Those Memphis City Blues

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Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar

—   “Graceland,” by Paul Simon

MEMPHIS, TENN. — We crossed that scary bridge (at least to us) over the Mississippi River, just as the sun was setting on a Friday evening and took the first exit into West Memphis, to downtown. Lighted, round horse-drawn Cinderella-like carriages vied for passengers with the electric trolleys that clang along Main Street. This was our last getaway of the summer, sans child, just my Beautiful Mystery Companion and me enjoying a quick trip to Memphis.

Apparently, we were the only tourists in town not here for the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. We picked Memphis because it’s an easy drive from our home, about as far away as San Antonio, and it might not be as blamed hot, being northeast. We were unaware that hordes of Elvis fans were also descending.

I have never understood the Elvis thing. I get being a fan of his music or his movies, but the cult worship/annual pilgrimage to Graceland/the King is still alive/mentality leaves me a bit creeped out. I camped in 2005 with my Airstream in the Graceland RV park (seemed like a campy thing to do) and walked up to Graceland, camera in hand. Along the way, not-yet-open storefronts played Elvis songs on mounted speakers. At the mansion, which was smaller than expected — far below today’s McMansion specs — middle-aged women wept at his grave out back.

“Good grief, women,” I wanted to say. “It’s not even a round-number anniversary. Get a grip.” Of course, I said nothing, just shot a few photos and left to eat breakfast. I skipped paying the $30-plus admission to go inside.

Anyway, we decidedly were not here to mark the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death. We planned to visit Beale Street — the famed row of blues music dives and barbecue establishments — and the National Civil Rights Museum, built in and around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on its balcony in 1968. And to ride the Main Street trolley, which is populated with restored vintage streetcars, with lovely wooden seats that only cost $1 to ride.

Our first foray to Beale Street began inauspiciously. The night air was just lovely so we walk. We notice a long line snaking toward a barricade. I assumed these were folks waiting to get into the famed B.B. Kings Blues Bar, so we tried to go round, figuring we would find less-popular venue. A police officer turned us back around. Turns out everyone must pass through a security checkpoint that rivals what one sees these days in airports. Pockets emptied and contents examined. Metal detectors waved over outstretched arms and legs.

I fail the inspection. I carry a pocketknife, as do all self-respecting East Texas males. Sure, technically it is a switchblade, which my brother-in-law gave me. It is only three inches long and comes in handy for opening boxes, cutting rope and such. The officer took one look and gave me the choice of leaving or having the knife confiscated, since no knives were allowed. This would have been useful information to have before we got in line. Actually, this knowledge would have come in handy before we left the hotel, but the clerks were busy dealing with hordes of folks wearing Elvis T-shirts. My BMC passed inspection but quickly joins me when she realizes I have been turned away. I am not about to give up my knife.

At the corner of the entrance to Beale and S 2nd, where the action begins, sits the Blues City Café, where the slogan is “Put Some South in Your Mouth.” A barker stands outside, urging folks to come in, sample some pork ribs. The café, we later learn, has chosen not to join the Beale Street Merchants Association so is not a part of the security detail, which far outstrips anything I have experienced on Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Sixth Street in Austin. This strikes me as an excellent market ploy. As we enter the café, it also occurs to me that we are quite likely surrounded by people who have also failed the security check into Beale Street.

Funny, they don’t look dangerous. But then again, neither do I. An aromatic platter of ribs soon takes our minds off the rejection.

The next day, after touring the civil rights museum — one of the city’s stellar attractions and a must-see for any visit to Memphis — we return to Beale Street both in daylight and again at dark, pocketknife/switchblade safely tucked away in the hotel room. The street is jammed with folks wearing Elvis T-shirts, as well as a few mediocre Elvis impersonators. At B.B. King’s place, an excellent horn ensemble wails away. I’m tempted to return to Blues City Café for another rack of ribs, but that would be pushing my heart-healthy regimen. I settle for a bowl of crawfish gumbo and a piece of johnnycake. My BMC just nibbles off my entree. At Silkies, we watch bemused as a pair of goats wander in a fenced-off area among a pair of cannons, eating what little vegetation remains. Luckily, cabrito was not on the menu.

We stay well away from Graceland.

Our final touristy event is to watch the ducks enter the lobby of the Peabody Hotel on Sunday morning. The ducks ride the elevator from the roof, waddle down the red carpet as a standing-room only crowd applauds and leap into the hotel’s fountain, herded by a well-dressed concierge in tails. These ducks have quite the life, about 15 seconds’ worth of work daily and no fowl on the menu. Not bad.

Elvis never entered the building.

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