Saturday, November 14, 2009

A history of countries and beer, part 1

Nobody is entirely sure when beer was invented. In all likelihood, several thousand years ago, some grains probably got saturated by water and accidentally left to stew for a week or so. A caveman or a farmer or the dweller of a shanty town then tried this concoction and, shortly after ingestion, noticed that he felt pretty good, and suddenly wasn't so damn worried about everything. Reproductions of the experiment yielded the same results. Suddenly, we had societies full of hunters, gatherers, and, of course, brewers.

And so it went for thousands of years. Different flavors and styles were invented, but it was always the same general idea. Add water to grains, and wait. In a few weeks, some magic (actually, it was naturally occurring yeast, but the original name for yeast was "Godisgood". This is not a joke) made the mixture into beer. But the basic process was always the same.

That is, until 1845. In a region near Plzen, Germany, a farmer inadvertently left his beer fermenting in a cool, underground cave rather than in the farmhouse, which was the custom of the time. When he went to sample his beer, he discovered that he accidentally came up with a new style. This style was colder, more crisp, and more refreshing than the thicker ales that were customary. Naming the beer "Pilsner" after his home region, the beer quickly took off in popularity.

To properly envision the storm of unchecked popularity that the pilsner enjoyed, imagine this: What if, in the 1960's, when the Beatles rose to popularity, every form of music besides The Beatles was destroyed. This is what happened in Germany. The pilsner was so wildly popular that regions abandoned centuries-old styles in order to brew up the cold, refreshing beer. If you were German after 1845 you would be brewing up a pilsner. All you needed were some nice, cool caves to mix up a batch. The good news was that Germany had plenty of caves like this to go around. The bad news: in just three years, in 1848, the country was embroiled in a bitter civil war.

German idealists, fed up with their country, left in droves, seeking a new, better life. Some went to Canada, but around 6 million came to the United States. They brought their national principles and culture, including their brewing techniques and their zeal for the pilsner. All they needed were the right grains, and some nice, cool caves for the beer to rest in.

Exactly the kind of caves you can find underneath St. Louis, Missouri.

This made it the perfect location for a pilsner brewer, like Eberhard Anheuser to set up shop in 1852.

TOMORROW: PART 2

Population 3,147

The first few days on the road are glorious. Those days play out exactly as you would imagine. You sleep a fitful sleep, plagued not with the thoughts of a directionless day job awaiting you on the other side. Rather, this is a peaceful, restorative sleep, the likes of which usually only happen on a Friday evening, when only the impending sense of a languid Saturday lulls you into a deep rest.

In the morning, you awaken, confused for just a moment about what city you're in, where you are, and which friends you're about to share breakfast with. Through years of training, your brain naturally prompts you to roll over and get another 15 minutes of sleep. Then, suddenly, you remember that there are adventures to be had.

You bound out of bed and take a few moments to thank your friends for hosting you for the night. After a quick shower and breakfast, you head straight for the front door, eager to see what happens next.

On those original days, as soon as you walk out of the front door, you have a soft, emotional outburst. The second the sun hits your eyes, the full weight of realization hits you: today, there is nothing but freedom. There are no responsibilities besides the adventures of a man with nothing to accomplish. On those first days, when you meet the sun, your knees get weak and threaten to collapse, and you laugh. Nothing is funny. But you laugh all the same. It is not a deep, cathartic guffaw at something humorous. No. It's just...just a laugh. An expulsion of some weakly overjoyed...some free emotion.

Composing yourself, you get into your car, affix your sunglasses, and open your sun roof. Turn the ignition. Roll down the window. Set your left arm on the sill. Double check your directions.

Go.

-----

Something happens after the first nine days. Or, maybe it begins to happen before the ninth day, but that ninth day is when this creature rears it's head in it's most noticeable visage: Fatigue. There won't be any symptoms until the evening time, after a rich day's worth of story-gathering. But then, out of nowhere, you're just tired. But you push through, because everyone would kill for this opportunity. So you shake it off, and keep pushing on.

But each day grows a little worse. You become tired earlier and earlier in the day. You promised yourself that you wouldn't overdo caffeine anymore, but you don't have much of a choice. The cups of coffee become larger and more frequent. Each dose brings temporary relief, at the expense of your poor nervous system.

Then, after thirteen days, in Nashville, Illinois, it finally takes you down.

-----

This happened to me. I woke up on November 12th, 2009, after getting a hotel room one hour east of St. Louis. I had planned on visiting St. Louis and Springfield, Illinois that day, but my body -my mind- had different plans. I woke up and had to think for a couple of minutes about what day it was, and how long I had been driving the evening before (it was about five hours, more or less). Rolling out of bed, without showering, my legs carried the dead weight of the rest of my body to the truck stop next door. I ordered eggs and a biscuit.

From here, things went on autopilot.

I ordered a cup of coffee that I didn't touch. I ate my meal, though, and then watched myself float back to the hotel. Once inside, I heard a voice that sounded remarkably like mine request to stay in the hotel for another evening. That voice even mentioned the same room number that I stayed in the night before. The funny thing was, I don't recall making that decision. And yet, here I was- about to spend my second evening in Nashville, Illinois, population 3,147. They have a Hardees, and at least two gas stations.

Leaving the front desk, I watched myself saunter back to my hotel room from the evening before. I affixed the 'Do Not Disturb' sign to my doorknob, and fell onto the bed.

There I stayed until the next morning, when I awoke and felt, at long last, refreshed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hickory

The unfortunate side effect of the advent of country music in Nashville is that it vastly overshadows some of the rich history that the city has to offer. For instance, it was not until driving through that I learned that Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, lived in Nashville for a number of years. He rose to popularity as a Tennessee statesman and member of congress before ultimately winning the 1829 bid for the Presidency.

Now, I had the opportunity to visit Jackson's home- The Hermitage- earlier today. And there's nothing to be gleaned from the above paragraph that you can't get from any U.S. history book that's been published since, say, 1837- the year Jackson's presidency ended. But, here is what is fascinating about the entire story: At the time when Jackson was sent to attend congress, Tennessee was the farthest-reaching Western point of the United States. It was essentially a woefully underdeveloped outpost. Imagine, if you can, the idea of living in what basically amounted to a shanty-town, and having the opportunity to send one of your residents as a member of congress. Now, having a congressman represent the territory was odd enough as it was. Having a stranded frontiersman vie for the presidency just years later was completely and utterly unheard of.

