A Stop at Bryant’s Grocery

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Sept. 19 | Day 13: We find the store — “the ghostliest structure in the South,” author Paul Theroux says —  shrouded in kudzu on a lonely stretch of Leflore County Road 518.

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Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market is a collapsing two-story brick building in Money, a tiny community in Mississippi. The day after leaving Hattiesburg, Linda and I are stopping here on the motorcycle ride home from New Orleans, now 300 miles behind us.

This is a sacred place, worthy of attention. What happened here 62 years ago is still with us today.

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It was in this store, on Aug. 24, 1955, that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, spoke with a white woman behind the counter and was horrifically murdered four days later in an act of brutality that shocked the nation.

Carolyn Bryant, 21, was the woman in the store. On Aug. 28, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, both white, came with guns to the house where Till was staying with relatives. They took Till away.

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Till’s body, naked and mutilated beyond recognition1, was found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31; he had been shot in the head. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had accosted her and whistled at her — a black man propositioning a white woman2.

After deliberating 67 minutes, an all-white jury acquitted the two men on Sept. 23.

Like Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., 10 years later, coverage of Till’s death and the murder trial grabbed the national spotlight and helped drive the American civil rights movement3.

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Though Till was a teen, his brutal death might have eluded national attention during those unforgiveable Jim Crow times — countless other African-Americans were killed by whites who also escaped justice — had it not been for two things:

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Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. “I said I want the world to see this because, there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like,” she said. The Sept. 3 service drew 50,000 people. Photographs of Till’s body were published in African-American magazines and sparked additional outrage. Till was buried Sept. 64.

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J.W. Milam, left, Roy Bryant and their wives celebrate the acquittal.

After the acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam5 for a story that appeared Jan. 24, 1956, in the mass-market magazine Look6. The two men admitted killing Till and expressed no remorse. Despite the confession, they could not be tried again under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment7.

All this horror started here, in a simple grocery store that’s falling into itself. The roof is long gone, there are trees growing inside. The wood porch has collapsed. A sign stapled to plywood over broken windows warns trespassers will be prosecuted8.

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We shut down the bikes and look around. A Mississippi Freedom Trail sign out front explains the store’s significance. We later learn this sign is new — someone fired bullets into the first one, requiring a replacement.

The road is quiet with only two or three cars passing by. It’s as deserted as a town after the apocalypse.

Across the street, there’s an abandoned Canada National railroad locomotive that looks as if its engine has caught fire. The building next to the store looks like a old gas station under refurbishment. But there’s no one around.

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The store itself is cordoned off by orange netting, itself falling down. In the back, wood and old lengths of metal gutters are lying where they’ve fallen. On the south side, where the walls aren’t as heavy with vines, I can see the ghost of wood stairs angling up to the second floor.

And yet there are old signs of tribute: a white plastic planter is on the old concrete porch and there are long-dead flowers, roses perhaps, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with ribbon.

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So people have come here to remember Emmett Till and 1955, which is why we’re here, too. The institutionalized and relentless subjugation, the brutality of the murder,  the callous indifference of those who committed it and those who acquitted them, is beyond my comprehension.

And though it seems like a poor effort on our part to even stop here, we would have been remiss in simply passing by.

History like this has to be remembered, because it will confront us again and again and again. I think of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, for example, and I wonder how those people would have treated Emmett Till.

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As we prepare to leave, I find thick shards of glass on the concrete porch, small pieces of a shattered front window. I consider taking one for a colleague I respect, a journalist and virtual civil-rights scholar.

I hold the glass for a while, thinking about putting it in Terra Nova’s tankbag, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s like stealing from a cemetery. I put it back but I tell my colleague about it after Linda and I get home.

“You did the right thing,” she says. “You were on hallowed ground.”

