Not knowing when we would be summoned to the repair shop to trade the car for a check, we got an early start to the day. Our four young hosts were on the couch recovering from the previous night’s house party. They sat huddled over their respective laptops, faces twisted in scowls. We interrupted their concentration with our goodbyes. Looking up, they asked if they could ask us a question about credit (namely, what it was). We did our best to illuminate them, gave them a few websites to guide them, and shut the door on what will probably be the last bong hit either of us will ever be offered.
We went to the auto shop to transfer our personal belongings from the old ride to Maus, the sarcastic name I had bequeathed upon our gargantuan rental during a mildly hysterical episode. Possessions transferred and tow truck still an hour out, we went to squeeze in breakfast beers and tacos at the nearby Edley’s. The inventive barbeque joint had been our last stop on our previous trip to Nashville, and we had foolishly been too food-stoned from the night before to truly enjoy its splendor. This time we came with appetites prepared. The brisket tacos and grits casserole are just stupid.
We got the call that the tow truck was at the shop as we were finishing and headed back to complete the handoff. Check in hand, we headed towards Memphis. As we pulled onto the highway J told me to say goodbye.
“Bye Nashville. You’re cool.”
“No, to the car.”
I shrugged and we laughed.
In the morning we drove to the auto shop to finish packing up Maus, the new whip, then headed over to Edley’s for just one more hit, man, just one more, to wait for a call from the proud new owners of a dead-ass car and get the show on the road. Just as we finished lunch and I was only a sip into my second beer, our journey beckoned us forth, and within short order, we were on the road towards Memphis. We stopped at the Crystal Grotto, which was the perfect intersection of Christian folk-art and weirdness, and I’m always a sucker for kooky displays housed in cemeteries. The Allegheny Cemetery back in Pittsburgh, with its shark, obelisks, tombs and sphinxes, will be sorely missed, but luckily, there are marble orchards all across this great land of ours.
I had asked J to pick out a pit stop or two on the way to our hotel to break up the monotony of the drive down Music Highway. He often says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” The Crystal Shrine Grotto is a bedazzled, man-made cave celebrating the life of Jesus through diorama. Anything but monotonous, it looks more like the town hall of a hobbit village than a commissioned art installation. It sits in the middle of Memphis Memorial Cemetery surrounded by equally bizarre cement over-sized trees and toadstools and a small pond with well-fed koi swimming about. We explored its quartz-covered depths for a bit, taking in the absurdity of it all. J signed the guestbook.
Our next stop was The Pyramid on the bank of the Mississippi. Initially, it was an event space created as a nod to the city’s Egyptian namesake, the 32-floor glass monstrosity is now repurposed as a Bass Pro Shop megastore. Upon entering this sanctuary to the pursuits of the amateur sportsmen, one steps into a lodge style foyer with taxidermy, vintage fishing memorabilia, and a two-story fireplace. That room then opens onto a massive atrium housing a bowling alley, shooting range, laser arcade, archery range, saltwater fish tank, fudge shop, bar, restaurant, and candle store (for Mrs. Sportsman, presumably).
For a price, the world’s tallest freestanding elevator takes visitors to the roof where there is another restaurant and an observation deck. Flocks of stuffed birds hang in the air. Fake trees weep spanish moss over four lakes filled with fish, and yes, the namesake bass are in attendance. There is even a hotel, should you feel the need to have your masculinity reaffirmed overnight. And littered between all this is every piece of hunting, boating, camping, and fishing equipment one can imagine. It was hard not to be impressed as I watched Bass manipulate men into buying their way into a designer lifestyle in a way that surpasses even the best women’s advertising. My only lament is for all the miserable wives receiving apple spice candles for their anniversaries.
Not satisfied with the day’s kooky quotient, we decided to stop at the Pyramid, a former failed event space, now given over to the Bass Pro Shop in what is a bizarre glamping lifestyle Disney-esque experience. We had a beer in the restaurant bar, which was sandwiched by two undersea-themed bowling alleys, then marveled at the shoals of fish entombed within, idly swishing in their concrete ponds or massive salt-water aquariums. Upon leaving, we both felt a little more nihilistic than usual, but the crossing of the Mississippi was a major milestone for the trip, and we were happy to get to the hotel.
Though we were done courting weirdness for the day, it wasn’t done with us. West Memphis, as it turns out, is not in Tennessee at all, but rather a piss stop of a town just on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi. Understandings were reached regarding budget on this trip, and J and I had no illusions about the quality of the establishments we would be staying in, but having to slide your identification under bullet-proof glass to check-in is never a good omen. The floors were sticky, every surface chipped. The door had obviously been kicked in at some point.
We had both gotten little sleep the night before and were careful to be kind, tip-toeing around the lack of accommodations and utter despair that hung heavy in the room. After running the air conditioner for a little while, we were able to ignore the antiseptic smell. Overheated and exhausted, we laid on the bed, not wanting to pierce the silence with our hot breath. J picked up his phone then looked over. Shattering our polite pretense, he mused, “They have wifi, but I don’t want any of my devices to get VD.”
Our hotel was in West Memphis, which we were not aware was the approximate location of thousands of dead and/or dying dreams. The hotel room itself was clearly the scene of some sort of unsolved mystery at worst, and a culmination of several poor life decisions at best. The door jamb was battered and cracked, while the door frame had clearly been bashed in. Shoddy repairs to the whole mess made it damn near impossible to shut the door, which I was more than happy to do, because after leaving the bubble of foul weather back East, it had gotten proper hot.