But, that's what happened. Jackson, as it turns out, was essentially the first "Man of the People". The "Washington Elite", most notably Henry Clay, were absolutely terrified of the guy. He lived, very literally, on the edge. He was blue collar. He was a working man (or, at least, that's what his presidential campaigns would have you believe. He was still a landowner, a slave-owner, a General, and he had over 1,000 acres of land). In fact, not only was he the first "Washington Outsider" to run for the Presidency, but he was also the first ever politician to campaign for the Presidency. Fearing that some of his policies would harm his chances in the 1832 election, his supporters began a frenzy of creating political cartoons and spreading catch-phrases and slogans in across any media possible. I'll let you decide whether or not any of this was a blessing or a curse.

Here are some interesting facts I discovered about Andrew Jackson today:

- He destroyed the 2nd National Bank in order to defend a group of Americans who, later, would become the middle class. He did this in order to defend these Americans from getting exploited by rich citizens looking to get richer.

-He owned over 150 slaves and would not even broach the subject of abolishing slavery.

-He acquired Mississippi and Alabama through shrewd land deals. Michigan became a ratified state under his presidency.

-The acquisitions of Mississippi and Alabama led directly to the Trail of Tears, in which thousands of Cherokee Indians were forcefully evicted from their homes. During the march west, over 2,000 Native Americans died.

-His efforts against what was known as nullification likely cooled the national temperament that would have led to Civil War, at least for the time being.

-After a failed assassination attempt, he beat his potential murderer within an inch of his life with his cane, until his advisors pulled him off. He was also famous for saying "After eight years as President, I have only two regrets: that I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun". Incidentally, Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House and John C. Calhoun was his Vice President. Just try to imagine how well that quote would go over for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama.

-He recognized the independence of Texas. He later advised the annexation of Texas.

I could go on. Still, the fact remains that, for every piece of historical evidence that makes Jackson look like a brutal, impulsive bulldog, there is another fact that makes him seem like a wise elder statesman able to appropriately steer his nation in the best direction. He is not a 'bad guy'. But he is not really a 'good guy' either. He is, I think, a shade of gray; someone who exists totally and entirely within two opposite and seemingly contradictory realms. And yet, he exists quite comfortably in both of these opposing realms.

After everything I've seen, I dare say he's the perfect mascot for Tennessee.

Never Never Land

Day 10 and 11: Nashville

"You're not from Nashville!?" the woman excitedly shrieked. She and her coworker looked at each other as if they had just discovered a new plaything. "You have to take a free sample! These are the best!"

She shoved a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts into my open palms. She was right, they were very tasty. I think the secret, in all seriousness, was that they added a dose of salt to the peanuts.

"Make sure to come see us again!" the excited woman said, "We're open until 5 today!". She smiled so intensely that I was worried, just for a moment, that she was going to pull a jaw muscle. I thanked them both and -quickly- went on my way.

Call me cynical, but this is exactly the kind of over-the-top friendliness that strikes me as potentially disingenuous. I suppose that the people of Nashville are, really, truly, this outgoing and friendly, but something about the demeanor of the city left me feeling like I was in (take your pick) Pleasantville/Spectre/Stepford (as in, "Wives"). The part of me that yearns to be a grizzled writer of investigative travelogues secretly wished that I would find some long-hidden, terrible secret to this city. If there is one, I don't think I found it. Now, I don't know why I was expecting some kind of hurt in this city. Maybe it was because I had just seen, firsthand, the history of pain in Memphis that left me expecting to see the same in Nashville. What I found instead was the complete opposite. Rather, Nashville comes off as a city of joy. To be frank, I have my theories about the true nature of Nashville, but until recently I wasn't sure of what to think.

-----

I've been approaching every city I've visited with an open ear to hear the specific, individualized story that that city wants to tell me. Even cities that I've been to before, I'm entering with a clean slate, trying to hear the overtures that set each city apart from every other American metropolis. What I found in the capital of Tennessee was that the story of Nashville is inextricably linked to the rise of country music in the United States. Admittedly, this was to my chagrin, as I am not now, nor have I ever been particularly fond of the genre. Still, I owed it to Nashville to find out why exactly this place identified so closely with this piece of American culture.

First, some context: The roots of country music were born from the folk songs of the British Isles. Immigrants came to the United States trained in a variety of folk songs and acoustic instruments, more so for recreation than for any other reason. Now, this may come as a surprise, but I suppose if we can get from Bill Haley and the Comets to the Talking Heads in, what, 25, 30 years, then it is entirely possible for "Danny Boy" to slowly transmute into "Oh, Susannah" in just as short of a time. The settlers of the western American frontier brought these songs with them and ingrained them into their culture as the lands expanded towards the Pacific.

Now, here's where things get interesting. We had a pretty rough go of it in the early 20th century. World War I ravaged an entire generation. The Great Depression hit us a scant decade or so later. Of course, there are some that would say prohibition is just as bad as those other events, but that's not for me to say. In any case, times were awful, and our ancestors desperately needed a distraction.

For whatever reason, be it James Fenimore Cooper's "nobel savage" or the advent of "The Lone Ranger" on film or whatever, America fell in love with the romantic notion of the western frontiersman, the settler from years ago who didn't have to deal with fighting the Kaiser or worrying about the economics of New York City. In short: America fell in love with cowboys.

Country music exploded. Radio programs, featuring "opries" started to show up on radio broadcasts everywhere. In the local cinemas, westerns started becoming best sellers. Cowboy culture was a hit. The reason: It was a distraction.

This is understandable. When times are tough, even today, we resort to recreation to take our minds off of wars or economies or whatever is the ill of the hour. What makes the country movement fascinating is that, even years later, the fascination never stopped. America fell in love with The Cowboy and, 70 years later, it is still considered perfectly acceptable in some communities to walk into a business meeting with boots, a belt buckle, and a hat.

(This still strikes me as a completely wild notion. What if, by happenstance, America fell in love with, say, pirate culture in the 1920'a and 30's? Would we have a Shanty Hall of Fame? Would we have songs proclaiming "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Buccaneers"? Would we have PMT- Pirate Music Television? This is all rhetorical, of course. Still, I'm awestruck that we fell in love with a schema and it became perfectly normal for grown men and women to play make-believe).


So, to summarize: America was distraught over various world events, and turned to cowboy culture for relief in the form of escapism. So how does Nashville become the capital of Country culture?

Ever heard of the "Grand Ole Opry"?


-----

In the 1920's, it was not unusual for radio stations to broadcast programs that revolved around country music. One such broadcast, started in 1925 on WSM 650 in Nashville, Tennessee was the "WSM Barn Dance" (later the "Grand Ole Opry"). Now, this wasn't the only country program in the United States. But it was the one that had the most powerful radio tower. With 50,000 watts of broadcast power, the Grand Ole Opry could literally be heard from coast to coast.

