Saturday, March 10, 2007

Memphis A to Z

Memphis A to Z
Shiloh Barnat

Moving to Memphis from San Francisco means frequently being asked, “WHY?” usually punctuated with “And you’re STILL here?!” Memphis has a poor self-esteem sometimes and underestimates its hipster mystique. Even though, I must admit, I had my trepidations and it’s taken years to make friends here, yes, I am still here and, yes, I’ve grown to sort of like it (for now). Here’s why:

A – Anarchist art in the heart of Amerikkkana. Like the “Resistance is futile…” & “Futility is divine!” graffiti that graced either side of the train underpass gateway to my new neighborhood for so long when I first moved here. Or the Pepto-pink painted TVs scrawled with “We’re watching YOU!” scattered at populous commute junctions.

B – BBQ I’ve learned to love (it’s all about the sauce, ya know!). Even a dedicated vegetarian, as I was when I moved here (or the vegan friends I’ve come to love here) has to marvel at the temples to pig erected each Spring for the sacred secret ritual of the annual world BBQ championship that opens Memphis in May.

C – COGIC (Church of God in Christ) conventions which congregate the most magnificently ostentatious HATS on Earth. The Church Lady ain’t got nothin’ on these ladies of God. And even a die-hard atheist, as I also was upon arrival, has to admit to being moved by The Spirit at Al Green’s All Gospel Tabernacle. I’m sure I felt the Earth move there & they were just about to burn that church down with all that Holy Hollerin!

D – Dirty Delta blues, low-down gritty grooves that shake your soul and your booty. There are no spectators at juke joints like The Blue Worm. But stay away from Beale Street as they don’t know how to treat their musicians properly down there & drunk tourists get obnoxious every night.

E – Elvis paraphernalia, where else can you find such temples to schwagg?! Graceland wasn’t nearly as tacky or interesting as I’d hoped for, but the fried peanut butter-banana sandwiches & gold lame jackets are worth the trip. And you can find a gift shop with affordable hip-swivel Elvis bobble heads or clocks that chime “Thank ya, thank ya very much!” on just about every other street downtown.

F – Fried green tomatoes… and pickles… and turkeys… and bologna… and, well, just about anything. It’s ALL deep fried around here, which I hated at first. But every now & then a little grease to lube up yer insides is not actually a totally bad thing. It sure cuts alcohol quickly. Just try it…

G – Garage bands forever!!! In SF you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Web Worker. Here you can’t spit without hitting a musician. And the talent that crawls out of the woodwork or converges at street festivals or in late night jam sessions boggles even the most sensitive ears (like my husband’s). Soulsville, USA. Sun Records. The Birthplace of Rock-n-Roll. AND a thriving forward-thinking musical undercurrent that never stops innovating & reinventing.

H – History on every street corner. The first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, on Poplar. The projects where Elvis lived as a kid. The church where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last speech. It’s a living history text with full color illustration.

I – Irony on every street corner. The Target soon to be built around the corner from the first Piggly Wiggly on Poplar. The ultramodern condos going up catty-corner from the projects where Elvis grew up. The parking garage towering over the church where MLK last spoke. An ongoing contradiction in priorities & vision that reflect the conflicts of a mixed up tacky nation.

J – Juke joints where dancing is not optional no matter who you are. I mentioned the Blue Worm (relatively new, but equally genuine), but did I mention Wild Bill’s? They only serve 40oz bottles of beer & I hear you can’t get 5 minutes into the place without a sweaty regular shimmying you onto the dance floor whether you like it or not. I’ve still not been, but vowed to go before I leave this place or it closes (whichever comes first). So, let me know when yer up for the next parents’ night out ‘cause I’m THERE!

K – King, Dr. Martin Luther whose demise here enshrined a legacy of conflict, conspiracy and hope. It took me a good 5 or 6 times through the Civil Rights Museum to not be in tears by departure, but the new wing across the street more dedicated to the conspiracy theories around his death & subsequent continued struggles for justice puts a whole new spin on events. Shakes a nay-sayer to the core & puts us all in our place.

L – Local flavor, lots of it. Hidden gems like the Poor & Hungry (the bar, not the movie named after it – though that’s a MUST SEE to grasp Memphis culture!) or Gus’s Fried Chicken that don’t look like much from the outside but host treasures inside only to be found in Memphis.

M – Memphis Mamas! (Y’all ROCK!!!) I really didn’t even begin to truly make friends here until congregating & commiserating in the uncertain sleep-deprived haze of early postpartum at Mothersville for playgroups & breastfeeding support. How did I miss all these fabulous conscientious women before we became mothers? You are my inspiration, my safety net & one of the biggest reasons I feel at home here.

N – Neighbors & neighborhoods. You definitely get to know the people in your neighborhood here… whether you like it or not. It’s not the anonymous faceless crowd of larger cities, for sure. A small town with Big City resources.

O – Opportunities. Where the culture is lacking, you make your own. And you’ll always find someone to join your party, yet the options are not as overwhelming as in a more-cutting-edge-than-thou place like San Francisco.

P – Porch swings. Especially on a breezy spring evening when the sky is purple & pink & orange. Our daughter calls ours the “break seat.” “I’m just gonna take a little break,” she says swinging away. It’s just such a lovely restful point between home & not quite in the door yet.

Q – Quilting is hip again? An art form lost in faster more urbane locales, quilting is back in favor here. Galleries feature vibrant mixed-material patchwork collages of past & present, not quite the bedspread kind my grandma made but the narrative kind you could lose yourself in for hours.

R – River views, the closest thing to awe-inspiring nature around here. Think Tom Sawyer & try to forget about the sludge the current is carrying through the entire country bound for “Cancer Alley.” It’s deceptively smooth top-currents & mysterious depths can be quite mesmerizing. My favorite view is looking north at night from Tom Lee Park or the Ornamental Metal Museum toward the great “M” bridge lights and the ill-fated pyramid.

S – Seasons, all four of them…. Just when you think the long hot sweaty summer will never end, the trees burst into rainbows. And just when the cold dark winter wilts your soul, the daffodils spring to life. Cycles are good and teach us to appreciate each stage.

T – Thrift stores galore…. I thrift every single week and after seven years am still discovering ones I hadn’t found yet. There are too many for them to all get picked over.

U – Underground railroads. As the gateway from the South to anywhere else, Memphis has facilitated many a secret passageway to freer ground and likely – as a central transportation hub – still does.

V – Vitality. You sense here that you are part of the train behind the Little Engine That Could climbing a hopeful hill to something better rather than fiddling while Rome burns. I’d rather be busy building than decaying, on the way up than down.

W – Watermelon-eating mammy figurine salt-and-pepper shakers. Such items are not at all rare and generally, though not always, passed on with full appreciation for their multiple levels of cultural irony and historical significance. Kitsch is kitsch only because the appreciation afforded in the cruel clear hindsight of progress.

X – Xtreme crossroads, of culture, history, politics. The South meets the Midwest. The true Belly of the Beast. Though the “real” Crossroads where the Devil supposedly bought Robert Johnson’s soul is well worth a pilgrimage to nearby Clarksdale, MS, we all know it’s Memphis where that bartered soul and others sought to leverage the bargain. It’s a point of confluence, the geographic center of the nation, center of the centrifuge. What a vantage point!

Y – Yard Sales. Even better than bountiful thrifting, every Spring brings an endless treasure trove of yard/garage/estate sales where bargaining is welcomed. The best are annual sales encompassing whole neighborhoods, more than even the most dedicated junk-sale aficionado can fully absorb.

Z – Zoo. The new polar bear exhibit is inspiring and the kids never tire of it.

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