News » News Feature

The Night They Raided the Highland Strip



This story was first published in the April 1980 issue of Memphis magazine. It was re-published as part of the magazine's 25th anniversary issue last month. After earning a master's degree from the University of Memphis, David Dawson began freelancing for Memphis in 1980, then joined the staff in 1982. Dawson is presently vice president and executive editor at Towery Publishing and a regular columnist for the Flyer.

It was 9:37 on a Friday night, February 18, 1972. Outside, the cold pavement of Highland was bathed in pulsing blue light. There was a sudden silence about the place that was chilling and unreal.

Crazy Bill was standing easy now, inside the Cue Ball, watching the cops root around in the pockets of the pool tables. At first, everybody had been lined up with their hands on the wall. Crazy Bill had stood and felt the big drops of sweat roll down his ribs, his hands going numb on the wood paneling, his heart about to pound out of his chest. Crazy Bill was 21 and working on his first beard, and he had never seen anything like this. He had been a regular on the Highland Strip for over two years, which made him one of the originals, a real old-timer. He had been there when things were loud and super-cool and the place was happening every freaking night of the week. Some people had always stood like hedge preachers, warning everybody that The Bust was on its way. Crazy Bill had called them paranoid.

But here it was, happening live and in color right before his bloodshot eyes. Crazy Bill had gone into the Cue Ball that night searching for this soapy-looking chick with electric red hair that sprawled out around her face like last month's Christmas wreath. She always wore a hazy photo-button of Baba Ram Dass, pinned just where your Grandmother would have worn her favorite cameo brooch. Crazy Bill knew who she was. He never knew her name or anything, but he knew she sold good stash.

His friends claimed that the magic had all left the Strip when the junkies and the runaways invaded the place last fall. The mood had become frenetic and anxious. There were suddenly a lot of "garbage heads" around -- people who would swallow, inject, or smoke anything, in any amount, so long as they thought it would make rainbows dance on their eyelids and banshees scream in their ears. The garbage heads were depressing even to the Strip regulars, passing out the way they did in the most conspicuous places. Nobody wanted to put up with a bunch of habitual O.D.'s. Not to mention the people who were getting beaten up and left in the dark alleys that ran from the parking areas out to the street. The Strip had, in short, become a very unpleasant place to hang out.

But Crazy Bill had stayed, even though most of the other old-timers had cleared out like dead leaves on a cold autumn breeze. The Strip was his spot -- it was where he felt at home. Crazy Bill had believed that things were going to get better when the warm weather came back again. He had faith in the place.

Now here he was, standing on the static-charged carpet of the Cue Ball, wondering just what was going to come down. He had only been in the pool hall for about five minutes, looking for the soapy-looking chick, when this tall dude with a distinct .38-caliber bulge in his jacket had come piling through the front door and announced in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, "Nobody is going to leave." There had been some confusion at first as people began stuffing their stash down in the pockets at the corners of the pool tables, or dropping Baggies full of contraband onto the floor. Several people had somehow managed to kick at the big back door of the Cue Ball until the thing had fallen off its hinges, and they had gone out into the cold night air and run.

But for most of the 150 or so people inside there had been nothing else to do but stand up against the wall and keep their hands on the paneling and keep their mouths shut.

After about five minutes of the up-against-the-wall routine, the police let the suspects stand easy ("but keep them hands out of them pockets") while they began going down the line checking I.D. cards against a list of names slapped onto a clipboard. For some, there was a quick search, a quick dig into pockets and socks. The TV lights were already blaring outside, and Crazy Bill could see a big fellow hoist a camera onto his shoulder.

And that was when he knew for sure that the Strip was about to become Big News for the fourth time. So while he stood there, waiting for the clipboard to make its way down the line to him, Crazy Bill got caught up in the glare of those TV lights, and he began to flash back to the old days, back before the newsmen had made the Strip their stomping ground, back when things were new and dangerous and exciting and it was all happening at the row of shops with the wide sidewalk out front down on South Highland Street.

