Drive west on Poplar approaching Danny Thomas downtown, and there isn't much to recommend to a sightseer, but it's easy to believe that during the height of the Depression, this was Memphis' skid row.
Harder to believe is the fact that this six-block stretch was once the crowded site of numerous businesses and residences, including a butcher shop, a shoe shop, an all-night cafe, Abe Chlem's sheet-metal shop, and a flophouse. The population was a mixture too — Greeks, Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and one Bolshevik. Factor in the down-and-outers, the stew heads and thugs, the bimbos and toughs, and the corner whores and "high-steppers," and you had yourself a slice of city life — lower-scale but alive.
Some may recall those days and this neighborhood, and they'd rather forget about it. Joseph Werner Jr. remembers, and he's chosen to write about it, because he was there — a teenager in his father and uncle's shop on Poplar: Werner Sheet Metal Works.
Werner (nickname JoJo) was there to learn (when he wasn't in class at Christian Brothers): learn how to measure and cut metal using hand-held snips in the high summer heat; learn how to read a blueprint and make a winning bid on a project; learn how to draw money from the bank for his father on payday; and learn how to climb a church steeple, tar it and tile it, and survive. He was also there to watch as his father and blind uncle struggled to keep the business going during very uncertain times and watch as the tinners did the best they could, hangovers be damned.
Werner wrote vividly of those days and of his upbringing and early adult life in The Tinsmith's Son, a memoir self-published in 2006 that's proven popular with readers who remember those days too and with readers who are generations younger.
Werner's latest book, Skid Row (Sunstone Press), takes us back to the old neighborhood again, but this time the author's branching out: In what is more properly a novel, Werner revisits the workings and workers at Werner Sheet Metal, but he takes us outside the neighborhood as well — down to South Main (to Earnestine & Hazel's, the Green Beetle, Frank's Hotel, and the whorehouses on Mulberry Street) and on down to Mississippi (for a comic courtship and a dual burial featuring a farmer and his mule).
Werner also follows on the heels of a trio of high-steppers named Sissie, Norma Jean, and Angie, and he recalls for us Sweeney and Otis (who roomed together) and Otis' violent treatment at the hands of a guy named Harry. (Otis' "crime": to be, in the language of the neighborhood, "one of them things"; Harry's comeuppance: to be discovered with his throat cut.)
Tough times? Tough neighborhood? Tough characters? Yes, during the '30s — before Werner Sheet Metal moved off of Poplar (first onto Court, then to offices near the airport); before Werner and his younger brother took over the business; and before that business grew to include government work and projects oversees.
But the author wants it known now that those high-steppers Sissie and Norma Jean may have teased JoJo as a teenager, may have made "damn sure" he could see them in the bathroom window across the way, but they were "basically good women." That's how he described them in a recent phone interview.
And Harry? "I hated that man," Werner recalled, and the memory still rankles. "An awful person," Werner added.
But what about Skid Row, a novel, not a memoir? "There are people still alive. I didn't want to cause any hurt. Some things in the book I took off on my own to describe, invent," Werner admitted. Then he clarified:
"This is not a bitter book about how everybody had bad things happen to them. These characters I wrote about ... They'd do anything for you. If Werner Sheet Metal had work and Abe Chlem across the street did not, we'd say to him, 'You take the job.' And those tinners ... They may have been drunks, but I said, 'No, sir' and 'Yes, sir' to them. Sure, they'd run off, stay up all night. But they put their lives on the line every day. We were all just trying to survive."
And what of Werner Sheet Metal Works on Poplar, on Memphis' onetime skid row? Traces of it survive? "No," Werner said. "There's nothing there now."
Joseph Werner will be discussing and signing copies of Skid Row at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Saturday, April 2nd, at 1 p.m.