Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Walkin in Memphis

This is something I wrote a while ago, but thought I would post because I really miss Memphis sometimes. I don't know if I'll ever go there again, but I'll never forget it. Here's to the gritty southern jewel!
On what may have been the final spring break of my life, I chose to fly down south to Memphis, TN. My sister-in-law attends dental school there, just minutes away from Beale Street and Sun Studio. My brother made his way up north from the even deeper south, Birmingham, AL, to rendezvous with us.

I have a crush on Memphis. It is the most charming partially run-down U.S. town I have been to yet. I like the city-it’s laid back and gritty but it’s real. During the day, we traversed the streets and ended up at Huey’s, regarded by locals as the best hamburger joint in town. The burger was pretty good. The restaurant itself was more interesting than the food. Tradition encourages guests to shoot toothpicks into the ceiling through straws and to carve or write on the walls, literally. We took advantage of both practices. We then passed through the location where Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down. The area was eerily desolate at the time. A wreath hangs on the railing of the second floor of the hotel where he was shot. I was madly looking forward to visiting the Gibson Guitar Factory…but due to a fire incident, it was closed precisely on the days I was fated to be in Memphis. Lucky me. That was pretty depressing, but their store was open at least, so we went in and “tried on” several guitars. It was like being in a candy store, even though I am a Fender girl. The guitars were gorgeous and shiny and ready to be ripped into.

Downtown is dense and dripping with culture and history. Without music, Memphis wouldn’t be Memphis. Beale street nights are unforgettable. The blues scream through walls of bars and clubs, you find bands that play in alleys, and people dance in the street. The energy absolutely infects you. Bouncers say “Hi there, how are you?” as you pass by. Lights sparkle against the dark of night. You might not necessarily feel like dancing like no one’s watching, but you feel like dancing like you don’t give a damn people are watching.

The night began to get chilly as we hopped into a horse carriage to ride around the town. It actually looked like the kind Cinderella rode in, except it was Disney-fied with starry blue lights, a colored disco ball and blankets. The driver was quite erudite in his knowledge of the city; he shared the history of buildings and streets as we rode. We drove beside the Mississippi River and past the Wolf River Harbor, where singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley was swept away. So, I couldn’t help but have “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” echo through my mind for the remainder of the ride.

The next day was for Mr. Presley. Graceland is much smaller in size than I anticipated, but that did not diminish its intrigue. Upon entering, you get a taste of the enigmatic shadow the singer left behind because a heavy curtain covers the top of the staircase, barring entry to the second floor. From what I know, no fan has ever been up there (Bill Clinton was even denied entry) other than Nick Cage (and that is because he was married to Lisa Marie.) This is supposedly due to Elvis’s wish to keep the second floor private, and has purportedly remained almost entirely unaltered since he was last there. The house felt like a home. I had expected it to feel more superficial, like a museum, but I was wrong. The most touching part of Graceland is of course the meditation garden where the singer and his immediate family are buried. I was pleasantly surprised to find a row of Spanish stained glass scenes of mosques and women in hijab installed in the wall facing the graves. It highlights Elvis’s interest and appreciation of eastern culture.

Visiting his home also brought some questions to mind. A man who had what appeared to be “everything” – undeniable charisma, handsome looks, money, artistic brilliance, and the love of millions of fans – was depressed near the end of his life and arguably died in large part due to this. It suggests that the fulfillment of dreams may initially bring happiness, but does not necessarily sustain it. So what does? And does having material things in excess give rise to a futile search for a form of happiness that does not exist in reality? It seems that perhaps dependency on ever-increasing and virtually endless luxury transforms one’s position from being the dream chaser to being chased down by a nightmare of dissatisfaction.

Driving across the state of Tennessee and Virginia was…entertaining. Against the gorgeous backdrop of mountains were Cracker Barrels every few miles – like 7/11’s at every corner. Yeah. In fact, we ate there for breakfast…and well…again for lunch. Seemed like we had no other choice. But hey, it was great southern cooking. And then there was the interesting bathroom break in the Smokies: we somehow ended up at the “World’s Largest Knife Showplace” and I wouldn’t be surprised if it truly is. It had multiple floors with everything from swords, Lord of the Rings’ weapons, spears, steak knives, and all kinds of quirky country home and garden decs. I made sure to get myself a souvenir, and felt an awkward sense of southern pride. It ended up taking us about 15 hours to get back to Richmond. But it was fun since my brother and I were interchangeably DJ as the other drove. We flipped through music from the 60’s and into every other decade, from Motown to Country to Pop, belting out made-up lyrics like idiots and truly getting into the hick spirit. I must admit, my brother is an amazing friend: a 31-year old doctor who acts 15. Life should be like that.

Then, my final spring break ended. And with it comes a view to post-graduation future. It is both exciting and scary; filled with hopes but almost equally filled with fears. I thought I would be more of a realist than an idealist by the end of law school, but I remain a semi-reluctant idealist. I am, however, more grounded in the reality that dreams don’t always come true the way that you plan them—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Elvis song “If I Can Dream” captures how I would like to sing my way into the “real world”, and beyond.

Photos top to bottom: 1. At Huey's with Hira 2. Beale Street at night 3. Carriage ride through the city 4. Presleys' kitchen in Graceland 5. Room where Elvis played the piano on the left, hours before passing away 6. Smokey Mountain Knife Showplace !! im'a git me some knives, mama.

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