After saying goodbye to my new friends at the La Quinta in Little Rock, I headed out early for Memphis, Tennessee. It was only about 2 1/2 hours away, but I needed to get to the National Civil Rights Museum before it closed at 1 PM for a private event.
As I headed back into rural Arkansas, I noticed my gas gauge, well below my preferred halfway mark and nearing empty. I pulled off of Interstate 40 into a small town with nothing much more than the two competing gas stations and some dry fields that once grew corn, cotton, and tobacco.
I pulled into the closed one and started to fill up the tank. An older gentleman sat in a metal chair outside the station, doing nothing except waiting. I wondered what it was he was waiting for. A ride? A loved one? Someone to say hello? So, I said hello. He smiled.
I realized at this point it was a long time since I checked my oil level, so up the hood went and out came the dip stick. Low. Lower than low. Almost dry. Thankfully, I still had the spare two quarts of oil I purchased in Bend, Oregon, so many weeks ago. It was almost impossible to pull up the memories of those days now in detail. And this is why I blog! If I didn’t write it down, it would fly away like those tumbleweeds in Texas.
Back on the highway, I approached the Arkansas-Tennessee border: The grand Mississippi River. The Big Muddy. The river of legend and of course, the setting of great American novels such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The highway crossed the river and I noted how wide and truly muddy it was. And now, I am in Tennessee. Memphis to be exact. So much history here. I am eager to discover this rich and sacred place.
My Waze App takes me right into the parking lot of the National Civil Rights Museum and as I walk towards the museum, I am taken back to the 1960’s. The museum is located inside the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The family who owned the Lorraine preserved the rooms where King and his associates were staying in on that day, and later, the museum was officially opened in 1991. In 2013-14, the museum underwent a spectacular renovation and is now one of the most beautiful and moving museums in America, if not the world. I believe that every American should visit and if they did, we would have much less hatred and more love. Yes, it is that profoundly moving.
The museum takes you along the troubled history of race in America, starting with the systematic removal of the indigenous population and the importation of slaves from Africa up to the present and continued struggle for equal representation in an age of renewed Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering. It is both exhilarating and depressing to see how far and yet so inadequately we have come from the days of slavery. But the pivotal and most profound center of the museum is the personal story of Martin Luther King and his leadership.
The saddest moment comes when you turn the darkened corner of the final exhibition hall and step back in time to 1968. The final exhibit is that of MLK’s hotel room and the balcony outside where he took his last breaths. Here the simple wreath commemorates the place where he fell. Looking the street across to the plain brick building where the James Earl Ray pulled the trigger (or was it to the left a bit where J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI goon squad sat?) seems surreal.
No matter, the powerful sense of loss is abundantly evident here. The empty bed in the room where MLK last slept. The cigarette in the ashtray, half-smoked. The disarray of the room across the hall where his friends rushed out to find their mentor dead. It hits you hard. You cannot help but reflect on what an impact he would have had if he had lived. Would the Poor People’s campaign led to substantial redistribution of wealth in this country? Would his resistance to the Vietnam War helped end this senseless war soon? And would his leadership finally ended the Jim Crow south, which continues to thrive in places like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
After my visit, I walked silently through the streets of Memphis up towards the Peabody Hotel, where I was to meet my friend, Ger. This area near the museum seems to have gone through a hipster renovation. New bars, cafes, and cute, artsy shops line South Main Street. Once again, I find the obnoxious motorized scooters are also popular here and I almost am run down by a group of drunken tourists on their way back to Beale Street.
I pass the Blues Hall of Fame, and later the lovely, old Orpheum Theater on my walk. Shortly, I am at the entrance to Beale Street and a sudden wave of disappointment washes over me. Here, where the Blues were “born”, the city has now erected an arched, tacky entrance sign, just in case a tourist might miss it on his GPS. The street is now a pedestrian thoroughfare (to protect the drunk tourists from stumbling in front of a bus?) and the old blues bars have been given the full Mall/Bourbon Street makeover.
