Make Way for Ducklings

After our tour of Sun, Jen, Lisa and I decided to head to Beale Street to get something to eat. Jen and I followed Lisa, and it was so relaxing to not have to consult maps and shout directions at one another. We parked in a big garage (Lisa knows Memphis well), and then walked to Beale Street. It was late afternoon. We went to Beale Street at all different times of the day during our trip, and my favorite time was late afternoon. The light is starting to leave the sky, and the neons are on, and it just has a romantic and slightly seedy aspect that is very appealing to me, and looks beautiful in the late afternoon.

We didn’t know where we wanted to go so we walked up and down the street. We ended up choosing B.B. King’s restaurant. There was live music going on (well, there was live music going on in every place we passed), and the place looked big and roomy. Not a mob scene either. Just a late lunch crowd. We were seated in the little balcony that faces the stage. We were the only ones up there. We ate, drank, talked, and had a great time. The band was rockin’, the food was good, and it was nice to have some leg room in our trip where we could just hang out.

Afterwards, we took another walk. We went up and down Beale Street, stopping to look at different sights. We stopped at A. Schwab, which was (still is) a dry goods store, and it has been a family-owned and operated joint since 1876. That’s one hell of a continuum.

Even with the cheap souvenirs, Elvis stuff, and a museum on the second floor, A. Schwab is virtually unchanged. You are looking at the real deal. It is still a dry goods store. It is still owned by Schwabs. It is the only remaining original business on Beale Street and it is celebrating its 135th year of operation.

We walked by The Orpheum again, that gorgeous old theatre on Main Street and Beale. Jen had visited it in our walk that morning. God, I am just in love with the old signage! I can’t get enough of it! And in Memphis, none of it feels kitschy. It’s not winking at you with irony about its own quaintness. It is authentic. The town feels real. Gritty, but charming. It is itself, at all times. It has no pretension. I absolutely loved that about Memphis.

Lisa had seen Fiddler on the Roof there, and I think some other shows as well. The next two shows on the bill were Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet, appropriate and cool. Gorgeous building.

In our walk, we ended up at The Peabody Hotel. Jen had heard of the march of the Peabody ducks and I think had seen a video clip of the twice-daily event and wanted to check it out. Lisa guided us there. We walked into the lobby of the Peabody and my jaw dropped to the floor at its beauty. Both Jen and I felt like it was the most beautiful hotel we had ever seen. It felt European in its vast grandeur, yet with comfy corners where hotel guests could sit and have a drink, or read the paper. The lobby itself is surrounded by a balcony on all sides, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It looked like a mix of New Orleans and Venice, Italy. It was beautiful, but not intimidating. It was not slick or modern. It was old-world European. There was a bar over in the corner, a beautiful bar that totally fit in with the decor, and in the middle of the space was a giant stone fountain. Giant. In the fountain circled a bunch of ducks.

I had not heard of the Peabody Ducks but here is a little background. I love that it all began because some dude got drunk and thought it would be funny to put ducks into the fountain. The tradition continues and twice every day, the ducks are marched by a Duckmaster (who wears a red suit with gold trimming, a sort of mix of bellhop and Sgt. Pepper) out of the fountain via a little portable staircase, and across a red carpet, and into an open elevator where they then go to their little duck-house elsewhere in the hotel. Crowds gather twice every day to watch the ducks march. We knew this from Jen, and Lisa knew about it too, but we weren’t sure of the schedule. It was an impromptu visit. As we walked into the lobby, I saw the Duckmaster. He was a tall gentlemen, carrying a cane, and on his wide cuffs are the words DUCKMASTER. I love Memphis. I love this entire tradition.

We wandered around a little bit, checking out the space, which was so beautiful it was like an assault.

You can see the Duckmaster in that photo. He is standing on the far side of the fountain. He is in red.

We learned that the ducks would next march at around 5 p.m. which was an hour or so. People were already gathering. But we decided to leave, and walk Lisa back to her car in the garage. It had been such a nice visit. Now Lisa has to come visit me in New York! It was so great to put a face and voice to the name, and it really was just like hanging out with someone I had known for years. We had a bit of a comedy of errors trying to get Lisa paid up at the garage, which used a coin system, with plastic coins, and you pay beforehand, and you put the coin in the slot, and oh God, it was like the most complicated system we had ever encountered. “Now … do you pay now? Wait – what?” Jen seemed to have a handle on what we were supposed to do, but at every step of the way, we had to stop and think. “Okay, I put my credit card in … now what? Wait, what?”

Lisa drove off into the night, after we figured it all out, and we waved goodbye. She was back to Little Rock. It had been a great day.

By then, it was nearly 5, so Jen and I decided to walk back to the Peabody to check out what this Duck March was all about.

In the short time we were away, the crowd had become enormous. People clustered 4 or 5 deep by the red carpet leading to the elevator. The Duckmaster stood by the fountain in all his glory, waiting. The ducks continued to circle, oblivious. This is their life. They find none of it odd.

People crowded around on the upper balcony. Jen went up there to see if she could video it from that angle. I stayed downstairs. I had a pretty good view of the fountain itself, and if I lay on the floor I could see through people’s legs to the red carpet. I didn’t lay on the floor. I am just saying that if I HAD, I would have had a clear view.

