10 Feet Off of Beale

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Day 3 on the road found us in Memphis. The boys noticed that a number of cities along the Mississippi have names corresponding to cities in the ancient world, most notably Cairo and Memphis. “That’s because the Mississippi is the American Nile,” I told them, “and it’s Kay-row, okay?” They didn’t believe me.

We found another La Quinta and had just inked the register when an altercation broke out in the lobby between a group of re-tread bikers and the young security guard. “Good lord, what have we landed in this time?” The guard was professional, respectful and clearly in the right so the matter was quickly put to rest. Still, I was a bit apprehensive when I had to go back to the Tahoe later in the evening to retrieve something I’d forgotten to take to the room.

I peeked over the railing, no bikers, but someone was playing harp and it sounded pretty. I stopped in the stairwell to listen for a while. It had rained. In this part of the country, in July, rain does not refresh. The air was, if anything heavier and fell like a wet blanket benediction over my shoulders. I felt blessed by it. We were in Memphis and tomorrow we’d be making the pilgrimage to Graceland.

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In order to avoid the bikers at the included breakfast, we shot on over to the Waffle House, where in celebration of being in the true south, I dined on grits, an egg, bacon and a biscuit.

Ya’ll know what grits is?”

Yes’m. And I like mine with a dollop of butter and maple syrup.”

Hmph!”

I delight in confounding the natives. In the US, particularly in Florida and now in Tennessee, it is often assumed that FOTI is a good ol’ boy and I’m the foreign tootsie. Apparently I’ve got an “furrin’” accent when I speak American English. FOTI just drops his end consonants willy-nilly, adds a judicious “ain’t” here and there and employs the double negative like a mad hotdog vendor spreading relish. He is, of course, welcomed like the proverbial prodigal son.

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It was early when we drove up on Elvis Presley Boulevard toward the parking facilities of the Graceland Tour. Once again, premium parking was secured. I must admit to feeling a bit giddy about seeing where the legendary King of Rock-n-Roll lived.

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The flow of visitors is controlled with military efficiency. We were grouped in to a tour number with some other people, given our headsets and corralled into a waiting maze near the shuttle bus bays. After only 10 minutes it was our turn to board the bus which would take us all of 50 yards across Elvis Presley Boulevard and through the wrought iron gates to Graceland proper.

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Graceland is a lovely home. This is the thought FOTI and I shared when we walked through the front door. “It smells like your parents’ house,” he said in hushed tones. “Same furniture polish,” I whispered back. Despite the cordons and plexiglass, Graceland looks and feels like a home that is lived in and enjoyed. It also felt extremely familiar. Built a in the 1930’s, Graceland shares a similar layout to my old friend Viv’s house, which was built in the same time period, a few hundred miles to the northeast. I wondered if there was a fabulous art deco bathroom upstairs at Elvis’s house too, but visitors to Graceland are kept strictly to the ground floor so I was unable to check.

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The decor was far more tasteful than I’d imagined. It is very much of my parents’ era, the 1970s, with lots of deep-pile carpeting, velvet, gold, leather and dark woods. My folks had the same kitchen cabinets as Elvis and probably some of the same kitchen appliances in the same colors. While I admired the living room, dining room and kitchen, I was really itchy to see the famous “Jungle Room”, which was sure to be decorated in “outrageous raunchy”.

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It wasn’t. If my mom had had the money, I’m sure she’d have picked out similar decor for our den. “Tiki Chic” is what I’d call it. I saw no swinging vines, no abundance of leopard print, although the walls, floor and ceiling were covered in green deep-pile carpet. It looked like a fun place to hang out.

Everywhere we were allowed to go, there was the imprint, I’d even go so far as to say the presence of Elvis. As a visitor you get a strong sense of his warmth, his humor, his famous generosity and enjoyment of life.

Our tour ended at Elvis’s grave. It was impossible not to wonder what he would be like if he were alive today at 78 years of age. A card-carrying AARPer. A grandfather. I like to think of him out of the spotlight but in the thick of things. Composing and recording the gospel music he loved, mentoring the young turks of the music industry, performing when he felt like it but mostly taking it easy at Graceland, enjoying his family, the pool and his horses. I hadn’t brought any flowers. I wish I had.

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We left in a quieter mood than we arrived. Travelling from Graceland toward downtown Memphis with Elvis blasting on the cd player took us through some rough parts of town and we almost decided to give it a miss but Joe College prevailed upon us to “just go and check out Beale Street”. Boy were we glad we did.

Ditching the Tahoe at a parking lot that relied on the honor system for parking; no tickets, you just shove a 5 dollars in a slot with the number corresponding to your parking space, we sashayed around the corner to Beale to where things were happening.

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Lunch was a priority and we found an establishment offering po’boys, a culinary specialty dearly loved by both Charlie Brown and myself. Joe College was feeling adventurous and went for the fried baloney sandwich and FOTI opted for the basic burger, Memphis style. The fries were absolutely home-made and out of this world delicious. I’d had a margarita at Jimmy Buffet’s the day before which kept me buzzing all afternoon, so it was un-sweetened ice tea for me, cokes for the boys and FOTI, being local, ordered a Bud-lite. Tastebuds tickled and hunger abated, we could enjoy the decor. There was many a famous guitar hung on the wall:

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Once out on the street, the music hits you like a tsunami. Everybody’s playing something. It is too much to take in. Tater Red’s draws Charlie Brown like a magnet and we find ourselves in a voodoo emporium/bric-a-brac/T-shirt vendor/souvenier shop for a happy airconditioned 40 minutes.

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Stepping out of Tater Red’s I notice the brass musical notes on the ground. Beale Street is a walk of fame! At the urging of Joe College, we hike down the road, carefully stepping over Bessie Smith, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ma Rainy, and my man, B.B. King to catch our first view of the magnificent river.

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The breadth of the Mississipi astounds me. Her slow grace reminds me of the way an elephant moves, elegant, lazy, most serene when calm, but prone to stampede and cause the ground to rumble when provoked. We pay our respects to the American Nile and march on back up Beale Street, stepping over the blues greats Isaac Hayes, the Memphis Horns, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers… so many more.

Joe College pulls us up short by a small but pretty park where a band is putting out a great sound. “Great music,” I remark. He is transfixed, staring at a bronze statue of a man holding a horn. “It’s W.C. Handy,” he whispers. “Who?” Then he softly breaks into “Walking in Memphis” and I know who he’s talking about. We’d been walking with our feet 10 feet off of Beale all afternoon.

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* All Photos are by V. Rutgers or V. Corso

** Crossposted from Our Salon

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