Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 8: "It feels cool to be in Memphis."

The quote above is from the Jim Jarmusch film "Mystery Train." In my experience, this is the quote that people most often associate with our strange city. However, as a Memphian, I've always thought that another line from the Jarmusch film was a much more apt description of the Memphis experience. My favorite line comes from one of the secondary characters, who says to the proprietor of a no-tell motel:

"We're in trouble. And we need a place to be invisible for a while."

The news just came out that Memphis is the most violent city in America, so neither we nor our trouble are invisible anymore. I heard this story last Monday, after a long weekend of hosting people who were here in town for a conference. Some of them had been to Memphis before, some had not, but I pitched my usual hard sell of this city, which I love dearly. Given the disturbing report, I thought I might make that same pitch more broadly here...

Here's the thing: Memphis is a complicated place. We have a complicated history. Memphis has been the red-headed stepchild of Tennessee for years and, to be honest, the rest of the state would be perfectly happy lopping off the whole of West Tennessee just to get rid of Memphis. (Or "giving" us to Mississippi or Arkansas, in the way that you would re-gift a hideous sweater for Christmas.) But we're also a city of over a million people, with a rich musical and cultural heritage, not to mention the home of Graceland, Stax, Beale Street, Sun Studio, the National Civil Rights Museum, a world-class zoo, one of the biggest annual BBQ cook-offs in the U.S., and some really talented ducks. Where is the love?

The things I love about Memphis are not the tourist things. Actually, most of the things I love about Memphis are the things that are intentionally left out of the tourist maps. (Except for Wild Bill's juke joint, which is now sadly included in the tourist stuff. and, hence, overrun with tourists.) I love that Memphis is gritty, run-down, and unpredictable. I love that our dive bars are heavy on the "dive." I love that time seems out of joint here, almost as if the last 50 years or so didn't happen. I love Memphis for all of the reasons that people employ to claim that it's not a "real" city. I love that things like this can happen to you in Memphis. And I love that this is a place to get in trouble, and then to disappear with those troubles for a while.

Of course, I'm not happy about our newfound infamy, but I realize that it is an inevitable consequence of all of the things in Memphis that most tourists wouldn't find "cool": poverty, strained race relations, a past that has not passed. These are our albatrosses, but they're also our muses.

So, if you want to feel cool, I suggest a trip to NashVegas.


Kirsten said...

My experience of Memphis was and is underscored throughout by hospitality, and news reports withstanding, I imagine and believe this is an accurate reporting!

Thank you, Leigh!

Chet said...

Enough already about Memphis. I mean, it's not Wheeling, West Virginia, or Philadelphia, PA (who held the title of most dangerous city long before we passed it on to Camden, and then Memphis).

Do you have a guy in Memphis that sleeps at the 7-11, on the deli counter, whose name is Moondog and leads all official city events on his bike decorated with a plethora of flags? Wheeling does.

All this said, I recall the day I spent just watching the river (in Memphis, not in Wheeling, whose river is no river) to be incredibly peaceful, in a kind of transcendental way. I cannot recall another similar experience during my lifetime, including in teh cities of Paris, Rome, Wheeling, Philadelphia ... or even State College!

Chet said...

Although it strikes me now that my time on the Neckar in Tübingen was pretty blissful.

Doctor J said...

Oh, chet... always a-squawkin'! But I will concede and call a (temporary) moratorium on Memphis-themed posts.

Btw, dDid you know it's good luck to spit in the Mississippi River?

And will you take me to Wheeling the next time you go? That sounds like my kinda place.