MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE — The stuff heart attacks are made of is prepared in perfect batches here, and on weekends the city fills with epicureans searching out barbecue and Blues music. Several downtown hotels were filled to capacity late Friday evening. The desk clerk at the downtown Holiday Inn smiled as a stream of visitors approached. Was there a convention in town?
“No sir. Just a regular weekend in Memphis.”
And on a regular weekend in Memphis lines form outside of smokehouses, and the young fill the streets deep into the night carrying cups emblazoned with the words Big Ass Beer. On some corner the legends of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash crouch next to a liquor store. BB King’s flagship franchise blues joint squats at the top of Beale Street. A few blocks away a preserved version of the Lorraine Motel holds forth at the top of the South Main Street historic area. Still, there is a swing to the place that goes beyond the Cliff’s Notes.
The outlying areas of the city speak of the harsh modern south, just the thing that makes Blue so damn appealing. Then the full spectrum after that. Rust: Abandoned warehouses form columns and ranks just south of downtown. Brown: The muddy river just to the west gives pale relief to the hand-painted signs that mark most of the establishments in the black man’s ghetto. Teal: One of Elvis’ Cadillacs stands on a pedestal so that none of the many photo opportunities it provokes will be ruined by the gray traffic passing beneath it on Presley Boulevard. Green: Western Tennessee is dense with trees and hills, homes tangled sparsely in between. White: The defunct cotton exchange occupies a building downtown; two of the South’s largest cotton gins operate in the surrounding counties. Gold: Gus’s world famous fried chicken arrives on the table scarcely a couple of minutes after being ordered.
Memphis is a catalogue of the so-called New South. And if Blues and barbecue are the new currency, then poverty and desolation are the old debts. With New Orleans ruled by uncertainty, Memphis is also probably the South’s most viable destination for tourism.
Two visitors following detour signs pull onto a decrepit city street far from the tourist center of the city. Shock and perhaps fear are evident on their faces as tourism’s underbelly reveals itself. A bronze colored Oldsmobile with a metallic finish and large chrome wheels blocks passage down the street, its driver leans his elbow out the window as he inspects the outsiders.
“This might be it for us,” one visitor remarks to the other, “do you have anything you want to say?”
The Oldsmobile inches its way into a driveway – the driver’s eyes burrowing bullet holes into the visitors the entire time. The visitors round the far corner of the block and continue to Cozy’s, a famous rib joint just a few clicks away.
The travelers hunker down into a booth. Cozy’s menu of barbecue ribs and wings is to die for, and a sigh of relief. A small side order of barbecue spaghetti, a southern specialty, also arrives with the order. A Memphis heart attack might be the best thing on the menu.