My great-grandfather was known as Red the Butcher. It makes him sound rather fierce and menacing, like a Viking or a serial killer, but in fact he was a red-haired Irishman who owned a butcher shop on Beale Street during the Roaring Twenties.
In those days, a good butcher was a girl’s best friend. Red was beloved by housewives and housekeepers, known for his jovial gregariousness, honesty and carving skills. His shop was a popular fixture in Memphis, and he was well-known and respected in the community. He wasn’t a wealthy man, but he provided well for his wife and three young children, until the Roaring Twenties crashed into Wall Street and the Great Depression began.
Red’s business took a hit, but he had friends in high places, and the Memphis Police Department invited him to join their ranks. It was an immense honor for a working-class man. Red sold his shop and traded his starched white apron for a policeman’s uniform. While many men lost their jobs during this period, and families struggled through hardship, my great-grandfather received a reprieve.
It should have been a story with a happy ending, but of course, this is my family we’re talking about here. Our closets hold more skeletons than the Catacombs of Paris.
By day, Beale Street was home to many respectable downtown businesses; at night, it was awash in booze, blues and bordellos. Prohibition seldom slowed its crazy pace. Red was a friend to all—upright citizens and scoundrels alike– and the sinners that congregated in and around his butcher shop eventually led him into temptation. By the time he’d joined the M.P.D., he’d developed a serious, clandestine relationship with alcohol. It didn’t take long for his superiors to discover his secret, and they had to let him go. A drunk police officer busting bootleggers just wouldn’t do. As quick as a blink, Red lost his job and destroyed his reputation.
This was Memphis. Everybody knew everybody, and in those days of despair and poverty, all that many men were left with was their integrity, their good names. The lead weight of shame attached itself to my great-grandfather. He gathered his things, left the police station and wandered out into the streets of the River City. He never went home to his wife, he couldn’t face his children. He became a drifter, though he never ventured far from Beale Street.
Eventually, he took up residence in Tom Lee Park, beside the flowing comfort of the Mississippi River. There’s magic and danger and a million tears in that water, and its powerful force pulled him there beside it. I picture him sleeping on bench near its flowing waters, a bottle in his hand, lulled to sleep by the sounds of riverboats and waves. His old friends from the Police Department often came to check on him. Businessmen, formerly his fellow merchants, gave him dimes. They’d report on his well-being to his wife, who endured the gossip of neighbors whispering across chain link backyard fences as they hung their laundry to dry.
The weather changed from hot to cold to arctic. Red wandered the streets and socialized with other bums, warming his hands by trash barrel fires, swigging from their bottles and passing his. In my mind’s eye, I see their bearded, toothless faces glowing orange in the firelight as they laugh and talk and drink, like they do in movies on TV. But this is real. This is his blood that moves through my veins. His suffering hurts me at a DNA level. It’s painful to imagine.
In every society, there are rules of conduct. This applies to derelicts as well– even they have codes of honor. But in my great-grandfather’s desperation, he broke one of those codes and added another black mark to his name.
Late one night, as he drunkenly ambled down a darkened street, shivering and burning in the icy wind, he came across another vagabond, passed out in a doorway of a downtown business. As he assessed the situation, his desire for warmth and comfort overrode his humanity. He stole the man’s shoes and put them on his own feet, leaving his holey ones in their place.
It was a mortal sin. As Red wandered the street in his purloined footwear, the word spread amongst his fellow vagrants. In his alcoholic stupor, he was happily oblivious to the change in the way they now looked at him, the wariness in their eyes.
He wore those shoes throughout that winter and into the next. An entire year passed—a year for the poor doorstep vagabond to build a burning rage toward my great-grandfather. If he’d ever confronted Red about the theft of his shoes, it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. On the streets, the matter ceased to be a topic of conversation, but the man never forgot. Every frosty blast of winter cold was a reminder of Red’s crime.
These men were called drifters for a reason. Like the river they lived beside, they flowed through life, through minutes and hours and months. Time and alcohol obliterated the shoe incident from Red’s mind and the face of the man he stole them from was erased.
On January 18, 1933, as my great-grandfather roamed among the boarded up buildings of downtown Memphis, three men stopped him and struck up a friendly conversation. One of them looked vaguely familiar. They lured Red into an abandoned high-rise on Gayoso Street with a bottle of bootleg. That evening, the promise of warmth, whiskey and camaraderie was irresistible to him.
The men climbed the stairs, taking shelter from the cold on an upper floor. They built a little fire, shared the bottle and made small talk into the wee hours, until Red passed out. That’s when one of the men–the familiar-looking one–pulled out a knife and slit my great-grandfather’s sleeping throat. He leaned over, removed the shoes from Red’s feet and put them back upon his own. He was, after all, their rightful owner. Those shoes allowed the doorstep vagabond to run from the building and hop aboard a passing train. He and his friends were caught and arrested a few days later.
One pair of stolen shoes changed the course of my family’s history. One slice of a knife (an ironic end for a butcher) promoted my grandfather, Red’s son, to head of household status at the age of fourteen. He dropped out of school and became part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, building bridges and highways for the Works Progress Administration (the WPA). Later, he became an educator for the Memphis Cotton Exchange and, at one point, studied for the bar exam. He married my grandmother and fathered four daughters, one of whom is my mother.
His inheritance was his father’s humor, his Irish charm, his red hair and laughing blue eyes. He also inherited demons and debts and a drinking problem of his own, but that’s another story altogether.
As I write this, I imagine Red looking down from a fluffy, bouncy, snow-white cloud, reunited with his wife and children in some joyful, otherworldly locale. He’s smiling and egging me on as I type, happy to be remembered. Of course, he’s barefooted.