Our first evening in Memphis was textbook: we went to BB King’s Blues Club.
In the bustling, low-lit club we ate yet more BBQ ribs, drank beer and listened to the utterly fabulous BB King All Stars (for the measely cover charge of $5, which, next to the $5 I spent on the Golden Girls magnetic bookmarks in Gatlinburg, was the best $5 I spent all holiday).
In the sax and guitar-pounding room, as the beer flowed, I got completely carried away by the cool-as-hell blues and decided that I could – nay, would – become a famous blues singer-songwriter, and how difficult could it be to shove together a funky baseline, an electric guitar and some devilishly saucy drums, and finally I’d worked out how I was going to make my fortune, and it was all going extremely well in my head until the All Stars did Purple Rain, complete with the 8-hour finale, so incredibly brilliantly, that I had to go to the toilet to recover, and I became so distracted by the inexplicably huge gap in the toilet cubicle that I forgot about being a blues singer.
Let us talk about this for one moment. Please can someone from the Department of American Toilet Cubicles and Urinational Privacy (DoATCUP) explain to me why you must have colossal gaps in your toilet cubicles? Every single toilet we went in on our trip – be it a bar, restaurant, or that scarily remote gas station in Georgia – had a door that sort of hovered in an open space, attached to the frame by a uselessly massive bracket. In one toilet in a bar in Nashville, I sat on the loo and literally made eye contact with a woman’s reflection as she washed her hands at the sinks. I didn’t feel violated, as such – just confused.
The next morning we thought we’d go and see what the toilet cubicle gaps were like at Graceland, abiding by the little-known 178th Amendment ‘He who visits the City of Memphis must visit Graceland, irrespective of His feelings for or about The King, or He shall be considered a wierdo and a loser’.
So we entered the Graceland compound – a Hollywood set-style street of museums, diners and gift shops – and queued to buy tickets, then queued to enter a small room to watch a short film about Graceland, then queued to get on a mini bus that drove us across the road to the house itself, where we queued to get through the front door. Whilst you Americans do like to make an industry out of what could be a relatively simple process, we Brits did appreciate an effective queuing system.
Here’s the old boy’s gaff:
Nice front room, where he did the crossword and watched the news:
Kitchen, where he cooked microwave dinners and drank tea:
And here’s the old dude himself:
If you love Elvis, go to Graceland. If you don’t love Elvis, you still have to go to Graceland because if you don’t then the people who love Elvis will stare at you like you have a watermelon for a head and celery for arms.
We now need to talk about ducks. Why? you ask, quite fairly. Because they are a Really Big Deal at the stately Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
So, legend has it that in the 1930s some cowboys smuggled in some ducks to the hotel (the crucial ‘Why?’ in this story was unclear to us), and chucked them into the fountain in the grand, palatial lobby. The next morning, the manager apologised to the guests for this unexpected mallard invasion, to discover that, actually, the guests were thoroughly enjoying watching the ducks mucking around in the fountain.
And that, my friends, is all that is required to start a 90-year tradition.
Every day at 11am and 5pm, the Peabody hosts the ‘Duck March’. Which is conducted by the Peadbody Duckmaster. I am not joking. This is the most coveted position in America next to the guy who seals up the gaps in toilet cubicles.
So there we were, at 10.50am, hanging over the balcony in the Peabody lobby, eagerly awaiting the appearance of these ruddy ducks.
Yes, that is a red carpet. For some ducks.
At 11am on the dot, the Duckmaster – clad in a red tailcoat and a top hat – grandly announced in a faux English accent that in a few minutes’ time the ducks would descend in the lift from their suite – yes, their suite, the suite for ducks on the top floor of this five star hotel, I hope you’re grasping the magnitude of the duck situation here – and they would proceed to waddle up the red carpet and hop into the fountain.
And a few minutes’ later, that is exactly what they did.
There they are.
I mean, underwhelmed is the wrong word – I have had no previous experience of this sort of duck ceremony on which to base my expectations – and there was obviously something delightfully charming about the gravity that was bestowed on this event – so I’ll just say that watching some mallards waddle up a red carpet and cock about in a fountain left me simply whelmed.
Later that afternoon, we spent an incredible four hours at the amazing National Civil Rights Museum, which is built around the shell of the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. If you’re in Memphis, go. It is astonishing. And, in case you spend quite a lot of time wondering why the initials ‘MLK’ are stamped on pretty much everything, I can inform you that they quite clearly stand for Martin Luther King, and are not a peculiarly mis-spelt announcement for MILK, which was the misapprehension under which my road trip-addled brain was labouring for a good two hours, until the realisation hit me like a massive and wholly justifiable fist.
We then spent an hour driving around the centre of Memphis trying to find the Hertz garage to return our trusty little car to her rightful home. It took an hour, because the Hertz garage felt that a sign the size of a thumb that was half-concealed by a window frame behind seven concrete pillars, was sufficient to alert people to its existence.
It was during this frustrating circular drive, and our subsequent walk back to our hotel, that we experienced the city of Memphis in all its bustling glory.
And when I say ‘bustling glory’, I mean absolutely silent and deserted weirdness.
I have been to many cities, and a usual characteristic is an abundance of traffic and people. You know, the things that make up a city. Life. But Memphis had none of these things. We walked a mile back to our hotel through the ‘centre’ of the city, and saw three people, one tram, and a dog.
Even when we had walked to and from the Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis – Downtown, which normally signifies the place where all the busy cool stuff happens – there had been merely a dribble of cars and the odd pedestrian looking a bit lost.
Either there is a good trade on invisibility cloaks in Memphis, or everyone was at Graceland. They are the only two feasible explanations we came up with for the spooky emptiness of the city. It did mean that there were no queues when we stocked up on provisions at Walgreens, but if anyone has any explanation as to why Memphis is so creepily deserted, I’d love to hear it.
Due to an ungodly early start the next day to catch our AmTrak to New Orleans, we had an early dinner at the famous Rendevous restaurant – more ribs; I mean, by this point we were starting to take on a shiny BBQ hue – bid farewell to the blues bars on Beale Street, and hunkered down in our hotel room to pack and watch Con Air.
Conclusion: The blues are fabulous. The museum is fabulous. Hell, even the ducks are fabulous. But, as a city, Memphis is… peculiar. If you go, stick around Beale Street. Because apart from the ready availability of invisibility cloaks, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot else going on.
Next up: Jazz, shrimp, a very drunken evening, and a dramatic home invasion escapade in New Orleans.