The last little leg of my trip with my mom was in Tennessee - Memphis and Nashville. My mom offered to drive the hour and a half from Oxford to Memphis. The road had finally taken it’s toll on my body and I’d had some sort of muscle something or other that prevented me from turning my neck without a severe shooting pain. Basically, grandma here needed a rest from the driver’s seat.
I didn’t research Memphis as much as I should have and we ended up staying at a hotel downtown. I didn’t realize there were cooler neighborhoods where we could have spent our time until our last day there, so we were pretty much in the tourist mecca of Memphis. It wasn’t terrible, though - definitely within walking distance of several things.
Our first evening, I left my mom for a bit to walk around the Memphis Park and watched the sun set over the Mississippi River. After that, my mom and I got out into the thick of it (literally - it was so goddamn hot in Memphis, I must have lost 5 pounds in water weight just standing still) and made our way to Beale Street. This place has a history, arguably one of the more famous streets in American music really, but, as are most storied things nowadays, it’s been turned into a tourist trap. It actually reminded me a lot of Sixth Street in Austin - lots of neon, the street was closed off so drunk tourists wouldn’t get hit by cars and sue the city, lots of folks yelling out music and shot specials, and some decent, but not mind-blowing music. There aren’t very many places that charge a cover, but they’ll instead charge a pretty penny for a beer. We listened to a few acts here and there, drank a few NYC-priced beers, and then decided to move on. We walked our way on down Main Street. At night, it looks like a pretty deserted place. It wasn’t until we drove by the next day when I realized that it’s actually a pretty up and coming business area. But at 9:30pm on a Monday, it was just dead. We walked the length of it a good bit, appreciating the old buildings, until we arrived at Earnestine and Hazel’s. This dive bar used to be a brothel back in the day (if these walls could moan) and reopened in 1992 to serve up cold beers, a sweet jukebox, and incredible Soul Burgers. Being that it was a Monday night, the place was pretty dead, but it had good bones. Just like with The Manhattan Cafe in Athens, Georgia, I was able to walk in here and know that it was a great dive bar without really being able to describe why. We had a couple of Miller High Lifes, played some choice tunes on the jukebox (shout out to mom for putting Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” on in the number one slot), and shared one of their famed burgers.
On the way back to the hotel, we made a slight detour to see The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It is now the site of the Civil Rights Museum, which I desperately wanted to visit, but it just didn’t happen on this trip because of timing. It was surreal to be standing across the street from this place that played such an important role in America’s history and in the Civil Rights movement, especially having just come from the Delta and having a really difficult time grappling with the region.
For our only full day in Memphis, we made a terrible mistake. After a lot of debate, my mom and I went to Graceland. Despite being on the fence about going, Facebook damn near ex-communicated me for balking so we were guilted into making our way to The King’s mansion. I was hoping we could make it a quick trip and still get to Sun or Stax before we needing to be at The Peabody. That didn’t end up being the case, though, and we spent most of the day there. Even though it was a Tuesday, EVERY GODDAMN PERSON IN AMERICA decided to check out Graceland and we didn’t get a tour of the house until 2pm. While we waited, we ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich (okay, that was good…real good), strolled through the museum dedicated to Elvis’ cars, and another area where photos of him were displayed along with some of his stage wear. The cars were cool, sure, and so were his costumes. The fine details of incredibly over-the-top jumpsuits were pretty neat to see up close. But, let’s be real. The most entertaining thing we saw while we were waiting for our tour to start were the people. I mean, all walks of life, y’all. Plenty of bikers, lots of families with six or seven kids, the retiree set, foreigners, all different ethnicities, sometimes a combination of a few of the above. That was the one thing I thought was pretty fascinating - people of all kinds come from all over to worship at the altar of Elvis Presley. Personally, I’ve never been an Elvis fan. His music never struck me much, though I respect him for the mark he made on the history of music. Perhaps that’s why I just didn’t get Graceland. Is it weird? Sure. And is it interesting to walk through the hallways where the Presley family lived, trying to imagine what it was like to live a life so inundated with exposure? Yea, I guess you could say that, too. And, was the juxtaposition of John Stamos’ voice narration of the tour against this crazy house kind of hilarious? Well, of course it was. To me, though, Graceland looked like it was created out of the need to fill some kind of void, probably fueled to some extent by pills and booze. So, in all honesty, I left feeling kind of sad. I mean, the man died at 42 from a heart attack that was spurred by his terrible prescription pill addiction and that house of excess seemed like a component of that. I guess you could say I’m glad we went so that it’s checked off the list, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have definitely rather spent my time and money at the Stax and Sun museums (for the record, if the Civil Rights museum had been open that day, I would have been beyond pissed to have missed that in lieu of Graceland).
Now, here are several photos of Graceland because I feel like maybe this will give some of you joy and/or save others of you some cash.
