Thursday, April 14, 2011

Because I Said So: It's survival of the feddest as students brave TCAP

The column, "Because I Said So," is about my kids. Or, supposed to be about my kids, but I can't help talking about myself and my own childhood in many of them. It isn't narcissism (I don't think ... maybe it is), but more because, even at the age of forty, I don't feel so far removed from my kids' ages of four to thirteen. It seems as though it was only yesterday that I was running through my neighborhood in jeans with a hole forming in the knee searching for a new tree to climb or insect to pester.

I still have that sense of childhood within me. Either that or a very, very good memory.

So I like to reminisce a bit before getting into the meat of what it is my kids are getting into. Today, I remember standardized testing (I have to say, too, that this is one of my favorite headlines of any column I've written - It's survival of the feddest as students brave TCAP. Thank you to whomever wrote it). I remember the pencils and the erasing and the long hours of silence and watching the clock. What I don't remember is the food. That must be new. Standardized testing today is just as dull, just as mentally taxing, yet a whole lot more delicious.

Once every year as grade school students, our regular curriculum of multiplication tables, phonics and dodgeball would be put on hold so that we could take something called the California Achievement Test. It was ostensibly to find out whether Tennessee's elementary school kids were smarter than those of California. I hope I did us proud.

Our usual lessons, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite, were still there, though merely hibernating and awaiting that standardized diversion to end. During that week, it was imperative that we show up to school on time and with two No. 2 pencils sharpened to acute points.

Other than the pencils, I don't remember much else that was expected of us during these daylong timed tests except to sit still, focus, keep the lead within the little answer ovals and erase thoroughly if necessary.

That menu has changed.

Memphis City Schools has administered the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) achievement tests to a very suspecting student population this week. As I write this, I sit surrounded by a ream of informational letters sent via my kids' backpacks regarding TCAP preparedness. In addition, I count 34 e-mails sent since Jan. 1 of this year and several voicemails last week from the board of education concerning the tests.

In these e-mails, forms and phone calls, we parents are encouraged to have our children sleep, feed them and even send food to school to snack on throughout the day. I'm not sure how the rigors of standardized testing affect their hunger, but I picture a room full of kids penciling in multiple choice answers while running on treadmills. The available buffet is necessary to keep them hydrated and fueled as though this week is more survivalist reality show than cerebral question and answer.

It seems that in addition to being tested on multiplication, vocabulary and reading comprehension, they may also be tested for body mass index, glycemic index and cholesterol levels. After force-feeding them heaping helpings of anxiety over their test performance the past few weeks, the administration is imploring them to eat healthy during the course of this week.

The pleading for rest and food has been ceaseless and the advice obvious. It is the time of the school year when our children are tested in basic aptitude and parents are tested for common sense. We have even been handed a script. One of the informative voicemails is a team of concerned callers who banter back and forth like a lethargic Abbott and Costello, advising us to provide positive motivation to our kids with phrases such as "I know you're going to do great" and "The TCAP won't know what hit it."

It was inspiring.

My son brought home a TCAP practice workbook, and I tried my hand at a few of the math problems. I found that I am woefully below standard in the subject. Not only that, but I found that I was incredibly hungry and quite sleepy after.

I understand that the tests help the school administration, though I am unsure of how, or if, they help students. I can rest easy, though, knowing that at the end of the week my children will be well fed and well rested, and probably just as standard as ever.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Alley and Stacey Greenberg, the mother of two boys, take turns on Thursdays telling stories of life with kids in Memphis. Read more from her at and Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 4: The Book Covers

I know what you're all waiting for. You're waiting for the celebrities. There were celebrities, and I'll get to them soon enough, but the most interesting people I ever carried in the back of a limousine weren't the glossy, well-known faces contrived to be winsome by People magazine. They were the normal, everyday folks.

I learned, several times over while behind the wheel, that even these average people weren't so normal, and that one should never, ever judge a book by its cover. I know it's cliché and that we all do it, I still do, but sometimes you meet somebody and the label you apply to them in the first few minutes just peels right off.

