Here I am, back in the city of my youth, for a brief five day visit. Ostensibly, the trip is for the wedding of my niece, but primarily I’m here to see my remaining relatives for the first time in over three years.
Visiting Memphis is a challenge for me. My memories of the city are so intertwined with memories of my mother. Thirteen years after her death, you’d think I would be more settled and at peace with it, but coming back here reminds me of her a dozen ways every day.It’s also hard to see how dramatically the city has gone down hill. Memphis feels as though it has been hollowed out from the inside by white flight to the increasingly distant suburbs. What remains is a decaying core, with ample boarded-up buildings and weed-choked lots.
Getting here was effortless, and even something of a luxury. For the first time in my life, I splurged on first-class plane tickets! Melody and I rode up front with the glamorous people, got hot towels to clean our hands before getting a hot breakfast that was surprisingly adequate for airline food. Real metal utensils! Cloth napkins! I even watched a movie I missed when it was in theaters, Birdman, starring Michael Keaton. As a former theater geek, I deeply enjoyed the reminders of what the backstage life in a theater is like.
Once we arrived in Memphis and acquired the rental car, we attempted to reach our housing. For this trip, I skipped booking a hotel and rented a small condo via VRBO. The price is the same (less, actually), and having a full kitchen and a washer/dryer feels especially nice. The sense of privacy and space is also welcome; for instance, I can sit in the living room and type this while Melody gets another hour or so of sleep.
However, getting into the rental condo was frustrating. I didn’t get any kind of contact from the property manager in advance of our arrival, and when I tried to reach them once we landed, the call went directly to voicemail. I drove by the address and from an external glance, I was a little apprehensive about the part of town it was in and the distance from Beale Street (one of the factors that led me to select this place). With no luck reaching the property owner, I spent some time parked at the curb calling a few hotels downtown, looking for an alternative. Surprisingly, everything seemed booked and I was getting worried and short-tempered about not having planned this better. Grrr… Finally, I got a message back from the condo owner, who got me in touch with the property manager, who got us into the place. The condo was much nicer inside than one would guess from the exterior, and once I was oriented I realized we were indeed only a short walk to Beale (some of the only nightlife in Memphis). Whew, crisis averted.
Wednesday night we had to ourselves, a night to rest and get our bearings before facing the greeting line of family. We made a very brief stop at the fire station where my cousin Tim is the lieutenant, but they got a call and had to leave soon after we arrived. We drove across town a bit and I boggled at how unrecognizable so much of it had become. I showed Melody my old high school, which continues to look like a high security penitentiary in a suburb that has gone to seed. The shopping mall where I frittered away so much of my teens is in the process of being bulldozed.
We made it back to the condo and walked down to Beale Street, where some sort of motorcycle show was happening. Several hundred choppers, with elaborate lights, sound systems, and deep throaty motors rumbling. We walked up and down the short four blocks of what felt like a miniature Bourbon Street, and found a touristy place to grab a bite of food. I had catfish and hushpuppies for the first time in ages, along with sweet tea so intense that it made me gasp. It’s not swelteringly hot yet, and the extra bit of humidity makes the air feel buttery.
We got back to the condo around 11, and listened to the next door neighbors watch the very end of the NBA Finals game that was just wrapping up. (They were terribly sad when Cleveland lost the game in the final two minutes.) Thankfully, they fell silent after the game concluded and Melody and I fell into bed and slept solidly. Well, until about 6 am when I decided I couldn’t sleep any more and decided to write all this.