Walking in Memphis

After a weekend in Nashville’s nightlife I feel pretty taxed.  The clouds never did let up and I use this an excuse as to why I do not explore the city much during the day.  I do find a guitar shop. Mostly because I sort of lost interest in it. I visit the Johnny Cash museum but do not go inside due to price.  It turns out that Monday is a holiday. Most of the shops are closed. I take a long walk out of the core area of broadway. I find myself crossing large bridges over railway yards that sprawl on and on.  The vastness of American cities is hard for me to comprehend. I know the country is filled with so many of these mega cities. It’s a quiet day and everything is grey. The clouds sit on the sky encompassing the city in every direction way beyond what my eye can see.  The buildings, grey as well, seem to blend in with the clouds. The streets are grey and the puddles that fill them reflect the grey of their surroundings. A cold breeze breathes around me. The temperature is both warm and cold. My brisk walk suggests I take my jacket off and put it back on again in about five minutes, then take it off again for another seven minutes.  I pass a man holding roses on the bridge. He is dressed well and has focused eyes looking beyond me. I turn to watch him out of curiosity to his image. He stops at the middle part of the bridge to look over the train yard for a moment then tosses a rose off one by one until they are all gone.

I find a whole new town a few minutes after the bridge.  Buildings stretch out far into the sky again and I think I am in what is called Nashville’s west end.  It is filled with coffee shops, hotels, commercial appliance repair shops, bookstores, and many other medium to large size buildings of businesses or dwellings.  I am lost a bit so naturally I start following people around. They lead me to a open coffee shop which I thought was a bicycle repair shop. Curiously you have to walk through a small sort of alley way to get to it and once you are there walk through a large car garage door to enter the actual coffee shop.  The counter takes up the middle square of the place. Table and chairs, made up of thick log cut picnic tables and stools, take up the space around the center counter and barista area. There is a women in line before me but she suggests I go first. I watch her later as she hovers around the counter a bit, laughing as she gets close, then backing away, and doing it again.

When I head back towards my hostel I get lost.  I find myself under the bridge I walked across before.  I search around but I can’t find the roses. I do find a large metal staircase that brings me up another perpendicular bridge.  I get a good view of Nashville in every direction from here. Grey and stretched out and quiet after its pulsating weekend. Its Monday, a holiday, everyone is sleeping. I head back to the hostel and take and join them.

My destination is New Orleans but along the highway I notice memorials named after blues legends like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.  At a rest station I read a sign that says “Memphis, home of the blues and rock and roll.”. That's pretty tempting. I decide to take a detour and about another hour down the highway I come to the crossroads.  One exit leads to Memphis while the other leads on to New Orleans. Indecision kicks in. Should I continue as planned or listen to whimsy? The car noticeably shifts from left to right as my mind jumbles reasoning.  Proudly I take the exit to Memphis and feel like a new person. Like someone who can do whatever they want because I am free to do so.

The exit leads me to the connecting highway towards Memphis.  It takes a lot longer than I thought. Once I get to the city limits I am once again surprised by the shear size of it.  Before I know it I am at the edge of the Mississippi River. This is a great feeling for me. I picture Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Joe, riding down the Mississippi on their raft free from concern and lost in wonder.  I get a warm feeling in my stomach proud to be on an adventure of my own. The mississippi is wide here but no where near its widest. I am told later that it can stretch to be over a mile wide. It looks brown and flowing. There is a wind blowing just over the description of gentle that is uneasy and sharp with little cold talons.  An old steam boat restaurant tour ride sits perched at a dock. It is quiet and sleeping. I see no one walking about.

I’ve entered the city on the edge of what I guess is its commercial district core.  There is a large glass pyramid building that seems rather interesting until I read the sign “Bass Pro Shop”.  Next to that, on the river bank, is another large glass building that is the Memphis welcome building. I’ve had great luck with these so far.  The people inside have always been friendly. I park the car and enter from the main doors. A towering bronze statue of Elvis Presley greets me.  A few people take pictures next to it. I feel like I’m home. Or atleast, I want to be home here. Inside there is another statue, this one of B.B. King.  The statues look to be about twenty feet tall and remind me that this really is the birthplace of rock and roll. Quite the claim, undisputed.

