MAXWELL:  The Elvis mojo on me

8/10/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Well, another anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley is approaching. Fearing the worst, I am writing this column before Aug. 16. I do not know if I will survive this event.

Like other Americans who remember what they were doing when, say, President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, I recall exactly what I was doing on Aug. 16, 1977, when Elvis swiveled his hips for the last time.

A graduate student in African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I had returned that morning from a year’s study in Nigeria. Several classmates and I met at the Circus Bar to celebrate. The Circus was a working-class joint frequented mostly by old white men.

We university types found the place chic. After I walked inside, a man, hunched over a pitcher of beer, looked me in the eye and said: “It’s terrible, isn’t it, buddy? The King is dead.”

“The President is dead?” I asked.

“No, buddy, The King _ Elvis Presley _ is dead.”

I laughed.

“Hey, grandpa, blacks don’t give a damn about Elvis Presley. He stole our music, and he is an _ .”

Before I could fill in the blank, the old white man had punched me on the jaw, sending me against the pool table.

As I regained my balance, he grabbed me in a bear hug. Amazed at the strength of his bony arms, I felt if I were in a fight for my life. On top of that, he was reeling off some rough racial epithets. The old man’s pals also attacked me with pool sticks, bites and kicks.

My schoolmates, refusing to intervene, convulsed with laughter. Afraid of serious injury, I worked over my attackers with a bar stool. Needless to say, I was arrested for disturbing the peace, destroying private property, assault and a host of related charges.

At my arraignment, the judge and my public defender could not stop laughing. After I pleaded innocent to the charges, the judge brought me and my five victims into his chamber. There, he listened to my story. He could not keep a straight face. Because the old man, 78, had hit me first, the judge dropped the most serious charges, but I had to pay $190 for the property I had destroyed.

As I left his chamber, the judge warned me to pick on someone my own age next time. He winked. I laughed. Outside, the old man gave me a “bird.”

Please understand that this column is not as much about Elvis or my barroom encounter as it is about the bad luck I have experienced _ or imagined to have experienced _ each Aug. 16 since his death. I am convinced that someone has put an Elvis mojo on me.

The first year after Elvis died, my car was stolen. The police found it, but enough damage had been done to it to cost me a bundle. The next year, my Harley’s engine seized. And in 1980, I was living in Fort Lauderdale when I was fired from a great part-time job for not snitching on a colleague.

On the next four anniversaries, I had a dinghy to sink, a manuscript to be rejected, an editor to scream at me for missing my deadline and a magazine for which I freelanced to go bankrupt.

In 1985, a friend suggested that I could break the curse by visiting Graceland, Elvis’ celebrated home in Memphis.

I went there and found myself among crazies. Passing through the immense white columns and into the drawing room, I was disappointed. I realized that Elvis’ tassels, porcelain bric-a-brac, red velour furniture, paintings and gadgets, money, fame, power and beautiful women had not protected him and certainly would not protect me.

Alas, my voyage to Graceland changed nothing, except perhaps to convince me that the prince of “rockabilly” was pure a weirdo.

Bad stuff continues to happen to me. But the most chilling incident occurred in 1991, when I was a college teacher and was writing a weekly column for the Gainesville Sun. A few days before Aug. 16, I was packing for a week’s vacation in Nassawadox, a farming town on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

I became so ill that I almost postponed the trip. And besides, meteorologists were saying that tropical storm Bob might hit the Southeast _ somewhere. After learning that Bob was heading out to sea, however, I telephoned my companion, and we hit the road.

Settling into our motel in Nassawadox on the evening of Aug. 15, we learned that Bob had been upgraded to a hurricane. The next morning, I felt foreboding. On television, CNN showed a morose Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been on a peace mission to the Crimea, returning to a coup d’etat. Boris Yeltsin appeared sober for the first time in months.

When I went out for the Virginian Pilot, the fury of hurricane Bob was all around. A light pole snapped. Raindrops pelted my face. Wind gusts howled among the trees and power lines.

The sky grew as black as a boot.

“We should’ve stayed the hell in Florida,” I said, crawling back into bed. I realized anew that the date was Aug. 16.

I do not want to think of what will happen this year. But as a friend suggested, I should ignore the bad things.

“Just keep track of the good things,” she said. “All that bad stuff is coincidence. Bad things happen to people every day of the week. They just don’t think about it or make it mean something.”