I hooked up with another couch surfing host in Memphis. She’s hoping to sell her house and move to Mexico soon, so the home has been emptied of most of her belongings. It gives the place a comfortingly austere quality. We grabbed dinner at the second best BBQ place in town and swapped ideologies about simple living and consumerism. She talked about why she chose Mexico, the troubles of getting her house sold, and the pushback of doing that which society doesn’t expect or endorse. I have some experience with that last one. We got along famously. After dinner she suggested we go to the park, as there was a free concert featuring an Israeli blues band, which was certainly intriguing enough to warrant the trip. The band was fantastic, playing a range of blues standards plus a few of their own.
The next morning while my host was at work I headed downtown. I parked the car and took the trolly down to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had been told by many people that I couldn’t miss the museum. It was one of the highlights of Memphis. I should bring tissues. When I arrived the ticket taker explained that there would be a short film, after which I was to go to the top floor and work my way down. The movie gave a bit of backstory regarding Martin Luther King Jr. The doors of the theater opened and I rode the elevator with the rest of the museum goers upstairs, where we are immediately hit with the assassination. There were facts about the shooter, clips from speeches Dr. King made in the weeks leading up to his death, a replica of the car the shooter was said to have escaped in, and even the gun used as evidence in the trial.
The museum itself is in the building across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was staying. They have preserved the bathroom and window they believe James Earl Ray shot from. It’s a strange feeling to stand there and look out the window toward the Lorraine, the memorial reef, and the tourists taking pictures. After going through the exhibits, including several on the possible conspiracy theories and the reasoning behind them (for it’s part, the museum tries to show the evidence without drawing any conclusions), I went outside and across the street to the Lorraine. A recording plays non-stop outside the old motel. It gives a few words regarding the details of the day of the assassination, followed by one of Dr. King’s favorite gospel performers singing a hymn in memorial. Several rooms, including the one Dr. King stayed in, have been refurbished to the time of the assassination. As a visitor you are welcome to go up the stairs to the second floor balcony and stand in the exact spot where he was shot, with your feet where the blood would have pooled. You can put your hands on the railing, look over across the street to where James Earl Ray was said to have stayed, and listen to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the speakers while tourists take photos of you. That is a moment to give you shivers.
While visiting that spot was certainly moving, I was a bit disappointed with the museum itself. It was assaultive, but not in the compelling way I had experienced at the Oklahoma City Memorial. It was more jarring and unexpected. Where was the history? Where were the exhibits about the rest of the movement? This was supposed to be a civil rights museum, so why was I only seeing material about this one event? Much later, when recounting my experience to another host, I was told that the main part of the museum is actually inside the Lorraine Motel itself, which was under construction during my visit and wasn’t open to the public. It was a bit of a relief to know that I wasn’t mistaken in my disappointment. I suppose I’ll have to return to Memphis one day to see the real thing.
The well known (but I’m told not that great) Rendevous restaurant was closed, so I headed to Beale Street for lunch. It should be noted the Beale Street, and for that matter all of Memphis, is surprisingly small. The downtown area seems to only stretch about a dozen walkable blocks, and Beale Street itself is perhaps four blocks long if you’re really pushing it. I found a reputable looking place and sat at the counter. I ordered the chicken & waffles and, upon recommendation from the waitress, a side of mac & cheese. I never know how I’m supposed to eat chicken & waffles. A fork? My hands? With syrup? With butter? It always sounds like such a good idea, but every time I try it seems like I end up confused and sticky. The mac & cheese, however, was delicious. I talked with the waitress behind the counter and she explained how she’d recently found a pair of kittens abandoned in her backyard and was trying to raise them herself, at least until they’re old enough for the shelters in town to take them. Shelters won’t take newborn kittens because they require so much extra work and bottle feeding, a fact that my waitress knew all too well. I wandered the length of Beale Street, eventually hearing music from a live performer being pumped out of one of the bars. The song was “Walking in Memphis,” and I got to experience that satisfying feeling of doing something I’d always wanted to do: listen to “Walking in Memphis” while actually walking in Memphis.
I went back to my car and drove to the mighty and independently run state that is Graceland. The place is run a bit like a theme park, with different areas and attractions, and more gift shops than I’ve ever seen in one place. I personally visited at least five. Visitors are all given audio guides, and a shuttle runs from the main area over to the house. Like all of Memphis, the mansion was surprisingly small. While the furnishings inside certainly convey a sense of wealth, they also reflect the 1970s taste of a former country boy. The Jungle Room is just a living room with a hunting lodge vibe. There’s shag carpet on some of the ceilings, but the carpet itself is that same carpet you’ve seen in any number of old, refurbished basements of the time. The backyard swing set looks just like the one I grew up with. The back of the house is so ordinary you wouldn’t pick it out of a crowd. In light of the recent behaviors in over-the-top housing, as well as a personal comparison to the Hearst Castle and the Winchester House, the Mansion at Graceland is absolutely quaint.
Adjacent buildings have been renovated to display The King’s many gold records and awards, as well as memorabilia from his career. It is in these areas that you get a better sense of who he was and what his life was like. There’s a real feeling that he got trapped in a movie deal he hated but couldn’t escape, and that the 1968 comeback special was one of the highlights of his career. Another building showcases his achievements in the 1970s, which I had always perceived as the dwindling of his career. When you think of Elvis fondly, you think of Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog. But when you look at the numbers, he was selling better in the 70s than at any time in his life. Several fantastic jumpsuits are on display, as well as clips from performances in those later years.
And then, without transition, without fanfare, and without explanation, the voice on the audio guide simply says “Elvis Presley died of heart failure on August 16th, 1977.” It directs you outside to the gravesite, and explains that the body was moved here out of security concerns. And that’s it. There he is, next to his family members in a peaceful garden. There is no mention of drugs, weight, depression, or illness. He was an amazing man with a dazzling career who unexpectedly died of heart failure one day. And that’s all Graceland has to say about it.
I searched the gift shops looking for memorabilia from the 1969 film “The Trouble with Girls.” While widely regarded as one of his least popular and least influential films, “The Trouble with Girls” holds the important distinction of being the only Presley film that my mother was in. Her and her bandmates at the time were given small but memorable roles, and it’s always been one of my favorite facts about my family. However I had no such luck. The only pieces of merchandise they had in the shops were copies of the film itself, of which our family already owns two. My mother always said that while Elvis’s people could sometimes be a bit of a pain, the man himself was very nice. Just another musician. I related this story to a woman working at the gift shop who said it was in line with everything she’d ever heard about the man, and she’s heard quite a bit.
My last night in Memphis my host and I tried to track down some live music and eventually got together with a few other couch surfers for drinks. Before I left, she got a call from her real estate agent that they finally got an offer on the house. My host was a great woman and while I’m happy she’s following her heart, it’s sad to think I’ll probably never see her again.
If Memphis did anything, it left me with an appreciation for size. Memphis has had a huge impact on history and culture, even though the city itself feels like a small town. For Elvis, his impact got smaller as he got bigger, both physically and financially. Now his house is dwarfed by the theme park that surrounds it. The Civil Rights Museum and the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, despite their enormous influence, were temporarily reduced to only one event, one moment, one small piece of lead. And as for my host? A wonderful woman with a fantastic life and many great dreams had her entire world change with one short phone call. And now she turns to the tough task of reducing a large life down to a few things, packing them up, and walking out of Memphis.