|Two Days in Memphis
© Copyright 2009 by Susy Kelly
In the winter of 2002, my friend Nina and I decided on a whim to take a road trip to Anchorage, Alaska, to visit a friend of hers from high school on the Air Force base. We wanted to see the midnight sun. So we planned to leave New York after graduation from NYU in May, drive to Los Angeles first and then north, visiting various friends along the way, and ultimately traveling the Alcan into the Alaska. Memphis was our first stop.
Nina and I arrived in Memphis on a Thursday, shortly before my friend Lindsay finished work for the week. I knew Lindsay through our mutual undergraduate learning institution where we were foist upon each other in the great social experiment that is the freshman dormitory; I hated her that year, but have loved her ever since. Lindsay was clerking for a federal appellate judge, that was why she moved to Memphis in the first place. Before that, she lived in New York too, but Nina never had a chance to meet her because Lindsay was a junior corporate attorney then and no one saw her but her office mates. Nina and I, who were both pursuing Masters degrees at NYU at the time, had been plenty busy as well, but not like Lindsay. This Memphis stopover would be Nina's introduction to Lindsay. My friends, my closest circle, are not, in fact, a circle, but more of a constellation. I hoped Nina and Lindsay would at least be corners of the Big Dipper, and not, you know, one handle star and one pot star.
When Lindsay clocked out, the three of us went to Automatic Slim's for dinner, an ideal random outpost of a New York restaurant. Since Lindsay and Nina were both New Yorkers, they had an enormously broad topic for conversation: restaurants and bars they both knew, kvetching about NYU (Lindsay went there for law school), favorite museums, etc. Being superlatively intelligent women both, conversation flowed easily.
For dinner, I ordered salmon with shrimp-butter-lemongrass-broth, scallions, and some spinach and shiitake mushroom dumplings. When the waitress arrived with our food, I discovered the already heavenly-looking plate was adorned with little candied bits of lemon zest. Each of the five senses has an ultimate moment; for the sense of taste, it was this meal. I returned to Lindsay's apartment afterwards unable to hold my head up, and passed out in post-epicurean bliss.
In the morning, being that it was a Friday, Lindsay woke early and went to work. Then Nina discovered one of Lindsay's vexing idiosyncrasies: Lindsay doesn't like, drink, need, or even think about coffee. The apartment contained no coffee-making apparatus whatsoever, let alone a stale half-bag of Folgers gathering dust in the pantry. Nina and I would not be able to get right on orange juice alone, the only beverage in the refrigerator. We needed coffee, and a little something to eat. Nina and I headed out in pursuit of somewhere ending in -mart, and Graceland, a last minute decision.
Early morning in Memphis was just cool enough to be refreshing, and it smelled like sweet flowering trees. Although spring was basically over, some kind of tree lining the shore of the river along Mud Island wept giant tufts of genetic material. Lindsay's clerkship only lasted a year at a time. She was already on her second appointment, dreading an inevitable decision about whether to stay here in Memphis or go elsewhere. I could empathize with the dilemma as I took in the cool, fragrant poplars and magnolias.
Shortly, we stopped at a Tigermart and scored a couple of coffees and a cellophane-wrapped roll of little powdered donuts.
We needed coffee, yes; and both of us really deeply enjoyed a cup of high-grade coffee. However, neither of us was a snob about it. Gas station coffee, no matter how awful, will always work. A guy in our program at NYU infamously went on and on at breakfast at a weekend conference about his $300 coffee system at home, while alternately scoffing at the piss the hotel had the gall to put in a thermal carafe and refer to as "coffee". Insisting on the best and only the best must leave a person thirsty quite often, I thought. Nina and I were optimists. We enjoyed being pleasantly surprised when an unlikely place produced a superior brew, rather than spending all our time being salty about most places just serving plain old coffee.
