It was a Tuesday, dark and chilly, when I headed home from my job downtown, turning east on Crump Boulevard, as I always do. The drive was routine, past Shelby Electric Company, Captain D's, and an occasional bungalow scattered between the corner markets. I traveled through five intersections, catching the green lights, before I heard the telltale flap-flap of trouble. For the next block, I tried to ignore the inevitable realization: I had a flat tire, at night, on a stretch of Crump notable for the demolished housing projects, waiting to be redeveloped. There was, however, a gas and convenience store called Pure on the north side of the street, so I turned left, parked my car and read the store's sign: discount cigs, cold beer, cold cuts.
Now what? I asked myself. Do I call road service and wait in my car, a car so new that I didn't know where to find the tire tools? No way. Instead, I swung open the store's door and stepped inside. At first, I was intimidated by the loud talk and by the dozen men, who were all ages and all African American, and by my own stereotypes as a white woman, the ones I thought I didn't have. Then I spoke up: "I'll give $20 to anyone who changes my tire. Can somebody help me out?"
Immediately, four or five of the men followed me outside, helping me locate my car's tools and the spare tire. One man, about 30 years old, took the lead, unscrewing the lug nuts on the flat. A teenager noticed my open car door, pushed it closed and said, "Keep your doors shut around here." A disheveled middle-age man, obviously sick and nearly overcome by the shakes, showed up and the men let him help too.
For about 30 minutes the men worked together, figuring out the jack (everyone had an opinion) and insisting that I test the new tire by driving around the parking lot (to make sure it felt right). When I offered my $20 bill, the man in charge went inside the store for change. When he returned, he handed one ten to the middle-age man, the other to the teen. "Let me give you something too," I insisted. "No thanks," he replied, shaking my hand. "I'm glad I could help."
And with that simple explanation, I was on my way, traveling back on Lamar, bearing left on Park Avenue, following the green and white "Tour Memphis" signs to the Dixon Gallery and the Botanic Garden, the neighborhood where I live.
Not long after, a college friend, Jeff Carlson, and his family visited Memphis for the first time from Madison, Wisconsin, and their observations about our city's notorious racism reminded me again of the men who changed my tire.
"Everywhere we went, we saw people doing things together," Carlson said. "I was expecting racism, but Memphis is the most integrated city I've ever seen."
Carlson talked about the comfortable interactions he observed between Memphians, such as two boys, one black, one white, jumping the curb with their bicycles to show off for one another. I explained how our neighborhoods and our churches are still largely segregated, but my friend was unswayed, making me realize that the day-to-day experiences we take for granted, like a commute from East Memphis through Orange Mound or a flat tire on Crump, are mending racial divides in small, but meaningful ways.
I'm just sorry about one thing: I didn't ask the names of the men at the conven-ience store who understood more about neighborliness than I did. Next time, I'll remember my manners. M