The Memphis Week That Was

The meaning of mum, going armed, early voting, and NBA Blues.



Mum is the word. Adjective. Mainly used by Scrabble players and newspaper headline writers and reporters as journalistic shorthand. Rarely if ever used in everyday conversation. But there are a lot of mum people out there these days. The University of Memphis administration is mum about an on-campus stadium study. Bass Pro is mum on its plans for The Pyramid. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are mum about coming to Memphis. The Grizzlies are mum about the future of Pau Gasol and Damon Stoudamire. Willie Herenton and A C Wharton are mum on their school funding plans and when they'll reschedule with Gov. Bredesen. Also mum: Fairgrounds deciders, The Federal Reserve board on interest rates, federal prosecutors and the FBI on local investigations, and the New England Patriots on Tom Brady's ankle injury.

Reporters use mum to signal readers that, all evidence to the contrary, we are not asleep on the job. Mum implies that somebody important knows something interesting and that we are actively trying to find it out. Often, sources are not really mum. It would be more accurate to say they "don't have a clue," "are out of the loop," "wouldn't talk to me," "haven't made up their mind," or "I am so far ahead of this off-the-wall story that nobody has formed any opinions, much less a plan."

My boss just came by and said he is mulling our corporate future. Mull is mum's first cousin. He's been mulling. Now he’s mum. That can’t be good.

A cold night in January. Back in the frothy NBA Now days, I remember reading (and writing) that the true test for Memphis and the NBA would come on a cold night in January when the thrill was gone and the Grizzlies were playing a meaningless mid-week game against some no-names while the Tigers were on television and having a good year.

Well, on Wednesday night the Grizzlies mailed it in and lost 112-85 to Orlando in front of the proverbial "announced" crowd of 10,212, as the nationally top-ranked Tigers ran their record to 18-0 by beating Tulsa, with an 18,000-seat sellout coming up Saturday at FedExForum against Gonzaga. "We played them on the wrong day," said Griz forward Rudy Gay. No kidding. Unfortunately, there will be many more wrong days.

Until this year, Wilt Chamberlain was the worst free-throw shooter I ever saw, not counting Ben Wallace, who is so bad he doesn't count. Wilt hit .511 from the stripe for his career, using a granny shot that did nothing to diminish his reputation as the strongest man on the court and, by his count (20,000 plus), the greatest ladies man in history. Collectively, the University of Memphis is hitting .585, but Joey Dorsey is at .358, and that's without tournament pressure. Only two regulars are above .700. Granny it, Joey.

Political analyst Charlie Cook spoke at Rhodes Wednesday to about 200 people, most of them students, which is a very good turnout for a small college. At least, someone from the presidential campaign is coming to Memphis.

Cook, often featured on national news programs, has a daughter at Rhodes and a son entering in the fall. He thinks John McCain will get the Republican nomination, with a possible third-party challenge from super-rich New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Obama and Hillary still too close to call. Edwards probably out of it. In his 90-minute talk and Q&A, Cook didn't say anything, and nobody asked him anything, about Tennessee or Memphis, except for one dismissive comment about Fred Thompson, who is out of the race. Not so much as a by-the-way about campus activism, the dilemma of black Memphis Democrats who loved Bill Clinton, Fred Smith as a key McCain supporter, Tennessee Blue or Red, or early voting before Super Tuesday.

This was presidential politics as national spectator sport, with candidates and in-the-know commentators playing their rehearsed roles and then explaining it all for the rest of us. Well, there is another way to look at it. Democracy is a going concern and politics is a participant sport and everything is local. Check your local news media, websites, and blogs for that story.

Early voting has been light. According to the Shelby County Election Commission, only 642 people had voted at the commission's downtown office through the first seven days. It takes less than a minute. You declare your party, and make three choices -- presidential nominee, assessor, and General Sessions Court clerk. Eighteen other sites opened for early voting on Friday. The Tennessee Presidential Primary is Tuesday, February 5th.

Overblown media event of the week: Hillary Clinton’s Nashville office ( attempting to make spot news out of the "unveiling" of her first television commercial in Tennessee and her "continuing momentum." The real news, announced Friday, was that Hillary herself would be in Nashville Saturday.

