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Preface & Reader Response



When one is older, six months seems like no time at all. To borrow from Yogi Berra, it seems like "déjà vu all over again" – an all-too-familiar repeat of the same time last year. However, there was an age when six months could change the world – or appear to.

 


IN ANOTHER LIFE



ENTIRELY MYSELF

by Jerry Murley

When one is older, six months seems like no time at all. To borrow from Yogi Berra, it seems like "déjà vu all over again" – an all-too-familiar repeat of the same time last year. However, there was an age when six months could change the world – or appear to.

A little over six months after I returned from traveling in Central America, after working as a framing carpenter in East Memphis and as an apprentice cabinet maker off South Main in Downtown Memphis, I got an interview for a six-month internship at Memphis City Hall. The next six months would be a Big Bang in my life: everything before and after came together in one glorious surge of energy and connectivity. The stars had aligned for me. I felt as if I were astride a comet, influencing the trajectory of events with rough adaptation, if not elegant precision.

To the group of congenial, youngish, well-educated, disciplined, scientific-minded urban planners who interviewed me on that day, I must have seemed like a warm light, a fast-moving, overly inexperienced upstart unexpectedly crashing through the fluorescent-lit offices on that overcast, cold January day. They were a brilliant collection in different but eventually complementary ways. Only in Memphis, at that time, could such a transaction have taken place with me as a member of the party.

Of course, I would like to say that I was entirely myself that day, but I did not reach the moment or accomplish a thing all by myself. My father could always be counted on to come through for me in the most creative ways. [1] Perhaps at times he promoted me in ways that did not exactly fit my personality, my ideas, my interests, and my ability, but he did believe in me and promoted nonetheless. And his promotion was in the best possible way, it got results, tangible leads in life. He was the model father in that way. When I had a son myself, there was no other way for me to parent than to father like my dad. After my travels, my father knew from our conversations that I was interested in city development, and particularly passionate about the promise of Memphis and my potential role in it. He pulled strings with the mayor to get me the interview.

On the day of the interview, by way of mental preparation and since I had the whole day off, I decided to start a self-portrait in oils. I pulled out a small canvas, less than one square foot in area, and set up an easel in the dining room of my apartment. Joyce, the college friend with whom I shared a duplex apartment on Roberta Drive, was studying special education at Memphis State University and had left for school. I set up a mirror and started painting myself as I was then: the cabinet maker, bundled up every morning in cap and scarf, who rode the bus weekdays from Midtown to Downtown, who walked many blocks every dark morning and evening along South Main Street – the young man who imagined princes and craftsmen in Renaissance Italy and conceived of his time, place, and prospects as little different.

It was the boldest, fastest painting I had ever done. After two or three hours I stopped and never touched the painting again with a wet brush. Though unfinished in appearance to some, the painting completely captured the moment: I was not to be deterred; I had found my groove.

When I showed up for the interview, I had a few of my amateur paintings and drawings in tow. What was I thinking to show up to an interview for a position as an intern in urban planning with such trappings? Also I carried a bag of enthusiasm and energy. I pelted by interviewers with questions and with pure, unrestrained imagination, talking about my love of trains and the wonder of Florence, Italy, and some entirely out of the wild ideas about Memphis that I had been discussing with Don, who was off at law school.

I got the job. Perhaps I would have gotten it anyway, even if I had shown up in a football uniform and talked sports – who knows. But I got it, and from that moment, for at least another full year, I was entirely myself, seeing no obstacle that could not be overcome by energy, perseverance, imagination, and practical, inexpensive solutions. To be sure, along the way I discovered my personal limitations, and the limitations of my approach – a combustible, peculiar combination of naivety and short-term usefulness – when applied to hard-life situations in a politically charged "adult" world. But it was a heady time, a time that obviously I have not forgotten nor let others forget either – much to their annoyance.

Thus began a symbiotic relationship: I had my ticket to test myself and my ideas. For the three bureaucrats and their boss, I apparently had some kind of connection to a not highly respected mayor whose obduracy had to be plied and overcome in doing the inventive business of the city. And I had a different take on Memphis as my boyhood hometown. I had ideas that fit a small portion of what needed to be done and fit some classic notions of city-building. Though there was hesitancy about my being a outsider professionally – a local boy without artifice, a potential liability because I was the kind of impetuous novice who would attempt to actuate his whims and exuberance – I was pliable enough and willing to play the wild and foolhardy and strike out on my own to test my ideas in the marketplace. It was a win-win situation: I could hardly do real harm and might be of use in moving things forward by circumventing convention. Association and cooperation with these bureaucrats was a way for me to get some things done more easily with an official stamp. My cluelessness rendered me vaguely entertaining and useful; from my perspective, city hall and the professionals reciprocated nicely. In the end it worked: we all got what we needed and parted ways with a residue of respect. And we maintained respect primarily because the venture was of short duration: we officially parted ways after six months and interacted indirectly for several years more as what we all wanted and worked for slowly took on life, altering the community by the river ever so slightly. [2] [3]

* * *


I readily confess that in retrospect my young life was no more stellar than most of my generation – or the generation preceding or following. In the knowing lights of modern-day presumption, it is assuredly lackluster. It may read as less interesting in comparison to many and as less worthy in the context of the endeavors, achievements, and experiences of mankind. Still, it was a life – one honestly, if colorfully, drawn and put on private display. Still, it was a life suddenly shattered in October 1970 and miraculously reconstructed by plodding effort, amazing coincidence, and the good will and kindness of others.

A number of my peers led successful and influential lives, surpassing my own and most others of our time. Yet, it is painless to concede such facts – relative personal irrelevance – and still enjoy uncommon times, good fortune, and rare satisfaction about things gone well. It is quite easy to ponder such contradictions now, while eating my breakfast cereal, looking out my simple windows at a plain country view on a cold, gray morning in February 2014 – a circumstance and setting both average and extraordinary in every sense.



FOOTNOTES:

1. A Miracle Maker [6/20/2009].

2. When Will Memphis Have Effective Leadership? [1/11/2009].

3. Exalting Towers [2/28/2012].

 

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