From the time when people first started calling the small business district that runs along Highland between Mynders and Southern "The Strip" to the cold Friday night in February 1972, when the police busted the place, it had all been like three Chinese dragons chasing each other's tails around in a circle: the merchants, the street people, and the police.

It was unclear just when it all began. The early development was slow and sporadic. In 1965 the Normal-Buntyn Shopping Center was just plain typical. It had a hardware store, a couple of grocery stores, a jewelry store, and a carpet showroom. There were two drugstores and two barber shops. In the middle of the row of shops, the Normal Tea Room offered genteel refreshment to lady shoppers. Across the street was a gas station and a bakery. All of it was pretty ordinary, fairly placid, and comfortably prosperous -- just a nice convenient shopping center in the middle of a nice conservative residential area.

Then in 1968 two record stores -- Pop-I's and Highland Hits -- opened their doors to the growing Memphis State student population. Within a year there were more businesses aimed at a young clientele -- two pool halls, a couple of small restaurants, and several clothing stores.

By 1969, the Scene had started to roll. The merchants along the "Strip" (it had, by then, acquired its new name) could stick their heads out their front doors on a late afternoon and see little clots of longhairs dressed down to the hippest nines in elephant bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts and headbands and army surplus jackets with holes carefully torn in them. And the merchants could, on calm days, catch little whiffs of patchouli oil and strawberry incense in the air as they heard the scuffing of bare feet moving past on the gritty sidewalk. At first the merchants were patient about the growing numbers of freaks -- they remained concerned, but calm, throughout the winter of 1969-’70.

By the spring of 1970, though, the whole Scene got to be too much for them. Pop-I's was drawing a sizable crowd almost every night of the week. With the warm weather had come a kind of semi-resident population of anywhere from 250 to 750 each night. And none of the merchants were naive about the fact that these street people weren't just looking for a place to sit and listen to music, no sir. They were dealing drugs.

What was even worse for the merchants, though, was having to sit by and watch their customers disappear. To hell with Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock -- they were losing business!

Most of the merchants (the youth-oriented ones included) got together in June 1970 to form the Normal Business Community Improvement Association, designed to pressure city officials into providing some protection for their livelihoods. They went to the police and requested help, and soon there was a pair of cops strolling up and down the Strip, joking with the regulars on the sidewalk, calling them by name, acting as much like high school principals as policemen. But they weren't being foolish. They too knew about the prospering drug trade going on just behind their backs.

By the summer of 1970 drugs had become an all-important ingredient of Strip life. "It was a necessity to be heavily into the drug scene in order to exist on the Strip," recalls one early member of the underground community on the Strip. "The Strip was an escape into all the forbidden pleasures I had been preached to about all my life. It was nirvana in the middle of the Bible Belt."

Heroin was present on the Strip in 1970, but it was not popular. The drugs of choice were marijuana, LSD, mescaline, and various amphetamines. These drugs were readily available to anyone who did not actually wear a badge, but the drug trade remained hidden, just out of sight.

Toward autumn there were a lot of new faces on the Strip. One of these had a beard and was crowned by tousled brown hair and a floppy hat. Robert Lively -- the Candyman -- was beginning his tenure.

Lively was a narc. He passed himself off as a heroin addict with a lot of rich underworld friends willing to underwrite his rather large drug purchases. Lively pricked his arms with needles to leave tracks, and he taught himself how to fake taking drugs -- no dealer would have trusted someone who bought large quantities of dope without at least sampling the stuff.

By the time Lively's three-month "visit" to the Strip had ended, he had compiled enough evidence to arrest 17 persons on charges of sale and possession of narcotics. After these arrests in late 1970, the Strip was suddenly, for the first time, Big News, as the Highland area was singled out as the city's major drug distribution center. This exposure would not, however, curb the flow of either drugs or people into the area. The Strip might have been Big News, but it was also the unofficial freehold of the city's counter-culture, who were just beginning to test their wings.

