Maybe it was Memphis…

11 Feb

I don’t know what made me want to go to Memphis. I don’t love Elvis all that much. Honestly, I think my motivation was kind of ridiculous. Every day for the past few years I have driven to St. Louis for work. Half of the highways signs say “St. Louis” the other half say “Memphis.” I would say that my idea to go to Memphis was nothing more than an inkling to find out what would happen if I followed the other half of the signs.

So…around about April I declared we were going to Memphis. Zac, as difficult as he is to live with, shrugged and said “ok, cool. when?” I said August, he said fine. Done deal.

We graduated. There were parties. Some very fine and generous people gave us heartwarming cards of congratulations. Said cards contained money. Said money turned imaginary trip to Memphis into a reality. (So if you are reading this and you gave Zac and/or I cash for graduation, now you know what your hard earned money bought.) A weekend of revelry in the Home of the Blues.

We had decided that this was going to be about two things and two things alone: food and music. I was particularly excited about the music part and just the city in general.

Memphis isn’t like most places. Most places that suffered from extreme racial tension and violence only found increased segregation and racism. Memphis found Beale Street. A small area of town where black and white folk came to combine what they knew, rather than separate it. That combination is what we know today, as the blues.

I had heard and read that Memphis has a heartbeat, a soul all of its own. I admit, that sounded lame to me too. But it takes merely minutes to realize exactly what people are talking about. I’m a sucker for history – not the political kind or the religious kind or even the war kind – I love every day history. I like to see, hear and feel what life was like years ago for the every day common man. And Memphis seems to surround you with stories, sights and sounds of what life was like a generation or two before I got here.

signweb

An awesome sign - advertising air conditioning!

On one block you can imagine what Elvis felt when he walked in Memphis Recording Studio as a teenager. You can stand in the same spot that Johnny Cash stood in when he sang Folsom Prison Blues for the first time. A few blocks down the road, you can stand in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, look up at a balcony adorned with a simple wreath, and imagine the heartbreak of losing Martin Luther King Jr. Really, you don’t have to imagine much though because the heartbreak in the air is still so thick that it left even me, the greatest of all the Chatty Cathys, speechless. And another block more brings you to Beale St. where music is pouring out of every opening along the 4 block stretch of clubs, juke joints and barbeque shacks. And it isn’t BS radio music either. Its the kind of music that makes you stop and dance even if you don’t know how.

Sun Studio, as seen in Walk the Line

Sun Studio, as seen in Walk the Line

The Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum

The Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum

Beale Street in the early afternoon, before all of the fabulous partying

Beale Street in the early afternoon, before all of the fabulous partying

One night we watched a man who had to be at least 80 years old belt out classic blues and soul songs like nobodies business. He took requests written on napkins that people had dropped in his hat. He’d pull em out, open em up and hold them five feet out from him. He’d crumple it up and say, “that aint no damn song that’s garbage.” I can only assume someone had requested Brittney Spears or something equally offensive to this man.  I’ll never hear “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” again without picturing him.

My favorite ribs were from BB Kings

Finding incredible food was as easy as finding incredible music. I would be willing to guess we gained a collective 20 pounds in the four days we spent in Memphis. It is not our fault that these people find it appropriate to serve biscuits, cole slaw and bbq beans with every single meal.

We went into a tiny diner, kind of off the beaten path for breakfast. We ordered typical breakfast foods. Our waiter brought us out a giant plate of biscuits and gravy. I said kindly, “those look awesome but we didn’t order biscuits and gravy.” The waiter looks confused and replies, “What?”

“We didn’t order those.”

“What do you mean?”

“Um. I just mean you brought us those but we didn’t ask for them.”

“Why would you ask for them?”

“What??”

“You aint from here are ya?”

“No, sir. We are not.”

“Ya don’t order biscuits here, you just eat ’em.”

Alrighty then. Who am I to suggest differently? Biscuits and gravy and I shut my mouth. We indeed received unrequested biscuits with every subsequent breakfast we ate. This is among my favorite things about Memphis.

Deciding what to order...which was not biscuits and gravy...

Deciding what to order...which was not biscuits and gravy...

I most definitely ate full slabs of ribs for lunch and dinner every single day and have not had satisfying bbq or ribs since we left. The same holds true for fried chicken. We’ll pause here to discuss Gus’s. A magazine (and now I don’t remember which one, Frommers maybe) ranked Gus’s one of the 10 places in the United States worth flying to just for dinner. This is so very very true. The place is an absolute shack. The floor is so greasy you have to watch your step. Meals are served on styrofoam with plastic forks. It was my favorite Memphis experience hands down.

Gus's Chicken Shack

Gus's Chicken Shack

We wandered into Gus’s on a Friday at high noon. We literally could not get in the door (the place is maybe 500 square feet tops) once we did get in there was no real organization. Yet people’s names were being called for tables.  So, as this…um…I’m trying to phrase a description without being offensive…lets go with this: So Aunt Jemima walked past me and I could tell by her hair net she was an employee. So I say, “‘scuse me” Aunt Jemima replys, “How you doin baby?”

