Memphis Snapshots

— I picked up my car at the airport, put the hotel’s address into the GPS, and set off on my way into Memphis. I followed her soothing robotic directions. She led me straight to the doors of Memphis’ mental hospital. I stared up at the forbidding facade as she intoned, “You have reached your destination.” I considered checking in, since it seemed so foreordained.

— They have these horse-drawn Cinderella pumpkin coaches that clip-clop around, decked out with lights, fanciful and absurd, totally girlie. One went by and I heard laughter from inside, glanced in and saw a couple, pudgy, she with spritzed bangs, he head to toe in camo, and they were eating cake and laughing. It warmed my heart.

— Stopped by B.B. King’s blues club on my first night here and lucked out. A local band called Memphis Jones was playing, three white boys in rockabilly outfits, chains on their wallets, porkpie hats, the lead guy was wearing spats, they were very fly. A tight rocking trio. They cover songs written by Memphis musicians, and, naturally, that’s a robust group. They played Muddy Waters and Otis Redding and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The lead guy was a Memphis music historian, basically, and set up each song with a little anecdote about it, told in excited and enthusiastic tones. The place was packed. Everyone sang along to every song. Lead guy said, “People ask us if we have records and I say no, we don’t, and why would we, when you can go out and buy the original? That’s why we do what we do. We encourage you to go home and fire up Amazon, fire up iTunes, and check out these cats who made the best music in the world, right from here.” It was a happy accident, hearing those guys on my first night here.

— The weather has been freezing and gloomy. Just like I like it.

— There are times, when I’ve been walking around, where I am struck by the emptiness of Memphis. I took a long walk today and encountered not ONE SOUL on the damn road. It was eerie, post-apocalyptic.

— Took a road trip into Mississippi, which I loved. I listened to religious stations during my entire drive, with crazy black gospel choirs and preachers shouting fire and brimstone. These people do not mess around. It was so cold that the grass was white with frost.

— I have been spending a lot of time walking up and down the banks of the Mississippi. What a glorious body of water, Memphis crouching right on the shore. It’s reflective, too – wide and moody, sometimes grey, sometimes silver, sometimes green. Again, there’s usually no one else down there when I’m there. Maybe a jogger. Maybe a guy walking his dog. The landscape feels emptied out.

— I’ve been reading and writing a lot. I have barely been online, which has been awesome.

— I bought champagne for New Year’s Eve, and drank a bit of it. Talked to my sister Jean. It was okay. I am not a fan of New Year’s Eve. 2012 has been one of the best years of my life, with a wretched ending, and coming to Memphis has been a way to survive and recover. It was a good choice. I fell asleep at 11 p.m.

— Unlike New York City, there are times here where I look around and cannot tell what decade I am in. Memphis has maintained its character, and you see the old pictures of Memphis in the vibrant hustling 30s, 40s, and 50s, and there are still blocks and moments where you look around and you can see that Memphis. Maybe it’s a bit quieter, but it’s still there. I wrote on Facebook:

Memphis reminds me a bit of Providence, RI in a number of ways. It’s industrial, as most river cities are, and it has a rich cultural history (to say the least). But also: if you look around, the history feels like a living history – the past is not wiped out: the architecture remembers, the way the streets are set up remember. At the same time, there is a vague sense that the past is better than the present – but it’s just a sense, not an overwhelming feeling. I guess this strikes me so strongly because I spend most of my time in NYC where you really have to SQUINT sometimes to see the “old New York”. There are certain neighborhoods (or, more accurately – streets) in New York where the old New York can easily be discerned – certain corners in the West Village, certain areas of lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn. But for the most part, the past is wiped out in New York. That’s not the case in Memphis. You really can walk with ghosts here. The city remembers, you can SEE them almost. Providence has the same gritty quiet memory to it. It’s not quaint or kitsch – it’s not making a fetish of its past – but you can’t escape it. The pictures of Memphis in the 20s, 30s, 40s, are so vibrant, so ALIVE – and there are times, usually when the streets are empty of traffic – where you could almost believe you were “back then”.

— I’ve been spending all of my time by myself, obviously, and it’s okay. I am good at it. I have been here long enough that not every hour needs to be blocked out. I can wing it. Today, I had nothing planned. I woke up, the weather was frigid and wet, threatening snow. I got coffee and took a long walk through empty streets to visit Sun Studio, which I knew would be closed. I had no desire to go through the tour again. I just wanted to see it, and also to see it in its natural habitat, no tourists, off-hours, on a cold grey morning. It was a long walk, and I saw not a soul, and I walked through basically bombed-out blocks, with vacant buildings, beautiful, eerie, and sad. Had my coffee sitting on a bench outside Sun Studio, and just sat there, doing nothing. Then walked back, and stopped off at the Hotel Peabody to check out the ducks, see the Lansky Brothers store, and have a Bloody Mary, and warm up. Chatted with the nice bartender about the best barbecue in town. It was only noon. The whole day had that feeling. Memphis, quiet, reflective, empty.