Crazy Bill remembered the way that the paranoid people had overreached after the Candyman's bust, running around with their brains out of fix, accusing everybody of being a narc. Things had remained low-key, but definitely suspicious, for months. The winter had passed in anxious, but unabated, drug trading.

Then, in the spring of 1971, the people had started coming back in droves. Drugs became more plentiful than ever, and they were sold openly on the sidewalk or inside one of the hangouts. There developed a kind of comradeship among the freaks that had been lacking all along. Crazy Bill remembered it as a time of freedom, a time of wide-eyed dreamers, when a person could sit in the lotus position on the hood of a car for six hours without moving or run up and down the sidewalk screaming at lampposts -- dig it, do it. It was all cool on the Strip, because this was, for the street people, a different reality, their brave new world.

It was the beginning of utter desperation for the older merchants, though. A good many of them lost patience and moved out.

But others were quickly taking their places. Between 1970 and 1974 a whole host of new businesses popped up on the Strip, presumably to try to tap the buying power of the young freaks that gathered nightly. Boutiques like U.S. Male, Oz, Base Four, Just Jeans, Sexy Sadie and Sam, Grand Central Station, and the Jeanery opened on South Highland, as did restaurants like the Taj Mahal and The Cafe. Many did not even last a a year, while others continue to operate today. Between 1970 and the present, however, 14 out of the 20 businesses that occupied store space in the row of brick shops on the west side of the street have either moved, changed hands, or disappeared altogether. "How much business could you do," asks Elliot Abel, who operated the Tobacco Corner at 553 South Highland, "when you had to go out to the alleys every morning and clean up last night's O.D.'s so that cars could get through to your parking lot?" Abel has since relocated in East Memphis.

On June 19, 1971, the Strip became Big News for the second time, this time not for drugs, but for mob violence. The "Highland Riots" were getting started.

Crazy Bill remembered standing out in front of the U.S. Male, on the north end of the Strip. There were perhaps 1,000 people in the area, high and hanging loose, looking for their elusive nightly buzz. The air was warm and muggy and it hung about a person's skin like smoke. Then, for some reason (Crazy Bill was too far away), the cops began to hassle somebody out in front of one of the clothing shops down the sidewalk. Here were the smiling cops, the walking patrol, suddenly acting like cops. The street people didn't like it a bit.

The handcuffs came out and found their way around the wrists of a skinny-looking kid in a tank-top shirt and that was what started the yelling. A fellow named Chip came up with a cherry bomb, lit it, and tossed it into the crowd that had formed around the handcuffed kid, and that was when the brawl began.

Crazy Bill moved back, away from the 300 people who had gathered in the middle of Highland to throw rocks and beer bottles at the police. Squad cars wailed up, bringing reinforcements, and the freaks squared off against the growing line of police officers in what was beginning to look, to Crazy Bill, like a very crazy sort of pitched battle over not much of anything at all. After the police had amassed sufficient numbers to feel secure, the nightsticks began to swing, and the smell of Mace filled the humid air.

The "Highland Riots" resulted in 29 arrests. One participant was bound over to the grand jury on charges of inciting to riot. And now, instead of a couple of pairs of cops assigned to stroll along and placate the merchants and the area residents, the police cracked down: 22 walking patrolmen and 12 patrol cars were assigned to control an area barely as large as Court Square.

As the summer trudged toward the dog days, the tensions faded a little, but the stalemate continued. The street people were determined to stay without being intimidated. The older merchants were desperately determined to get rid of the hippies before they were forced to move out of the area. And the police were still wondering what they could do, short of a cavalry charge, to clear the situation up.

Throughout the summer of 1971 the drugs continued to flow, the freaks remained contentedly stoned, and the loud music continued to blare over the heads of those who gathered each night on the Strip to ensure that the territory would remain theirs. That summer, there was freedom for the taking up on Highland. The strip was peaking.