From here, Nashville became the capital of country music essentially through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say you grew up in Reno, Nevada in the 1940's. Whenever you listened to your favorite country program, you heard it was coming directly from Nashville, Tennessee. So, when you decided to try your hand at becoming a country artist, naturally, you went to Nashville. Country musicians came to Nashville because of the country musicians in Nashville. Put another way, Hollywood isn't the only place in the world where they make movies. But if you are a budding actor or actress, where would you go to start your career? With that logic, aspiring country stars have been flocking to Nashville for the better part of a century.

-----

At first, this idea struck me as intensely uncomfortable, which explained my reaction to the friendly women I encountered at the candy store. Think about it: country music rose to popularity as form of escapism. And Nashville was the headquarters of said escapism- country music. So, by that logic, it felt like the entire city was, for lack of a better term, sweeping all of their problems under the rug. Maybe I found my dire secret after all.

But it was then that I realized that Nashville is the perfect and completely necessary counterweight to Memphis. In essence, both cities dealt with a central theme -pain- but reacted in two different ways. The blues and soul of Memphis confronted pain directly, singing about it, coping with it, and fighting against it as best they could. The country music of Nashville encountered similar pains and, instead of fighting it, literally played through it. Where Memphis chose sadness, Nashville chose joy (relax, Johnny Cash fans- there are always exceptions). These two cities are a proverbial yin-yang. They need each other's ideologies, I think, to be themselves.

Whether or not I favor one philosophy over the other is immaterial. What matters is understanding that the cultures borne of these two cities, in my mind, were basically very different responses to the same central stimuli. There is no right or wrong in this equation, only 'different'. Each city plays it's own part in creating the full tapestry of what exactly Tennessee is. And what Tennessee is is this: a state that, in the past 70 years, has been hugely responsible for a huge piece of our musical, and therefore societal, culture.

Knoxville? Mufreesboro? I believe it's your move.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The River

I spent the afternoon riding a steamboat on the Mississippi River, sipping warm Earl Grey tea and not particularly caring about anything at all. Unfortunately, the sun didn't join us for most of the trip. Still, the temperature was just as it should have been and everything felt pretty free and easy.


Halfway through the trip, an unassuming looking man named Seth started up a conversation with me. He seemed pretty decent, and he reminded me a lot of my uncle Bernard. I warmed up to him immediately.

"First time on the river?" he asked.

"It is," I replied, "I'm just passing through, spending a couple of days in Memphis. I'll be headed up to Nashville tomorrow, but I couldn't resist the urge to take a tour of the Mississippi".

He nodded. "This is our third time here, mine and my family's" he said, gesturing off behind me.

"Do you live here?" I asked.

"Yep." he said, "Been here for a few years."

"That's interesting," I responded. "Typically you wouldn't expect residents to do the tourist attractions. I would only expect out-of-towners on this ship".

"You know, you're probably right about that," said Seth, "But we decided a long time ago that once a month, we're going to do something. Have an adventure, go out of town, just something."

"Every month?" I asked

"Yep. It's too easy to fall into a routine. If you hold yourself to once a month, then you've always got something to look forward to." Seth paused for a moment. "I grew up in San Francisco, and everyone asked if I ever did 'this event' or experienced 'that event'. And I was never able to say 'yes'. It made me realize that I may have been missing out on a lot. So, I wanted to live life a little differently, and I want to raise my girls in a way that they'll always be thirsty to just go out and experience life."

As if on cue, his two little girls approached to show them a new game they had cooked up together. Pardon the cliche, but I do believe "cute as a button" is appropriate here. They played in front of their daddy for a moment or two, before scurrying off again.

"A friend of mine got some huge TV, some, I don't know, million-inch flat-screen plasma or some such," said Seth, waving his hand dismissively. "He refuses to watch any sports at our house, because I've had the same medium-sized TV for years. And we've only got the one. I don't see the value in burning a lot of time and money on TV. That just means more time sitting at home doing nothing".

"After all," he said, "There are plenty of adventures out there".

-----

Whenever a stranger starts up a conversation with you, there's always the gamble that he or she could be a little off, or a little peculiar, or maybe they just have a personality that doesn't quite mesh with yours. Seth was not any of these. He was just a friendly family man looking for a couple of minutes to shoot the breeze. I was happy for the conversation, and for the company.

Before I knew it, we were docked again. It was time for us to part ways. I shook Seth's hand and wished him luck on his next adventure. Funny thing: he wished me the exact same thing.

As I headed off the ship, I thought about how nice it was that we had an hour-long conversation about life, without once discussing what we did for a living.

-----

Hundreds of voices have created art, literature, and music based on this river. I thought that this might be my only chance.

So, after the boat trip, I stood on the banks of the Mississippi River and desperately thought of something original to say. The words never came.

So I threw a rock into the Mississippi River. I don't know why.

It just seemed like something a free man would do.

Old Wounds.

Memphis is a scarred city.

The history of this place is, sadly, not an unusual tale in our country. The necessary details of the story of Memphis involve racial segregation, hatred, and even murder. One would think, though, that we've moved on from some of these hurts, that, just maybe, some of these aches have healed. Instead, these wounds of this city are visible even today. "You'll like Nashville", said a Memphis resident to me the other day.

"It's like Memphis, but white".

There is still something of a palpable tension in the air here. It is unspoken, and hard to pinpoint, but it is present. Part of me wonders if the murder of Dr. King, which unfortunately occurred in Memphis will keep these wounds from ever properly healing here.

There is hope, yet, I think. For just as Memphis is the scene of great hurts and great sadness, so too did Memphis find the one salve to ease this pain: Music.

People older and wiser than I can tell you about how racially charged America was in the former half of the 20th century. Decades after emancipation, there still existed an uncomfortable tension in the United States, especially in the South. There had to be a breaking point. Something had to give.

Arguably, the man who set this all in motion was Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Services. This is a man who, in 1950, wanted to record talent, regardless of skin color. His company, which later became Sun Records, originally brought to fame artists like Howlin' Wolf and Riley "B.B." King. But I suspect that then mention of 'Sun Records' will bring another artist to mind for plenty of people.

That person, of course, is Elvis. The past couple of days in Memphis have allowed me the opportunity to dig past all of the overblown commercialization of the life of Elvis Presley and actually discover, for myself, what made the man important in the first place.

In a time where there was clearly defined "black music"- the blues coming from Clarksdale, MS, and "white music"- country from Nashville, it was Memphis, comfortably geographically snuggled between these two cities, that brought them together. In short, Elvis was the first person that didn't make music for white people or black people or whoever. He just made music. Period.

Legend has it that the first time "That's All Right", the first 'true' Elvis song, was played on the radio, the DJ had to play it 14 times in a row. Phone calls were coming non-stop from both black and white people wanting to hear the song. This is the first time this had ever happened.

Now, this isn't an essay on why Elvis was great, or what musical influences he wrought after this record. What this is about is that his music was, I think, a step in overcoming the dividing line in Memphis. For once, it was something that everyone could agree on.