The eagles are coming. The birds, not the classic rock group. The bald eagle was delisted last summer and is no longer endangered, thanks to a successful hacking program that began in 1980. You might even see one in downtown Memphis if you look carefully. I saw one half a mile north of the M bridge a few weeks ago. Granted, I was in a boat.

Novice birdwatcher that I am, I excitedly called the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. An agent told me 187 eagles were counted two weeks ago between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River, and there are probably more than that. Sightings have been made all along the Mississippi from Memphis to Dyersburg and at Pickwick Lake. Who needs a two-hour drive to Reelfoot Lake? Eagle Lake, on the border of Shelby and Tipton counties, is just 30 minutes away.

Need stimulus? Ninth District Representative Steve Cohen doesn't. Or at least not the recession-fighting handout Congress is contemplating for all Americans. "I don’t need a rebate," said the congressman, who thinks the money should be targeted to those who really do. Hey, I'll take yours, Steve.

So what will you do with your $300, if and when you get it? Blow it at Buster's? Buy two tickets and two snacks at a Griz game? Fight off foreclosure on your house? I'll pay my annual "Midtown Tax," which is the cost of replacing broken windows on my cars, courtesy of our local thugs.

Should homeowners go armed? The question always comes up at crime-focused meetings of my Midtown neighborhood association. Over the years I've detected a shift in the way cops answer. The official recommendation on "CyberWatch" is still to call the police when you see a crime in progress instead of taking matters into your own hands.

On Thursday evening, Inspector Mark Collins of the West Precinct told residents of the Evergreen Historic District meeting that if you decide to arm yourself, make sure you know how to handle the weapon and are prepared to use it. Otherwise it could be used against you. He suggested than an aluminum baseball bat might be more suitable for some people. But there was no attempt to persuade anyone to put away their guns because of what might happen later in court or inside your head. Or on your property if you shoot and miss.

Earlier that day, a Midtown man shot and killed an apparently unarmed burglar who broke into his garage. In less than 24 hours, the shooting was ruled justifiable. It was the third justifiable homicide out of 14 killings so far this year.

MLK 40th Anniversary and Sanitation Workers. "I’d sooner be called a garbage worker," says a city employee in the sanitation department. The employee, who requested that his name not be used, said the anniversary events overlooked the fact that, unlike other city employees, he and his colleagues still have no post-retirement health insurance or pension because unwitting union representatives signed them away in the wake of the strike in 1968. As a result, some "crew members" as they are called now keep working into their 70s. "The union that started it all gets nothing," he said.

Rumblings that resonate in Memphis. New York City Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a $58.5 billion budget for his city that cuts money to every agency, including core services such as police, fire, and schools. The cuts are because of the looming recession. Mayors Herenton and Wharton will propose their budgets in the coming months. Look for big cuts from both of them. And this time they will stick.

Engineering contractor Elvin Moon got a $300,000 contract from the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) that is now getting a close look by the FBI, according to The Commercial Appeal. Moon is of interest to the FBI because of his friendship and business relationship with Mayor Herenton. At MATA, blowing $300,000 is nothing. The agency spent nearly $75 million for a little-used trolley line between downtown and Cleveland Avenue in Midtown. And remember the $400 million "light-rail" line between downtown and the airport? That grand vision has been on hold for at least five years.

SkyTel tells all. Finally, to see what can happen when a major city and its mayor run off the rails, see last week's Detroit Free Press story about Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. For years, the young hip-hop mayor denied rumors about a sexual relationship with his chief of staff. Last summer they both lied about it under oath in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two former cops who knew the score and said they were victims of mayoral retaliation.

Kilpatrick 'fessed up Wednesday after the Free Press obtained 14,000 text messages from the chief of staff's city-issued pager. As reporter Mike Wendland explained, the telltale pagers were SkyWriters, using a dedicated messaging device from SkyTel, which is headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi. Most text messages vanish, but SkyTel touts the "benefits of message archiving" in its system. That "clunk" sound you hear is public officials from coast to coast ditching their SkyWriter pagers.

("Memphis Week That Was" by John Branston is a regular Friday feature on Pass it on.)

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