“umm…how do we go about getting our name in for a table.”

“ya tells me your name sweetie pie”

“perfect – two for Maggie please”

“ok Peggy baby it’ll be just a few minutes”

Whatever. I wasn’t about to correct her. Peggy it is.

So round about a half hour later Aunt Jamima starts a hollerin and a screamin my name. Except she is a hollerin and a screaming for Peggy. Everyone is looking for Peggy. Ok. Fine. That’s me, the token white girl in the corner, I’m Peggy. Aunt Jamima waved her hands over the crowd and said, “you wanna sit over there baby?” while pointing to a table across the room. Yes ma’am, Peggy is going to sit anywhere they are serving the chicken! So seats were taken, orders were made and chicken was served. Hands down, best culinary experience of my lifetime. Its was hot, crispy, juicy and spicy.

Me with The Chicken. Note the pure joy in my eyes.

Me with The Chicken. Note the pure joy in my eyes.

So the history and the music and the food that make Memphis what it is really made an impression on me. I’ve mentioned before in regards to photography that I live for rusty roofs, half dilapidated buildings and questionable alleys. Memphis was full of all of those things. It is probably the dirtiest place I have ever visited. And it has more character and more soul than any place I will ever go, this I know for sure.

jukeweb

And it also has a whole other side. The Elvis side. Never have a seen so many men dressed as Elvis. I have to think they aren’t just playing dress up. They seem to believe that they are in fact Elvis. I kept my distance. Very frightening. Of course, we went to Graceland. It ranks among the strangest experiences of my life. For one, its very similar to going to the zoo. Park six miles from the entrance, large admission price, cotton candy vendor, lemon shake-up vendor, so on. Lots of unusual exhibits viewed from behind railings. Add large groups of people who are sobbing hysterically over a grave site and you’ve got the weirdest trip to the zoo ever. That’s all I can say about that.

those piles of flowers are at lease 3 feet deep

those piles of flowers are at lease 3 feet deep

This, clearly, is a novel and not a blog post so I’ll keep the remainder short. But here are a few other things that top my Memphis Favorites list…

Anything and everything emblazoned with Elvis. Even a drain stopper:

strainerweb

the availability of voodoo powder:

assorted types of voo doo powder

assorted types of voo doo powder

the mere fact that the above voo doo powder was located directly next to these:

sticksweb

Giant Panda Bears!:

at the Memphis Zoo

at the Memphis Zoo

I think there are likely lots of deeper reasons why Memphis made such an impression on me. We took this trip at  a time when more than anything we needed to get the hell out of town. There was a lot of soul searching going on in August and Memphis might have been the perfect place for us to do that. There we were, in a city that has seen the hardest of times economically, racially, etc. and while it shows its scars clearly, it still shines, rocks, dances. It keeps history a part of every day life without living in the past. It builds new without replacing old. The soul of Memphis survives.  I left Memphis feeling like I’d found proof that real soul survives.

I think there are a handful of days, moments and experiences in everyone’s lives that they can think back to, put their finger on, and say “that changed me. it changed my mind, my outlook, my attitude. it changed my heart.” For me, maybe it was Memphis…

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8 Responses to “Maybe it was Memphis…”

  1. mom February 11, 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    I do believe i will have to go to Memphis just for the chicken!! i agree that a vacation means the most when it comes along at just the right time!! maybe we can here a little johnny cash at the wedding….

    • maggieandzac February 12, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

      Mama if you guys can be here by noon, we can be to Gus’s by dinner time. Think about it… : )

  2. Zac February 11, 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    Yup, that was definitely the best trip ever, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Memphis is just good for the soul. Can we please go back soon? I need some more blues, biscuits, and barbecue sauce ASAP!!!

  3. Zac February 11, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    By the way, the picture of Beale Street is one of my all time favorite pictures. Ever. I love the photos of the beat up buildings and rusty old signs. Very nice my dear!

  4. Roach February 12, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    Maggie, I love this post about Memphis. Shortly after looking through your pictures, I too visited Memphis for a week with some great friends from work. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Great food, great music, great people, and cheap beer. Sheena and I will be returning (hopefully this summer), so she can experience Beale Street. I even have a few local co-workers who promise to take us to some “real diners” in the “hood” as she put it.

    I can’t wait!

    • maggieandzac February 12, 2009 at 2:38 pm #

      Sheena will love Memphis! We’re hoping to go back this summer too at least for a few days. We drove through some “hood” – accidentally! – I was torn between wanting to jump out and take dramatic photos and fearing for my life. I bet that’s where they keep the best red beans and rice though!!

  5. Shelsey Kennedy February 24, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    Hey Maggie!
    I love reading this stuff your a great writer. Also, I enjoy the pictures and your opinion on different subjects.
    Love
    Shels

    • maggieandzac February 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

      Thanks! Glad to know people enjoy my random ramblings!

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