Sunday, 1 March 2009

Midnight Cowboy in Memphis

Memphis. The city that brought the world blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.

Home to Graceland, the legendary mansion of Elvis Presley, and Sun and Stax studios, the recording studios which introduced us to the King of Rock 'n' Roll along with other greats such as Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayes…

My ears were salivating at the thought of it all.

That is if they weren’t dropping off. It was cold - very cold - and my great floppy lugholes were bearing the brunt of it.

I was starting to bitterly regret the run-in I had with a rather enthusiastic barber back in Guatemala and wondered what on earth was going on with the weather in this country.

The day before we’d been in Jackson, Mississippi, where the sun was shining and the thermometer was reading 25°C (77°). We had been wearing t-shirts and sunglasses as we caught the Greyhound out of town, passing on the way an electronic billboard flashing a tornado warning.

And yet four hours later up the interstate, as we alighted at Memphis, Tennessee we were greeted by the kind of icy blasts you’d encounter in the depths of winter back home.

The thermometer had plunged to a meagre 3°C (38°F), and it was falling fast.

The rain was beginning to turn to hail and by the time we’d reached our new lodgings the promise of snow hung in the air.

As I stood shivering on the doorstep of our couchsurfing host, cursing the holes in my shoes I realised I couldn’t put it off any longer: the music would have to wait, it was time to go clothes shopping.

I loathe this mundane activity and was looking forward to it with a looming sense of desperation when the door opened and our host, a strapping Argentinian biochemist named Adolfo, opened it.

“Hi you must be Tom and Lara; would you like a beer?”

Things got even better as pizza was produced and Aaron, a fellow Memphis couchsurfing host, schoolteacher and fount of local knowledge, offered to give us a lift to the city’s finest thrift stores.

As we rode out there the next day he gave us the lowdown on the city. He seemed keen to tell us about the crime rate - the second worst in the US apparently. Lots of murders, crack, shootings, the lot.

I’d heard it all before. Austin, New Orleans, Jackson, and now here. The words wafted over me as I ruminated on this apparent obsession of Americans with crime.

It seems to be almost a source of local pride, each city hotly contesting for the sacred title of ‘most dangerous city in America’.

This baffles me given the number of cops there are over here. With all these fine fellows patrolling the street it's a wonder there's any crime at all.

You almost can't move in this country for bulky men in immaculately pressed uniforms and gleaming cruisers, officers of the law from the sheriff's department, the city police, state troopers and other assorted agencies.

It's almost as confusing as the number of radio stations here, all four letter acronyms beginning - now we're east of the Mississippi - with a W.

Still, looking out the window, it was easy to believe Memphis’s claim, the sprawling blocks of low-rise buildings growing progressively shabbier the further we headed out of downtown.

A sign hung outside a launderette, reading: ‘Jesus is Lord. Starch Pants’ (if that won’t make you wash your smalls, nothing will); another, outside a fried chicken outlet, offered ‘legs and thighs. Spicy’, suitably sited next door to a strip club.

We were approaching our destination, the suburb of Nutbush, and two large thrift stores, purveyors of used clothing to the poor, the unemployed and cash-strapped backpackers.

Inside the Disabled Americans Thrift Store, browsers perused pungent old clothing and cast-offs whilst a jumpy-looking cop with closely cropped hair scanned them with beedy eyes, his hand twitching on his belt.

Our accents were soon - once again - attracting considerable attention. Was I from Ireland? a heavily bearded customer with steamed-up glasses asked me, another - a heavily tattooed lady with a tough Tennessee twang - complimented my English tones - ‘your accent is beautiful.’

Gosh, I liked this town already.

And it got better when I reached the racks, the store proving, along with its neighbour next door, a veritable treasure trove of high-quality clothing for the aspiring yet budget-conscious cowboy.

It is always our aim to try and appreciate a country from a local's point of view; as part of this, I indulge, when the chance presents itself to indulge in another Tintinesque tendency and take the 'Thompson and Thomson' approach.

The hapless Scotland Yard detectives, faithful companions to the boy reporter, always like to adopt the traditional costume.

Here in Memphis that meant only one thing and soon I was striding out into our new wintery world with a brand new uniform. This consisted of the following:

One pair of cowboy boots - $10
One pair of jeans - $5
One thick corduroy jacket $5
One heavy check shirt - $3

Combined with my Mexican cowboy hat I thought I cut a fine figure, ready to blend in perfectly with the locals around me.

Striding down the street on my two inch heels I thought I looked like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy; Lara reckoned more like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Better steer clear of the rainbow flags for a while.

By now the snow was falling thick and fast, it was starting to get dark and there was little sign of a bus.

A shopkeeper had kindly looked up bus times for us, one of her customers had even offered us a lift and now we met yet another friendly local who offered us a ride.

‘Mah name’s Werr-sleh. People call me White Lightnin’. Wow - a bona fide musician, and a guitarist to boot. He reminded me of the purpose of our visit to Memphis - to seek out the blues - and we thanked him for his club recommendation, Wild Bills, a place we’d already heard of

White Lightin’ had another piece of useful advice: ‘You’re in Nutbush, maaaan - this is the hood’.

Time to go. A bus finally hove into view and we hopped aboard this skeleton service, the air inside so cold we could see our own breath, the seat cushions soaking wet from the leaking roof.

Once more I wondered what one would do without a car in a town like Memphis, marooned like a stranded sailor in an ocean of concrete.

We made to downtown and the one saving grace of the city’s public transport system - the Main Street Trolley.

This lovingly-kept line runs old trams which come complete with varnished wooden benches, odd knobs and levers. Ours also came with a friendly driver called ‘Mow-reece’ who complimented me on my new garb.

As the tram rumbled gently over the heavy rails I relaxed into its warm, comforting embrace reflected on the fine people of this city and the south in general. Once again the South had impressed us: the warmth of its welcome, the friendliness of its people; the kindness of strangers.

Half an hour later, as we kicked the snow off our boots back at our lodgings and brewed a restorative cuppa the news came through that we were in the middle of the heaviest snowfall for forty years, some parts of West Tennessee receiving up to a foot of snow.

We were back to survivalist shows back more. Snow-bound and stranded in the deep south: would Tom and Lara survive?

Stayed tuned and find out next week only on WISM.

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Jennie said...

Hello to you both :)
Will we get to see any photographic evidence of this cowboy outfit Tom? What did Larissa get? I am intrigued about the couch surfing sounds good fun!! Glad to see you are both well and I look forward to the next post. Oh good luck with the competition. x x

Aaron Fowles said...

Ah, the snow, the snow, the whirly burly snow.

Today it's about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jim G said...

Just now found your blog and post about Memphis. Drop me a line if you are ever in town again - plenty more good music, food, and fun to be had in the Bluff City.