As usual the ladies at the front desk are wonderful.  I tell them that signs of rock and roll led me here on a detour from Nashville to New Orleans.  One of them says “Oh, You decided to kick it with us for a few days instead!”. I smile because her description was very accurate.  I did want to kick it here for a few days. I get directions to a hostel and some other points of interest. The obvious nightlife street here is called “Beale Street”.  It is much like Nashville’s broadway street but stretches on a bit longer and seems much more “dirty”. I guess it is a bit older, maybe, that it seems that way. I never end up spending a lot of time in Beale Street.  I am a bit worn out from Nashville and interested in taking a break from loud bars.

As usual I get lost looking for the hostel.  I drive through the towering building side of Memphis by taking the opposite turn suggested to me by the rad welcome center ladies.  I shoot alongside the Mississippi river which I am sort of fine with until the road forces me back. Finally I get on the right path and drive about ten minutes.  The landscape changes from large buildings to old houses. I am in a quiet neighborhood now and I imagine to everyone else that it must be easy to spot I am a foreigner.  I do multiple roundabouts, cut people off and drive down some streets that feel like only locals ever drive down.

I find the hostel eventually and learn later the street it is on is definitely a busy one.The hostel is an old church connected to an old school.  The sidewalks around are dilapidated and the brick walls are colored like a rusty sponge. Weather faded and uncared for. The building is quite large but only a portion of it is part of the hostel.  A sign in front reads “We accept everybody”. It's written in multi colored letters and accentuated by various colored faces on painted with it. That’s a good sign I think. In the back there is a parking lot, bonus.

I call the number listed on the locked door at the back entrance.  A tiny person opens the back door. The smile is wide surrounding ivory white teeth with cheeks that crinkle around the basin of large deep welled eyes.  The eyes are brown and a short cut bob of dark hair surrounds the face in a purposeful frame. Alexi introduces herself and leads me up two flights of stairs.  We go through another locked door and enter the hostel. To my right there is a room filled with books and couches and old carpets. Dimly lit lamps give the aura of comfort and I imagine myself spending most of my time here.  On the left of the hallway is the common area and reception desk. There is a standard kitchen with a few tables and chairs, two fridges, coffee makers, toasters and the reception desk. Nothing matches, everything is borrowed, and, seems found.  The hardwood floor is old and dilapidated, my favorite, because it squeaks just right.

After check in I set my bags down in my bedroom which has eight bunks.  Everyone is gone except Albert who had also just checked in. I decide to be social and introduce myself.  Albert is a big person with a half moon crescent beard from ear to ear. His chest is thick and wide and he is very friendly.  “I’m here for the MLK fifty year.” he says. “The what?”. “The Doctor Martin Luther King Junior fifty year anniversary.” he says.  “Oh! - When is that?” I feel stupid but also accept that I am. He tells me the event is on Wednesday but he will be attending classes all week.  Outside I find a paper with Dr Martin Luther King Junior on the cover. I read it from front to back to get educated.

Outside there is still daylight left.  I search google for barbecue and find a place close by called “Central Barbecue”.  All along the drive I had psyched myself up for southern style BBQ and I had a feeling this place would deliver.  Memphis had a strange air about it this day. It was warm with an accompanying wind. No one was on the streets. Every once and a while all the sounds of the area would sort of disappear.  I could watch signs moving in the wind but heard nothing coming from them. It reminded me of ominous weather warnings. That eerie calm before a tornado strikes.

A few blocks from the hostel and I ran into some interesting shops.  Memphis Drum Shop  was one of them and had a display kit in the window which was a Ludwig kit from 1947.  I took photos of it and sent it to my drummer friend to tease him. Not to my surprise he asked me to buy it.  Later when the shop was open I asked about it and not to my surprise again the shopkeeper told me it was not for sale.  Further down the street I saw a rainbow flag hanging from another shop with a sign that said “We love everybody” and “Care Aid Available”.  It comforted me to see something like this in a place so unfamiliar. I walked a few more blocks down and saw another music store called Xanadu Music & Books. I made a note of this place because it had a sing on top that said “Guitars and Stuff” and that's pretty much two things that I like.

