The Diaries: Memphis, some blues and rock
Open my eyes as we exit the freeway and into the historic main street of Tupelo, otherwise known and marketed as Elvis Presley’s birthplace.
A welcome coincidence, had meant to visit but was hesitant, after having spent two days in small town Alabama, to ask Redrik to stop there – a balance must be found.
We enter one of the bar-cafes. Do some work there. Talk to the bartender. She’s had her downs. Now on her way back up. Stories of relationships, stories of life…
“You have to watch for yourself. I realized I was giving too much to others. That I had to look out for myself more.”
There’s a mid-aged man who downs one or two drinks and orders a pastrami sandwich. His face is slightly, somewhat youthfully, carved by drink. He wears a subtle, genuine smile, tinged with an I-don’t-know-what of irredeemable sadness.
The guy goes to the restroom.
“Weird guy,” says the waitress. “Poor guy.”
I let her do the talking.
“He used to work for the power company.”
“He was working on a ladder on some kind of electric pole and got struck by lightning. He basically died on the spot.”
Was she just talking to a ghost?
“He fell to the ground. And the ladder fell on him and started his heart back up.”
“Wow. That’s… unbelievable. It’s the worst of luck and the best of it all in one go.”
“I know. He stayed in hospital for a while and then got out. But I don’t think he ever quite got back to being the same.”
“He does look, still under a shock of some sorts.”
Suddenly the guy’s mixed demeanor makes sense, I feel bad for attributing it to alcohol. He may as well have some.
Perhaps some fates deserve a break more than others.
“Weirdest part of the story, I’ve known him for a while now and not once did he tell me the story. I learned it from a co-worker.”
“Just doesn’t want to talk about it I guess.”
Swing by Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo: a house no larger than many people’s living rooms. To think that the King was born here and grew (literally too) to where he did. The contrast with Graceland in Memphis will be the more fascinating.
Drive into Memphis, it’s evening by the time we get there. City center is crowded. There’s a Grizzlies game. A concert’s last tunes. A motorbike show on the main tourist street, Beale.
We have dinner overlooking a live rock band. Redrik orders a basket of fried shrimp, I have some chili cheese fries.
“This is cool.”
“Yeah, it is.”
Drive around and finally settle to sleep in car downtown. At 3am the flashing blue light of a police car awakens us.
“What’s this all about.”
Soon, after, another police car pulls up. The blue lights churn round and round.
“I don’t think it’s for us.”
The cops are simply having a nocturnal chit-chat, in the middle of the street.
Morning walk, to the old main street, red and green streetcars, past The Arcade, where they shot scenes for Mystery Train and Walk the Line among others. Then back along the Mississippi to the pyramid.
I knock on the window and startle Redrik.
“Time to wake up.”
“Every morning. Every f**ing morning.”
“Come on, time to get up. There’s a whole world out there. I’ll take you get some good breakfast.”
We park in front of the Arcade.
A cop in uniform strolls down the street lackadaisically, holding hands with his girlfriend, boasting the grin of a newly devirgnized boy. Don’t recall seeing that before.
Breakfast at the Arcade.
I now realize I’m not entirely sure of the sequence of events that followed in the next 48h. The following may partly explain why.
Later. We get drunk by the pyramid. “Working” in the backyard of a restaurant. The nearby liquor store has a special on Jack Daniels flasks. That doesn’t explain how early it is. A bum comes along.
After a while, he gets to leave, but not before giving me a cheek-to-head hug.
Redrik laughs “Can’t believe he gave you a hug. Kinda gross.”
“Maybe a bit.”
“I need to tell you something. There’s a good chance we got the *.”
“The *? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Here goes.” And so he tells me.
Not this. Not now. The *.
Do some research. Well – everything seems alright for now. We leave it at that. More on this later.
I think we end up in the Hooters near Beale street – which is a first for both of us. Somehow I’ve managed to miss out on this American staple for the last 18,000 miles. No, that must’ve been the day after. Maybe not.
Ask the waitress if it might be possible to interview her or one of her colleagues for the project. A ‘Hooters girl’ would be a welcome addition to the increasingly diverse roster of interviewees. I suspect corporate policy doesn’t allow it though. Wouldn’t want to get anybody in trouble. But if ever…
Happy to see she doesn’t gag at the sheer view of our unshaved, disheveled faces. Three and half weeks on the road haven’t turned us into completely wild monsters. Not yet. Maybe she’s just nice.