It was this new unity that allowed a musical commiseration for the first time in the American music scene. Without Elvis, it is likely that we would not have had Stax Records, a company responsible for some of the most soulful songs ever. The best part? The house band, Booker T. and the MG's, a funky, soul-driven band, was flanked by two white men on guitars: Steve Cropper on the six-string, and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. Music, at this point in history, was simply music.

The story is familiar from this point. Suddenly, black and white came together for the same music: to write it, to record it, to play it, to dance to it, to love it. For maybe the first time in American history, people were just people.

This is the overwhelming identity I got from Memphis. This is part of why they are so proud of their music. Yes, they are happy to have been the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and they are proud to have launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and other such giants. But more than anything I think the people of this city are just proud that they've found some semblance of healing for the darkest and most heinous, despicable details of our collected history.

For Memphis, it is now, and has always been, about the music.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Birth of an Icon

Day 8: Memphis


I have two apologies to make. The first is this: I should be making a longer post, because I have a lot of developing thoughts about Memphis that I need to relate. However, I've decided to wait until tomorrow evening to post these thoughts. The more I see about this city, the more I understand the important role music has played in the development of Memphis and, from there, the country. However, I haven't seen Stax Records or Sun Records yet, so, for lack of a better term, I need to do more 'research' before making anymore commentary on the local music scene.

The second apology I have to make is for the simple reason that this entire entry is going to be completely and utterly self-indulgent. This is because I am a musician who, today, got to tour the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis.

To put this in proper perspective, understand that Gibson is to guitars what Mercedes-Benz is to automobiles. Famous, incredibly high-quality, and, most importantly, iconic. If you named your top 5 musical idols, I would be willing to bet at least one of them is a loyal Gibson player. B. B. King, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi...the list goes on and on. Paramount players in every genre and style have excelled at their craft while playing a Gibson. To actually see how these instruments are assembled is an incredible experience. This is basically the equivalent of touring the cacao fields where Willy Wonka harvests his chocolate. It is the opportunity to witness firsthand the still-binding DNA of an icon.

Speaking of Wonka, I was like Augustus Gloop touring this factory. Surrounded by casual tourists, I wandered bug-eyed through the factory, asking irritating super-fan questions that clearly irritated the snarky, hungover tour guide. "How many double-neck guitars do you do? Is the date on the wood the date of harvest, or the date of curing? Is the rosewood affected by changes in atmosphere during transport from India?". Our poor tour guide was getting irritated. Suffice it to say, I eventually stopped asking questions. Point is, I was excited.

Even the smell of the factory is gorgeous. It smells like freshly cut timber, wood oils, and lacquer. It smells as it should: like a craftsman's workshop.

I'll spare everyone the details of what goes into the manufacturing process. I will say, however, that these instruments are a masterpiece: a perfect combination of artistry, craftsmanship, beauty, and industry (as perfect as these instruments are, they are still able to crank out 35-60 per day). And, when finished, they absolutely sing. Playing a Gibson Les Paul for the first time today, I felt like a caveman who had previously cooked food with twigs and flint stones, only to accidentally stumble upon a professional-grade kitchen with an endless array of spices and ingredients. It was a completely new sound in an arena that I thought I knew well enough already.

I have fallen in love with Gibson guitars. One day, I will own a blue Gibson Les Paul (which may or may not exist- the picture below is under the 'Epiphone' brand). Still, I'm glad that these instruments are so affordable, retailing at a very reasonable $5,000

(gulp).


Friday, November 6, 2009

Ghosts and Empty Sockets/Room 306

Memphis is a cool city.

Of course, the logical reaction to this statement would be something along the lines of: "Of course it's a cool city. There are a lot of cool cities".

I would counter by saying this: there aren't a lot of cool cities. The are a lot of fun cities, including Memphis. But only Memphis is cool.

In this case I'm thinking about 'cool' in the classical definition of the term: desirable, yet disinterested. This city and it's people are either fully unaware or completely uninterested in how appealing it is. It presents itself as it is, and, if you like it, that's great. If you don't, well, who cares?

This is contrary to say, Austin, a fun city that insists with t-shirts and bumper stickers that you should "Keep Austin Weird". The best way to do this is to support local businesses and screw those huge chain stores (ironically, a very rich man copyrighted "Keep Austin Weird" a long time ago, and he's making a lot of money off of altruistic and misguided idealism). "Cool" wouldn't insist upon itself like that. Or, how about New York: A city that houses an enormous population of people who will all gladly tell you how incredible New York is, even if you don't ask. "Cool", I think, doesn't need to advertise.

But Memphis? Memphis is cool. I realized this after my first stop in the city. I dined at Arcade, a cafe which boasts that it is the oldest eatery in Memphis, dating back to 1919. Now, local folklore has it that Elvis Presley used to eat at Arcade all the time. He had a regular booth and everything. It was here that he used to consume one of his favorite 'good old boy' delicacies: A fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. The sandwich is still on the menu, and quite the popular seller. Given that it was lunchtime, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to get a taste of local culture, I decided to try it.



Finding the sandwich on the menu was surprisingly challenging. You would think that the favorite sandwich of the unofficial mascot of both the city and Rock and Roll would be pretty clearly marked. Instead, listed on the last page, next to the soft drinks and sides, without fanfare or bombast, it says in small, unassuming letters: "Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich: $6.95".

It was then that I looked around the restaurant, and I noticed not one piece of Elvis memorabilia. There were plenty of pictures of the owner, and plenty of mentions of how old Arcade was. But nothing on The King. The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that this establishment enjoyed being it's own successful, long-running entity, rather than just a favorite tourist hot-spot of a past and current cultural icon. Clearly, if they made a bigger deal about this, they'd stand to make some money, right? But they didn't. This struck me as indifferent.

And cool.

In Arcade, everyone is a regular. Either this is true or the wait staff does a damn good job selling it. Unlike every other restaurant I've ever been to, regardless of whether it is a local diner or an upscale steakhouse, there is always an air of freneticism. Typically, the food is rushed out and served quickly by an over-stressed and over-professional servers. Not at Arcade. At Arcade the waitresses seemed comfortable and complacent with whatever speed they happened to move at. My waitress, Molly, casually chewed gum and relaxed on one of the diner stools while taking my order. She didn't cheerfully tell me that she would be my server, nor did she insist that my happiness was of her utmost concern. Instead, she took my order the way James Dean would have. And somehow, it was still unbelievably friendly.

In fact, that's how everyone is in Memphis. Both the staff of Arcade and the folks behind the counter at the coffee shop across the street were pleased to give me plenty of directions of fun things to do in the city. But they were a different brand of friendly than in the deep south. In Texas, for example, they really oversell it. "Well hell-LLOOOOOO!" they would say, with gigantic, open-mouthed smiles as they rushed to hug you. I can't remember a time I've ever brought that much joy to anyone. Take it easy, Texas. Turn it down a notch. In Memphis, however, they're genuinely happy to help, and they do so in an understated way.

