3 Comments on Roots

My brother passed me the following news tidbit from a local paper in Memphis:

Now for some non-Elvis-related news. Last Thursday John Willingham’s barbecue restaurant, famed for its charred succulent ribs and complex sauces, was destroyed by a two-alarm fire. More alarming than the actual fire was the number of news stations that broke into regular network programing to report the blaze. Only in Memphis does a burning rib-shack rate the same media treatment as a tornado watch.

Knowing I was born and raised in Memphis Tennessee, some friends asked me for a couple of pointers to shepherd them as they made their way through the city as part of a cross-country trip. A few notes ended up wandering into some miscellaneous thoughts about the land of my birth.

As much as I adore the San Francisco Bay Area (my current home), I miss thunderstorms! I know, some people would equate that to missing earthquakes, plagues, famine, etc. What can I say; I grew up with thunderstorms. For me it’s like an incredible fireworks display, put on for free. My college apartment in Knoxville had a balcony that overlooked a river and small foothills just across the river. When big thunderstorms came rolling in, friends would come over and we would sit on the balcony, drink daiquiris, watch the rain sheeting off the bridge spanning the river, and lightning strikes every fifteen seconds or so on the peak of the foothill. I’d pay hard cash to have one of those nights again. Weather, instead of climate.

If it’s Spring or Summer, there’s a reasonable chance it’s nasty warm and incredibly humid in Memphis. I can remember summer days where I would get out of the shower, towel off, and be damp again instantly. I don’t miss that part of the deep south.

I can vividly remember a scene from my teenage years. I’m waking up. It’s about 8:00 on a Saturday morning. The sun is already so bright and hot that I can feel it coming through my window, through the pull shade, through the curtains. I can hear the cicadas chirping loud and raspy in the hedges outside. From down the block, I can hear a lawnmower running. I know my father can hear it too.

Most everyone in Memphis says “please”, “thank you”, “sir” and “ma’am”. “Sorry” is often used not as an apology but as a way of expressing sympathy.

My more recent trips to Memphis had occasional samples of racial tension so thick you could taste it. I don’t know whether that was something that is a newer development, or if it was always there when I was growing up and I didn’t notice it because it was a constant.

An experience in college neatly outlined my perception of racial issues in the area. While I was at the University of Tennessee, they hired their first black basketball coach. I was reading an article about how the guy had grown up in Tennessee, went to high school nearby, was a big fan of the area and the school, and had gotten his undergrad at the University of Kentucky. I made an offhand comment to a fellow I knew, “Oh sure, he’s such a big fan, why did he go to Kentucky?” He gave me an odd look and said, “You’re really that young, aren’t you? When this guy was ready to go to college, UT didn’t accept black students.” That took a while to soak in. What a tremendous amount of change in one man’s lifetime.

The next week, the college newspaper broke a story about a problem with the new coach’s compensation package. It seems the university had long paid for its coaches’ membership fees in the local country club. Which, you guessed it, didn’t accept blacks. Sigh. Still so far to go.

If you’re carnivorous, please make sure to have barbeque at Gridley’s or Corky’s. Memphis barbeque is a unique experience which I have not been able to find in any other part of the states. I rarely eat meat these days, but Memphis barbeque will lure me every time.

Spend a night walking along Beale Street in downtown Memphis. Make sure you see fireflies. Watch a barge make its way along the river. Listen for the calliope playing on the Delta Queen paddle boat. If you don’t mind slippin’ south into Mississippi, the right Reverend Al Green still holds Sunday services.

3 thoughts on “Roots

  1. Anonymous

    A Voice From Memphis

    Browse, honey, it’s nice to know you still remember.

    1. Another barbeque place, The Public Eye, burned down completely recently. Passing in the car, I stared at it and became moody.

    “What’s wrong?” my partner asked.

    “I used to go there with [browse]. I went there with my parents. If you stay in one place too long, it becomes a different place anyway.”

    2. The thunderstorms make up for the humidity, IMO. And I love the way things are before the storm, with a subtle tension in the air and the colors all surreal.

    3. If it’s Spring north of here, it’s muggy here. If it’s Thaw north of here, there’s a reasonable change it’s either bright and beautiful or having a lovely brooding storm. Right about now it’s beautiful and just cool enough for a jacket. The sky this weekend was an irreproduceable result. By December it will be wet and nasty and unrelieved by snow, but early Spring and Mid-Autumn are wonderful.

    4. I have to curb my “ma’ams” and “sirs” when I’m talking to those who didn’t grow up in the South, or risk taking a “one down” position. It’s a drag.

    5. The racial tension was there, sadly, when you were younger. Sometimes it seems to me to have lessened, but it’s possibly just that my social group has changed.

    6. When I was very young, my mother told me about the time when “Black people couldn’t go to the public library…” She couldn’t have picked anything that would have sensitized me more at that stage.

    7. I remember that issue with the coach. For me, it was a matter of confirming how backwards everything was– in many senses.


  2. Anonymous

    8. Corkys?! Well, if you must. But I resent that they represent Memphis cuisine to so many outsiders when they were established while I was in college and use a format and recipe plan that was designed for its franchiseability. What about The Rendezvous or The BBQ Shop?

    9. Go to Beale street the first time you get time in Memphis. (You can also get excellent ribs at the Blues City Cafe.) Wander and listen and pick up a mojo or a record at Tater Red’s. The second time, go to Overton Square and eat at The Windmill, one of the older Greek Restaurants in town, and maybe hang out in the Square. I think Maggie’s Pharm or Wizard’s or Moondance wouldn’t provide anything missing in CA, but you would have liked the exhibit in the Square of cartoons that got the artists jailed or killed. Have coffee after at Java Cabana in Cooper-Young, even though the Elvis Wedding Chapel is long gone, and if it’s Thursday stay for poetry reading. (On weekends jazz usually happens instead.) Rev. Green grooves, but Friday night at Temple Israel is just as Memphis. Do you remember the Pinch District?

    On a related note, I found out that Union Avenue has nothing to do with the Civil War. Really.


    1. browse Post author

      “When I was a boy…”

      1. Ahh, the Public Eye. Yeah, I miss that place. Barbecue and spaghetti, who knew those would work together?

      4. This may be more of a gender issue. I usually don’t have to worry much about being mistakenly put in the “one down” position. I agree, that would be a drag.

      8. I hadn’t heard that about the Corky’s “formula”. Frankly, my real metric for barbecue, ahh, that sweet pink meat, would be Gridley’s. From my last visit to Memphis, it seemed like most of those had been closed down.

      9. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed visiting Beale Street as a tourist, but none of that had been built up and touted when I was a kid, so it has little or no emotional content to me.

      10. It has the same origins as “Union Planters” bank, no? (I can only imagine how “Union Planters” must sound as a name of a bank, to those people who didn’t grow up with it. 🙂


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