim'' to “Tim’’ is that my class at THS already had a “Tim Smith.’’ Somehow, being another “Tim Smith’’ made me feel sort of redundant.
Now, my name is “Timothy Lane Smith.’’ The other guy was “Timothy Lynn Smith.’’ I know this because all through high school I was regularly required to straighten this out.
Beyond the redundancy, I was a little worried about being identified with the other Tim Smith for another reason.
Now at this juncture, the subject of Timothy Lynn Smith is a delicate matter for me to discuss. You see, Timothy Lynn Smith was considered to be, in the vernacular of the day, a “hood.’’
I don’t know what the high school counter-culture of today is called. But in my day, those who rejected the accepted culture of the high school were called hoods. Upon reflection, I do not recall that hoods were really all that rebellious, though. Oh sure, they were somewhat more inclined to smoke cigarettes, cut classes, reject the latest fashions and be enrolled in "Vo-Tech'' classes. But primarily, the hoods were set apart in terms of attitude.
In every high school, you have a small cadre of really popular kids and a great mass of other kids aspiring to affiliate themselves with the popular group. The hoods didn't bother. They were pretty cool, now that I think about it.
I didn't think they were all that cool then, though.
So, being confused with Timothy Lynn Smith, at least in my mind, threatened any misguided ambition I might entertain about being accepted by the popular kids.
Now, I am not flat-out saying that Timothy Lynn Smith was a hood. As has been proven in previous blogs, my recollections are far from perfect.
NOTE TO TIM: If you were a hood, I’m not saying that was a bad thing. So don't come to Arizona and beat me up, OK? If you were not a hood, then you probably aren't inclined to come to Arizona and beat me up. Even so, I apologize if my memory was faulty on this point.
All I remember is that “Tim Smith’’ was routinely being called to the principal’s office. More often than not, they weren’t looking for me. That’s all I'm saying.
I do wonder what Timothy Lynn Smith is up to these days. Sometimes I imagine that he is a minister or teacher or something along those lines. Ironic, then, that it is Timothy Lane Smith who has a prison record, huh?
I’m thinking Timothy Lynn Smith may want to consider acquiring a nickname to spare him from such an unflattering case of mistaken identity.
He should look up Gopher Williams.