“Catch a cannonball, to take me down the line …” — The Band
Clarksdale, Miss. – First, a moment of silence for the soul of a great American, the Arkansas drummer and singer Levon Helm, dead of cancer on April 19, 2012.
Here in the upper Delta – home to the country’s finest blues museum – I began cruising for early afternoon ribs. I’d passed the morning some 75 miles north at Graceland, taking photos and buying postcards at the King’s Memphis manse and then headed south on the highway little Bobby Dylan revisited so well.
I’d been to the Delta Blues Museum several times before, the first on my maiden Mississippi voyage in 1984 when it was still located in a corner of the public library, anchored by a wax figure of Muddy Waters. The new museum houses Muddy’s entire Stovall plantation shack, reassembled board by board.
My destination is Los Angeles – from Crabtown to Tinseltown – and I always take routes through the Great Magnolia State, which I have criss-crossed a hundred times since figuring out in high school that Led Zeppelin didn’t write any of the songs upon which the dirigible was built.
I drove slowly along the streets near the museum: Choctaw, Catalpa, Pecan, enjoying a fabulous spring day, a lazy Thursday, windows down and Freddie King singing from the dashboard: “I could spend a month of Sundays, talkin’ about the places I’ve been …”
As I turned onto the 300 block of State Street, across the street from Hick’s Suprette, I saw smoke rising from the front yard of a derelict cottage sided with sky-blue wooden planks.
Tending a battered grill on the front walkway – the cast iron kind you find in state parks – was a middle-aged man of indeterminate age in a burgundy jersey with the name COAHOMA written in white letters.
I slowed to the curb near the open gate, opened the passenger window and – like a brazen suburban dope fiend rolling up to the corner of Denison & Edmondson and asked: “You selling?”
He was a very animated man – smiling beneath a blue ball cap the same light color of the house – and waved me into his yard.
“Come on,” he said. “What you want?”
“I was hoping you were selling ribs?” I said, pointing to the grill, which he fed with kindling, twigs and scrap wood from the yard.
It was clear immediately that this wasn’t a commercial concern. The man was grilling pork chops, the burning wood bathing a couple of chops with smoke, for his own supper.
“Ain’t got no bread,” he said, offering me a pork chop off the grill with his hands. I took it by the bone, blew on it a little bit and chomped. It was absolutely delicious, cooked just enough to be done without being dry and seasoned with the most secret of the world’s secret ingredients: salt and pepper.
He laughed while I tore into the chop, tickled by the sight of me enjoying the meal. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and when I asked his name, he just said, “You can call me ‘the Meat Man’” and offered his elbow to bump because his fingers, and mine, were too greasy to shake.
“I’m Ralph,” I said.
When I gave him $10 for his generosity the Meat Man began quoting Scripture, saying it was no coincidence – that there ain’t no coincidence in God’s world – that we had crossed paths.
He said he would use some of the money to buy bread to go with the rest of his chops. I think I can guess what else the cash was used for but to be honest, he did not smell of liquor. I really don’t know and I certainly don’t care. I also left him with three bottles of cheap bottled water.
The man’s high spirits got me so excited – licking sweet and salty pig fat from the corners of my mouth – that this Catholic boy was moved to quote some Scripture too. Pointing to the sawbuck in his hand, I bellowed: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s!”
The Meat Man loved that one!
“Hallelujah!” he cried as I walked back to the car. “Hallelujah!”