I got the call one day to pick up a couple of tourists at the Holiday Inn Sunspree on Panama City Beach, The Boss wasn't sure exactly what they'd want to do or where they wanted to go. Business must have been slow that week because normally this is the kind of job we would have declined; you just never knew what you were going to get with driving tourists around, it could very easily be a group of 17-year-olds looking for a place in which to drink, hang out the windows and, eventually, get sick.

I drove to the beach and, pulling into the parking lot of the Sunspree, saw a middle-aged couple standing near the doors to the hotel. He had on jeans and a button-down, short-sleeve shirt untucked and a couple days worth of growth on his jaw. His hair looked as though he'd just rolled out of bed and he was sipping on a can of Budweiser. Her hair was bleached to an unnatural yellow and she wore a sleeveless shirt, shorts and flip-flops. They were both fairly rumpled-looking, having only recently unfolded themselves from their luggage.

Surely this couple couldn't be my fare. But when I pulled to the doors, they waved eagerly and thanked me profusely as I opened the door for them to climb in. "This is going to be a long day," I thought.

The first place they wanted to go was back across the bridge, into the city - leaving the beautiful beach and emerald water behind - to go to the mall. I tried to talk them out of it, passively telling them just how far a drive it was (about a half hour) and assuring them that there was nothing there worth seeing. But they'd seen the beach, had their fun there, and were anxious to get to a mall for the afternoon. When I dropped them off and we agreed on a time to meet back at that door, he pulled a wad of cash from his front pocket such as I'd seen only one other time (another story for another time), unwound the rubber band holding it together, gave me a hundred dollar bill and asked me to pick up a bottle of Asti Spumante for them while they were inside.

As I sat in the mall parking lot waiting on them, a bottle of sparkling wine on ice behind me, I dreaded the afternoon. I had no idea how long I was in it for or what would be next, the clients didn't seem to know for sure, either. They just seemed thrilled with being in a limousine and at the mall for a time.

The mall and the Asti Spumante must have loosened them up, because they were very chatty on the drive back to the beach. And very, very nice, asking about the area and how long I'd lived there, about my life and interests. All passengers were strangers and most of them felt compelled to talk to me as the driver, making polite conversation because they weren't quite sure what the protocol was. The protocol is that you are not obligated to talk to the driver. You certainly may because you're paying, but no one is expecting it and the Q&A usually ends up being more awkward than pleasant. But these people were an exception, they appeared genuine and genuinely interested.

Once back on the beach and stopped for lunch, they pleaded with me to join them, but I declined. After lunch they wanted to go play pool and insisted I come into the bar with them instead of sitting in the car. So I sat at a nearby table, drinking coffee and watching and talking some more with them.

They were from Arkansas, he told me, and he owned a construction company that built nursing homes all over the country. They were simple country folks, yet the more we talked, the more I realized that they were loaded. This didn't make any difference in their personality, they were some of the sweetest people I've ever met, but I felt guilty then for judging them initially as backwater hillbillies who were probably in awe of a limousine and a guy wearing a suit. When I finally dropped them back at their hotel after a day of sightseeing and more beers, they warmly said their goodbyes and he pulled out that wad of cash again to graciously tip me. I was sorry for the job to end.

I came to understand over time that that area of the country is full of people like that, simple people who have worked hard and amassed some impressive wealth, yet still live as they were brought up - simply. That goes for their accumulation of all that riches can buy and in the way they treat other people. They're good people whose money didn't seem to affect them or allow it to affect those around them.

They are a far cry, I would also learn, from the wealth of celebrity.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 3: Interlude

There is a lot of down time as a chauffeur, whole days with no runs and time to kill. I spent a lot of this time at the beach, of course, or walking the shores of Massalina Bayou to look at the sailboats and watch the drawbridge raise and lower to accommodate the masts heading out to St. Andrews Bay or back in to port. We had a little blue, homemade table by the window in the kitchen and I'd spend hours there writing. Nothing any good, I'm sure, but just practice. It was discipline.

