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Birney Imes: Lost art


Birney Imes



Friday afternoon around 1:30 a friend and I stood in the middle of the intersection of Seventh Avenue North and 15th Street. We had just finished fried chicken plate lunches at Helen's, and were enjoying being out in the warm sunshine. As we talked, two brick masons worked on new crosswalks at the intersection. 


My companion, David Moore, was in town for a gig the night before at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. Though an accomplished drummer and pianist, the Rosedale native elicits his own music from instruments he's made of scavenged wood, piano wire and metal shards. He sings and taps the strings with wooden mallets. The sound, best described as ethereal, is equal parts hammered dulcimer and harpsichord. 


Had the burghers of Bremen not been able to find a pied piper, David could have done the job. Listeners are mesmerized by his music. He calls the instrument he played at the RAC a schizoid zither. 


There is something inexplicably satisfying about watching a skilled bricklayer at work. The men we were watching were younger than one normally sees in this profession some say is a dying art. The bricklayers seemed happy to talk about their craft as they chipped away on the second of four crosswalks on Seventh Avenue. 


Kirk Hicks, as a child, lived in a trailer on 23rd Street North near Hughes School. His father worked construction and his mother was a cook, most recently for Norfleet Reichle at Fleet's Eats. Hicks didn't have to go much farther than his front yard to discover his life's work. As a young boy he watched for hours as bricklayers added a library to the school across the street. 


An impatient and disinterested student, Hicks dropped out of the eighth grade at Caledonia. 


"All he ever wanted to do was become a bricklayer," remembers Louise Jordan, Hicks' mother. 


As a dropout, Hicks, who is now 42, could have ended up on a street corner with nothing to do but get in trouble. His dream sustained him. 


Through the state's department of employment, he enrolled in Mississippi Job Corps, a residential program open to young people 16 to 24 that provides hands-on career technical training and help with attaining a GED. 


"He went to Job Corps (in Jackson) and did good," remembers Jordan. Afterward Hicks enrolled at EMCC at Mayhew for additional training. He's since worked for different contractors. 


"He doesn't look at the paycheck, he looks at the work he does," Louise Jordan said about her son. 


His employer for the Seventh Avenue job is Dennis Jackson, a soft-spoken 38-year-old, who has been putting cement on bricks since he was 13 or 14. Dennis grew up in Jackson in a bricklaying family. 


About 14 years ago he moved to Louisville where he owns a construction business and serves as associate pastor for Unity Church. 


"You have to be diversified and open to change," Jackson said about his work. "In masonry there is always something new to learn." 


Late Friday afternoon I returned to the intersection to talk with Jackson and Hicks. Finished for the day, the men seemed to have a weary contentment about them. We leaned against Jackson's pickup and talked under a sky streaked yellow by the late afternoon sun. 


As we talked, Columbus Middle School student Chris Harris approached and asked if we would like to buy a bar of the World's Best Chocolate. Harris said he was selling the candy for a beauty contest his baby sister was competing in at her daycare. 


Jackson pulled out a dollar and gave it to the boy. I followed suit. 


"Any of you want chocolate?" Jackson asked. We shook our heads. 


"Why don't you bless someone with mine," Jackson said to the boy selling chocolate. 


We talked a bit longer and then said good-bye. 


As I walked to my car, Kirk Hicks yelled. "You got my number. Call me when you need some brick work." 


The men said they expect to be working on Seventh Avenue through the month of January. I don't think they would mind if you wanted to watch.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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