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Ponderin’ Printers Alley…

I was just goin’ to fix me something to eat, when Mama Zig Zag ask me to braid her hair.  She wanted two, great big ole cornrows, and warned me “not to ‘tary long” because she wasn’t “tenderheaded.”  Skeptical, I started to fetch my comb from my purse, when she hollered, “Never mind, child, I got my own.”  Now her own was not what I expected. It didn’t look like no comb I’d ever seen, for it was about as big as two grown men’s fist and made out of this brown, scented wood.  There were intricate carvings on it, like something come right out of ancient Africa, and not that tourist mess they pass off to folk who don’t know no better.   “You sure you want me to use that?” I asked, thinking if she wasn’t already tenderheaded, she surely would be by the time I got through picking at her scalp, but she just closed her eyes and slumped her shoulders in that settling in pose old folks get when they done made up their minds and ain’t no use in you trying to change’m. So I suck my teeth and  came on back, let her lean her head into my open palms.

We sat there a while, me carefully parting her scalp and greasing it with some of her homemade healing oils, when she sat bolt straight up and started telling me a story, her voice all sing-songy like she was in a spell.

“Believe it was ’33 or ’35, I can’t right remember.  We had just pulled up on Nashville, and the talent was tired and restless, so I gathered them up, gave’em the last of the posters, and told’em to head on and meet me back in time to finish setting up.  I needed to catch some night air of my own, and I thought I’d go on out there and see if I can get more show bills made.

Well, Nashville ain’t Memphis, but it was one big city, bigger than most of the small towns our medicine show ramble through.  Long story short, one twist turn into another twist, and before I knowed it, I thought I was good and lost.  Took me a minute, but when I looked up and saw all them different sized signs, with the letters made in all kinds of styles, I saw that my ole toes had actually turned me in the right direction.  I was standing right there in the middle of what they called Printers Alley, a place that been making history since the turn of the 19th century.

Now, this is before they got all them fancy lights and what not, before they turned what was secretly known as the  Gentleman’s District into the tame party time it is for you youngun’s now.  Whatn’t no Voodoo Room and Black Poodle lounges way back then.  No blues halls either, but there was some of everything else, including the printers’ press.  If you want it, you could find it there, at least that’s what the folk tell in whispers.  Now, can’t no back alley party take off without no politician or the police knowing ’bout it.  They say them old savvy printers had been greasing palms since 1909, way before Prohibition of the ’20s hit the district.   It wasn’t until later when you could see live folk like Waylon Jennings, Boots Randolph, and Hank Williams. Back before then, those old Victorians were home to the city’s printers and typographers by day, and any kind of poonanny and shenanigans by night.  Most wasn’t in no union, and plenty was only journeymen, but they got the work done.  For sure, I know I’d seen that writing man, the one always dressed in white like he some kind of conjureman, call himself Mark Twain but his daddy called Clemens. He was seen a time or two in the alley, where it seemed like Nashville printed all what needed printing in that part of the world, the gospels, and the auctions, and yes, even leaflets singing the praises of Mama Zig Zag’s Mojo Medicine Show.  And if it wasn’t for the music of the country that took root in the city’s soil, who knows, Nashville might have truly become the Printing Capital of the World.

Anyhow, Printers Alley was Nashville’s little dirty secret.  Respectable folks tried not to be on them cobblestone streets at night, everybody else, and I do mean, everybody wondered around, seeing what all they could see.  Didn’t nobody bother me much, ‘cuz Mama always know how to zig and how to zag.  I blend in when I need to and shine up bright when it suit.  All I wanted was a cold sip of water and somebody to print us somemore of them flyers, but it turns out I end up running into a little girl that wasn’t knee high to a duck, but her hair.  Oh lawd, her hair!  I never seen a woman, man, beast, and sho’nuff not no child with hair as long and thick and as plentiful as this.  Come to think on it, took me a minute before I even realized that truly was a child.  Who would be fool or evil ‘nough to leave a child out there on they owm?  And this one?  Never seen such a lovely thing.  She had such hair so.  She was sitting in a corner, looking like she ’bout to cry, so I back up a bit, didn’t want to startle it, and called out softly as I can, ‘Child, why are you fretting so?  Where your mama or your papa, or them that know anything about you?’

Three Strands

She didn’t answer at first, but just sat there underneath all that hair, rockswayin’, eyes darting about.  I know she was taking her time to see if she could trust me.  They say there ain’t no pond the sun can’t dry.  Well, there ain’t no fear a little kindness can’t heal.  Kindness and of course, time.  This gal didn’t seem like she had had much of either.  So I waited with my hands outstretched and my palms turned just so.  ‘I got something in my pocket, and you can have it, if’n you can guess what it is.’  The child stopped her rocking, slowly waved back a big puff of hair.  I could just barely see her forehead, noble, round and smooth like she come from Guinee, one of them big, high foreheads, like she kin to king or queen.

‘Bread!’ she said, finally, and I couldn’t help but smile.  That be the oldest trick in any Mama book, ‘cuz the first thing they guess is the first thing they want to get.  Food.  Poor child was hungry.  I let her reach into my mojo bag, bottomless nation sack of mystery and wonder and pull out what she needs.  After a while, I ask her to guess again, and of course, the child wants drink.  Finally, when her belly is full and her thirst is quenched, she guess the last thing, the thing she wants most: a home.  Poor child was left to fend and fight for herself, a story that, though sad, was all too familiar.  Many of Mama Zig Zag’s children were scattered seed, could claim nobody but theyself.  So, when the child reached into my bag one last time, she pull out something that even Mama couldn’t have guessed: a comb, a big mighty comb so beautiful, so delicately carved that when she held it up, we both gasp.

‘My, my, now what, child, shall we do with this?’

For the first time, the child’s mouth turn up like she ’bout to smile, her eyes look a tad less worried, a tad less old.  “Maybe,” she says all soft and hush hush, soft as her dark tumbleweed of hair.  ‘Maybe…’ and she wrap her tiny finger ’round a great big lock of hair.

‘Grand thinkin’,’ I say, my right hand an invitation, open just so.  ‘It’s been some time since I combed a young one’s hair, but I reckon with that there mighty comb, and some of my oils, I reckon together we’ll get there.”  And that’s when she stuck the wondrous comb in her great head of hair, her smile the only bright thing in the printers’ row.  And meek, meek, all gentle so,  she place her little hand in mine and that’s how The Amazing Three Strands come to Mama Zig Zag’s Mojo Medicine Show.  This was no Circassian “moss-haired” beauty, but the real, true thing.  Three Strands, God bless her heart, was the blessing I didn’t know I’d been missing.  And it wasn’t until I got her home and her hair all washed up, did I see them wings…”

PT Barnum's faux "Circassian beauty" 1860s

With that, Mama closed her story and fell asleep.  I sat their, mouth wide open, my own comb hanging in the air.  I knew Three Strands wasn’t Mama’s natural born daughter, but the way she spoke of her, didn’t none of care.  Sometimes the family you choose, is better than the one you got by blood.  What I was curious about, was what happened to Three Strands and why she go away.  Wasn’t nothing left but a few faded posters and the rest was Mama Zig Zag’s memory.

I know one thing. Next time you catch me braiding Mama Zig Zag’s thick, beautiful hair, be sure to join us and sit a while.  Ain’t no telling what new memory we might pick out.


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