On the deck of the minimalist establishment, a guy wearing a Hooters T-shirt – was it a hoodie – and headset tucked on his shoulders, talks to us.
In a whispering, inaudible voice. Mumble-mumble. Something about his uncle. This Thing of Ours. A million dollars. Does he work here? No. Just got into town. Looking for a job?
“Have you ever heard someone talk so low?”
“Heard? I wasn’t even sure he intended to talk to us.”
The waitress returns. She asked her colleagues and the bartender seemed like she was OK. Unfortunately a manager informed her of the predictable Rule.
“Thanks for asking.” Too bad.
Memphis looks sad that night, washed over by rainfall. Nothing worse than scintillating neon lights and nobody around to give them the slightest purpose. We circle around and stop by the Peabody, where a party rages a-top of the world.
@ Alannah’s Breakfast Café Third day in Memphis.
Both fell asleep from exhaustion at the foot of the Peabody hotel, where electro music boomed and raved from the rooftop, marking the beginning of summer festivities.
Awoke past midnight, Redrik parched.
Took a few wrong turns in search for an open grocery store or gas station, and ended up on a gravel road on the other side of the Mississippi, in Arkansas (first time there!).
Return to Memphis, venture out onto the 2nd floor wooden deck of a quiet building.
The clouds clear.
Deck, starry abode.
Discover at 4:30am, as the lights switch on, that this is someone’s front door. Oops. Move over to nearby, till 6:30, the sun warming to a new day.
Extract backpack and camera from the car, where Redrik is passed out on the back seat, entangled in digital paraphernalia.
Sit down for breakfast at Alannah’s surrounded by patrons attending the 77th Annual Meeting for American Archaeology.
Alannah’s is for real, South! The waitress can’t be bothered to hurry. But when she comes around, she carries a mound of fried chicken & waffles, catfish & grits, pork chops on eggs – a hearty, customary breakfast.
Walk around more, sit by the courthouse sun, do some work there.
Chinese buffet downtown. Later, check out Graceland. The entrance. Find out the ticket is $35 plus.
“I think I’ll pass.”
I’m tempted to do the same. But can hardly miss out on this iconic US attraction. How many times have I heard that along the trip? “If you go to Memphis, make sure you check out Elvis’ mansion.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow.” The day’s clouding up anyway.
Outside the city center, Memphis’ neighborhoods present a different picture: rows of isolated low-income housing, patches of rubble and weeds, closed shops and factories.
Beale street seems at a standstill. The weather again.
“Told you we’d feel like we’d seen it enough after just a few days.”
“Yeah, sure enough.”
The goods of a place, its juices, are better found in the nooks and dives. We’re also tired.
Go to a nearby bar, its walls decorated with hundreds of painted dishes. Some live music. Get a phone call from someone stressed out, who needs some reassurance, some advisory.
It rains. The car is parked under a structure.
Redrik returns to the car. He’s no longer in for a night out. An ash cloud on his face. What happened? And this project. And now the *. Another night in the car… that’ll solve things.
In the morning dozens of Corvettes are lined up on Beale street for an annual meet. Wander around, interviews, then head to Graceland. Redrik resolves to get more rest in the car while I go about.
Procession, literally, in queue, snaking through the King’s couches, kitchen sink and stairwells, one after the other. Gracefully.
The line slows as we near the gravesite, where Elvis rests with his family. The procession of fans leaves mournfully.
Check out the airplanes and automobiles, and we return to town. The Corvette show rages on. Sunshine delivers its opening lines. Visitors brisk by cheerfully. Have a hot dog.
Time to move on.
At some point during our stay in Memphis I received an automated phone call from the bank: “Due to suspicious activity, your debit card’s information may have been compromised. We are forced to cancel your debit card.”
When calling back and requesting the assistance of a human being, got little extra information, other than the confirmation of the card’s cancellation in two weeks, and that a new one would be sent to an address in New York.
One problem at a time. And thus we drove to Little Rock, Arkansas.