Saturday, July 10, 2010

How can you be blue in Memphis?

"Get up. We have to go back about 20 miles- it won't take us very long." Mrs. Hall was up and dressed early. "We passed it last night coming in late but it wasn't open then and I'm not leaving the area after being so close and not stopping by." Mr. Hall shook the morning fog out of his head and dutifully complied. The object of Mrs. Hall's obsession was the Cafe at the Loveless Motel, famous in local song and story. (Actually, mostly just on the Food Channel on TV.) Car travel can really put the pounds on a person, but the Halls threw caution to the wind and ordered the house specialities: homemade biscuits, homemade jams and Mr. Hall's favorite, pork sausage gravy. Photographic evidence caught him in the criminal act of actually salting the breakfast. ("This is why we have to bring your prescriptions with us," Mrs. H. scolded.) The aroma of fresh biscuits continuously flowing from the ovens was heady, mixed with the glorious freshness of the peach preserves and the blackberry jam, it was almost more than they could stand. Actually, after eating all those biscuits, standing seemed like an impossibility altogether.
Strolling about the grounds to tamp down breakfast, they remarked on some of the homespun drolleries sprinkled around and then squeezed themselves back into the rental. Time to hit the open road again.
It wasn't long before they were rolling into Memphis. Hot, bright and vibrant, with the sound of music playing everywhere, the Halls taxied the rental under the canopy of the parking arena for the Peabody Hotel. Grande dame of the old style hotels from the 30s, the Peabody was still in the heart of the downtown district and walking distance from most of its famous landmarks. As soon as they were settled, the Halls hit the streets.
If you were from another planet and had no knowledge of the potent musical history of this town, you might be inclined to think its leading industry was the manufacture and display of all forms of neon, for Mrs. Hall had never seen such a collection of fun and interesting uses of that happy medium. The hotel is located in the heart of an historic section of town, so it was just the matter of a short jog to see many of the interesting little museums in the area. They wandered around the downtown for a while and up and down Beale St. so Mrs. Hall could get photos of all the neon signs. But the heat was oppressive, so opting to wait it out in the hotel, they reassessed the situation. Watching the little children play with the resident ducks in the fountain of the lobby, Mrs. Hall asked, "Is that all there is to Beale St? It was so.. so.. I guess tame, is the word I'm looking for." Mr. Hall waved his hands reassuringly. "Wait- wait for dark."
At four forty-five, they staked out a spot against the velvet ropes. Children and anxious parents pushed up against each other as the show began. An elderly gentleman, attired in garb from bygone days explained the history of the ducks, chose a helper from the children at the ropes and after much fanfare, escorted the Peabody Ducks back over the red velvet stairs, down the red carpet and onto the elevator, to retire for another day. It was a ritual that had been going on there for decades and after all the excitement died down, the lobby resumed its quiet elegance. "A cocktail, before we take on the natives?" asked Mr. H. but Mrs. H. had already flagged down a waitress.
Twilight was just creeping over Beale when they decided to join the merry throng. The glow of the neon lights drew the partygoers on and since the streets were blocked off to oncoming traffic, the road was filled with humanity. The air was redolent with sweaty blues and open alcohol- police presence was everywhere, though they were more concerned with looking for firearms than worrying about the disturbing prevalence of babies and small children out in this crowd at such a late hour. When the dark finally fell, the search lights went on waving and flashing over the streets and from countless rooftops, bubble machines rained bubbles over the mob milling about below. "I have to have Memphis BBQ," said Mr. Hall. "I'm not leaving without it." Mrs. Hall nodded; she had done some homework earlier and ferrying him down the street, pointed Mr. Hall into 'The Pig On Beale'. The bar menu was sufficient to the cause and in no time, they were scarfing some of the most tender and flavorful bbq pork sandwiches and ribs they had ever eaten. "It's so good-," mumbled Mrs. Hall, between mouthfuls. "It's like pork bbq flavored angelfood cake." Elvis was making the rounds again, and stopped by to talk to them before a set.
They rolled, fat and happy, into the crowds. The walk back to the hotel was just a hazy memory; smoky blues playing from crowded open air bars, revelers joining the soloists on the street, a gentleman in a broadbrimmed hat holding court right on the sidewalk, a woman drinking a rum drink from what appeared to be a fishbowl; all wonderful and alive.
They had heard that the evening would be topped off with fireworks from Handy Park, so they thought they would have a better viewpoint from the top of their hotel. Pressing the button in the elevator to get to the roof produced unhappy results- the roof had closed at 10 pm. Not one to be daunted, however, Mrs. Hall remained determined. "You can't go to the 12th floor, that's private." "But that's where the windows with the best view are; follow me." She strode down the hallway on the 11th floor til she came to some double doors leading to a broad staircase to the 12th. They were closed, but not locked. Prying them open carefully with her fingertips, they snuck up the stairs and into one of the unoccupied sitting rooms. There, in the dark, they watched not only the fireworks from Beale St. but three other shows occurring simultaneously across the horizon. It was delicious to see, but the night was wearing on and they had a busy day planned for tomorrow; they snuck back downstairs and to their rooms, sated, happy and exhausted.
Next episode: Graceland and beyond. Stay tuned!

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