The people of Memphis, they're just, well...cool.

-----

After lunch, I wandered around the section of the city I was in. It looked as if I was in an artsy kind of district- one of those areas which would be considered contemporary now, and passe in five years. I aimlessly meandered about, taking in sights and drinking in the city with no particular destination in mind.

That's when, turning the corner, I saw a sign for an old, kitschy-looking motel. The sign was colorful enough and interesting enough that I thought, at very least, it was worth investigating.

Moving closer to the motel, I also noticed a crowd standing about. Some were taking pictures. Others talking excitedly among themselves. I started wondering if there was more to this place than just the old, colorful sign that attracted me.



As I stood before the motel, and starting reading some of the signs, and overhearing some of the conversations around me, I was struck with the full, blunt realization of what I had just discovered.

48 hours after walking among the ghost of Dealey Plaza in Dallas...48 hours after looking down from the same window as the killer Oswald...I stood before another aging crime scene.

41 years ago, right in front of me, outside of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.



-----

The Lorraine Motel has been preserved on the outside as historically accurate as possible- a monument to exactly how things looked that awful day. On the inside, however, the motel has been gutted and transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, which celebrates the life of Dr. King as well as other Civil Rights leaders. Here you can see a replica of the jail cell where Dr. King was imprisoned for two weeks. You can read the poems of Sojourn Truth and see a full-scale model of Rosa Parks' unintentional and permanent launch into American history. You can even see the motel room where Dr. King spent his final hour with Reverend Abernathy and Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles.

The creators of this museum have truly gone above and beyond what I expected from this attraction. See, The Lorraine Motel is only the first part of the museum. The second part is across the street, in the boarding house where James Early Ray committed that terrible crime. For the second time in three days, I got to see where a killer made his name infamous.


The result was no different than in Dealey Plaza. I felt that same chill and that same discomfort and unwelcome quietude. As a result, I probably didn't give the Civil Rights Museum the full breadth of attention it deserved. Like in Dallas, I started to become uneasy with the terrible aspects of our history. Seeing a photograph of a twelve-year old getting blasted at point-blank range from a fire house will do that, I guess.

I needed something to clear my head. I needed something joyous and fun to make me forget about death. So, I did what every tourist in Memphis must do at some point or another

I went to Graceland.

-----

Graceland is a surprise. This is for several reasons. For starters, parking costs $10 and admission costs about $30. Throw in some souvenirs and you could easily be looking at a bill that's approaching $100 per person. Here's the kicker, though, they've got you right where you want you, because Graceland is one of those things that you have to do when you're in Memphis. It becomes a regrettable and unavoidable expense.

That being said, here's the other reason Graceland is a surprise, at least for me anyway. It completely and totally changed my perception of who Elvis Aaron Presley was. Understand, I approached Graceland expecting to see the tacky, overstated and expansive mansion of a man bloated by consumption, self-importance and and fat with celebrity success. What I got instead was the relatively large house of a kind of normal family man who happened to be the world's biggest celebrity.

The house was decorated to the height of style in the 1960's, so, it is a little tacky, but more a product of the times than the man. There is a playground for his daughter, Lisa Marie, and a very small swimming pool. The kitchen and living room (the "Jungle" room, where "From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee" was recorded) looks uncomfortably like the house from "Napoleon Dynamite". But otherwise, the overwhelming feeling of this place was that it was so...normal.



Even more stunning was that Elvis Presley's Graceland would never, ever compete with the houses and mansions of even today's B-list celebrities. While Graceland is large and there are a few unnecessary luxuries (to be fair the, the man was wealthy beyond imagination), it mostly just seemed like a home for his wife, his child, and his parents. And that's it.

In short, the Presley house was not a ridiculous overstatement in celebrity excess. Now, perhaps Elvis started the idea, and perhaps he was arguably the first ostentatious mega-celebrity. Maybe he accidentally started the trend of the self-important celebrities we see today all over the news. But I came away from Graceland with the overwhelming feeling that this was just a fairly normal guy who got very famous at a very young age, who also happened to have an incalculable number of fanatical fans. His legacy, by the way, is getting mutilated by those self-same fans, who continue to purchase and therefore support the absurd merchandising megalith that is transforming a slightly eccentric rock and roll pioneer into an overly-tacky, velvet-clad mockery of what his legacy should be. Elvis Presley was not responsible for the Elvis we know today. We invented this Elvis after his death. For better or worse.

-----

It was a long, long day. But I still needed to get some dinner and investigate the world-famous Beale Street. I didn't stay for long.

Living in Austin has taught me one thing: the famous nightlife streets are nothing but a false face of an otherwise interesting city. I can tell you that all you need to know about Austin, TX absolutely cannot be found on 6th street. This must also be the case in Memphis. I know for a fact that this city cannot be 24 continuous hours of neon lights and 12-bar blues. That's like using the guest china even when you're not having company. It's just make-believe.

I realized this evening that I do not enjoy nightlife in new cities. That's because nightlife in city X is exactly the same as nightlife in city Y. There's nothing culturally new or significant to be gained by drinking a beer on 6th Street as opposed to Beale Street as opposed to Bourbon Street. It's just "getting drinks downtown", which is the same in every city you go to. I decided, then, that I would focus all of my energies on the daylight hours, when the true cultural identity of a city shows its face.

No, I didn't like Beale Street. And I won't be going back while I'm in Memphis. That is, except for dinner tomorrow. I have a promise to keep to T-Baby.

More on that tomorrow.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Big Fish


Day 6: Little Rock

William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was once the Governor of Arkansas.

During his tenure, he lived in the city of Little Rock.

Thus ends the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.

I'm being facetious, of course.

Sort of.
-----


I never felt comfortable during my time in Little Rock. Even from the first moment I parked my car and approached the Visitor's Center, something about the city seemed off, somehow. My initial impression was not dissuaded during my first encounter with a couple of the natives of the city.

Entering the visitor's center, I saw two elderly women sitting behind a desk. The one on the right looked tired, and a little disinterested. She was working on knitting something pink.

The one on the left was very cordial and extremely helpful. However, something seemed off about her, too. I didn't figure it out until later.

"Can I help you?" said the woman on the left.

"Yes!" I said, enthusiastically, "I'm passing through Little Rock and I'll be here for the evening. I'm leaving for Memphis at some point tomorrow morning and I'd love to see what the city has to offer."

The woman on the left checked her watch, then exchanged an oddly knowing glance with the woman knitting.

