August 29, 2022 at 3:35 p.m.
Walking in Memphis
I gradually became more and more curious about the South. My curiosity was piqued when I became friends with Dave, a born-and-bred southerner. Actually, that’s not quite true: due to circumstances beyond his control, Dave was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But that doesn’t faze him. “Born in the North, southern by the grace of God,” is Dave’s motto.
Some years ago, my wife and I visited Dave at his home in St. Louis, Missouri. Dave’s southern hospitality was so warm that we decided to tour Dave’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, in an effort to obtain a fuller understanding of the culture that shaped him.
The Mississippi Delta geographically begins at Sikeston, Missouri, but Memphians maintain that the true spirit of the Delta can be found the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. My wife and I decided that we should investigate these things for ourselves.
To say that the Delta is flat is an understatement. It’s laser-level, pool table flat. The rows of cotton are so straight that you could fire a rifle between them, and the bullet wouldn’t touch a single stalk.
Roadside billboards offered relief from the monotonous flatness. There were billboards unlike any I’ve ever seen here in the North, including ones for Bible factory outlets. Such signs were often situated next to billboards for fireworks factory outlets. This juxtaposition remains a mystery.
Upon arriving in Memphis, my wife and I checked into a hotel that was located in a good neighborhood across the street from Graceland. We could tell that it was a quality hotel due to its guitar-shaped pool and its TV channels that played Elvis movies 24 hours a day.
Dave’s parents, Don and Betty, took us on a car tour of Memphis. Don and Betty are the epitome of southern grace and charm. As we rode with them, I could see why Dave had grown up to become such a courtly gentleman.
But, we experienced a few language glitches. To my northern ears, “children” came out sounding something like “chirren,” and when we ate fire-roasted pork it was called “bah-bee-cue.”
Speaking of which, barbecue is somewhat of a religion in the South. And like all religions, there are those who believe that theirs is the only true one and that all others are imposters.
We had already planned to tour Graceland. But, it was our good fortune to get a dose of Elvis lore beforehand from our native Memphian guides.
Don spoke of Presley’s generosity, noting that Elvis would give away dozens of Cadillacs at Christmas. Many of them were to total strangers who were down on their luck and had somehow come to the attention of the King of Rock ‘N Roll.
Don told us that he had worked in the same building as a specific dentist. Don said that he could tell whenever a certain someone needed dental work because the lobby of the building would magically fill with young ladies who were hoping to catch a glimpse of a particular dental patient. I wonder how Elvis’ trademark smile looked when his mouth was full of Novocaine?
Elvis’ popularity has only grown since his untimely death in August 1977. At Graceland, we heard a dozen different languages being spoken. We almost felt like foreigners ourselves.
We left Graceland and drove to Beale Street to take in the sights. While there, I ate, surprise, more barbecue. As part of our relentless effort to absorb as much southern as possible, we decided to visit the Peabody Hotel.
We were standing on the sidewalk and studying a map when a friendly southern businessman stopped to ask if we needed help. When we replied that we were looking for the Peabody, he said he was going there himself and would gladly escort us.
I learned that the southern guy was from Atlanta, Georgia, so I asked him what he thought of Memphis barbecue. “It’s different,” he replied in a tone which indicated that he deemed it to be an imposter.
We soon arrived at the Peabody. My wife and I sat in its opulent lobby – mahogany and marble were everywhere – and enjoyed cold refreshments as we watched the hotel’s famous ducks frolic in its fountain.
I sipped my mint julep, and the bourbon soon began to do its work. And I before I knew it, I began to feel quite warm and very, very southern.
Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: [email protected].
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