Somewhere, in looking for ways to pass the time, I came across a job listing that interested me. I can't remember where I saw it, the internet then was little more than a pamphlet and not the rich, glossy-fronted porn magazine it is today, so it must have been posted on a bulletin board in the ship's store at the Panama City Marina or in the local newspaper. Someone was looking for help in renovating his boat, no experience necessary, willing to train; an apprenticeship of sorts. I wanted to learn all about boats and had my days free, so this seemed perfect.

I met the owner, Nick Bond, at that marina's store so we could talk and agree on a few particulars, and then he took me to his covered slip to show me the boat where he and his wife, Caroline, lived. She was beautiful. The boat. All boats are female and all boats are beautiful. This one was a 46-foot Chris-Craft motor yacht called The Southern Cross.

Nick was in the process of sanding down the hull for painting, among other projects. He was doing it all with the boat in the water, which was not such a good idea and, now that I think about it with the benefit of hindsight and in the "green" culture of the 21st century, probably illegal. We spent whole days standing in a jon boat that floated in the narrow space between the dock, a neighboring boat and The Southern Cross with power sanders plugged into extension cords which ran the length of the hull and were draped and hung safely out of the water on lines tied here and there. The jon boat had a slow leak.

So there we were, day in and day out, standing in a metal jon boat in water to our ankles, arms overhead clutching the hull to pull the small boat towards the large one, fighting to keep our balance, with an electric tool in one hand. We sanded all day with all of the flecks on us and in the water.

Though she was beautiful, she was not without flaws. As we sanded, we'd find soft spots where the mahogany had rotted. We would dig this wood out and fill it in with a powerful, quick-setting epoxy and strips of fiberglass cloth. Topside, I sanded and painted with non-skid paint, down below I crawled into the "engine room" to replace bilge pumps.

Nick and Caroline rarely took The Southern Cross out in the bay, and I never did get to ride on her, but every once in a while he would fire up those big, beautiful diesels and I could just imagine what kind of power she'd have at sea. And their plan was to take her to sea. Nick was from England and Caroline from South Africa and the long-range goal was to get The Southern Cross ship-shape and take her to the British Virgin Islands for charters. The idea was to market to corporations for retreats and incentives; good plan.

In the meantime, Caroline was working at the hospital and, as far as I could tell, footing the bill for repair and renovation costs, and that included me as I got a handful of cash every Friday. Nick, therefore, cut costs wherever he could, afraid, I believe, of having to tell his wife what he'd spent her paycheck on that day.

The Bonds had an interesting habit every evening when Caroline came home from work. A little dialogue that I came to look forward to and anticipate, imagining it was just for me.

Nick: What would you like for supper, dear?
Caroline: I don't know, what would you like?
Nick: How about a curry?
Caroline: A curry would be lovely.

Every night they had curry. I knew they were having curry and they knew they were having curry, but they still insisted on the discussion. I never was invited for curry although Nick did offer me a cup of tea once. I was excited to have tea prepared by an actual Brit, but it turned out to be the worst cup of tea I've ever had.

There was another helper who would show up irregularly, and when he did show up he was usually drunk or on his way to being drunk, no matter the time of day. Lenny was from England as well and, in fact, he and Nick grew up only about 20 minutes apart, but didn't meet each other until Panama City. He was the kind of Brit I imagine you find in the pubs over there, bitching about the queen or his futbol club or whatever it is they complain about while drinking. But he was one hell of a craftsman. Drunk or sober, Lenny could fix anything and dole out advice, which he did often and gently. He was always willing to explain to me the best way to do the work. It drove Nick mad, I could tell, that Lenny was better at spackling with epoxy or woodwork after three tallboys than Nick was after morning coffee.