"Well, it's almost 4 o'clock, and most everything closes by 5. But you can still head downtown to the River City Market. That's where they have, well...I guess you would call it a nightlife".

(She "guesses" she would call it a nightlife.)

"Yeah," said the knitter, passively. "There's some stuff there I guess".

The women gave me some brochures and talked me through some of the highlights of the city. I thanked them for their time, and I was about to leave, when the helpful woman on the left offered me a bottle of water.

"It's...uh...complimentary," she said somewhat nervously, gesturing the bottle in my direction, "It's fresh water...right from Arkansas...?"

I took the water happily. But the woman's tone struck me as somehow sad and yet, hopeful. It was as if she desperately wanted me to enjoy her city, or at very least one of it's products.

I thanked the women for their time and went on my way.

-----

It was 4 o'clock, and I thought I would sneak in a visit to the Bill Clinton Library before closing time at 5.

The Clinton Library sits on the edge of the Arkansas River, adjoined by a literal bridge, meant to symbolize the "Bridge to the 21st Century". The bridge did not look new by any means, which struck me as peculiar. The library itself is about five years old. Yet the bridge appears to be a recycled relic from a forgotten time.

The Library showcases artifacts and news clips from Bill Clinton's Presidency, dating from 1992-2000. The problem here, though, is this: the memories from this era are still too fresh. In order to remind exhibit-goers how crazy the 90's were, there were samples of newer versions of Apple Computers, a clip from the Arsenio Hall show, and a reference to the Columbine shootings. But, none of these feel like ancient memories. These all feel like very recent cultural goings-on. It felt like going to a museum and seeing exhibits commemorating the 2008 Presidential Election. It was all too new.

Leaving the library and walking around downtown, I started to notice a trend. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same general idea, the same topic of conversation. Everywhere I went, the name "Clinton" adorned something or another.

It was then that it struck me that this sentence could actually exist in Little Rock:

"In order to get to the Clinton Library, turn right on President Clinton Boulevard, past the Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Museum Gift Shop. The Clinton Park will be on your left momentarily."

The more I looked around, the more it started to sink in: Little Rock is now, and probably always has been, a small, quiet, unassuming town. However, my expectations, and probably the expectations of others, too, was this: a man known for his exceptional charisma, who led the free world for eight years, must have come from some kind of grandiose beginnings and, therefore, Little Rock is worth seeing. It was a flawed assumption. And it started sinking in that this was not the case.

I should clarify, here, that these comments are neither to be construed as political one way or the other, nor should they be seen as an attack on Little Rock. However, the fact remains that my impression of this city is as follows: this is a small town which was once inhabited by a large man. A man of, at the very least, significant political import.

I would imagine that people come to the city and bring in revenue dollars based on that Clinton name. They'll stop in to see the library and then grab a meal downtown. Heck, that's what I did. I can't be the only one, right?

But...is this tragic, or hopeful? Perhaps Little Rock is the proud base of their hometown hero who rose from humble roots to put this city on the map. And maybe this little city will always be proud of her favorite son.

Or, perhaps Little Rock is the lonely city that will be forever overshadowed by the omnipresent specter of a still-living former President, while the citizens spend every day peddling merchandise for the man who, by happenstance, was once their neighbor.

It should be noted that part of my feelings towards Little Rock are the product of poor timing. 24 hours ago I stood in the omni-metropolis known as Dallas, researching the short life of John F. Kennedy. Now, in contrast, I stood in the city of Little Rock, studying the life and times of Bill Clinton. From that perspective, it simply isn't fair.

I concluded that this quiet city wanted simply to be left alone. This city didn't want me here. And I didn't feel comfortable staying.

After a quick dinner, and a scant 90 minute visit, I bid my adieu to Little Rock and continued on the road.

Next stop: Memphis.

The Rover

Day 6: En Route to Little Rock

On November 5, 2009, after 3 years, 9 months, 31 days, 12 hours and 42 minutes, I drove out of Texas for the last time.

Crossing the border caused an upsurge of some emotion- I’m just not sure which one. It was just a strange feeling, like a weight was suddenly gone. There may have been a tinge of regret. But it was mostly overshadowed by joy. And relief.

Entering Arkansas, I wondered why states were divided as they are. Now, some state divisions are natural choices. There’s no point re-drawing a boundary after a mountain or a river has already done it for you, after all. But I always wondered about the boundaries that seemed more or less invented. Was it from some original land dispute? Is there an agricultural reason?

I still don’t know for sure. But I can tell you that there are noticeable geographic changes in the environment the second your cross over from Texas into Arkansas. For one, there are actually trees on the side of the road.

With no disrespect intended, in Texas, the land surrounding highways is empty and barren, unless it has some retail outlet built on the property. Otherwise you can expect the same uneventful landscape you would expect to see in the Midwest. In Arkansas, however, trees finally appear. What’s more: You finally realize just how much you missed trees to begin with.

The trees in Arkansas are not as majestic as their cousins in New England, but not for lack of trying. Bits of color spot the landscape, but hardly in the array of hues you would expect to see the in northeastern climes of our country. Still, they cushion the drive, and make you feel at ease on the road, more so than gas station signs and billboards ever could. It is a welcome change from the flatlands of Texas. They keep the commute strangely calm and relaxing.

There is a popular belief in the oft-held mythos that driving the highways of our country will lead to some “Great American Truth”, as if metropolitan air was toxic to enlightenment. I don’t think there’s anything to this theory. There is also a belief that a grand road trip helps a person understand himself or herself more, as it allows that person to do some soul searching. I’m not sure this is the case either. But then, I’m not looking for either one of these things. I’ll tell you what I have found, however inadvertently: Peace.

For some reason, driving in the stretches of road between civilization, a certain calm overtakes your demeanor. Suddenly, the near-constant monologue that all of us have running through our heads dissipates. Driving on the smooth, unveering highway to Little Rock, surrounded by the ever-eager trees of Arkansas, with your closest neighbors a half mile ahead of you and a half a mile behind you, it is impossible to live anywhere but the present. There are no thoughts rooted in the past, replaying stale hurts and regrets from days and years ago. And there are no pessimistic notions, prophesying dread-filled imaginations of a hopeful, ideal future gone completely unfulfilled. There is only the road at this moment, and the sun slowly toasting your left arm. The mind is finally, at long last, simply quiet.

I have no idea what’s waiting for me when I get home. The truth is, I don’t think I have the capacity to think that far ahead anymore. I’ll get to where I’m going when I get there. Heck, we’ll all get to where we’re going eventually.

We just have to keep going.


Down by the Seaside

Day 5: Dallas

I apologize for dedicating so much space to the Kennedy assassination. In doing so, I've neglected to touch on the rest of my wonderful experiences in Dallas.