The large numbers of police lasted only a few weeks, until it became apparent that the majority of the Strip regulars were not interested in making the kind of trouble that had happened in June. A few walking patrolmen were left behind, but as summer turned to fall, these policemen were withdrawn as well.

The four main hangouts on the Strip -- Pop-I's, a long record shop lined with pinball machines where loud music soared over the heads of those stuffed inside; the Cafe, a bistro serving beer and food, offering the smokiest restroom in town; the Corner Pocket, a pool hall across the street, where the heroin dealers set up their trade; and the Cue Ball, another pool hall, where people used the dark game room as a kind of opium den -- continued to thrive into the cool months of October and November. But now, becoming more noticeable each day, there was something new and ugly going on, something which would, in a few short months, force the Police Department’s hand.

The amount of heroin that was dealt on the Strip is unknown. And, consequently, the number of genuine heroin addicts among the strip regulars has probably been exaggerated. But it is clear that during the late summer and fall of 1971 heroin and other hard drugs like dilaudid, seconal, tuinal, and codeine became popular. The riots and the ensuing revolutionary atmosphere had attracted a new sort of regular to the Strip. The old-timers were, gradually, clearing out. The old magic was fading away. The junkies were moving in.

Along with the hard drugs came violence -- freaks beating on freaks -- and the old comradeship became as trash blowing down the gutter beside the wide sidewalk. The new sort of Strip regular looked more like a yellow fever victim than a hedonistic flower child. Crazy Bill could remember them lining the sidewalk, their greasy hair hanging matted onto dirty collars, a kind of mean and hungry hollowness, their palms extended to any and every passerby, "Spare change?" their continual drone. "It wasn't even safe to walk around up there," one of the hippie-types remembers. "People had gotten themselves so dependent on hard drugs, and when the prices went up, they'd get violent with you. People would just walk up and grab you and start stealing things. That was when I got out."

Crazy Bill stayed on, though, his feelings for the Strip resembling one's feelings for a worthless old dog that barks at friends and sheds all over the house and tries to eat all the new furniture, but who once was a best friend. The Strip had been Crazy Bill's life for almost two years. He was a fixture around the place. Sure, the air was charged with a kind of electric survival anxiety. But that would pass. All things had to pass.

Had Crazy Bill been just a little bit more attentive, he might have noticed that not all of the new faces on the Strip that fall belonged to either out-of-towners or junkies. Since October 1971, the newly formed Metro Narcotics Squad had been placing undercover narcs on the Strip. Lots of them. "Operation Strip" was off and rolling.

When the Strip became Big News for the third time, it was almost anticlimactic. The regulars, the old-timers, the ones who would have reacted to such big news, were just about all gone, now hanging out around Cooper and Union, at Overton Square, or in Overton Park. The Highland Scene, the old one anyway, had transplanted itself to half a dozen locations around town.

But for the citizens of Memphis, the third Big News was dramatic and spectacular, the biggest yet. On January 16, 17, and 18, 1972, a series of three feature articles ran in The Commercial Appeal. A reporter, Leon Munday, detailed the ease with which he purchased 11 different drugs in the Cue Ball on three successive nights.

The drugs Munday purchased ranged from heroin to LSD to PCP (angel dust, today) to the old standby, marijuana. People around town seemed to be shocked, not so much by the types of drugs as their availability. City administrators responded guardedly. On January 18th, Mayor Wyeth Chandler, facing one of the first major problems of his administration, announced to the city council that steps were being taken to "clear up the situation" described by Munday.

Meanwhile, instead of toning things down in the face of the latest big news, the street people, the new Strip regulars, seemed determined to ignore the publicity. On January 16th, a man from New Orleans overdosed on PCP in the bathroom of The Cafe, and had to be coaxed out so that he could be carted off in an ambulance. Marijuana was smoked openly, as if to taunt the reporters who were making the Strip their temporary stomping ground.

