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.
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.