We consumed coffee and donuts, which are somehow tastier in the context of a road trip, and proceeded in the direction of Graceland. Our road atlas had a pull-out of Memphis, with Graceland marked appropriately enough at 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard. On the way, we observed the curious juxtaposition of run-down ghetto neighborhoods and stretches of magnificent old-growth oak-lined lanes, shading stately multi-million dollar homes. At this hour, the high-dollar houses were empty of their inhabitants, replaced by the cleaning and maintenance workforce. In the ghetto, men clustered around short tables and sat on milk crates playing dominoes. As the men clung to the shade of the trees, working women of the pawn shop/liquor store/gun shop strip cruised the open sidewalk.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"9:37," Nina replied, checking her mobile.
Pointing to the two women making conversation with almost no clothes on, I said, "Are those ladies working?"
They were. It was a rhetorical question. Nina responded by raising her eyebrows rhetorically.
"I mean, I guess some people need to be serviced at nine in the morning," I said. "I'm sure they've researched the market."
We passed them and traveled south, toward the Graceland estate in the area of Memphis known as Whitehaven. Elvis apparently fell in love with the estate in the late 1950s and bought it for $100,000. It was full of the kinds of things MTV Cribs has made commonplace; for example, Elvis' dad had his own pool in his bedroom. Graceland is less superficial than the average MTV crib at least: there's a Meditation Garden on the grounds full of dead Presleys; Elvis himself was known to go thinking there. Eventually, Elvis, too, was interred in the Meditation Garden after notoriously dying on the toilet right there inside Graceland.
As cultural icons go, Elvis' fame borders on religion. That Graceland is practically a holy shrine makes sense even if, like me, you don't get it. Neither Nina nor I really counted ourselves Elvis fans. We couldn't commit to a tour of the mansion and the grounds. While the gift shop would no doubt have proven amusing and certainly one of us would have left with an ironic and hilarious trinket, we weren't going to stop. We looked forward to at least seeing it and saying we saw it. The closer we got to the mansion, the more evident it was that we were drawing near, based on the size and enthusiasm of the Elvis junk stores lining the road. I scrambled for Nina's camera.
Finally the estate itself was in sight, at least partly. I mean, there were plenty of trees obscuring the view from the likes of drive-by tourists like Nina and me. For millions of people, Elvis Presley, a musician with a swagger, a shimmy, a look, a voice, was more than human. For them, the house before us teemed with energy, the spirit of the past, of Elvis smiling over little Lisa Marie playing in the grass, pondering his success while monitoring his close-circuit TVs, tragically dying under questionable circumstances. People made life-altering journeys to get here and simply be where the King of Rock and Roll reigned. Paul Simon made a whole album about the place, for crying out loud, an album whose central theme was going home.
I can't speak for Nina, but for me it was just a house. We got within one stoplight and I said, "Just pull up in the bus lane, I'll hop out and get a couple of pictures for posterity." So I did, and the first thing I encountered, which made the unfriendly honking Nina drew over in the bus lane all worth it, was a wall, well-worn and signed by the faithful, attesting to their pilgrimage. I felt compelled to sign the wall too, somewhere among the melted candles and flowers and other offerings, for I, too, was here. Where he was. Where he could still be, for all we knew.
But I didn't. I just snapped a few frames, mindful of Nina's parking violation, as well as the fact that I wasn't one of the faithful, this wasn't my mecca. Between New York and Alaska, there would be several places for me to leave my mark to say I was there too. Here, however, my signature would be inauthentic and poison the rest with its inauthenticity.
Nina and I killed the afternoon in Lindsay's apartment complex's pool, drinking vodka and negating any further plans to drive around and sight see on our own. When Lindsay finished work, she suggested touring an arty little neighborhood not far from downtown Memphis. The galleries and boutiques collectively hosted an art walk on Fridays. They stayed open late, the proprietors stood in front of their shops chatting with neighbors and prospective customers. Some places offered wine and cheese or wine and crackers or crackers and cheese.
The sun's last glow was still evident in the west by the time we meandered from the art walk to a sandwich place and then over to Beale Street. Even though the night was young, plenty of people already gathered on Beale Street to celebrate the weekend, the cool evening air laden with cologne and perfume, and the freedom to carry one's drink down the street from bar to bar.
Lindsay ducked into a hurricane-hut, a newsstand-like counter that sold three or maybe four choices of fruity blender drinks out a window, and ordered us a round. I asked for something red or pink, preferably with a stupid little umbrella. I got a red slushie with rum in it, in a giant plastic cup, no umbrella. It was perfect.