Then there was a month's respite from the big news syndrome. The reporters and the TV cameras all disappeared. It was the calm before the storm.

Between October 1971 and February 1972 the Metro Narcotics agents on the Strip had made over 230 documented drug purchases. On February 18th, around 9 p.m., 60 police officers piled into 25 cars and made their way -- all according to a very strict schedule -- to the Highland area. They were armed with felony indictments handed down earlier that week by the Shelby County Grand Jury against 54 persons who made two or more sales to the undercover agents.

At precisely 9:25, police cars were parked sideways across Highland at Midland and Southern, sealing off all traffic. With military exactness, the entrances to the Cue Ball, Pop-I's, The Cafe, and the Corner Pocket were sealed at the stroke of 9:30. Operation Strip was running right on schedule. The planning had been extensive, the preparations long, and the execution perfect. Almost.

A big meaty finger jammed into Crazy Bill's ribs and startled him out of his daze. "Show some identification," the cop said. He seemed bored, eager to get the whole thing over with. Crazy Bill showed him his driver's license, which was checked against a list of names on a clipboard. Then there was a quick search, and the whole thing was over. The cop told Crazy Bill to relax, then he moved on down the line. Crazy Bill tried to light a cigarette, but the whole thing became a wad of tobacco and paper in his trembling, sweaty palms.

Just then, the police led the soapy-looking chick with the Baba Ram Dass button past him, her hands cuffed behind her back. She was no longer crying; instead, her face was red with anger and defiance. "Narcs!" she sneered at Crazy Bill and the others lined up around him. As she reached the door, a blinding flash from a press camera exploded in her face.

By 10 o'clock all the searching in the Cue Ball was over, and the newsmen were allowed to come in. After they knew that they were not going to be arrested, the street people let their fear turn to rage, and they lashed out at the newsmen, cussing at them, then turning their heads away from the cameras.

Despite the meticulous timing and the weeks of preparation, Operation Strip did not work out quite the way police officials had hoped. Only four of the 54 indicted persons were nabbed during this raid. Thirteen more adults and 16 juveniles were arrested on charges ranging from sale and possession of drugs to disorderly conduct in threatening a TV cameraman. But as far as significant arrests went, the bust was a bit of a flop.

In terms of "clearing up" the problem on the Strip, however, the Bust was a huge success. The Strip was, suddenly, a very uncool place to be. Within a few weeks the Metro Narcotics officers had arrested 45 of the 54 indicted persons, many of them at their homes, three of them in jail on other charges, and one while wandering past the Metro Narcotics office downtown. The arrests, though, were almost superfluous -- the Strip had become about as exciting as a petrified ghost town.

Crazy Bill did not feel any hatred toward the police. For two years, he had known that the Strip was probably in for a bust someday. He had seen the magic fade to the sound of junkies trying to hustle enough money for their daily fix, and he had known, somewhere deep inside, that the halcyon days of the acid-head sidewalk jockeys were never going to come back.

Today Pop-I's is gone, fiberglass insulation taped up over its windows. The Cue Ball is now the Highland Cue, and you can still shoot pool there. The Cafe is now the Bull Shotte. The Corner Pocket has been a Goodwill Store for years. Business on the Strip is pretty good again, report the merchants.

Few people regret the disappearance of the Highland Scene. Even the old-timers among the freaks seemed to realize that the dream had become a kind of broken nightmare that wanted to recur at nightly intervals. The Strip had become a far different place in February 1972 than it had been two years, or even eight months, earlier.

Crazy Bill lives in Arizona now. Whenever he comes back to Memphis to visit his parents, he drives over to Highland and slows down when he reaches the row of brick shops, so foreign to him now, and he tries, just for a couple of minutes, to remember it all. He tries to bring back the feeling that he once had of being part of something big and dangerous and exciting and altogether worth-while. Then, after the memories and the feelings have washed completely through him, Crazy Bill drives on over the railroad tracks and leaves the old wide sidewalk to forget itself according to its own time.

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