Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Walking in Memphis. Then taking a bus due to inclement weather.

As Velvet checked me in at the Greyhound station I pondered two things: why anyone would name their child Velvet, and why I was missing the small-town parts of The South. Taking a bus through Tennessee was a start though, and beheading jokes aside, you can't knock the Greyhound service. It beats walking.

Indeed, due to the fact that I have been wandering the cities and towns of this country for going on two summer months, in a t-shirt, I currently have quite a red-neck. Though I will try and fade in my tan in Miami, I thought that the look would fit well on the bus. I was right, although there was also a young gangsta across the aisle who was about as far from a redneck as possible. Not that he was any more cultured: he repeatedly stressed to the young boy next to him, and the enthralled girl behind, how he would slap his bitch (seriously, no joke) if she disrespected him. On a journey to the place where Dr Martin Luther King Jr died, there was a certain irony in the air that I don't think anyone else picked up on.

More on Civil Rights later though, and back to the previous topic of unusual names. Take Elvis as an example. Elvis and Memphis are inseparable in popular culture, and Elvis and Graceland similarly so. No other reason could have persuaded me to take the bus ride through the rough part of town and part with thirty of my hard-earned dollars for the insipid service and formulaic downstairs-only meander that constitutes a Graceland tour. When a tourguide welcomes "each and every one of you" on a bus of three, you wonder if her heart is really in it. Considering that they take around $18 million from their annual 600,000 visitors, and that the memorabilia was in the house already, you may wonder where the money goes. I did.

From Elvis we may move seamlessly to another associated topic: food. Almost every old restaurant in Memphis proudly proclaims that Elvis ate there. He probably did, he was a big lad. However, this is not an indication of anyone else's need to eat there. I have absolutely nothing against southern soul food, I like fried chicken, sweet potato and the occasional catfish, but it is all a bit flat, despite the hot sauce. I persisted, but bring on New Orleans.

Ticking the other tourist boxes, I passed through the Stax record musuem, with Isaac Hayes' gold-plated, fur-lined, purple Cadillac, and studied up on the rise and fall of the label that helped found soul music. I visited the Mississippi River Museum and learnt about natives, colonists, rivercraft and the rise and fall of the fortunes of those in the area. I went to the Civil Rights Museum and revised the course that I learnt for GCSE History, and saw the balcony where MLK was shot and charted the rise and fall of the Civil Rights movement. I say rise and fall, and the topic is contentious still, because the tale ends with MLK's death. Most of Memphis, from Stax to tourism, has the date as a watermark, or even a brink. The Museum itself is a multi-million dollar shrine to a movement that ended, apparently, on the place where the man himself was killed; it replicates the room itself and that of the killer across the street. However, the final tenant in the motel to be evicted before the Museum's construction remains outside, calling for a boycott of the Museum she says makes a mockery of the Doctor's death.

Indeed, rents have risen in the area to the extent that the gentrified neighbourhood cannot support the commmunity King was trying to help liberate; they have been priced out. When I asked a young guy just out of prison, studying for beauty school in town, whether he thought the millions would have been better spent on affordable housing, he said he he had never thought of that, nor had he or any of his friends ever been to the Museum, which is free on certain days. When I asked one of the many homeless men that beg around Beale Street (the bar street) if there were any shelters available, he said that there were, but it was a room full of dirty men, or a street of half full, discarded drinks and half-dressed women. He chose the latter.

If the community that MLK died trying to help has produced a museum in his honour, but regressed to poverty, slapping their bitches and forgetting his legacy, then that is a terribly sorry state of affairs. I do not think that that is the case, but until a progressive image is presented, that contrasts rather than repeats and relates the difficulties faced by poor blacks in the USA,then the cumulative effect of one musuem relating the struggle of poor soul singers during segregation, another describing cotton picking slaves in the Mississippi delta, and another remembering a man who died decades ago but mentions little of the progress since then, is to suggest that there is little progress at all.

With such dreary thoughts it made sense to hit a blues joint. What better place than BB King's? Though it was no more encouraging to hear tales of poverty in the swamps, the fact that it was an eighty-six year old blues legend warbling through each bar made the experience fitting, he was probably singing the same song in the sixties, so progress takes a different context. With a bag stuffed with an array of harmonicas, and a relatively sprightly fifty-something man on bass drum and guitar behind him, BB wailed along for what seemed like an hour, foot-stomping and head-shaking in between fantastic harmonica solos that a man of eighty-five would be proud of. Memphis is still waiting for the next leader, whether Elvis, BB or MLK, and with no new blood in sight yet, the city is lucky that BB is still going strong.

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