Beale Street has been reduced to a mini-Bourbon Street, replete with tacky tourist shops, groups of drunk, young women celebrating a hen party, and the smell of vomit and stale beer. It is gross. But I walk down the street hoping to find one, remaining bar that might, MIGHT still have some authentic music to sit and listen to. No luck.
I give up early since I have to meet Ger, and because it is only 3 PM, so I console myself with the thought that the music will happen later. I decide to come back and see if that is true. For now, I walk over to the famous Peabody Hotel. Why is it famous you ask? Well, because of the ducks, silly. Yeah. I you read that right: ducks.
The Peabody Hotel is a gem of pre-depression and roaring twenties splendor. Built in 1925, it was quickly THE party place for the socially mobile of the region, with rooftop parties and custom cocktails. But with prohibition and the depression, a new way of attracting customers was cooked up when they installed a fountain in the lobby and someone had the genius idea to add some real life ducks to the mix. Soon, there was a Duck Master, with ducky uniform, and a red carpet entrance and exit from elevator that led the mallards back and forth from their Duck Palace on the rooftop.
To this day, people flock (pun intended) to the Peabody to watch the twice daily ritual of duck wrangling. Hard to believe, but yeah, this happens. The kids love it. And people in the lobby jockey for tables to sit and sip cocktails while the ducks swim in the fountain. Marketing at its best, I suppose.
Since I arrive at 3 PM, I have my choice of tables, so I sit near the fountain, order a blueberry mojito and watch the ducks splash about while I wait for Ger, an old friend whom I haven’t seen since he moved out of Boston with his family a few years back. That is the nice thing about Facebook, you can remain in contact with people you might have lost contact with over the years. And bonus! They have offered me a bed for the night, so I happily accept. Funds are dangerously low at this point in my trip, so I am grateful to my long lost friends.
Ger arrives and after we have a drink, it is up the rooftop to view the famed Duck Palace. But it is the wide rooftop with its view of the Mississippi River, ornate bandstand, and 1930’s neon sign that attracts me. I can imagine people dancing to the Charleston while the full band plays and people get tipsy on Moscow Mules. It’s like a scene out of Purple Rose of Cairo or Radio Days up here.
When I ask to go hear some live music, Ger walks me back to Beale Street and we head to BB King’s restaurant. This is one of the larger places on Beale and there is live music, but the band pushes me almost to run back to the Peabody and do a nose-dive off the roof top. Okay, no they weren’t THAT bad, but close. Since we have arrived for the early show at 5, we get what we deserve: a band of young Christian rock musicians (the singer announces he is also a minister!) who think that the crowd of early-bird dinners in their 60’s and 70’s really only want the nursing home approved versions of Memphis music, so for the next hour we have to listen to Elvis and softened-up Jerry Lee Lewis songs. Dear lord, the crowd is even singing along. They have fun, but this isn’t anything close to authentic. This is the Disney Cruise version of Beale Street. But the ribs are good, so….
Afterwards, we wander down Beale again, this time I am determined to find something at least close to the blues. I hear music like a siren’s song and follow the low growl of a blues singer to an open air bar. I peer inside the beer garden to see three old gentlemen singing and playing guitar. They aren’t bad, but they are wasted and wearing filthy clothes. They can barely stand at this stage of the afternoon and lead singer sways, holding on to the microphone stand while also holding a half full beer. I think that I saw these same guys pan handling on the corner earlier in the day, but I can’t be sure. It doesn’t matter. This is a sad spectacle no matter what. The audience of mostly white tourists aren’t even paying attention to the blues singers. They are also on a mission to consume alcohol, so the sad state of the performers doesn’t register. I look away from this car wreck and we head out of Beale Street, once the home of American legends, now simply a wax museum of is safe for the tourists to consider a true experience.
So, it is farewell, Beale Street. Farewell, Memphis. I have been moved and saddened all in one afternoon. I know that there is so much more here to experience, and I wish I had the time to discover this, but for now, I leave with a little disappointment and a great deal of resolution. The midterms are approaching and I still have hope for our country despite a recent rise in nationalism. We have overcome before and we can once again.