If you’re looking for a guide to Graceland, you’re going to disappointed.
But if you’re looking for a story about a crash course in military spousal life set amongst one of the most blues-heavy cities in the nation, keep on reading.
How I Got There.
Technically, on a plane. Linguistically and how the stars aligned to bring me to Memphis: I fell in love with an officer in the Air Force then moved to Colorado Springs. These are two things that have made me realize that I should never say never. Even though I’m not a military spouse, I would say that I’m solidly living the life. I’ve been through two deployments in less than two years. I relocated – not far, but far enough – to live with the guy despite the glaring lack of jewelry on my left ring finger (another never say never). The fun things about deployments: wearing a purse that when people ask in awe: Where did you get that? I can (smugly) reply: Afghanistan. Sub-text: sorry!
Other fun things: slipping into a functioning state of alcoholism, rolling around in bed and not ever bumping into your lover’s body on lonely nights (every one of them), waiting by the phone but never being able to initiate contact on your own convenience, slipping in and out of various states of sleep dotted by sweaty nightmares and avoiding all news sources for fear of hearing an emotionally devastating combination of words that could change your life forever.
The actually great things about a deployment: having a pretty valid excuse for day time drinking with your gay best friend at your local dog-friendly neighborhood gay bar, the feeling you get when your brave significant other calls from the other side of the world and says: I’m coming home and even better… when they come home. The world between the two of you is an insular one that’s impervious to any disturbance because the two of you have just endured and emerged triumphant over the ultimate disturbance. Also, he took me to Hawaii. Twice. In one year.
But this is about Memphis.
After relocating, I was not ready for the difference between being left alone in my own stomping grounds with my own friends and familiar surroundings and the reality of being in a new city without my people and stuff. Another fun thing about being desperately in love with one of our women or men who serve is the possibility that they could come home on a Friday night and say something like, “In two weeks I need to leave. I’ll be gone for two months”. Which happened. This time it wasn’t to a location that I refused to hear about; it was to Montgomery, Alabama and although this is foreign territory to me errant rockets were one less thing that would keep me up at night.
Despite the annoyance of this situation, there was a road trip at the end of it for me. I got to choose the rendez-vous point. I’ve spent most of my time exploring the coast of California and sometimes further north. I’ve driven down back roads with my mom in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. I eventually made my way to New York just to seem fashionable amongst the creative set that I cared greatly about being a part of.
But I’d never been to the Heartland. When I was seven, my father took me to see the Rockumentary “U2: Rattle & Hum” in the theater. I loved every second of it, but the scene that stood out the most for me lasts all of maybe a minute. The band is sitting on a hill in Memphis overlooking the Mississippi River. The warm, brooding chords of their song Heartland start playing and Bono’s pleading “see the sun rise over her skin” begins in a haunting melody and then the Edge slides down the side of the hill and lights are reflecting off the river. Right before that scene is a snippet of them recording one of the greatest blues songs written in the eighties as far as I’m concerned. “Angel Of Harlem” was recorded with a hornline in a small little studio that launched the likes of BB King and Elvis. So was much of the Rattle and Hum album. I realized, it was in that movie theater that a vague fascination with Memphis was quietly born over 25 years ago.
Which is why I insisted on visiting Sun Studios.
It didn’t really take much convincing as my significant other is pretty easy going and has pretty much learned the mantra “Whatever you want to do, honey” (the Air Force trains their people how to keep their at-home people as happy as possible before ordering them to go do things that will upset us left at home alone). Plus, he loves the blues. He spent a lot of money on the BBC Live Recordings of Led Zeppelin. The tour consisted of part one: climing up a steep narrow staircase into a museum where you learn the story of the founder of the studio, how he put his blood and sweat into the place along with plenty of examples of people who failed but just kept going. Also, the owner was not an Elvis fan at first.
I also saw this photograph.
It was Bono before the Fly, before the last three sad excuses for a U2 album came out. It was the gaze as I’d seen it after watching the movie again and again and I had that weird, laughable feeling of excitement just because I was where someone else had been. It got better. After the museum portion of the tour, we were lead down another flight of stairs, steep and narrow and arrived in the lobby that so many giants of music had stood in. The space is a modest one and has maintained it’s old-school charm through the years. In fact, even though Sun Studio went through a couple of business iterations before finally being bought by someone who wanted to honor the building’s musical roots, the original walls and tiles still remain today. Chipped and worn, their perforations have heard so many stories. Including the story of how the million dollar quartet once gathered and had an impromptu jam session. The quartet was comprised of no other than Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. It wasn’t supposed to be recorded because Elvis was legally owned by another label at that point, but that did not deter the owner. He recorded the whole thing and took the recording with him to his grave. The recording is haunting in a great way; you hear four blues legends telling stories, Johnny Cash in the background and you can tell when the whiskey kicks in as their improvisational collaboration becomes as smooth as blue suede shoes.