At the far end of Beale Street, a two-man blues/foothill stomp ensemble played right out on the sidewalk to a crowd of passersby and an impressive group of standers-still. The band was so fantastic, so Memphis, they got under my skin right away and I suggested we go one step beyond standing still to listen and just pull up a patch of curb on the opposite sidewalk there on Beale Street. Nina, Lindsay and I swayed and toe-tapped and the concrete under us was still radiating the heat it collected all day. Now it was just evenly warm, like sitting on someone's lap.
Some scrubby character in a slightly-sodden wife beater and jeans kept shifting his glance to our threesome. He began to make a move through the crowd in our direction and I prepared myself to tell him to scram while avoiding eye contact. The song the band was playing ended and a couple of African American youths approached the singer, thus attracting Wife Beater guy's attention away from us. There was some gesturing and head nodding between the singer and the kids, and the band laid down a beat accompanied expertly by a guitar. The younger of the two kids, who was skinny, had big ears, and might have been twelve, took the mic. He started to rhyme, and a pack of standers-still up front--girls--started dancing. The band smiled.
Wife Beater guy sauntered up like the beer in his hand wasn't his first, and said something to the kid. What's happening here? I assumed Wife Beater guy was more wasted than he appeared, and then the kid handed him the mic. Wife Beater threw down his own rhyme and he and the kid traded the mic in a rap battle for several minutes until the band politely asked to finish their set. We dissipated with the crowd at the next set break and Lindsay ducked over to the folding card table flanking the band. Back at the car, Lindsay revealed that she bought a couple of the band's CDs, one for me and one for her. Richard Johnston. I was happy to see Lindsay liked him as much as I did.
By the time we got back to the apartment, it was getting late but the night air still felt uncomfortably hot and thick. In the pool, we made plans for the following day, the day Nina and I meant to leave. I would miss Lindsay's company, and kind of wanted to hang out longer. The desert Southwest called out. The long sunset. The stars we could never see from the five boroughs of New York, the ones you could only observe in the absence of dense civilization. Beyond that desert, somewhere in our plans was an emptiness we couldn't even imagine yet, an emptiness at the heart of the purpose of this journey, inasmuch as there was one, the Alcan.
"You have to leave tomorrow?" Lindsay asked.
"Yes," I sighed.
"Fair enough," Lindsay said. "I couldn't take any days off from work if you stayed."
Nina sipped a vodka cocktail at the edge of the pool. "What about these ducks?" she asked.
"Oh yeah," I said. "The Peabody Ducks."
"Right," Lindsay said. "How about if we go see them tomorrow--the big procession is at 11 o'clock--then we can get some brunch and I'll see you off?"
"Excellent," I said.
In the morning, Lindsay slept in while Nina and I both got showers and took a short ride out for coffee. Nina and I packed what little stuff we'd transferred into the apartment when we got back, while Lindsay cleaned up and readied herself to take us to the Peabody to see the ducks march to the fountain.
The Peabody Hotel is old Memphis, pre-Elvis Memphis, distinct among the other smattering of tall buildings comprising downtown, with its red umbrella emblazoned on the side. Inside, the hotel is as distinguished as it is distinct. The tradition of the ducks goes back to the 1930s when the general manager and some friends turned up drunk after a weekend hunting trip and thought it would be a clever prank to let loose the live decoy ducks they brought home into the fountain in the hotel lobby. The hotel was certainly posh even then, with its travertine marble fountain as a centerpiece of elegance, sculpted in Italy from a single slab of marble for the 1925 opening of the Peabody. And now some quacking, shitting ducks were floating around in it.
The joke was on the G.M. though, because the guests loved the ducks, and so the ducks stayed. In 1940, a bellman who also happened to be a circus animal trainer taught the ducks to march, single file, into the lobby, hence the Peabody Duck March. Now the ducks came down the elevator from their admirable penthouse and marched across a red carpet to the fountain every morning promptly at eleven. At five, they go back to the roof. There are always five mallards, a drake and four hens. They don't have names because they're not pets. In fact, the ducks are switched out every few months. Several famous people have played honorary Duckmaster. Kevin Bacon, of course, was one of them.
