Ask Vance

Our trivial expert solvs local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.




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DEAR VANCE: On the east side of the Poplar Viaduct there was a coffee house in the 1960s—a beatnik place, I believe. It was THE place to be back then, but I can't think of the name. Can you help? M.T.,Memphis

Dear M.T.: Actually, the place to "be" in the 1960s was the east wing of the Lauderdale Mansion, where Mother and Father set up a game room and arcade in the attic that attracted hundreds of kids from the neighborhood. It was their desperate attempt to provide me with friends, you see, and for a while their ruse worked. Oh, I can dimly remember those happy days when tykes and teenagers flocked to our home to play Twister, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and all sorts of other games. Plus, we had Play-Doh. But the good times came to an end, I recall, when an especially spirited game of Scrabble got out of hand, the police were called, and the kids never came back. I told Mother and Father that using the pepper spray was probably an over-reaction, but did they listen? No.

With nowhere else to go, teenagers began to frequent some of the so-called "coffee houses" that opened around town, and the one you remember, M.T., was the Bitter Lemon, the most famous of them all. Its owner was John McIntire, a professor at the Memphis College of Art (back then it was the Art Academy), a fascinating gentleman with a talent for sculpture and a penchant for vintage Hawaiian shirts.

A couple of years ago, this magazine ran a story about Memphis in the 1960s, and McIntire had a lot to say about the days of the Bitter Lemon, which he crammed into a little storefront on Poplar.

"I got the place real cheap, because there was nowhere to park," he said. "There was just a little bitty stage, set way back. The walls were covered with antiques and musical instruments, and every night I'd go there and 'psychedelicize' the place with paint, from floor to ceiling. People would come in there stoned and just stare at the walls."

Although plenty of the patrons came to the Bitter Lemon, and the other teen clubs around town, with their own stimulants, the clubs themselves served no alcohol. Mainly you just got a variety of weird coffee — McIntire remembers Lapsang Choung and Formosa Olong — and soft drinks. If you were really bold, you guzzled something called a Suicide — a deadly mix of Pepsi, Teem, and grape juice. Despite its name, I don't believe it actually killed anybody. Oh, and you could also eat some really awful pizza. Now that probably did.

Despite the lousy food, tiny stage, and terrible acoustics, the Bitter Lemon became the place to perform for anybody and everybody in the 1960s. All the up-and-coming teen bands played there — the photo shows a group called, uh, The Groupe — along with established performers like Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon, and McIntire remembers that members of the Lovin' Spoonful, the Byrds, and the Rolling Stones also dropped in when they were in town.

For some reason, perhaps because parents always think their kids are up to no good, the most popular clubs — which included the Roaring 60s downtown and a tiny place called the OSO on Highland — attracted the scrutiny of grownups, who wanted the places shut down. A Press-Scimitar reporter — probably an old coot in his thirties — visited one of these establishments and reported that youngsters "were really 'going' last night with their rhythmic shakes and shrieks, rolls and shivers." One Memphis mother who visited the OSO confided to reporters that the walls "were painted black." Oh, horrors.

So Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner got into the act, trying his best to shut the places down as public nuisances. You have to understand that in the 1960s, there was really no other place for kids to go. Beale Street was dead, no shopping malls had yet opened, and Overton Square was still years in the future. So, this being Memphis and all, it turned into a big brouhaha, with parents actually carrying protest signs, and the kids doing their best to protest the protests.

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The newspaper photo above shows one of these protest marches, but I can't make sense of it, to tell you the truth. Look at those drug-crazed teens! One kid, whose hair almost touches his ears, is carrying a sign that reads, "Batman swings a mean cape at teen clubs," but I'm not sure I see his point. Why, he must have been flying on LSD to come up with something like that.

At any rate, what finally closed the teen clubs and coffeehouses down were drugs. McIntire remembers plenty of overdoses at the Bitter Lemon, and undercover police on the prowl for pot-smokers became a constant hassle.

"I remember having to rescue people, going into the bathroom when somebody was on drugs. I saw a guy in there putting a needle somewhere I would not want to be putting a needle," he said. "The police were always raiding us then, and I just decided it wasn't worth it.

McIntire closed the Bitter Lemon in the late 1960s, and one by one the other joints around town closed too. "God, it was trouble all the time," says McIntire. "It was a lot of fun, but at the end it was just scary."

Memphis teens were clearly better off at the Friday-night scrabble parties at the Lauderdale Mansion. The only drugs we used there were prescription antidepressants.

[image-3] DEAR VANCE: What is with the giant stone hand in the front yard of this house on Angelus? D.K, Memphis

Dear D.K.: One of my colleagues, whose family hails from a long line of esteemed proctologists, has the unfortunate last name of Finger, and at first I assumed this was his residence. But then I remembered that he had erected a sculpture alongside his driveway displaying just a single digit — I'd better not say which one — so I realized I was mistaken.

The nice house at 256 Angelus is owned by Jane Abraham and Keith Alexander, who also own and operate the Heart Center at 1384 Madison, a treatment center for substance-abuse disorders. The place also offers stress-management courses, massage, midwife classes, something called transdancing, and other holistic treatments.

What does this have to do with the giant hand? Well, Jane tells me it's actually an integral part of the design of their entire front yard, which is divided into segments. "The southern half of the yard has three different flower beds, representing the emotional, spiritual, and physical sides of our nature," she says. "On the north side we have the Native American four corners, representing the four directions of a Native American medicine wheel."

She explains that the hand, which is made of concrete poured over a PVC pipe and wire mesh frame, is a Hindu "mudra" — or symbol — that represents teaching and service.

Local artist Lori Butler helped sculpt it. "We planted it with some friends from Chapel Hill, who designed the yard for us," Jane says. "People come up to our front door and ask about it all the time."

It's certainly an eye-catching addition to the neighborhood. "Sometimes we go out and the hand is covered in flowers," says Jane. "The different reactions to it are very interesting." M