— Despite the gloom, Memphis has a slightly seedy glamour to it, and strikes me as a far more glamorous place than New York City. Certain neighborhoods in New York still retain the old glamour, and of course New York is impressive and glittering and high-paced and all that. But Memphis, with its gorgeous architecture and thoughtful downtown area with the trolley tracks and the street lamps, is truly glamorous. The glamour of a place that remembers its past, holds onto it a bit desperately, perhaps knows that its best days are back there, but it hasn’t “sold out”. It is a place filled with remembering, and that does make it a bit sad, but that’s where the glamour comes from.

— I had a half-hour long conversation with a lovely pimp in Confederate Park. Only in the South. The pimp was extremely nice and respectful, and I enjoyed talking with him. He didn’t tell me he was a pimp right off the bat, it came out naturally in conversation. He was wearing a tan suit with a slight check in it, and a fashionable winter coat. The conversation started simply with a “Good morning, how are you” and we took it from there. Once I told him my name, he referred to me as “Miss Sheila” with an old-world elegant air.

Here are some of the things the pimp said to me. Much of this was unprompted. I didn’t egg him on, although I clearly was not looking for a way OUT of the conversation. I relaxed into the conversation, hence his voluble monologuing. He was great.

“There is nothin’ in this world, n-o-t-h-i-n-g, like a mohair suit, I am telling you.”

“I am 64 years old and I enjoy every minute of my life. Of course, I’ve been smokin’ weed all day so I’m feelin’ very good.”

Pimp: “You’re beautiful.”
Me: “Back off.”
Pimp: “No, no, I’m off-duty, come on now. Just tellin’ the truth.”

“Women are beautiful in all sizes but there is no reason for a woman to be big as a water buffalo, if you’ll excuse me, Miss Sheila.”

“My mama died at 88. She had dementia, bless her soul. I was more sad when she was in the nursing home than when she died.”

“I would buy a new Cadillac every six months. Only Cadillacs, you know it!”

“You may not believe this from lookin’ at me, but I am half-Irish. Yes, ma’am, I am.”

Me: “You Southerners are not messing around with your Jesus Freak selves.”
Pimp: (roaring with laughter) “THAT IS THE TRUTH, MISS SHEILA.”

“I was a good pimp. I let my women keep they own jewelry if it was heirloom shit. I gave them milk baths. I am telling you.”

“Some good-for-nothin’ burned my damn house down.”

“Beale Street changed the world, Miss Sheila.”

“You’ll have to excuse me but I lost my lower bridge somewhere. They were made of ivory. None of that gold shit, I am telling you.”

“I been all over this world. But when you’re hungry and cold, there is no place like a Southern town. They take you in and feed you.”

“Miss Sheila, let me tell you, if you don’t do what you love in this life, then life is not worth living.”

During my walks around the city, I had been thinking a lot about the glamour of Memphis, its faded grandeur, and empty streets filled with remembering. The pimp was born and raised in Memphis, although he has lived all over the country.

I asked him at one point, “So lemme ask you. What is Memphis really like?”

He replied, emphatically, “Memphis is a no-good dirty town full of redneck crackers.”

— It was a good reminder to not get too sentimental about these things.

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8 Responses to Memphis Snapshots

  1. Dan says:

    Sorry bout the wretched ending. Hope your holidays were lovely and 2013 brings you continued success and happiness.

  2. sheila says:

    Dan – thanks – you too!

  3. Interesting about that last quote. My (very white) sister has lived there for about fifty years and says exactly the same thing! But, of course, she wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

  4. ted says:

    Wonderful piece of writing, Sheila.

  5. Paul says:

    Lovely. Been following your Memphis trip here and on Facebook, and it makes me want to be back there, yet again. There’s always more to find. I hope you found your way to the greatest used bookstore and home-made guitar shop in the world, Xanadu Books in Midtown, where the owner will try to sell you a guitar but if you’re lucky (like me) you’ll find a hen’s-tooth-rare copy of George Sanders’ memoirs for $3 instead….

    • sheila says:

      Paul – Yes, so much to discover! I didn’t get to the bookstore sadly – I was afraid of how nuts I would go and then have to lug a bunch of books back to the east coast. But next time!

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