Lenny just stopped showing up at one point. I can't even remember the last time I saw him, but I assume it was as he left for a "lunch" of Budweisers down at the marina store.

Nick eventually ran out of money to pay me. Or Caroline did. He was trying to get work refinishing someone else's boat that summer and offered me the job of helper on that, too. He said if I wanted to stay on and help with The Southern Cross, then when the money came through for the other job, he'd pay me back wages. I declined. You can't really trust a sailor, or a Brit who can't make tea.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A World of Art

There are things that I love and yet have little or no understanding. Women, food, art, jazz.

Jed Jackson
Cafe, 2002
oil on wood, 20"x26"
(used without any permission of any kind)

I've given up on ever understanding women. Lately, though, I've been studying the visual arts. When I say "study" what I mean is reading various Wikipedia pages, doing Google image searches, perusing books at leisure and taking in the blogs and sites of local artists like Bobby Spillman, Jed Jackson, Tim Crowder and Dwayne Butcher. I go to their sites because I can't afford their work and didn't have the forethought to work trades when I had my little cigar store (cigar smokers, all).

It hasn't been just a love of the visual, though. I've recently finished my novel, The Simplest Pattern, and art is a big part of it. The main character, Seth, is a painter and I found I needed to know as much as possible about art and how it's made to make this work of fiction somewhat believable. To this end, my sister, Elizabeth Alley, was a huge help. She pointed me in the right direction, suggested artists to read up on and explained some terms and business matters.

The more I read about artists and study their work, the more I want to know. And the more I know, the more I want to write. I may never know enough to be an art critic, although I may already know enough to know I don't want to ever be an art critic. But I do like to write about the work and the artists and the process of getting something out of nothing, of filling up a blank canvas with imagery that makes people think and talk and hear stories they may not have known were within them.

I'm not sure what kind of writing that is. So far it's a lot of fiction (this book isn't the first time in my work a character has been an artist). I suppose, too, it's the kind of pay work I already do - freelance journalism. The problem is that there is no venue for such writing in Memphis. The local publications' space dedicated to visual art is woefully small.

In the meantime, I'll keep looking, keep studying up on it because the world of art has struck my fancy lately. And I'll keep putting my thoughts down on paper to see what it might become, to see what my characters might create. Maybe, if I get it right, the story will paint a picture for you.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 2: The Rathbones

The bread and butter of the limousine business is prom season and weddings.

I only did one prom (another story for another time). We just didn't do prom runs - too tough on the car and too much liability. As a chauffeur, though, the worst jobs were weddings. Paradoxically, weddings were the easiest money as well.  A typical wedding day run involved picking up the bride and her party from a home or hotel, drive them to the venue, wait, drive the newlyweds to the reception and either wait there and drive them to a hotel after or leave them at the reception where they have their own transportation. A lot of waiting and a lot of inebriated fathers-of-the-bride throwing tip money at you.

My problem with the wedding run is that I never wanted to be the guy who ruined some woman's wedding day. That is a day for the bride. Say what you will about the bride and groom, the wedding is a woman's affair and I was in a constant state of anxiety that that day would be remembered for whatever error happened on my watch.

I would go over the route from home to church over and over in my map and mind, worried that I'd take her to the wrong place. Once there, and as the ceremony was being performed, I'd stand at the back of the car, sweating in my suit and the Florida sun, opening and closing the door in practice, worried that when the couple came out and ran down the path through storms of rice and flashbulbs, that they'd arrive to find that I'd locked the keys in the car.

I desperately didn't want to be someone's anecdote for the next fifty years.

I had a run one day that begin as usual - bridal party to church. The wedding was on the beach side of Panama City with the reception across the bridge in the city. From the church to the reception, about 30 minutes including the stop they needed to make at an ATM, the newlyweds, Mr. & Mrs. Rathbone, fought. It wasn't so much a fight, as it was the groom berating the bride. The problem, from what I could overhear, stemmed from Mr. Rathbone thinking Mrs. Rathbone lingered a bit long on the congratulatory kiss and hug from his uncle.