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1 — He was identified by a ring on his hand.
2 — After decades of silence, Carolyn Bryant, now 83, recanted her testimony in 2007. In an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she said Till did not accost her or touch her. She was unable to say exactly what Till did in the store that day, but she did say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her memoirs are at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives but won’t be made public until 2036.
3 — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, is credited with starting the freedom movement. She considered moving to the back of the bus, but, as she told the Rev. Jesse Jackson later, she thought about Emmett Till and “couldn’t do it.”
4 — Till’s body was exhumed in June 2005 as part of a federal investigation into Deep South murders during the Jim Crow era. DNA tests proved conclusively that the body was that of Till, but no new charges were filed. The original glass-topped coffin, which by law could not be reburied, was later found at the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2009.
5 — J.W. Milam died of cancer in 1981; Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.
6 — William Bradford Huie and Look magazine paid Milam, Bryant and their attorney a total of $4,000 for the interview, about $37,000 today, accounting for inflation.
7 — Huie talked to both men again for another Look article that was published on Jan. 22, 1957. He found both had suffered financially after the community turned against them. Black workers refused to work for them and black boycotts shut down their businesses. Even many whites turned against them, some fearing they might be shot, too. It was difficult for the two to get loans for farming.
At the time of the second interview, Milam was driving the same Chevrolet pickup truck in which Till was taken.
Over the years, other details have been brought to light. Tyson’s spellbinding 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lists others present at the time of Till’s death and postulates a relative of Milam pulled the fatal trigger.
8 — The building is reportedly owned by a son of one of the jurors who acquitted Bryant and Milam. Over the years, plans have been floated to turn it into some sort of civil rights museum, but nothing has come to fruition.

 

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Down on P6

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Friday, Dec. 29: It wasn’t that long or notable of a ride, but I took Terra Nova to work this day, suiting up for temperatures that — according to the finicky dashboard thermometer — ranged from 27 degrees in the driveway to 37 degrees in the parking garage.

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I pulled the Dow cover off the Yamaha, inserted the key, and thought if she starts, I’ll take her in. The engine hesitated at first, then turned over and ran smoothly. That’s it, then.

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The helmet still has bugs from the New Orleans ride.

The only problem was the cold air streaming through the helmet, setting my face on fire and forcing me to lower the faceshield. But it was fine, and I was the only motorcyclist on the road I saw. As I was pulling off the jacket and supporting layers at work, I got comments of appreciation from a fellow biker, a Vespa owner.

I parked on P6, the lowest level of our parking garage, figuring I could hook up my small charger if Terra Nova’s battery needed it for the ride home. But it didn’t.

We live about 5 miles from work, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, it felt good. Woke up the next morning to find an inch of snow on the ground.

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Why is a Motorcycle Like a Fountain Pen?

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“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.

Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.

Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.

In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.

In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.

On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.

You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.

With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatingly bad form) or start over.

So you have to think ahead with both.

I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.

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Behold, I Am the Angel of Death — Thy Day of Reckoning is At Hand

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“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”

— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.

It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.

“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.

Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.

I’m about half a football field behind her when a brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.

I’m watching this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself to watch the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it.

She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.

And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.

She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.

Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.

My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.

And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.

I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.

Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.

We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.

But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”

I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.

Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.

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It Ain’t Easy to See the Easy Rider Cemetery

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Sept. 15 | Day 9: We didn’t ride to New Orleans because of Easy Rider, but since we were there anyway, why not visit a site that was featured in the movie?

I like to ride motorcycles, so it stands to reason I watch motorcycle movies, though most are admittedly dreadful.

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But I will watch Easy Rider every now and again. The 1969 classic, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, follows two long-haired chopper riders from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

There’s a memorable — some say confusing — New Orleans sequence in which Fonda and Hopper and two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) drop acid in a cemetery, have sex, and generally freak out.

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Those scenes were shot in New Orleans Cemetery No. 11, which opened in 1789 in the French Quarter. Filming took place without permission and the Catholic Church, which owns the cemetery, was reportedly scandalized when the movie opened.

I’m looking for the large statue that Fonda climbed on, and — using real, personal angst to drive his character in the film — began talking about his mother’s suicide.

Frances Ford Seymour, the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and mother of actors Peter and Jane Fonda, committed suicide2 on April 14, 1950. Peter was 10 years old.

