Partial to Home: Highway 61 (Coffeehouse) revisited

 

Birney Imes

 

 

VICKSBURG -- Twice a week Harry Walker and John Jones meet here for two hours of chess. Here is the Highway 61 Coffeehouse, a hole-in-the-wall on a sloping street two blocks above the Mississippi River. Both men are retired, Walker from Entergy and Jones as IT specialist for several Fortune 500 companies.

 

If he's heard it once, he's heard it a hundred times, Jones looks like Morgan Freeman. If people are going to persist with the obvious, you may as well have fun with it.

 

"Somewhere Morgan Freeman is sitting up in the Delta," Jones says to the latest offender, "and right now someone is saying to him, 'Damn, man, you look just like John Jones.'"

 

 

As it happens Jones is black, Walker white. If the crowd here this morning is any indication, there is an easy melding of black and white in this river town.

 

Outside at one of the coffeehouse's two iron tables Joseph Williams is fielding calls and dispatching cabs for Rocket Taxicab, his family business since 1951.

 

"A lot of Mississippi towns you find a railroad track with white on one side and blacks on the other," said Williams. "Here it's a mixed population. You might have a block of mansions and one block over you have shotgun houses."

 

Between calls the taxi man sips his coffee. He says this is his favorite way to start the day. "I try to come here whenever I can to have my morning coffee and enjoy the river."

 

It's just after 8 a.m. and city workers are tending to the extensive plantings along Washington, a lovingly preserved street of galleries, shops and even an independently owned bookstore. Williams pauses as a young man with a roaring backpack leaf blower approaches.

 

"I like it here," Williams continues after a pause. He's talking about small-town living. "I don't want to have to stand in line to spend my money, and I like to know the people that police me."

 

Inside Kristin Faubus is selling coffee and slicing bananas for a customer's granola. The 22-year-old mother of a 7-month-old son has worked for the coffeehouse for five of its six years.

 

The walls of the coffeehouse are crazy with posters, newspaper clippings and folk art. Sagging shelves of books and DVDs add to the homeyness of the room. Most of the art on display references the blues. Over a table is the Bill Ferris photograph of a young James Son Thomas. The late Leland bluesman is playing a guitar and singing in what looks to be in house; he's wearing a shirt covered with Maytag logos.

 

"We get people from all over the world," says Faubus, "Australia, Italy, Egypt."

 

Some come for the battlefield, others the casinos.

 

It's a comfortable gathering place where some come to get a coffee and go; others stay for hours. The baristas call the locals by name; this is Vicksburg's living room.

 

The owner of the coffeehouse, Daniel Boone, is at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans; his wife, Lesley Silver, runs the Attic, an art gallery upstairs.

 

Upstairs, Silver is going through the day's mail. Her gallery mirrors the studied disarray of the coffeehouse below. Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling; shallow drawers are stuffed with boxes of prints; jewelry, whirligigs, watercolors on scraps of paper cover tables. Customers wander in through the back door. The mood is relaxed, friendly.

 

Silver, a small, 70ish woman, seems energized by the work on her walls and the people who make it. They are her friends -- the art and the artists. The gallery has been around since 1971.

 

A woman comes in to pick up her framing. A large man in jeans and gray T-shirt shuffles in behind her. His name is Kennith Humphrey, one of Silver's stars.

 

Humphrey collapses in a chair and declares he just finished 40 paintings without sleeping.

 

"Kennith, a gallery in London wants to give you a show," Silver says.

 

Humphrey's response is muted. He is tired. Silver introduces him to the women picking up the framing. She owns three of Humphrey's vibrant, stylized paintings and is thrilled to meet him.

 

Humphrey makes an effort to be pleasant.

 

The 40-something Vicksburg native's curriculum vitae includes a series of odd jobs in scattered towns, New York, Denver, St. Louis and Mobile and then unemployment. Once homeless and destitute, Humphrey has painted himself out of oblivion.

 

"When you got rats crawling all over you, you got to do something," he explained.

 

Humphrey's artistic impulse didn't occur in a vacuum. The Vicksburg native grew up in a home decorated with an uncle's paintings. His half-brother, William Tolliver, a well-known African-American folk artist, helped.

 

"He is so good you wonder if something is not right," said Silver. "Kennith is fearless with color. He's amazing."

 

Silver represents Columbus artists Elayne Goodman and Frank McGuigan.

 

She has championed Goodman's art for years, and it is scattered about the gallery, even in the bathroom.

 

There, above the toilet, is a diorama, a small model of the dealer sitting in her cluttered gallery, a gift from Goodman to Silver. Art imitates life imitates art.

 

"Tell Elayne hello," Silver tells a departing visitor. "Tell her I miss her. Tell her I miss her perpetually."

 

Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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