Contrary to what I expected, Dallas was a remarkably low-stress, easy to navigate city. For whatever reason I've got it caught in my head that every big city in the world will involve some gargantuan, labyrinthine freeway system that is constantly stuck in gridlock traffic. Not that Dallas doesn't have a freeway system like this, it's just that I had minimal experiences like this in Dallas.

I spent my day in Dallas' West End, which, in addition to the Kennedy museum, also has an Arts District, an Aquarium, several shops and restaurants, and even the first home ever built in the city.



The streets are easy to navigate, the area is relatively uncrowded, and police and security are wandering around everywhere, moreso, I believe, for peace of mind than for any regular mischief the area might encounter.

The people of Dallas, furthermore, couldn't be friendlier, in my experience. I had one gentleman tell me I looked like actor Ron Livingston. I had another give me a coupon for a free appetizer at the Hofbrau Steakhouse, just for asking him for a lunch recommendation (by the way, the Hofbrau Oktoberfest is delightful).

After my visit to Dealey Plaza, though, I found myself wandering the streets looking for something to calm me down. As I stated in previous posts, the Kennedy experience left me shaken. I needed something to calm my nerves.

I headed up to the Arts District and wandered around a sculpture garden. But I was in no mood to pretend to enjoy art that I didn't get.

Finally, after about 45 minutes or so, I decided to visit the Dallas World Aquarium.

That's when I saw this little guy, and everything was all better.


The Dallas World Aquarium is unlike any aquarium I've ever seen. It not only houses aquatic animals, but also birds, primates, and even a cheetah. Several of the animals are not actually kept in pens, and inasmuch it is possible to see lemurs and pelicans hanging around the upper rafters. Also, in an odd and incredibly trusting move, the Dallas World Aquarium has decided to let their sloth just sort of hang around out in the open, leaving only a sign that says "Do not touch the sloth". The picture of the sloth below was taken from 2 feet away.


After a full day's worth of adventures, I headed back to my surrogate home to stay with Ryan and Erin. We had a light evening before calling it a night. The next morning, I got ready and got out of everyone's hair. They had already been kind enough to put me up for two days.

Ryan, Erin and Gunnar, thank you all so much for the hospitality. I hope to see you all soon.






Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, According to Mike Brownlow

Day 5: Dallas

This story has two beginnings.

1) Mike Brownlow sat on his usual corner, chewing on an unlit cigarette. A few feet away, there stood a kid who was obviously an out-of-towner. He looked a bit lost and curious, and he held a camera in his left hand. Mike would do the usual act: put on a show, play up the sob story, and get a few quick bucks out of his latest mark. Same as every day.

2) Mike Brownlow sat in the same spot he had for God-knows-how-many years. Chewing an unlit cigarette, he waited to tell his story to whoever would listen. Public perception would never change, of course. But that wouldn't keep him from coming back here every day to share his story -the true story- of what happened that day. If the kid standing in front of him asked, he'd talk. But he wasn't going to go out of his way. He was tired. He was always tired.

I'm not sure which beginning is true.

-----

"Excuse me," I said, pointing around my general area, "Is this uh....is this the 'Grassy Knoll'?"

"Right there," said Mike Brownlow. "See that fence? The spray-painted mark is where the other two shooters were standing. It's that red mark, there, behind the tree".



"So," I pressed, "That's where the other shooters supposedly were? Behind that fence?"

"Yessir," said Mike Brownlow. He slowly got up and sauntered over to where I was. "There were two shooters there, Oswald in the book depository, and another shooter in the building next door".

"How old is this fence?" I asked, bracing myself for a conspiracy theory, "Was it here during the shooting?"

"Not that fence, no" said Mike Brownlow, "That's the seventh fence they've built since 1963. This one was built about eight years ago. They've had a fence there since 1948."

"Huh," I said, "You seem to know a lot about the area."

Mike meandered back over to his knapsack.

"Of course I do," he said. "I was here during the shooting."

It was then that Mike Brownlow produced a tattered, old photograph of a familiar visage: John F. Kennedy sitting in a convertible, waving to the people of Texas. The photograph was old and folded in too many places. Someone had written notes in the lower left corner. I didn't think to ask what they said.

"This photograph was taken 34 seconds before the President was shot," said Mike Brownlow, "This is me, standing on the corner."

He pointed to a child in his early teens standing on the corner watching the motorcade.


"It was right over there," he indicated, pointing to a corner about a block or so away.

He saw me stare at the picture. And he could tell by the look on my face that I thought that this could clearly have been any child standing on the corner.

"You went to the museum, huh?" he asked.

"Yep." I responded.

"You heard the story of the Warren Commission, right?"

"Yep"

"We saw the smoke from over here." said Mike Brownlow, neither pleading nor contradicting, "We saw the two Secret Service agents telling us to stay away. I was here. I saw the whole thing. Over there, those guys will sell you souvenir newspapers and tell you all sorts of crazy stories. Me? I'm not selling a thing. I come here every day. And I tell my story to whoever wants to hear it. But I'll tell you this: there was more than one shooter."

At that point, Mike Brownlow lit his cigarette and stared off into the distance.

-----

I'm not proposing a conspiracy theory. I'm not asking you neither to believe nor discount what Mike Brownlow told me. What fascinates me, though, is that we have here a point of contention in American history upon which not everyone agrees. On the one hand, the polished, professional museum that tells story A as we all know it. On the other hand, an old man with a tattered photograph sits outside, telling story B to whoever will spend a couple of minutes to listen.

Mike Brownlow may be a sympathetic character, and a tired man who just wants to set the record straight. After all, he told me the story with a quiet calm, without an urgent pleading for me to believe his truth -a trait that so often accompanies liar's speak.

However, Mike Brownlow might also be an exploitive con-man who is taking advantage of a tragic moment in American history for his own personal gain. After all, when I asked to take his picture, his index finger magically landed to a point where it was pointing directly towards him. He held the photo in such a way that you could tell this wasn't his first photo-op.

I don't know what the true story is. I wasn't there. And I don't know for sure who or what Mike Brownlow is. I can only tell you this: at Dealey plaza, there may be more than one museum worth investigating.

-----

To close: A photograph of the Grassy Knoll. The 'X' is where the fatal shot struck. A perfect view.



The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, According to the Warren Commission

Day 5: Dallas

On November 4th, 2009, at 12:14 PM in Dallas, Texas, it was approximately 74-degrees Fahrenheit, with only a slight 2 mph wind coming from the Southwest. It was a warm day.

That same day in that same city, I stood shivering on the corner of Elm and Houston.

Almost 46 years ago, about 15-feet away from where I stood, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was shot twice. The second shot fatally wounded him. He was pronounced dead 36 minutes after the second shot.

