When I pass Miss Jenny’s old house on a summer day and see a cardinal perching in the holly tree, I think of other summers when this neighborhood bloomed with promise and pride.
I drive it every day, a rough little thoroughfare between Vance and M.L. King Drive. It runs just a few blocks, from Front Street to Orleans, near a ZIP code that’s one of the poorest in town. Here and there stand bright spots — an old hotel, neat homes with well-kept lawns, a new condo complex — and it’s only a block from FedExForum. But most of the street, indeed the neighborhood, fell victim to “urban renewal” that never came. Yet despite the neglect and poverty, the litter and the potholes, this road less traveled holds rewards for those who open their eyes and maybe their hearts.
What first drew me some 20 years ago to Pontotoc Avenue — besides the advantage of fewer cars — was a handful of houses that had survived the wrecking ball. The structures still bore traces of architectural grandeur that graced affluent homes more than a century ago. One, an Italianate beauty at Pontotoc and Lauderdale, was owned by a lady I knew as Miss Jenny. I’d see her clipping her hollies and would stop to admire her roses. I’d ask about her dog Buddy, a sad, scruffy stray she couldn’t ignore. Miss Jenny lived there all her life. “This is my family’s home,” she once told me. “Why should I move?” Sure, she looked askance at some of her neighbors — the ones who shot hoops in the street as their radios blared; the ones (she swore) who sold drugs while police looked the other way. But she also spoke kindly of a young woman who took her grocery shopping and picked up medicines for her when she couldn’t get out.
In more recent years I’ve met others who call Pontotoc home. One is Frances, a sweet-faced “fool for animals,” as she describes herself, whose smile could light up downtown. For a while I’d drive slowly past as she sat in front of her apartment building on sunny afternoons. Soon I was pausing to chat and she’d tell me about the cats lounging nearby. She feeds them, nurses them if they’re hurt, and gladly accepts food from those willing to help.
Young men often join Frances, settling into chairs or leaning in the doorway; some of them she’s known all their lives. “She like a second mother to me,” one said softly. “She give me something to eat when I ain’t got nothing. She also tell me to clean up my mess, go get a job.”
Just up the block is a sadly ironic sight, Clayborn Temple, once a thriving COGIC church and a civil rights hub where Martin Luther King Jr. planned meetings and marches. Now for sale and in sorrowful disrepair, the grand old structure still serves a purpose some would consider holy: During the past bitter winter, homeless cats — and possibly humans — found shelter within its stone presence.
On that same block is St. Patrick Catholic Learning Center; on Sundays its namesake church dishes out soup and sandwiches to the hungry. Among them some days is a man Frances calls “Black.” She said before the weather got severely cold, he would sleep on the ground near the school with the cats, one of whom he was particularly fond, a pretty gray tabby known as Lady. I learned about this fondness only after a friend and I gained Lady’s trust and placed her at House of Mews. “I’ll miss her,” a woebegone Black declared. “I called her Silver. But I’m glad she’s safe. Got plenty more around here to feed.” And feed them he often does, from the supply Frances keeps on-hand.
Short, bewhiskered, with a jagged-toothed smile, he told me he grew up in north Memphis, and has a brother and sister who cry when they see him and worry about his life on the street. He makes a little cash doing jobs here and there, “and usually,” he adds with a shrug, “I just like being outside.”
Some friends raise eyebrows when I tell them about this street and suggest I switch to a “safer” route. But I feel no real danger on Pontotoc. When I pass Miss Jenny’s old house on a summer day and see a cardinal perching in the holly tree, I think of other summers when this neighborhood bloomed with promise and pride. When I pass Frances’ apartment, regulars greet me with a wave and a nod. And when I see vacant lots flowering with Queen Anne’s lace, I think worse uses could be made of the land.
At some point I’ll retire and won’t make the daily trek downtown. Till then — and probably afterward — I’ll keep up with Frances and friends and the cats that loll in the sunshine. This street was deserted once long ago. I won’t desert it now.