RIP Miss Shirley

Recently, I found out that Miss Shirley, the bartender at one of Memphis’ most infamous dive bars The Lamplighter passed away after a battle with cancer. Shirley was one of the kindest individuals that I have ever met, and the news of her death is very hard to take.

If you have never step foot in the Lamplighter, imagine someone’s dingy basement, and you get a pretty good idea of the interior. There is a dusty couch, fake panel walls, and lots and lots of smoke. The beer is cheap, and the jukebox is stocked with actual `45 records. The pool table is a steal at only 50 cents, even though there is a rule of no trick shots. There are only about three beers available, with Pabst the only one on tap. The bar is truly an unique character of it’s own, but without Shirley, it will seem quite empty.

For me, Shirley was the heart of the Lamplighter. When you entered the bar, Shirley would always greet you with a smile and immediately serve you your beer before you even had time to ask for it. No matter how many people came through those doors, she always remembered which beer you liked the best. It was more than a parlor trick. Shirley knew her clientele and treated them as friends, happy that they had stopped on by.

When I was single, the Lamplighter was like a second home. My buddy Brad and I would head to the bar, order a burger, and watch the Memphis Grizzlies on their cheap television set. When it was halftime, we would play game after game of pool. Sometimes we would have too many beers and start acting a fool, but Shirley was not the judging type. She understood the faults of her customers and yet she always greeted them back with a smile.

Shirley was a large person. Sure, size wise. But, more so because she could command a room without saying a word. You always knew that you were in her world. She was quiet, but when it was slow, she could always be steered into a conversation. My favorite story was when she threw out legendary photographer William Eggleston on the street for being unruly. When she told us the story, she wasn’t bragging. She didn’t even bring it up. Brad and I had heard the legends and wanted to know if it was true. It was. However, when she recalled the evening, she didn’t seem angry just a sense of disappointment. Still, what a sight that must have been!

Shirley had rules. In fact, there was a plaque over the bar with “Shirley Sez” guidelines. Most importantly, you did not cuss. I suppose Shirley figured that once you started cussing, you became agitated, and there was no good in that. If someone did start swearing, Shirley would pull out a hard stick from behind the bar and smack it on the counter, letting the patron know that when you are in Shirley’s bar you better play by her rules. I never saw her use that stick on anyone, but I never doubted that she would have.

One of the best kept secrets of Memphis is the burger at the Lamplighter, known better as the Shirley Burger. I don’t know what she did, but Shirley never failed at making the tastiest burger I have ever tasted. It was the perfect mixture of flavor, juice, and grease. I took a photo of it on one of my last trips to the Lamplighter:

The only thing about ordering food was that Shirley would have to go to the kitchen in the back room. Even though she could still see the front door from there, she would have to give up tending bar since her shift was always a lone one. So, we would feel guilty and often delay ordering even though our bellies were rumbling. When Shirley found out that we really wanted food but didn’t say anything, she would shrug us off as being silly and proceed to get out the ground chuck and buns. Before it was done cooking, she would bring over the condiments getting you more and more eager. When the food finally arrived, you tried to pace yourself because you always knew it would be gone too fast.

My most memorable night at the Lamplighter was when my buddy Brett got married. His first stop after tying the knot was to pay Shirley a visit and share the good news. Instead of sitting at the bar, we got a table. Later, Brett told me that Joaquin Phoenix, who was in town filming Walk the Line, was hanging out one table over with his entourage. I was so caught up in the moment, I didn’t even notice. Shirley brought us over a round of beer, and said that the first round was on her. I got up and put a quarter in the jukebox. The happy couple danced in the middle of the bar as Shirley watched on with a smile.

While I was at the bar one night waiting for Brad, I was suddenly brought into a discussion with with a few of the patrons around the counter. One of the regulars pointed at me and stated, “He knows. He’s a regular.” It was at that moment that I figured I might be spending too much time in a bar. Not long after that, I started dating Apryl, and I didn’t have the same desire to hang out in a dark, cavernous room. Even so, I’m happy to say that I did take Apryl to meet Shirley. Anytime I visited without Apryl after that, Shirley would go on about that cute redhead.

One of the last times I saw Shirley was when I was back home visiting from Chicago. She was very excited to hear that Apryl and I had gotten married. Even though she was never one for pictures, she did amuse with the photo you see at the top of this post.

For many, Miss Shirley was seen as a motherly figure. So with her passing, it’s like losing a member of the family. I completely understand that. On top of that, I feel like it’s a closure to a part of my life. Even though I can step foot in the Lamplighter again, it won’t feel like I’m coming home. Shirley made that possible.

Read the Commercial Appeal article. (If you note that I didn’t read this article before I wrote this post, you’ll realize that Shirley made lasting impressions on others that were very similar to mine.)

3 Responses to “RIP Miss Shirley”

  1. Marmee says:

    That is the sweetest tribute that I have ever read. Thanks for sharing. I wish I had know her.

  2. Dad says:

    Sorry for your loss and a Memphis loss. I never did visit there but I remember you telling me about it and Shirley-Love Dad

  3. Hayden says:

    Thank you.

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