BBQ + Blues

This defines Memphis for me: a good Sunday suit, BBQ smoked slow and served up fast, and weariness baked into the bones by 100 degree heat.

Memphis isn’t a pretty city. Aside from the Pyramid Arena with its blindingly mirrored exterior — which formerly housed the Grizzlies basketball team but is now standing empty, Bass Pro Shops the unfortunate highest bidder — the handful of multi-story office buildings downtown provide little to catch the eye. On the far side of the Mississippi the Arkansas floodplains spread green and untouched; I know so little about the state that it seemed a mythical Never Never Land, a free western frontier. To get there, we raced a freight train across the river, sprinting along the pedestrian walkway on the southern-most bridge of the southern trio [four bridges connect the states through Memphis, relics of the isolated periods in the 19th and 20th centuries when Memphis was a transportation hub and, at various times, the world’s largest market for lumber, spot cotton, and mules]. After we won, the conductor, though he wouldn’t return any of our waves, tooted the horn once and the train chugged away.

It seems like most people who visit Memphis are there for Elvis. The little girl from Illinois that I met in the hotel pool informed me that the following day she’d go with her family to Graceland and then somewhere with a guitar-shaped pool [apparently the Days Inn near Graceland, way cooler than the bean-shaped one where we were staying]. I asked her if she knew any Elvis songs to sing to me but she didn’t. In contrast, the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony outside room 306, is as unassuming as grits. Pass by any evening and where you might expect a couple of tourists with cameras there isn’t a single soul; with the original neon sign at the entrance and no cars in the parking lot, it could be any small-town motor lodge hurting for cash.

When I asked a local why Memphis felt deserted, he told me that the city was still extremely racially segregated. Memphis proper is mainly African American and minorities [63% African American, 30% Caucasian, according to the 2006-2008 census] while whites have retreated to generally more affluent suburbs outside town and commute in only for work. Recent statistics put the poverty rate in central Memphis at 26% [2008], versus only 12% for the suburbs [2010]. I felt the tension of that gap walking down the street — a random black man generated more wariness than a white one — and passing through security gates — “If you’re white and you wave, the guard knows you’ve done this before” — and it made me uncomfortable.

Wednesday night biker specials attracted a row of motorcycles on both sides of Beale Street. They were parked in clusters by type — beat up crotch rockets, fat-bottomed tourers, a Shriner’s tricycle up for raffle, and two sad little scooters . . .

Rich and delicious peaches ‘n cream cheesecake at the Cheesecake Corner just off Main Street.

A peek into the Gibson guitar factory.

Barbecue nachos from Central BBQ, a Memphis special: tortilla chips, BBQ sauce, cheese sauce [canned? Velveeta?], pulled pork, shredded cheese mix, and jalapeños on the side. A chef friend of a friend named the nachos as one of the top three things he’ll miss when he moves away from Memphis. I’m not quite ready to commit to that.

Old industry, just a block away from tourist central.

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