After some relaxation to allow the sun to seriously knock it off already, we ventured into Midtown Memphis and had some really tasty pizza at Aldo’s. Like the mature, responsible and exhausted adults we were, we skipped a nightcap and headed straight home, both now carrying two full-term Tennessee food babies. Experiences like this are why we both sympathize with what the sheer effort of pregnancy must entail and also why we want nothing to do with it whatsoever.
We woke up to a 90-degree day, making my uniform of all black everything less than ideal. After parking the car downtown, we took the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island. The much-lauded park was not a green space, but a miniature of the Mississippi River, stretching half a mile, with length, width, and depth to scale. The model included watersheds, lakes that form during times of flooding, estuaries, and cities of importance along its banks. J and I were blown away by the detail and took time to inspect the intricacies, meandering the length despite the merciless heat.
In the morning, we left the former crime scene for Mud Island to see the mighty Mississippi in all its glory. It was pure serendipity to discover a flowing, scale topographical model of Old Man River in the park, and we happily walked the half mile along its banks from start to finish, ending in New Orleans, prompting stories from Y, who had lived there for 5 years. We walked back across the pedestrian bridge and moved the car to Beale Street.
The obligatory tour of Beale Street was performed, its revelers mostly subdued given the heat and hour, but for a dancing band of young adults boisterously bounding to Christian pop in the street. As we fought our hunger through the heat, we walked past the more offensive tourist traps boasting alcoholic slushies and pressed on until stumbling upon Lew’s Blue Note. The place had the lived-in confidence of a dive that’s been doing the thing too long to care if it’s cool, down to the put-out bartender. I’m sure it’s fun as hell at night, when bands play.
It was off-season and during the day, so Beale was a decidedly much tamer affair than the absolutely perfect shitshow it seemed capable of. Lew’s Blew Note, near the end of the drag, was just the type of dive for us, and we hung out in the air-conditioning eating fried catfish, before taking our draft beers to go, which is always a sign of a town that knows how to have a good time. We had already vowed to return and take the town for a proper spin in the future, as our dance card for this trip was overbooked. We’ll see you next time, Stax Museum.
The Civil Rights Museum was staying on our list, however, and it was next. Neither of us were totally aware that it was housed in the now-converted Lorraine Motel. Neither of us were totally aware of how the museum was going to affect us. The museum itself is masterfully done and thorough in its depiction and retelling of slavery and racial injustice in North America from the first colony up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was and will remain a great deal to unpack. After leaving and sharing silence for a time, we began to discuss the various points at which we lost it. Surrounded in the museum as we were by so many who were alive at the time, or even there if the exhibits didn’t elicit a swell of pain, the overheard anecdotes and stories made certain we were indeed human.
We decided to take in the National Civil Rights Museum before attending dinner in Hot Springs, where the family of a friend had generously offered to host us. The museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, was congested and dense with information. J and I took it in individually, except to point out a fact or photograph here and there. I was amazed by the depth of my ignorance and delved into exhibits on Diane Nash, the Montgomery bus boycotts, and the predominance of segregation still exhibited in city housing.
Still more arresting was the insight gleaned from snippets of overheard conversation. A woman confiding to her friend that she could only work in the storeroom when she was first hired as a clerk at Woolworth’s. Another pulling her grandson toward the photos of the 14-year-old girls killed in Birmingham, stroking their sepia faces, uttering, “Those beautiful little girls.” Turning, she explained how they had been in Sunday school, same as him, when their church had been bombed.
The few hours we had allotted wasn’t long enough to see everything in the museum’s immense collection, however, the graphic nature of the material left us too emotional to absorb much more. We vowed to return. Raw and drained, we quietly made our way back to the car. After some reflection, we both commented on how infuriated we were at how much of this history, especially the more gruesome aspects, had been either glossed over or completely omitted from our history texts.
We have done a poor job of commemorating these events, and they are only 50 or 60 years old. I am astonished and despondent that there are those who think that as a society, we should all just get over it. Unthinkable wrongs were committed. Someone who is 70 now was an adult during this time, an active participant for or against civil rights. How can a nation get past 300 years of slavery and sanctioned inequality when our politicians, superiors, pastors, and grandparents all came of age believing their value, indeed their humanity, was hereditary?
As a white male, I can only say that the experience was as powerfully humbling as it was inspiring; I can only hope that put in the shoes of the time that I would have been one of those doing the right thing. It was beautiful to see some white faces on the wall depicting those arrested during the Freedom Rides, but the stakes for them were very different, and what remains are the questions left by the majority who stood by, or worse yet, were among those beating, jeering, and killing. Where did those who tacitly approve go, what did they teach their children, what is it in people that makes these unconscionable acts of hatred linger and repeat?
It is a great deal to comprehend, to wrestle with, and the experience has sunk deep into my bones. If my life serves any purpose, may it be to help push the scales of justice towards an equality shared by all. After the somber and weighty afternoon, the walk back to Beale Street in the hot sun seemed to stretch and pull long in the heat. We arrived back at the car, took a few deep breaths, and continued our journey, crossing the Mississippi for the last time and heading West.