Although we arrived at least forty minutes early, the enormous lobby already had a crowd beginning to fill the main floor, congesting movement. The fountain itself stood tall in the center with a huge bouquet of mostly white flowers spewing triumphantly out of the top. A strip cordoned off on one side of the fountain lead to the elevator from whence the ducks would arrive shortly. Lindsay and Nina positioned themselves near the velvet ropes and I made my way to the bar to order a round of Bellinis.
Two or three people stood in line ahead of me, but the person in front wasn't having much luck attracting the bartender's attention so I elected to have a seat on the one remaining open stool at the bar and try my luck as a girl. A fortyish man on the stool next to me struck up a friendly conversation after I put in my order for the Bellinis.
"Here to see the ducks?" he asked in the local drawl.
"Me and my friends over there," I said, nodding and Lindsay and Nina. "You?"
"Me and those two over there." He pointed with two fingers indicating proprietorship of two curly-haired little girls in sundresses on the other side of the red carpet. "Those are my girls. They love the ducks," he smiled. Nice teeth, neat hair, and cordial. Swell guy to chat up at a swank bar before noon in Memphis. "You ladies on vacation?" he asked.
"The two of us," I said, indicating myself and Nina. "The other lives here."
"Visiting a friend in our lovely city, tha's nice," he said.
"Well," I said, "the short one and I are on our way to Anchorage, Alaska, by way of Los Angeles. We stopped by Memphis because it's kind of on the way from New York." The Dad and I smiled and chuckled at what a curious story I was trying to tell. My story caught his attention at any rate, and he eagerly asked me questions. I love nothing more than to answer questions about this trip. Where were we going, how much did we expect to spend, how long would we be gone, where did we intend to stay?
My excitement in telling about it overflowed onto the Dad and he seemed to forget for a moment that he couldn't go on any such road trip. He just let his heart think about it. It was almost eleven, and while he kept commenting like, "I guess you could get by eatin' for cheap," and, "Boy, I don't know if I could just sleep in a little car, an RV maybe," his eyes never left his girls, who twirled and twittered and accidentally flashed their undies. My Bellinis came up, the big hand inched to the twelve, and the Dad wished us the best of luck.
As promised, the elevator went ding, and all attention turned to the doors sliding open. Out waddled five mallards to the tune of a John Philip Sousa march, down the red carpet where they plopped one after the other into the fountain to polite applause.
The ducks quacked and splashed around as some folks took snapshots while the rest of the crowd dispersed, some to the adjacent duck-themed gift shop. I hate chickens, ducks, and other farm-fowl as a rule, but these ducks were cute. Despite the hotel restaurant cuisine's being unmistakably French, one notably absent menu item was duck. No duck l'orange, no duck confit. I wasn't the only one who thought they were cute.
Lindsay, Nina and I walked up to the mezzanine to wander around and finish our drinks, soaking up the grandeur of the fountain, flowers, and ducks from the new perspective. Afterwards Lindsay insisted on taking us to brunch, continuing the age-old tradition of feeding guests embarking on long journeys. It wouldn't be right to see us off on an empty stomach.
As Nina and I set out in the little red Civic across the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, we disconnected from the known and settled in for the ride as the West opened up ahead of us, the dictionary definition of flat and forever. I thought about the pioneers, looking out and seeing the breadbasket free of obstacles, and also free of places to hide, embarking on life-or-death pilgrimages across this vastness, knowing the reward for surviving the trip across would be the arduous task of crossing a treacherous and jagged mountain range. Our trip had a lot more guarantees, but as human beings have not become any less fragile since the pioneers, we were still quite aware that little problems could turn into catastrophes without much coaxing. For us, having just twisted our way up and down and out of the Appalachians, the gentle terrain of the beginning of the Great Plains looked alien and inviting. Ahead lie our frontier.
Susy Kelly has aged and developed children since driving to Alaska with Nina, but still finds ways to go on traveling adventures. Maybe in the future there will be a longer, coherent story about the whole trip to Anchorage, for there were a plethora of adventures getting there and back.
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Another story by Susy: Margie Mullins