Taking a turn right off cooper on to central and a few blocks walk I enter into Central Barbecue. Immediately I know I have come to the right place.  It is a packed old brick building enlarged by two added extensions which are also packed. Everyone is munching cue, smiling and enjoying themselves. Old blues music plays on the speakers.  Most of it i do not even recognize. Should I cry? No. I must order the cue.

At the counter I am asked for ID so I give up my passport. “Oh you from Canada? Thats cool!”. I laugh and order a full rack of ribs. “A full rack?” I almost regret it and feel like I have no idea what I am getting into but I push on and insist the give me the full rack with a side of beans, slaw and a biscuit.  I take a seat and feel like this is where everyone comes after preaching and singing in a gospel. I get the ribs and pretty much pummel the first ten bones without much thought. After that though, about two thirds in I begin to sweat and lose vision. I try the coleslaw but it's a foolish effort. I go back to the barbecue ribs with some newly mustered zeal and almost finish them off.  

I can’t say enough about Central Barbecue so I won’t say more except that it may have been my favorite place in Memphis.  It was everything I had hoped it would be. Quick dirty barbecue with no mess and no fuss. I pick up my gut with what was left of my strength and take it back to the hostel where I sleep as my poor body manages what I’ve done to it.  “I’m going to sleep, body, clean up this mess while I’m gone!”.

The next morning during breakfast I meet a few other hostel dwellers.  Guy, who I wrote a bit about here, introduces himself to me and I give him a few boiled eggs.  Another traveller, Ivan, talks about his european adventures, casual philosophy, and current travel plans.  Maxi finds his way through the kitchen by feel. He is a resident here and I like the way he talks. Maxi takes a short breath before saying anything and he always talks with conviction.  When someone says something to Maxi I think I can see what was said to him sink in. He seems to listen very well and not only hears the words spoken to him but also absorbs them. There's a new caretaker behind the desk who has beautiful braided hair.  The braids are a long thick slick of dark cords. The music playing is sweet soft rhythm and blues.

After breakfast I make my way to Xanadu Guitars and Stuff Bookstore.  I have in mind to find an american song book. An american song book will teach me all the contemporary hits so I can play top 40s for anyone, campfire magic.  The building is old, as most things seem to be in Memphis. A porch leads to the side of the building where the entrance is. I open the screen door which sits on broken hinges.  Inside everything is brown. The walls are stale wood and chipped and covered with what appear to be home made cigar box guitars. Their are guitar bodies shaped like cats heads, dogs heads, strange shapes I do not recognize and a few have no body at all.  Just a stick with a string on it and a tiny pickup at the bottom. There are books everywhere. Shelves from floor to ceiling are covered in books, mostly old, some new. Books sit on stools, pillows, some of the floor. The display counter is full of books as well, piles of them.  To my left the store goes on into another room. To my right I see a small office and a man, who had his back to me, stands and turns to face me in a fluid sort of motion, like he had peeled his piercing blue eyes off the floor to do it. His eyes are active, wide, bright eggs that look through me and past me.  His gaze seems distracted yet focused. White hair shoots out from his head in all directions. We greet each other as common weirdos but the comfort seems foreign and new. He asks me to drop my bag in the back. I do.

I talk for a moment but Johnny takes over pretty quickly.  I don’t blame him for it because I egg him on. His speech a passionate one  about why he will not start an amazon store. He talks at lengths about the need for new ‘shit’ in music.  I learn a great deal in a short amount of time from Johnny Low Bow. Johnny has been around. He is travelled and is well read.  He says owning a bookstore in America is kind of a joke. Johnny Low Bow is a one man band. He builds strange guitars. I never really get a word in about what I came for.  He tries to let me look around but his speech continues to grasp me away from the shelves and into his blue eyes. After a while he plugs one of his creations in. It is a two stringed homemade bow guitar.  One string is a bass string, the other a guitar string, each with their own pickup. We plug each pickup into their respective amps and with a brass slide to change the intonation he strums out loud powerful sounds in the tiny room tucked away behind the main display area.