The assassination of JFK has become a well-known and oft-told tale in our society. The short version, according to the Warren Commission: Lee Harvey Oswald fired three bullets from the sixth floor of the Dallas Book Depository on November 23, 1963. Here's a photo of the window in question, second from the top:


Two of the three bullets fired by Oswald, according to the Warren Commission, struck President Kennedy on the following stretch of road. The "X" marks on the road are where the bullets hit the President.


These are not new details. But what was new to me was the noticeable change in atmosphere that occurs once you approach Dealey plaza, the site of the assassination. None of the pictures or Oliver Stone's "JFK" or even the Zapruder film can properly convey the weight of this place. When you approach the area, your blood chills. Now, "blood chilling" is, of course, a cliche. But there is no other way to describe the sensation. The weather is warm but you cannot stop shaking. The atmosphere is too cold, and the weight of history is too heavy in this place. Oddly enough, although there is noise and people bustling around, there is a weird sense of quiet to the place, too. "It's warm, but it's cold. It's loud but it's quiet"...I know that these contradictions must sound like the melodramatic spinnings of a novice wordsmith eager to show off his verbal acumen to whoever will listen. But that's not the point. The point is that an important man was publicly murdered in cold blood almost 46 years ago and I don't have the words to tell you about it. The atmosphere in Dealey plaza is unquiet. In spite of all other sensations, you will feel cold, and you won't hear any of the background noise. There is an omnipresent and uneasy feeling of discontent and malaise. But a strange fascination keeps you investigating the area.

The 6th Floor Museum allows you to walk the same hallways as the killer Lee Harvey Oswald. They've kept the corner window intact and as historically accurate as possible. The museum itself is a delight- charging $13.50, just so they can give you a 50-cent piece in change (which I thought was a perfect detail). The amount of information is staggering, and enough for any history junkie to get his or her fill. Acoustical analysis of the shot, FBI models, newspaper clippings prior to the Texas visit, quotes from Kennedy himself tragically foreshadowing his impending demise, and even a clipping from the Associated Press' newswire, which urges all local news sources to "Stay off stay off [sic]", as every reporter in the US must have been trying to send a message to his local editor.

This tour could have easily taken me hours. That's when I saw a picture that I couldn't help but stare at: a photograph of President Lyndon Johnson being sworn into office. To his left, the freshly-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, looking suddenly much older than any of us remembered. Creases formed deeply around her eyes, and the heavy grief of the new, horrid memory tugged at the lower corners of her mouth, challenging the grace that everyone knew and expected from her. I don't know if she held it together. I only had the one picture to go by.

It was beautiful and tragic. I had to leave.

I had only been there for 20 minutes.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Waco Phenomena

Day 4: En route to Dallas

Quick: When I say "Waco, Texas", what's the first thing you think of?

(waiting)

Ok, the two of you who said "Jessica Simpson's hometown"? You're both fired. You can show yourselves the door. Margaret will send for your belongings.

Now, it looks like some of you said "Baylor University" and a good number of you said "The Dr. Pepper Museum". Could you folks tell me where you're from? Oh, Texas? Really? Huh. Weird.

Ok, now, could everyone not from Texas raise their hands? Ok, now, what do you folks think of when I say "Waco, Texas"? All together, now:

"David Koresh!"

This, of course, is the Waco Phenomena: The idea that a good deal of people (note: I have not done exhaustive research) living in Texas think of Waco as just another city on Interstate 35. Meanwhile, the entire rest of the country hears "Waco" and immediately thinks "Branch Dividians". The good news for our friends from up North is that I've decided to take a couple of pictures of Waco so you could get a good look at the community for yourself.

First, here is a picture from the interior of the Dr. Pepper museum, where you can still get Dr. Pepper mixed up with pure cane sugar. It's really quite tasty, and worth the cost.


Now, here's a picture of a building directly outside of Waco's main tourist attraction. Hopefully this should clarify the virgin-white integrity of this city to them yankees.


-----

Some stray observations:

-The afternoon was marked by a visit to the legendary Round Rock Donuts (who are single-handedly responsible for the 'obesity in America thing') before hitting the road. Please note the large muffins to the left.



-Genevieve, my GPS system, tried to kill me again. I swear this is the beginning of the robot revolution. According to my friends Ryan and Erin, whom I'm staying with for the next couple of days, all I needed to do to get to their house was stay on Interstate 35. Instead, Genevieve sent me on a white-knuckle roundabout way that included merging over through three lanes of traffic during rush hour at dusk in an unfamiliar city and trading off no fewer than seven different highways. If her voice wasn't so pleasant, I would swear that there would be hell to pay.

-"Welcome to Fort Worth: The Canada of Dallas!". Tell me that wouldn't fill some seats.

-Erin and Ryan's dog, and also my new best friend, Gunnar!:



-A special thanks to my dear friend Leslie, who has been as supportive as you could be over the years. In addition to putting me up for an evening and being a wonderful friend over the years, she also gave me her old guitar as a parting gift. I cannot thank you enough!

Tomorrow: Off to the JFK museum...

Of Mice and Men

Day 3: San Antonio and....Austin?

I had intended to stay in San Antonio with a buddy of mine for the evening, but unfortunately he had just gotten back from a trip and the little feller was all tuckered out. Thankfully, I was able to convince Fabian and Erin to allow me to stay at their place for one more day.

I made my way down to San Antonio to await meeting up with my friends Matt and Amanda. Schedule conflicts kept us from meeting until around lunchtime. Until then, I hung around downtown San Antonio and I took a picture of The Alamo. You know why? Because the only reason The Alamo exists is for you to take a picture of it. Its there so you can visit it, and photograph it, and tell everyone that you saw it and took a picture of it. And then that's that. The Alamo has no more impact over your life. It's a tiny, unremarkable building surrounded by a Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not and a Louis Toussaud's Wax Museum. So, I took a picture of the damn Alamo for the same reason that you eat candy corn every Halloween. And I'm not posting it. Because we all know what it looks like. I hate The Alamo. So let's be done with it and never speak of it again.

It was a quiet afternoon, which may have been a blessing after the slew of activity in New Braunfels. I got to catch up with some old friends, play with Matt's dogs, and take a back-road route back to Austin (my roadtrip companion, a GPS I've nicknamed "Genevieve" might be trying to kill me, but that's a story for another day). Unfortunately, although I was supposed to make it to Dallas that night, various schedule conflicts kept me in Austin for the evening. Again, this was blessing in disguise as it gave me the opportunity to grab one last dinner at one of my favorite Austin restaurants, Uncle Billy's Brew-n-Que, with my buddy Jeff and his family. They had a parting gift of some "sneak preview" beer for me. I haven't had a chance to crack 'er open yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

So, if you're keeping score at home, I left this town forever two days ago. As I write these words, I'm exactly four miles away from my old apartment. At this rate I'll make it back home by 3614. See you then!