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As the camera rolled, he used that awful memory to get into his character’s bad trip while sitting on “Italia” in the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb, a mausoleum that was built in 1857 at Cemetery No. 1.

“Italia” is the statue I want to see.

We get to the gate at Cemetery No. 1 and a woman sitting at a card table just inside says, “That’ll be $20 for the tour.”

“Excuse me,” I say. “We’re not with the tour. We just want to look around ourselves.”

“You can’t do that,” the woman says. “You have to join a tour. It’s $20 per person.”

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“You have to pay to look around the cemetery?”

“Yes,” the woman says. “You have to join the tour. It’s $20 per person.”

“Hmm.” I say. “Well, no, thank you.”

And we leave. Forty dollars to look at a cemetery?

I’m rather stunned at this, and I kvetch to Linda on our way back to the hotel. A sign at the gate says tour proceeds are used for the cemetery’s upkeep, but it looks as though most of the money is going elsewhere.

“Oh, yes,” says the hotel concierge upon our return. “They’ve been doing that for years. It helps keep out the vandals. I’m surprised they didn’t charge more.”

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We later find out that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public in 2015 but allowed tour companies to pay the diocese for rights to conduct for-pay tours. If you have a relative buried there, you can apply for a permit to visit.

So Cemetery No. 1 is now a for-profit venture.

Still curious about New Orleans cemeteries, we take a streetcar out to the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, built in 1833, where most of these pictures were taken. It reminds me a bit of Père Lachaise in Paris, historic, sobering, haunted.

I later discover that “Italia” has not fared very well. At some point, either by vandals or natural means, the statue’s head has come off, along with one of the hands. Other statues are damaged, too.

Which is obviously pretty sad. Maybe I was too quick to forgo the cemetery tour, but tell me who’s repairing that statue and I’ll be the first to put my contribution directly into their marble-dust-covered hands.

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1 — Yes, that’s its real name.
2 — Jane Fonda, writing her memoirs decades later, discovered her mother had been sexually abused as a child.

 

‘Say, What is This?’

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That’s what we heard from lots of people while test-driving a 2017 Polaris Slingshot SLR for a USA Today review. The Slingshot, which looks like a sports car but is categorized as a three-wheeled motorcycle, attracted lots of attention.

It was unnerving at first, but we got used to it. It’s fun to drive, but I’ll stick with conventional motorcycles for now.

A link to the USAT review is here.

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Where Does Your Music Come From?

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Sept. 14 | Day 8: We were in some home furnishings shop that Linda had dragged me into on Chartres or Decatur Street, when I start listening to the music playing in the store and thought to myself this is pretty good.

It’s a haunting song, and knowing I would never remember any lyrics that would let me find it later, I ask the 20-something woman at the counter if she can tell me the title.

She looks at her computer screen and says, “Peaches. The group is ‘In the Valley Below,’” and bingo, I realize I’ve made another accidental music discovery.

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Some people say our taste in music stalls out as we age (we stop listening to new stuff and are content with what we know) while others say our preferences simply evolve.

Growing up, I didn’t really seek out music. I caught stuff on the radio sometimes, and benefited from suggestions of my more-astute friends.

For example, Steve Wargo, one of my oldest friends, introduced me to David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Pure Prairie League, and many others, for which I am eternally grateful. Many of those songs are on my iPod today.

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But nowadays, music seems to find its way to me by happenstance, with some notable tunes surfacing during our motorcycle rides. Some of the music I’ve discovered by accident:

  • Into My Soul” by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gabin in Budapest, Hungary, during our 2009 ride.
  • “Wish to Fly” from “Best of Chilhowie” in Zvolen, Slovakia, in our 2011 ride.
  • Powerful” from Skye Edwards’ “Mind How You Go” in a series of motel room AMC commercials on my way back from San Diego aboard Endurance in 2006.

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There are others, of course, but the motorcycle tunes seem to stand out the most. The music filters through the cacophony of life and I pick it up in bits and pieces, track it down the best I can, and add it to my collection. Maybe I need to develop new listening habits. Or just ride more.

Motorcycle travel