In here there are amps everywhere.  Johnny sits behind a bass drum, snare drum, and high hat which he plays with his feet.  With a drumstick in one hand and a brass slide in the other he beats the snare and strums the guitar while kicking the bass drum and hi hat.  Every once in a while he performs an interlude on and old Rhode Organ that sounds like it is out of the seventies because it is. After a bit of serenation I am allowed to play.  I am surprised by the great sound this custom made stick guitar makes. I am told various ways to change its tone including a moveable neck nut as well as simply twisting the neck itself.  Tempting as it was I had to choke up on my budget and not buy one of these neat and very unique instruments. Hopefully I go back someday to get one. I buy a record from Johnny Low Bow himself called “Im a one man band”.  He tells me he will be touring in Finland soon and signs my record.

The next day Guy and I catch an early morning bus to head downtown.  It’s a cold morning still fresh with the chilly night air. During the bus ride I see that Memphis’ suburbs sprawl out in many directions.  There are little towns within towns all with housing, businesses, and activity. After about a fifteen minute ride we come to a bus terminal where we can ride a connecting bus to the downtown core.  It is a trolley that will take us there and is constructed of a style from an era when people hung out at soda pop shops and drank milkshakes. The Trolley, made from wood and iron has park benches inside for seating.  It is quite uncomfortable but charming enough to make up for it. Within another fifteen minutes the driver pulls the bus over to make up for gained time. Guy asks where the best place to get off is to get to the National Civil Rights Museum and the driver tells us he will let us off at the best spot.  We wait for another five minutes until the driver starts the bus which he then drives forward about ten feet and says, “Alright! This is the spot.  Just walk that way.” and points down a street. Guy and I laugh about this and head on our way.

It is April 4th, 2018 and most every shop downtown Memphis is closed this morning.  Guy and I follow the crowds to a back street that leads us past a reception area that is still setting up.  We come to the street between the Lorraine Hotel and the buildings that the shooter aimed from. Through the crowd Guy points on the exact location where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.  There is stage set up today. We arrived early and the crowd is pouring in quickly filling up the street. Guy and I watch a couple of speakers together until Guy decides to part ways and find a different vantage point.  I learn about King’s mission and that he was doing work for lower class employees of American cities. That his beliefs wrought a man of pure conviction and servitude until he was martyred here on this day. The theme is “Where do we go from here?” and the stage shows are a constant flow of reminders of plights of the common day that are entrenched in the past with hopes of an uplifting future.  I hear from people who knew Dr Martin Luther King Junior personally as they recount tales of this bright figure of social justice. They recount the history of a person who did everything they could for what they believed in. There is singing, praying dancing and music.

After the initial congregation I break away and take walk through downtown Memphis.  It is a cold windy day and seems very much uncharacteristic. I find Beale Street which easily fits the description of a district filled with bars and cheap drinks.  Piano sounds and loud music come from every which way although mostly every where is barren empty today. I find a trolley station and take the wood iron park bench bus mobile back to the bus terminal.  After a long wait our bus arrives and many of us crowd out to catch it. I guess this is a common route. I wonder if I will be able to get on because there are so many of us waiting.

Many people come off the bus as it parks but the line of people in front of me trying to get on is prevented from doing so.  “Out of Service” is displayed on the bus’ sign. After some investigation by one of the would be passengers we are told there is a woman on the bus who refuses to get off.  “Fuck you, Fuck off, I don’t give a fuck!” she repeats the words of the refusing passenger for all of us to hear as she smokes and laughs about it. Eventually a service van parks close by and the driver of that vehicle goes in the bus to see what is going on.  I see police cars nearby but they are not needed and do nothing. Eventually she does get off. She has an obvious scowl on her face as is led to the van. I think she just got a free ride home.

The bus stops halfway through the route so everyone can get off and have a smoke. A gentleman passenger on the bus asks if he can run to the store and the driver says “Only if you make it lickity split!.”.  The man runs off the bus in a tear. Eventually I get back to the hostel tired from the wind and sun. I wonder if I should have stayed out there longer. I feel like I got what I came for, tired and learned after walking in Memphis.