Words and Pictures by Ken Billett
A gray squirrel scampered across the painted concrete deck, darting between thick-cushioned outdoor furniture. Glass chimes, hanging overhead, rattled in the gentle breeze, creating a jingly melody. The squirrel stopped, raised its nose, and quickly headed towards the hotel’s front door.
After watching the squirrel be a squirrel, I took another sip of coffee, compliments of the hotel, and checked emails on my phone. I felt the cool of the breeze on my skin while seated in a thick-cushioned chair on the hotel’s front porch, which seemed more like a portico. Every morning we’d been here had been breezy—at first warm and humid, now cool and dry.
Listening to the birds pleasantly chirp along with those soothing overhead chimes, I’m reminded as to why I love being on vacation and away from the day-to-day routine of life back home.
Sights. Sounds. Smells.
I wish I could somehow bottle them all up to bring back home.
Another aspect of my life that needs reconciliation.
Over the past weekend, with the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in full swing (read For the Love of Dolphins), the good folks at The Avalon Hotel, located in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, customized their sound system’s playlist for their festival-going guests to include classic Delta blues music, along with a few contemporary blues standards. On our last morning at The Avalon, the soundtrack had reverted back to soft hits and mellow mood tunes.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end…like our time in St. Petersburg and at The Avalon.
Then Otis came on over the speakers to personally serenade me.
Reminding me that, eventually, I had to go home…back to Memphis, my adopted hometown.
“(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” soul singer Otis Redding’s classic song, released shortly after his tragic death, has been interpreted to mean everything from depression to loneliness, to obviously, longing for home. In Dock of the Bay, Otis sang of his time in California, specifically San Francisco, but for many Memphians, including this “adopted Memphian,” Dock of the Bay is not only about going home, but about loving your home.
Much like Elvis Presley’s dance moves, Sun Studios’ musical legacy, B.B. King’s soulful guitar licks, and Beale Street’s iconic history, Dock of the Bay – written and recorded at Memphis-based Stax Records -evokes hometown pride and passion. As I wrote a couple of years ago (read Stax in my Soul), “(t)here’s…pride in listening to and loving the Memphis-based music that, in my younger years (early to mid-1970s), was simply known as R&B or Soul. Growing up in Tampa, Florida, one of my favorite music memories occurred during the daily bus ride to middle school,” hearing Redding’s soothing voice over the radio.
“Little did I know back in middle school that I would eventually call Memphis my home. I’ve grown to love my adopted hometown with its grit and grind and its hustle and flow.”
And, yes, Memphis can be a tough place to love, with a seemingly endless stream of tragedies, especially over the last several weeks and, in particular, the past twelve months.
That’s why we all need a little Otis Redding in the morning to keep everything in perspective.
Other than the squirrel and the birds, I’m alone on The Avalon’s front porch in the early morning, so not much rush-hour traffic on 4th Avenue. Vicki slept in, before we had to pack and head over the water to Tampa, my birthplace, which, sadly, no longer felt much like home.
I dread the drive. I dread the memories. And I dread dealing with the ghosts of my past.
So, I decided it was time for more coffee, and, perhaps, another one of those delicious cookies—crescent-shaped almond shortbread—from Hellas, an authentic Greek bakery in Tarpon Springs, which is north of St. Petersburg.
My small furry early-morning companion was now joined by a friend, and the two romped around the concrete flooring as I walked to the front door. Both squirrels paused, watching me with anticipation. Weird, I thought. I stepped inside and said Hey to Brian, the front desk guy, who acknowledged me with a Good Morning.
I made myself another coffee and then one for Vicki, and grabbed a crescent-shaped cookie. When I turned to ask Brian about room reservations for the weekend of next year’s Tampa Bay Blues Festival, movement at the front window caught my eye. Both squirrels were perched near the window, intently staring inside.
Before I could say “What the heck?”, Brian was already walking to a storage room behind the front desk. He retrieved a Tupperware-type container, and said “We feed them, periodically…been doing it for a while, now.” I watched him go out the front door and toss some brown pellets onto the concrete deck. Both squirrels greedily grabbed and munched a (human) handful of treats.
I smiled and chatted a little more with Brian, thanking him for another great stay. Taking the coffees and a cookie, I walked back to our room on the third floor, humming to myself (Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun…) while I took in the sights and sounds along 4th Avenue. That cool breeze felt so good.
And the memory of two squirrels anxiously awaiting another meal.
Wishing I could somehow bottle it all up to bring back home…to Memphis.
Later that morning, we packed up and checked out, leaving our temporary sanctuary behind—guarded, if you will, by a real sanctuary right next door (read Finding Peace). Trading in our temporary home at The Avalon, we drove across the Gandy Bridge into South Tampa and made our way to Westshore, where we ate a delicious authentic Cuban meal for lunch.
Just a few things I still love about my birth city…real Cuban food is definitely one.
Reconciling my past with my present. That would come later. As would wrestling with the ghosts of my past…and all those tangled memories, like Spanish moss hanging from a live oak.
My journey to a place that used to be home would be complicated and arduous. But Otis would be there, obviously in spirit, with inspiration and guidance.
Look like nothin’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes
“Dock of the Bay” is Ken’s second in my three-part series on reconciliation. Part one, “Finding Piece“, was published earlier this month.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.