I was working on another story when some sadness hit my life. Local restaurateur and bar owner Russell George was found dead Monday afternoon, in the upstairs of his beloved Earnestine and Hazel's. Russell apparently after a long illness and bout with depression that plagued him for years, took his own exit out of our world.
I met Russell in early 2001. I walked into his bar to hopefully do some exploring and per chance to capture one its famous spirits on film. Russell began telling me the immense history of the building and neighborhood and how his only desire was to keep the heart and soul of his building as it was in the beginning. So many in his field completely changed the look of their downtown structures to fit into a more "trendy" neighborhood experience. Not Russell. He didn't change a thing. After a few hours of listening to his tales and jokes, I was hooked. Not just on the famous Earnestine and Hazel's, a former drug store and brothel, but on Russell, the kind and gentle soul that I would call my friend for many years. Russell was famous for his people skills and his bartending prowess, but few may know that he also owned a heart of gold, pure gold. It was not rare for a homeless person to enter his dwelling to seek some refuge from the mean streets of Memphis or to seek shelter from one of our famous August heat waves. It was equally common for Russell to fix his homeless patrons one his legendary "soul burgers" and give them a cold brew to wash it down with. This was the kind of genuine angel that lived among us on Main street. Russell was a Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus, adhering to one of God's most precious instructions, to care for "those who are the least of these." Above all of his accomplishments in business and fame, Russell George was a good and decent man.
The first time I asked Russell if we could film into the late hours of the night in his bar, He handed me the keys to his business and said "'lock up my friend." No questions asked, he just instantly trusted me. I remember being blown away at the generosity and trust, but for Russell, this was just how he operated. He still believed that a man was as good as his word and he prefered handshakes over contracts. Over the many years of our friendship I was able to bring several nationally televised programs to film episodes in his bar. For him it was not only a chance to make a little money, but he got to do what he loved best, tell his ghost stories. A film crew from the Fine Living Network® sat in awe as he spun tales of woeful spirits that refused to leave Earnestine and Hazel's, at one point forgetting they were still rolling cameras. They just couldn't take their eyes and ears away from this gentle soul. He had that effect on strangers. Strangers fell in love at his hole-in-the-wall bar.
Russell battled a long time with Cancer and depression. Both equally fearsome foes. No one can judge when someone has fought long and hard enough. No one can say when enough is enough. For Russell, his time on earth was enough. He took his own exit. Many people will judge him harshly for making this decision, but I cannot fault him. When a person commits suicide, usually they are telling the world in the loudest voice possible, "I want off this ride!" The selfish part of my soul is angry that he didn't reach out when we spoke last month. But again, this was his choice and I can find peace knowing that he is no longer in pain. I find solace that he is free to roam the universe in the company of friends and angels. The Vince Gill song that we played at my grandma's funeral is so fitting in his case. "Go rest high on that mountain" is song that Vince wrote when his brother committed suicide. Vince turned his anger and loss into a song that reverberates with my soul today.
As we mourn the loss of a Memphis icon, we are comforted by knowing that all is well with his soul. Russell George is as light as feathers from an angel's wing. His soul is in the company of saints and heroes, of friends and family. I am at peace knowing that his essence soars with eagles today. My friend I will miss your laughter and your smile but I know we shall meet again. May the afterlife grant to you peace and comfort that this world could not give. May you always walk in sunshine. So long Russell George and thank you for being my friend.
Copyright©2013 Michael Einspanjer
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