Finally, it was time. The Duckmaster made a speech, telling the history of the ducks, and explaining his role in all of it. He was a young man, but a showman with a big voice. He does this speech twice a day. He was great. The little staircase was set up, and the ducks were then ushered out of the water, down the steps, across the red carpet and into the elevator, followed by the Duckmaster. I did crouch down to see the ducks stroll by, and I saw their waddling feet and little beady eyeballs and it was hilarious to me, seeing them stroll across this palatial gorgeous lobby, as though they had every right to be there. Yup. Off to the elevator. I’m a duck. No biggie.

When the door closed behind the Duckmaster and the ducks, the entire place erupted into applause.

It was one of the best parts of our trip, totally random and impromptu. A bit of local color, a whimsical event, part of the culture of Memphis, and also getting to see the Hotel itself, which I will not soon forget.

We made our way back to the garage. One of the best things about traveling with Jen is our love of stupid “bits” and how we can keep a dumb bit going for hours. Hell, there are some bits we’ve been doing for 15 years. There is a street in Memphis called Gayoso, and I kept saying, “Man, that street is Oh so gay. My goodness!”

Dumb. We couldn’t stop with it, though.

It had been another really long day and we had our Graceland tour the following day. We had been up since 6 a.m. and we were both looking forward to getting back to the hotel, taking baths, and doing nothing. Maybe watch some Drunk History. We drove back to West Memphis.

On a side note: we had a tragi-comic repetitive problem with finding the right exit to get to our hotel. We kept getting off where we thought we should, following the signs, but then we had to submit to this ongoing service road that runs parallel to the highway, and we had to go about 5 or 6 miles on said service road, past our hotel on the other side of the highway – before taking a precarious left under an overpass, and merging left and then right quickly, and literally every time we did it we would eff up in some ways. It became a joke. “This CAN’T be the way to the hotel. There has GOT to be an easier way.” Two times in a row we made a wrong turn and then had to turn around at the Hop-In, so that became a joke, too. How obsessed we were with the Hop-In and how, if we ever found an easier way to get to the Holiday Inn, we would really miss our daily stops at the Hop-In. “Okay, so we get off at our exit, and then – you know – we have to visit the Hop-In – they’d be disappointed if they didn’t see us on a daily basis …” We kept getting caught in this tesseract in between 40, 55, the Service Road, and Ingram Boulevard.

On our very last day, I made a bold move, and took a right off the exit following a sign to Ingram Boulevard. Jen was terrified, like we were about to catapult through a worm hole into the deepest parts of space. The area in West Memphis, by the way, was bleak, and was all highways, giant highways merging, converging, and then shooting off alarmingly into points unknown. We had already experienced the tragedy of making a wrong turn and then finding ourselves on some other freeway with nary an exit for 20 miles. Mistakes were fatal. But we finally thought we had figured it out, and had our Service Road plan all down, with the quickly merging left, right, crossing over, blah blah, but it felt so unnecessarily complicated. So on our last day, I took a turn I saw, and Jen gasped in terror, but the turn swooped us around, under, and basically directly into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn.

“Oh my God, it was there all along.” said Jen.

“Yes, but we figured out another way and I am actually proud of ourselves for doing that, even with the Hop-In and everything.”

On this particular day however, we had not yet figured out how to get to our hotel in an easy fashion. And we wanted to buy some booze to bring back to the hotel. I was driving. I was careening along the service road like a maniac. It was sunset. “Keep your eye open for a liquor store,” I shot at Jen.

She shouted, “There’s one!”

I pulled over, we pulled into the parking lot. The sign said LIQUOR. LAST CHANCE.

Last chance before what we weren’t sure. Last chance before you veered off onto the wrong freeway taking you to St. Louis before you knew what was happening? Last chance before you did your daily pitstop at the Hop-In because you can’t figure out a way to turn around? Last chance before the terrifying merge left and then quickly right phenomenon that we had problem-solved as our only way to get to the Holiday Inn?

Whatever it meant, it actually was the truth. The place was boarded up and looked like there hadn’t been a customer since 1972. It was so empty that tumbleweed might have been blowing across the parking lot.

We howled with laughter when we saw that bleak deserted building.

Obviously, the last chance for liquor had long passed.

This entry was posted in Personal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Make Way for Ducklings

  1. Jeff says:

    I stayed at the Peabody in Orlando for a conference a few years back and had a great time. Mind you, when you’re there for work there really isn’t much to do in Orlando, and the convention center was right across the street, so I spent just about my entire time in the hotel. I was able to catch the March of the Ducks twice, and now my home boasts an entire collection of duck swizzle sticks, and duck soap (of course, we don’t use it). Even the butter in the restaurants was in the shape of a duck.

  2. Lisa says:

    That parking garage was bullshit. You know where I put that coin? In a box. NEXT TO A PARKING ATTENDANT. SHE couldn’t take my $6? I CALL SHENANIGANS.

    And Last Chance Liquor is because the next county is dry. Probably the next three or four counties, come to think of it. Last Chance, indeed. (In Arkansas, the Bible Belt wears you.)

  3. sheila says:

    Oh, so THAT’S what the Last Chance is about! I should have thought of that!

  4. sheila says:

    Jeff – ha!! I am so glad we caught the moment. On my next trip to Memphis, I think I might need to splurge and spend one night in the Peabody. One of the prettiest places I have ever seen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.