My brother passed me the following news tidbit from a local paper in Memphis:
SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT – 8/14/2001
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.