Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer An American Tale

By Ron Harris

JULY 27, 1998:  I’d like to tell you a tale, an American tale, a familiar story of a not-uncommon American family. You actually already know this story, but over time the memory has faded. That’s probably because people don’t tell it much anymore. But for years it was the rave, told repeatedly on television, on radio, in newspapers, across backyard fences, in local bars, classrooms, and in the privacy of homes in virtually every city and town.

This is the story of the family of Elijah Jefferson. Jefferson is now 72, old and fragile. But he was once young, fresh out of the Army and in love with a pretty chocolate drop named Natalie. They were married in 1952 and settled into a house over on North Bellevue where Elijah set out to help over-populate the planet.

The first born was Elijah Jr., then Ida, Curtis, Sarah, Clarence, and Doris. Papa Jefferson, needing to feed and clothe his brood, ultimately landed a decent-paying job with the Fortfiver Corporation, where he worked for 27 years before the company relocated to Atlanta.

Nobody grew rich, but there was always food on the table, clothes on their backs, turkey and dressing for Thanksgiving, and Christmas presents under the tree every December 25th.

Then a most extraordinary thing happened. Somewhere around 1985 or so, a thief stole into Elijah and Natalie’s family and made off with four of their children. I know, it sounds like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale, but it’s true. It happened.

Who could do this, you ask? Well, our thief’s name is crack, as in crack cocaine. See, I told you that you would remember this story. But bear with me. We’re getting to the juicy parts now.

The first to go was Ida. Her son, Tony, now living with his grandfather Elijah, remembers the chill that stole into his life. “Everything changed. Everything. She smoked up all the money. We didn’t have food. We didn’t have clothes for school. Instead of her taking care of us, I started working little jobs and begging for quarters so me and my brothers and sisters could have something to eat.” He was 11. Eventually, he and his siblings all ended up in foster homes. Ida now lives in Hurt Village, still chained to a dope pipe.

Next was Elijah Jr. He lost his job, lost his wife and his children. “His wife told me that she got tired of his crap and she couldn’t have him smoking in front of the children,” his father says. Elijah Jr. moved back in with his father a year ago.

Next was Clarence, who was “a rising star” in the Army, his dad says, until he came home on a 30-day furlough prior to re-enlisting and fell in love with the crack pipe. Clarence was eventually discharged after being diagnosed schizophrenic. He is allotted about $2,400 monthly in federal disability, but he never sees it. The feds know that he is a crack addict. So, they allot him $5 a day and hold the rest of the money in abeyance until he cleans up his act. At last count, there was over $100,000 waiting for him.

Finally the thief took Doris. Doris and her husband wallowed together in despair until one day he told her that he’d rather die than continue stealing to feed her addiction. She put a pistol in his hand and challenged him. He blew out his brains in front of his children. Like Ida, Doris eventually lost all of her children. One she sold to a woman for a car. Her two sons went to a foster home where, during a whipping by the foster parent, one struck his head on a fireplace and died.

Papa Jefferson wakes every morning to the direct destruction and collateral damage that crack has wreaked on his family. On one cot is his oldest, Elijah Jr. On another is Calvin. Doris’ son, Glenn, just out of a foster home, occupies another, as does Tony, Ida’s son, struggling to piece together his life. Jefferson’s home has been stripped nearly bare. Everything Jefferson personally owns is padlocked inside his van or secreted away behind the double bolt of his bedroom door. His children would steal it all if he didn’t.

I’ve always found this such a fascinating tale that I wondered why its telling had dropped from our cultural dialogue. Maybe, I reasoned, it was an old, dated story, a reality that had faded into minimal existence. Anxious to test my hypothesis, I called Capt. Art Heun, executive officer with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department narcotics division. He flipped through his arrest and seizure numbers.

“May of 1997, 71 grams. May of 1998, 338 grams. August ’97, 203 grams. September, 217 grams. October, 398 grams. November, 408 grams. Nope, our numbers haven’t dropped. And we’re still arresting just as many folks,” he said. Then why don’t we talk about it anymore, I said. It was an inadvertent comment, but Heun took it as a question.

“It’s gotten to be old news,” he said, “and old news doesn’t sell.”

A thoughtful response, I thought, but old news to whom? It wasn’t old news to Christine, a Memphis flight attendant who last week buried an addicted cousin down in Clarksdale after he was killed, most likely, she said, in a drug-related murder. It’s not old news to Marcus, an attorney, whose brother, a Vietnam veteran, daily sells off his soul and anything else for the next hit.

And it’s certainly not old news to Elijah Jefferson.

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