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How to miss the blues in Memphis

I couldn’t even eat my breakfast in peace. I’d just accosted a pew, a gloriously overloaded plate of freshly cooked breakfast taunting my nasal receptors, and there was a sharp rat-a-tat-tat on the café’s widescreen window. A man stood on the other side, mouthing that he needed a couple of dollars, his right palm upturned. Had I anything to spare? I shook my head, hoping he’d compute the message and scram. To the contrary, he stood his ground, knocking for a second time, unconscious that I, too, was a starving nomad, gadding about on the tightest of budgets, living like a pauper. All too soon, a third guilt-inducing knock shook the pane, provoking me to respond with a more overblown wave than my first, perpetrated to reiterate the fact that I wanted to be left alone. Confused by the apparent ambiguity of my gesture, the man darted inside, swiping a rasher of bacon as a precursor to lightening my financial load.

Beale Street MemphisHaving polished off the crumbs he’d left me, I hit Memphis running. Gazing at the rebellious amount of stagnant water drowning the roads, I surmised that it must have been raining most of the night. A couple of blocks over from the bus terminal lay the city’s most famous and well-visited artery, the neon-lit Beale Street, rife with decrepit bars out of which history-changing music had poured… where Elvis and BB King had enjoyed pre-fame recognition no less. Comparatively-speaking, Beale Street to Memphis is what Broadway is to Nashville. Though unexciting at first light on a damp Tuesday morning, I wagered that affairs, once lubricated by narcotics, positively smouldered after dark.

Exploring, I shuffled across Court Square, adorned with adverts promoting an upcoming Concert in The Square. As the morning wore on, the weather improved, shards of blue sky piercing the grey… not that the sunlight glinted off the Mississippi, the mother of all American waterways looking as dark and deadly as my imagination had always portrayed it, the ghost of Huck Finn slowly bobbing downriver in my mind’s eye. Docked at the water’s edge, a whitewashed steamboat was in the process of being replenished with crates of food and drink in anticipation of its evening cruise. Beyond it, Mud Island languished mid-river, access to which could be gained via a bridge or monorail carriage. A one-day mini-festival was due to be staged there in October, poised to feature Hootie & the Blowfish, one of my favourite bands. Depending on where I found myself in the same week, not to mention how much money I had left, I considered making a beeline for the event, a sucker for the soul in Darius Rucker’s spine-thrilling voice.

Jefferson Davis Park presented one of the best vantage-points overlooking the Mississippi. Cocooned in an attractive, water-fronting area awash with trees and seats, the park’s name paid tribute to the President of the Confederacy, Davis having called Memphis “home” between 1869 and 1878. Sauntering through, I passed a sprawl of homeless men, literally drinking in the view.

Memphis view

Named after the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis coolly boasted its own pyramid, the Pyramid Arena, a striking venue that played host to basketball games, conferences and concerts, the city synonymous with music, revered for its connection with Elvis. In the spite of The King having been born in Tupelo, it’s safe to say that a colossal number of Memphis converts are drawn there purely because of the entertainer’s legacy, especially since he lived in Graceland for twenty years from acquiring the property in 1957 until his death in 1977. Elvis didn’t, however, have the house built for him, for Graceland had been built in 1939, long before Elvis swung into town. A far cry from its days as a quiet, secluded family home, it was officially the second most-visited house in North America when I turned up in my dirt-caked shoes.

All aspects considered, I found Memphis to be ravishing, akin to a naturally beautiful girl ignorant of her own attraction. Wedged between Main Street and the river, Front Street had featured prominently in John Grisham’s The Firm, a thrilling Memphis-set novel. Walking the line, thinking about my family, a set of twins skittered past, reminding me that Elvis had been a twin, his brother, Jesse Garon, having beaten him to fresh air by thirty-five minutes. Alas, he’d been stillborn.

Aside from the city’s impossible-to-ignore association with music, Memphis prided itself on being the birthplace of the self-service grocery trade. Founded on Jefferson Street in 1916, Piggly Wiggly duly morphed into a nationwide chain. At its peak, the company operated in excess of two-thousand stores, contributing to the quality of food packaging whilst bolstering the importance of brand recognition.

Come lunchtime, I was making my way over to Little Rock in the neighbouring state of Arkansas. I didn’t know a single person who’d ever visited, though I harboured every intention of stopping, albeit for one night only. However, once inside the city’s bus terminal, it occurred to me that I should have sat tight on the Dallas-bound bus I’d heartlessly ditched. Given that the building’s doors would be locked at 8 p.m., there’d be no chance of slyly sleeping there for free as planned, the cent-pincher I’d become. Plan B had been to power-walk my way around Little Rock’s CBD before staking a ride south to New Orleans… only I’d jammed myself in an awkward position, just two Greyhound services aiming directly for the most desirable gem in Louisiana’s crown. One service departed from Dallas, the other from Memphis.

Little Rock by nightVowing to purchase a comprehensive map that highlighted the hundreds of Greyhound routes cleaving North America into tiny pieces, it seemed ironic that no maps were available in Little Rock. I consequently found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Tickled by my predicament, the ticket clerk dryly instructed me to ‘have a nice day.’ Rejoicing in her role as the bearer of depressing news, her demonic grin chilled my bones. ‘I have other plans,’ I grumbled, unconsciously echoing Joan Didion’s riposte. Five minutes later, making peace with my mistake, I braced myself for a nine-hour journey further west. Rob would have surely found the farce hilarious, especially since I should have been habitually ringing the toll-free Greyhound Information line to glean service departure and arrival times instead of being such an itinerant chancer.

More by this author on his very excellent website. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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