Chris Przybyszewski 0000-00-00 00:00:00
He’s been in and out of places that most folks have never seen — or know exist. Ogle understands, maybe better than anyone living today, the very bones of this city. When he is talking about Memphis, Jimmy Ogle speaks in proper nouns. The names of places — past and present — roll effortlessly off his tongue. It’s a product of study, but also of experience. He was just an East Memphis kid who rode his bike around all the time. Ogle is, for all intents and purposes, an anatomist of Memphis. He has dissected the city over and over again and understands, maybe better than anyone living today, the very bones of this place. He studied parks and recreation management at the University of Memphis, and then he logged a long career of management in the Memphis park system. He’s seen every nook and cranny of this fair city, and he’s lived to tell the tale. He knows the location and history of every Memphis community center, museum, guitar factory, playground, park, golf course, forest, stadium, the island with a muddy name, a street made famous by music, and even a riverboat. He’s Given talks, created presentations, conducted hundreds of personal tours, and even trained tour guides. He uncovers the secrets of an old city. And then one day, his research took him into the proverbial rabbit hole. “I went to the Center City Commission, and we talked about a number of tour possibilities,” Ogle recalls. “I asked, ‘How about a manhole cover tour?’ and they said OK. Heck, the only reason I suggested a manhole cover tour was because I was trying to get them to say yes to something!” Ogle’s inspiration came from the same place it always has: his experience. “When I lived Downtown for 20 years, I would run, ride bikes, and walk, and I noticed all the manhole covers. Some were round; some were square. They were of different generations, and I became curious about it.” The new tour gave Ogle every excuse he needed to formalize his research. “I started taking pictures. I walked down every street, every alley, dodged every bus. It took me months to do it. Most people look up at the buildings at all the masonry and stonework. Well, I look down on the streets.” By Ogle’s estimates, there are more than 4,000 manhole covers in his study area (bounded by A.W. Willis on the north, Danny Thomas on the east, G.E. Patterson on the south, and the Mississippi River on the west) and 247 cover types — none of which should ever be lifted by the public. Ogle named his manhole studies and presentations “Art in the Gutter,” but Ogle’s study is not merely aesthetic. He recognizes that it is the history of a city that gives rise to the different shapes and sizes all around us. Looking down brought along Ogle’s most recent inspiration: the bayous. Bayous — those deep, dark, cavernous drainage tunnels, both natural and manmade — run in a maze under the city. “The bayous really held up our city in the beginning,” says Ogle. Digging deeper was a way for the city anatomist to get to the bones of Memphis, going to places that existed long before people started naming streets or buildings. Keep in mind that Ogle rarely takes anyone on these bayou tours. It’s too dangerous.When the Mississippi River swells, the bayou floods quickly and deeply, which could be catastrophic to unwary explorers. Ogle, for his part, is quite wary. And he comes prepared for the worst. “The bayou is the last great adventure in Memphis,” he says. “When I decided to explore it, I placed a notebook on my desk and wrote: Open this up on Monday if I don’t show up for work. Inside the notebook were Ogle’s route plan, entry point, supplies he took, what he ate for his last meal, and more. “In case an alligator ate me and they found my shoe, they’d know it was me!” he says. “I didn’t take my wallet; I didn’t take my keys. I wore boots up to my knees. My rules were that I wasn’t going to crawl, and I wasn’t going to get water over my boots, because I didn’t know what was down there or what to expect.” That said, Ogle did not take a compass with him nor a modern city engineer’s map, although for good karma, he took a copy of the 1819 map of the original layout of Memphis. “I’m an explorer,” he explains.“I did it 1500s style.” He did take a helmet and helmet light, another flashlight, a digital camera, and a tape recorder “to record my thoughts and get sounds. One sees as much with his ears as he hears with his eyes.” And a can of spray paint in case he got disoriented. Ogle started his journey underground near the retention ponds north of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “I started walking, walking, and it narrowed down to two tunnels, and then it narrowed to one. After about an hour, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was an opening, and I climbed out, ending up in someone’s backyard in North Memphis.“ His camera batteries were running low, so Ogle popped into a local convenience store, bought more, and then re-entered the bayou. “I went down the right corridor, and I walked along these caverns. This was right below the gold-domed St. Jude ALSAC Pavilion.I kept walking, and I was finding stalactites and stalagmites — years of build-up from oils and materials that drained from the streets above. I’m sure there’s a scientific name for this manmade gook! The only light came through the ‘pick holes’ of the manhole covers above. I saw bottles, stones, a few paper cups or cans — but it is cleaner down there than it is up top because the bayou is always flushing itself out — one spider, no snakes, no rats, eleven cockroaches, and two crickets — and I recorded one of them.” About three hours later, Ogle was getting angry. There was no easy way out for him at this point. But then, a big find. “Finally, I reach the underpinnings of the Memphis- Charleston Railway,” he says. “It is the point in 1857 where the railroad connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River for the first time in American history.” Ogle pulled out his spray paint, and he marked the time at 4:44 p.m. Then he turned around and saw a spray-painted mark similar to his own. “Uh oh,” he laughs. “A ghost followed me!” Continuing to move forward, Ogle noticed the passage narrowing. “So I started To duck walk, and I realized I was under AutoZone Park. A few hundred feet more, I started to find some Mardi-Gras-type bead strings snagged and dangling through a grate from the curb gutters, and I knew I was near Beale Street.” He could not, however, find a way out. At a spot he estimated was near the intersection of Gayoso and Union, Ogle sat down.I turned my lights out, and I said, ‘This is the dumbest thing I have ever done.’ I could walk back the way I came, but that was a couple of miles, and I was pretty tired. I could push up a manhole cover, but some of those covers weigh more than 100 pounds. I had no exit strategy because I had expected just to walk right out at the Gibson Guitar Factory.” The manhole seemed his best option for escaping his current travels, so Ogle kept looking — ironically — above him. He finally found a manhole that he was fairly sure led to a sidewalk. “Sticking my head up in a street and getting run over by a truck would really be the dumbest thing I have ever done!” But Ogle climbed up some rebar ladder rungs, about 12 feet. He placed his hands on the manhole cover and pushed. He couldn’t help noting that it was a William C. Ellis manhole cover, as he climbed out and stood at Fourth and Gayoso, ironically ending his bayou adventure at the same-named street.“Also, a nice surprise because it was manhole covers that got me into all this,” he says, “so how ironic that the one random cover I pushed up to freedom was a ‘local’ William C. Ellis Foundry, located only five blocks away behind the Orpheum Theatre.” A cluster of people looked at him like he was crazy, as he kissed the manhole cover, said hello, and headed off into a fine autumn afternoon. Jimmy Ogle Talks & Tours, 604-5002, jimmyogle.com.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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