You can go home again
Editor’s note: West Memphis may not be on most people’s radars as a destination, but those who live there know its charms. A series of profiles by West Memphian Amber Carswell certainly charmed us, so much so that we’ve made them our Valentine’s week love letters to our neighbors across the river.
Photography by Breezy Lucia
It was the muted Fox News playing in the background of Sicily’s in West Memphis that put me on alert, its lurid visage like a scalding police spotlight on my assorted liberal hippie agendas.
Strangely, it was also what felt most like home.
You know what I mean: not the home illuminated with the golden haze of 15 years of nostalgia, but the real home of 600 people you picked up and left all those years ago, swearing your allegiance to forward-thinking and city life; the one where your early liberal tendencies (“Was I born this way?” you wonder along with Lady Gaga) developed under the contrived outrage of Rush Limbaugh in your parent’s car and the spiteful eye of Bill O’Reilly on your parent’s television. Walking into Sicily’s is like coming home, now a married lesbian (less of a surprise than even your liberalism to the folks), and walking into the pizza place of your youth.
Perhaps that’s too personal to be universal, but the resemblance is uncanny.
Sicily’s, like the tiny pizza joint I grew up with, is a true family operation with three generations at work, children surreptitiously playing swords with pool cues behind the worn pool tables, and abundant and cheap domestic beer.
The pizza recipe is so similar that I wonder fleetingly if I am distantly related to every person in this forgotten town, too.
Living in West Memphis generally feels like this, once you get past the brutal facade of the truck stops and casino parking lots. Crossing the river transports you to another dimension more than another state, and if you’re one of the millions of millennials who fled the rural settings of your youth, the setting is a familiar one. The walls of Sicily’s bear stickered inspirational quotes, urging you to “Live, Laugh, Love” and “Dance like no one’s watching,” commands in a lilting script visually confronted in the sitting room of every matron in my family.
For the record, I have never danced like no one’s watching (though I often roll my eyes like they’re not).
But about this pizza.
Owner Phil Albers had no restaurant experience when he purchased Sicily’s 17 years ago. We talked about his varied history, his time ranching cattle, driving a truck, the small dairy farms gone under in both our families’ pasts. “Then my wife got homesick, so we moved here,” he says with a wry grin, motioning beyond our booth to the essence of West Memphis beyond. His son worked at Sicily’s already and he told them about it being for sale. “Thought I could manage it in between truck driving shifts,” Phil says with a grimace, “and found out in the first week this ain’t a 24-hour-only kind of job.”
The effort pays off—if not in providing free time, then in the pleasure it brings people like me.
Sicily’s makes their pizza ingredients from scratch, and the first thing the Albers team did was to begin weighing ingredients to keep the dough and the sauces consistent.
But the menu hasn’t changed much in 17 years. Phil says, “My joke is that I came here and tried the handmade lasagna, and I liked it so much that I bought the whole restaurant.” He and his wife are there every weeknight and his son is still back in the kitchen. Even his high-school aged granddaughter waits on my table.
It’s why they’re closed weekends. “I can’t find someone who would do the job right,” he says, a phrase I heard from every family member of mine growing up. “I just can’t find good help,” which I suspect is more about the particularity and stubborn pride of the small business owner than the workforce, since chain restaurants have no problem finding the hired hand.
“My wife looks at every pizza going out, and she sends ‘em back if it ain’t right,” he says.
“‘That’s too dark,’ or ‘That looks wrong.’ If I wouldn’t serve it to my family, I sure wouldn’t serve it to anyone else.”
I ask him if he eats at other pizza places around Memphis. He says he does, but the quiet pride shows through his reluctance. “But I always end up disappointed because I’m comparing it to my pizza. I just like mine best.”
By this time, I’m trying to think of anything that I’ve enjoyed for 17 years in a row. And remember the Fox News? Neither did I at this point in our conversation. Mostly, I found my own considerable pretension deflated by the unassuming business model of doing right by others, setting boundaries on the weekends for family’s sake, by the homey booths of dark wood in diffuse light, and by this man sitting across from me who could’ve been my own conservative grandfather.
We keep hearing how our ideological divides are insurmountable, how we’re more deeply divided than ever in our society.
Liberals flee for the cities, the conservatives to the bunker, and all of us to the infinitely customizable bubbles of our own making. Comedian Bill Maher lamented recently in a New York Times interview, “I railed for years against the Fox News bubble, and that is as strong as ever, but I didn’t think it would get this bad on the left.”
And here I am in West Memphis at Sicily’s. The perfect pizza led us to something true: a hand reaching out to shake, despite the fixed chasms of political aisles and personal beliefs, to treat another person a little more like they’re family. When Phil does this, I notice my bubble starts to include him a little bit, too.
You can go home again. Start at Sicily’s some weeknight.
And, by the way, they mute the Fox News so you can enjoy the company.
108 Glen Bailey Drive
West Memphis, Arkansas 72301
Amber Carswell is an Episcopal priest who works in downtown Memphis. She lives across the river in West Memphis with her wife, two dogs and an unruly backyard garden. @carswell.amber
Breezy Lucia is a Memphis transplant from Kansas City, Missouri. She’s a queer photographer and filmmaker living in Midtown. When she’s not using a camera, she’s baking bread or making fermented beverages. @breezylucia