Once we left, we didn’t have much time before needing to be at The Peabody hotel for the famed parade of the ducks. But, we did have enough time to stop by Gus’s Fried Chicken to grab a late lunch to go and eat it in the car. Our fingers were greasy from the chicken and fried green tomatoes, but that quick meal stood out as one of the best of the South. My mom grabbed us a spot in the hotel lobby while I went back to change into not an atrocious tourist outfit (shorts and Nikes - mea culpa) and I met her back at The Peabody just in time to watch the spectacle. The story goes that in the 30s,, the manager of The Peabody brought his three live call ducks back to the hotel after a weekend of hunting. He and his buddy got liquored up pretty good and forgot about them until the next morning when he awoke to find them swimming in the lobby fountain under the gawking gaze of the rich hotel guests. He was terribly embarrassed and quickly rushed to get them out, but the guests objected and loved watching them bathe in the fountain. And so they stayed. In the 1940s, Edward Pembroke, who had been an animal trainer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in a previous life, was working as a bellman at the hotel and asked if he might be able to train them to march to and from the fountain every morning and afternoon. He was successful and ever since this has been a pretty notable thing to see in Memphis. Man, talk about job security. Pembroke worked as “Duckmaster” at The Peabody until 1991 and since there have been just four other Duckmasters. It was a real scene for the walking of the ducks, even on a Tuesday. My mom barely got us a decent viewing spot. But we were able to watch the pomp and circumstance, hear the story of how the duck situation came to be, and then watch these five mallards waddle single file along the red carpet and into the hotel’s elevator amongst a million flashing camera bulbs and excited children. It was cool to see and the bourbon I had after at the hotel bar was a real nice bookend.
That evening my mom went back to the hotel to recuperate from the day and I went over to my friends Sue and Degal’s place for dinner. Sue and Degal are friends from New York who moved down to the area about three years ago when Degal got an academic position at the University of Mississippi’s political science department. It was great to catch up for a bit, hang out with their son and meet their daughter, see their place in Memphis, and sample some of Degal’s newly acquired cooking skills (the homemade blueberry marscapone ice cream was the stuff of dreams).
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and decided to stop by this vintage/vintage-inspired clothing store we saw on South Main Street a few nights before. This was where I found out about the good stuff of Memphis. The manager, Vera Stanfield, and I chatted for a bit about the city. She is originally from Mobile and moved to Memphis about seven years ago with her husband who was from the area. She told me how the city was really trying to do some great stuff to revitalize itself and that the cool areas in town were on the eastern side of things. We talked a bit about Nashville and how there's a real division amongst folks who love Nashville and those for Memphis. I liked what she had to say and was frustrated that we didn’t have more time in the city to really check out the cool stuff they were doing. From what she told me, Memphis seemed like it was more on the come up, which is what I’m interested in finding in a city - a place that isn’t overly done up and where there is still some grit and a room for folks to come in to help it along. A place where folks can do things and be a part of the community. My mom and I drove around in the neighborhoods she mentioned and I saw what she meant. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but recognize parts of Brooklyn - the cupcake shop, the cocktail bars, the gentrification. It made me wonder if that is where this country is headed. The great stuff about a city is a copy of what Brooklyn dictates as cool.
I was recently listening to “Death, Sex, and Money,” my favorite podcast of late, where they interviewed five people about Katrina, their stories of the storm, and the rebuilding of New Orleans. The first episode was with a woman by the name of Terri Coleman. She was just 19 when Katrina hit and since then she’s moved back, gotten married, had three children, and teaches at Dillard University. She made a really valid point about the hipsters that have moved into New Orleans since Katrina. She likes what they bring - fancy taco trucks, access to kale (“I like kale”), dogs, cool pants, bike lanes. But what she’s afraid will be lost with this influx of cool to the city is the tiny parts of culture that make New Orleans what it is. Essentially, what gentrification does to any neighborhood or city. It brings in things that folks might not have had access to before and enjoy, but it also pushes out the idiosyncrasies that make a neighborhood what it is and what it has been for years. Once that is lost, it just becomes a vanillafication, so to speak.
When I was in Park Slope, I lived in a building with a woman who’d been there for 26 years. She remembers what the neighborhood used to be like, when there was crime galore and prostitutes who’d hang out across Fourth Avenue awaiting lonely truck drivers who’d come along looking for 15 minutes of connection. When our building was abruptly sold last Fall and the new landlord increased her rent three times what she’d been paying, she was forced to leave with her teenage son, regroup, and figure out a new plan. She had to leave her home and the only place her son knew. Perhaps it was for the best as she had been vacillating back and forth about leaving to find a new apartment so they could get a dog and have a more comfortable living situation. But regardless, she was forced out. And with that, a part of the old neighborhood, one of its idiosyncrasies, was also gone.
I am not naive in thinking I am not a part of gentrification. I like kale. I like tacos. I’m into a good coffee shop from time to time. Organic shit is nice to eat. And, really, if we’re being honest, I’d probably prefer to live in a neighborhood like that than one where the amenities are scarce. But, I am cognizant of what the cost of those amenities are and so many people are not. What I want more than anything is to be a part of a community, to make a difference and an impact in some way. I realize, though, that my idea of what an impact on a community is might be different from those who have actually been a part of that community for years, sometimes their whole life. And maybe that’s where the difference between gentrification and being a part of a community comes in - it’s about listening, being respectful, and not trying to erase what so many people have spent years building.
Memphis was the sweatiest place I’d been so far, but I liked its character. Much like many of my favorite bars, it had good bones. Two nights was not enough time at all and I have it in my mind’s eye to come back and learn more about what’s going on there.