It was absurd and it was maddening to hear this new bride crying behind me on her day.

With most weddings, the first time I came face to face with the groom was after the wedding, so I didn't know him and he didn't know me, and if I wasn't a scrawny six-feet and 140 lbs. back then I would have pulled over and snatched his ass out of the car to teach him some manners. Instead, I drove them to the reception where I left them, glad to be rid of the scene.

Hopefully that was just the tension of the day playing out, albeit sadly. I like to think he apologized during their dance at the reception and that they both left the party laughing and in each others arms. Maybe they're even still together despite that start, and their first fight is but one anecdote from their long life together.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 1: Quincy

In 1995, shortly after we got married, Kristy and I moved to Panama City, Florida, on a whim where, for almost two years, I drove a limousine and she waited tables.

I carried a lot of characters in that limousine.

One night I was sent to Lynn Haven, a small community just outside Panama City to pick someone up for a night out. I can't remember this guy's name (I'll call him Quincy), but he sat towards the front of the back of the car so he could talk to me through the window.

He'd just come back to Lynn Haven from serving in the Merchant Marines, he told me. Now, picture in your head the kind of guy who joins the Merchant Marines. That was not this guy. Quincy was doughy, rounded on the edges and was living with his mother. I was 25 at the time and he couldn't have been much older than that.

We were on our way to pick up a girl he'd met only the night before. He was dressed nicely, though in a casual manner, and had a bouquet of flowers for the young lady. He was excited, to say the least. He had really taken a shine to this girl, acknowledging that he'd only just met her, and spent much of the drive telling me of his dreams for the two of them.

He directed me back to Panama City where we pulled into the parking lot of an apartment community somewhere off of 23rd Street, probably near the airport. It looked like the sort of place inhabited by families on the lower end of the income scale. There were beat up cars, ratty patio furniture and kids everywhere. They all came running to see the 110-inch black limousine that had just arrived. Quincy went to get his date while I stood outside the car and answered the questions from the kids and sweated.

Most of chauffeuring is about waiting. Probably ninety-percent of the job is spent standing in parking lots, sitting and reading, listening to the radio or daydreaming. So there I was, waiting in the waning Florida sun in a suit when Quincy came back to the car. Alone.

He asked me to take him to the No Name Lounge, a small pub for locals at the base of the Hathaway Bridge, on the city side. I can't recall the reason he wanted to go there now, or if he gave me one at all, but he said she'd meet him there later.

He went in, I waited.

A couple of hours later Quincy came out, mostly drunk, and said we were going to see this girl at work. She'd never shown up at No Name. I was confused as to why she was working on a night that she was supposed to have a date. And then he told me to drive to The Toy Box on Hwy. 98. This girl was a dancer at a low-rent strip club in the city - not even on the beach side of Panama City, the tourist side.

I felt bad for this guy. He'd been away from home for a while, lonely and had glommed on to the first girl who was nice to him. As it happened, that girl was being paid to be nice to him. And paid to string him along. What I couldn't figure out - and didn't ask - was how he had gotten her address.

We went to The Toy Box. He went in and I waited. I wanted to just leave, but that would have been unprofessional and I didn't think this guy needed to be let down again, though the long walk home to clear his head would have done him good. Hopefully he was having a good time in there, maybe getting something for free. Or at least for the cost of the flowers.

I went in at some point to use the bathroom and get a coffee from the bar. As I was leaving a woman way, way past her prime grabbed my hand and asked if I wanted a dance. I looked at her, at the black holes where teeth should have been, and explained I was working and then wrenched my hand free to go wait in the car a little longer.

I took him back to his mother's house alone that night, poor guy, and I went home to my wife. No idea at all what became of Quincy and his burgeoning romance with the exotic dancer from The Toy Box. Maybe they fell in love, maybe she quit the pole. Maybe they've spent many happy nights since that one sitting in a plush booth in a darkened corner of the No Name.