Walking through the lobby into the studio was an experience that made the hair on my arms stand at attention and I immediately became teary-eyed. It was beautiful. When I mentioned the sensation walking into the studio to my boyfriend, he emphatically said, “me too!”.
We go together well. The collateral conditions of the military life don’t matter when you have that guy by your side.
A note on getting what you pay for.
Thankfully time spent apart is a natural aphrodisiac because the Econo Lodge in downtown Memphis was not. Cigarette burns in the carpet, stale smokey smell and the kind of cleanliness level that immediately threw me into bed bug prevention best practices. But a budget is a budget and in since the guy has been helping me out with starting my business, I really have no place to be a hotel diva.
The Mallards of the Peabody. When You’re Feeling Down on Life, Just Think Of These Guys. And feel Worse.
The Peabody Hotel has a penthouse that is occupied by five mallards who are ceremoniously marched through the lobby twice a day. At 11 a.m., the Duckmaster leads them down a red carpet and into an opulent fountain that is in the middle of the elegant lobby. At 5 p.m., they are lead back to their penthouse home via the same red carpet. Both daily events are done so to great fanfare and a frenetic energy made of parents who are trying to get their kids the best house in the seat. My boyfriend and I arrived 45 minutes early and were just barely lucky enough to get a seat at the bar. We each got two drinks during the whole event which added up to a cool $60 or so.
When I was told that there are ducks that live in a penthouse and are escorted down a red carpet daily, it became my number one to-do in Memphis. I did not want to go see Graceland (which, from a quick drive-by, looked like a complete zoo), but I wanted to see these ducks. Perhaps it was the two flutes of bubbly, perhaps it was the absurdity, perhaps it was surfing the wave of euphoria of having my guy next to me again, but I thoroughly enjoyed the 30 second event that took $60 and 45 minutes to prepare for.
Even better, the boyfriend was just as obsessed with making these guys a priority. Later on that evening as the drinks kept flowing, we mused over the ducks with mounting envy, frustration, admiration and overall bemusement. Those are lucky ducks.
Do you like blues? Are you from a place where no one asks you if you would like a beer for the road, but that sounds absolutely amazing to you? Would you enjoy the anticipation of knowing that there’s the possibility that B.B King himself could walk in at any moment and start laying it down for the young folks? Then Beale Street is for you. We arrived around 9 p.m. on a Friday night and it looked like a weekend street fair. After eating ribs and catfish at Blues City Cafe (meh, go more for the experience and people watching, not quality of food), we grabbed a beer at an outside bar and asked the bartender if this how it was every Friday night. Her response was “more like every night”. A daytime visit revealed that it isn’t just the night time. Beale Street doesn’t stop. Bachelorette parties. Buskers. College kids learning their limits. Couples dancing. Girls in strapless dresses unaware that their bras and boobs are hanging out.
Our favorite club was Rum Boogie Cafe, located on the corner of Beale and 3rd. Guitars hang from the ceiling signed by every blues legend you could possibly imagine. Elmo and the Shades was the band that brought us in twice during our brief stay in Memphis. The lead singer is larger than life and his band is comprised of people who’ve worked with James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and I can’t remember who else thanks to vodka & tonic #3, but I do remember thinking “that makes sense”. One of the horn players put his instrument down long enough to sing a rendition of “Stand By Me” that had me smiling so widely that my face was sore the next day.
Also worth noting were the band at the B.B. King club. This was amazing people watching as we watched couples dance together to an amazing, innuendo-dripping rendition of “Leave Your Hat On”. The band was working it and so were the couples.
Also of note was the Memphis Sounds bar which was right downstairs from our beautifully appointed lodging at the Econo Lodge. At the door was a gentlemen wearing a lime green suit, with matching hat. It was straight out of Snoop Dogg’s entourage. This was the only bar that we paid more than $5 for cover at. Downstairs we were token minorities and the token interracial couple. However, unlike an experience in Atlanta, the Memphis people are a friendly people and we were served and had a great time.
There was a large horn line, lively energy and a very large, confident, gorgeous woman singing an inventory list of the different varieties of a certain kind of part that can be found on the fairer sex. I felt like I was being punked or drugged, but I was neither and I was belly laughing so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath.
On the road.
After two fantastic nights in Memphis, it was time to get on the road again and go home toward Colorado Springs. There’s something charming and haunting all at the same time when driving through expansive masses of nothing in Arkansas and Oklahoma. There’s a simplicity that is void in most cities that are considered smart, sexy or industrious places to be. After two months of relentless anxiety, driving down these vast empty roads was like crawling into a Snuggie. I expected “nothing”, but there were green expanses, rivers that we crossed over and lush forests. After our Memphis adventure, this was the best part. Sometimes talking, sometimes not, being comfortable either way, we were together. Heading west. And about to write the next chapter of our story.
But not before a pit stop in a nice, clean room in a La Quinta Inn with no cigarette burns in the carpet.