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Eating with Elvis


At its most profound, a road trip can open windows to how others live, promote acceptance of regional cultures and provide a real-life general education that can’t be learned in school. At its base level, a road trip leaves you back with pain, a bloated stomach and smelly socks. Midway – a simple urge to skip town for a while to see the country – inspires this one for me. My buddy Katie is moving back to Boston after five years in the Denver area, and I’m tagging along to hit the asphalt for a week. Starting in Memphis, these are a few glimpses of our road between Denver and Beantown.

It’s 2:30 a.m. on Beale Street and Elvis sits across the bar downing a beer.

He looks lonely, but his hair is midnight-black perfection. The bartender at this faceless dive next to Blues City Café returns from the back room, and he and Elvis talk about a girl for a while. Katie and I are the only others here, and I’m fixated on the blue and red neon sign at B.B. King’s Blues Club across the street that forms a Vegas-like halo behind The King. The bartender walks off again; Elvis finishes his beer, stands and straightens his rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit. He looks at us, makes eye contact and walks our way.

“You know who I am,” he says to Katie, swaggering like that alone is a pickup line. “What’s your name?” Katie tells him and introduces me. Elvis puts an arm around me, pats my left shoulder and sees a notepad and pen resting on the bar. Without coaxing, he picks up the pen and autographs the notepad. “There you go, son,” he says proudly. He takes deep breath of heavy Tennessee air and winks at us. “Now it’s time for Elvis to leave the building.”

He turns and scuffles across the floor, then stops abruptly at the door. Whipping around to lock eyes with ours, Elvis drops into a split, shooting middle and index fingers toward us. He bows his head, mumbles, “Thank you; thank you very much,” and holds the pose for five full seconds. Elvis smiles and walks out the door.  

The next afternoon we check out Graceland Too, Paul McLeod’s Holly Springs, Mississippi home, halfway between Memphis and Presley’s Tupelo, Mississippi birthplace on dusty Highway 78. It’s an outrageous thrift gallery of Elvis memorabilia: walls layered with Elvis record sleeves, bundles of Elvis magazines to the ceiling, racks of Sun Studios t-shirts, hundreds of three-ring binders with hand-typed sheets documenting Elvis’ TV appearances to this day, ceilings covered in Elvis posters. It smells like a retirement home filled with 1940s National Geographic magazines.

This silver-haired fanatic, who yaps unabashedly and constantly with loose and crooked dentures, claims everything in the house is Elvis-related and the collection is insured for $11.5 million. Some (what looks to be an original “Hound Dog” 45 single) seem to hold weight, but others (piles of magazines like a TV Guide with Pam Anderson on the cover – because a friend of her lawyer visited) only fill space for the tour. McLeod’s wife made him choose between her and Elvis, and the name of their only son – no joke – should give away his answer: Elvis Aaron Presley McLeod.

He’s proud of how far folks travel just to see his shrine – “from 50 states and countries, too!” – and boasts a good hundred albums of visitors’ photos, Katie and I now included. On the $5 guided tour – he gives them 24 hours a day – we learn obscure Elvis-related facts, and much more. Out of nowhere while explaining presidential offers he’s had for the collection, McLeod, with a can in hand, bellows, “Watch out, Coke makes me horny!” Katie takes two steps back.

On our way out he asks if we have expired license plates handy. By chance, Katie just changed hers and has the old Colorado plates in the back seat. But what’s it for? “Elvis sang ‘Jailhouse Rock,’” McLeod says. “And, you know, inmates make license plates. So, there’s the connection to Elvis. Told you, I collect anything that can be traced to Elvis.”

The plans have us exploring Atlanta and Raleigh, but they end up being little more than crashing points. It’s after 10 p.m. when we roll into downtown Atlanta and all kitchens are closed.  A man in sparkly white Nikes, flawless jeans and a tucked in polo shirt asks if we need help. Relaxed and friendly, he guides us three blocks down Spring Street to a sports bar, points to the door, then asks for bus fare. A few cigarettes are all I have on me, and he takes one, along with the last three bucks Katie has to offer. We charge dinner and call it a night.

Road fatigue causes Raleigh to be even less eventful, but I learn one thing about the area when stopping for gasoline – saying “Do what?” is the preferred way to ask someone to repeat themselves here. I quickly report this as a regional discovery to a friend in Texas who laughs it off and forgives my Yankee ways.

The air tastes like nickels as we approach Washington, D.C.

It’s just rained, and I love it. Reminds me of the daily drive home from work across the bridge into Ocean City, Maryland I had one misspent summer a decade ago. What I do not love, however, is driving into this city at 4:16 p.m. on a Friday. Traffic is stopped nearly dead for an hour as this bulky, sardined six-lane mess of aggressive drivers and unused turn signals on I-395 attempts to merge into D.C. on Route 1. Now I remember why I left the east coast. This typical disaster makes me yearn for a dance through the Monday morning Mousetrap back home. Katie politely tells me to keep my fingers inside the car and reminds me of the murder rate in D.C.

The Dubliner saves the day. It’s the most authentic Irish pub in D.C., and tonight a man takes the stage with his two best friends – a Guinness and a guitar. By the second pint, he breaks into “Danny Boy” and the entire pub sings, sweats and sways along. Katie’s friend Crazy Jane and my buddy Gerken both live in the area and they meet us here. The combination proves a perfect and comforting antidote for a couple of road-weary souls. Much of the stick-to-your-ribs food looks like its fat content could make a Whopper blush, but at this point it’s essential. The smell alone from Guinness Burgers and Irish Beef Stew is like a coat from the cold.

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