Saturday, April 25, 2009

10 Things I Love About Memphis

Here's my contribution to the meme begun over at Smart City Memphis:

1. Wild Bill's Juke Joint
I'm sure that it doesn't come as any surprise to readers of this blog that I've got Wild Bill's first on the list. This is the single greatest place in Memphis... or in any city I've ever been in, for that matter. It's about as big as a large living room inside and it packs R&B lovers in every Friday and Saturday night from 11pm til 3am-ish. Bill's only serves cold beer in 40-oz. bottles and it's set up with long tables for "family-style" seating, so everyone is forced to get to know everyone else. And the music is the best you'll ever hear. "Wild Bill" himself died a couple of summers ago, but his place remains open for those who want to stray from the beaten (tourist) path and get a taste of what's really real in Memphis. I love this place.

2. Rhodes College
Okay, so this is my employer and I probably do feel a little bit of obligation to put it on the list... but the truth is that it really is one of the things I love about Memphis. Rhodes College is just an absolutely gorgeous place. The collegiate Gothic architecture is striking and serene, the grounds are open and beautiful, the groves and gardens are breathtaking in the spring and fall. I've been here two years now, and I still regularly think to myself how lucky I am to get to go to work at such a beautiful place every day. The other great thing about Rhodes: it's stuck right in the heart of Midtown, the greatest part of Memphis, across the street from our world-famous zoo and Overton Park, just minutes from all of the dowtown fun as well. There aren't too many colleges that look and feel like Rhodes that are also located in a major metropolitan city, so this really is the best of several worlds. Oh yeah, and it's been voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States several times.

3. Joe's Liquor Store Sputnik
It's really hard to describe the attraction of this oddity to people who haven't see it in person. I know it sounds strange to list a liquor store sign as one of the things I love about Memphis, but it really does represent so much about what is endearingly quirky about our fair city. I had an apartment several years ago that was almost next door to Joe's, so the Sputnik (as it is affectionately known) was right outside of my window all the time. I can't tell you how many times I sat and stared at it's slow-moving light show while trying to solve the existential dilemma du jour. Several years back, the Sputnik was broken for a while and didn't turn... but when Joe (or whoever) decided to fix it and get it moving again, everybody was thrilled. I'd be willing to bet there's a great story behind why it was ever put up there in the first place, but I don't know that story. I kind of like the mystery of it, to be honest.

4. Pork
If there were a "10 Commandments of Memphis," I'm sure the first would go something like this: I am the Pork, your Barbeque. Thou shalt have no other barbeques before me. So, please, for your own sake, don't come to Memphis and pretend that barbeque is made out of anything other than swine. (Hear that, Texans??!!) Memphis barbeque is DEEEE-LICIOUS. People will judge you here on the basis of your favorite BBQ joint. In the spring, summer and fall (but especially the summer), the whole city smells like BBQ. We have our fair share of vegetarians and vegans in this town, like everywhere, but I really don't know how they do it. A lot of Southern food amounts to something like a heart-attack-on-a-plate, but nothing better than good ol' Memphis pork barbeque.

5. Sunset on the Mississippi River
There's something really special and magnificent and frightening and awe-inspiring about the Mississippi River, especially at sunset. One of the great parts about Memphis being in the westernmost corner of Tennessee is that we get to enjoy great sunsets over the Big Muddy. Dowtown Memphis has a long and winding riverside park, which is a great place to catch this daily natural wonder. If you're ever down there, don't bring a camera. Just find a quiet place to sit and enjoy what's happening. And also remember to walk down to the edge of the banks and spit in the Mississippi River, which is supposed to be good luck. It is a mighty river, indeed. Mighty mighty.

6. Unexpected Art in Unexpected Places
I suppose there are a lot of people who think that graffitti is just ugly nonsense done by useless vandals. Those people haven't seen Memphis graffitti. We have a lot of unexpected "real" (i.e., non-graffitti) art in unexpected places as well, but I personally love the guerilla stuff more. This includes bathroom graffitti, which I find to be pretty much the most awesome part of relieving oneself in Memphis. I once thought that I would start a whole other blog documenting the best of Memphis bathroom graffitti, but I'm not much of a photographer, so you'll just have to trust me on this. In the quirky-artsy neighborhoods of Midtown, where a lot of Memphis artists live, you can see tons of quirky-artsy installations in people's yards, which is also fun. A few years ago, the North End of dowtown was turned into a gallery district, so Memphis art and Memphis artists are a much more prominent subculture than they used to be. Better for all of us!

7. The Poor & Hungry
The P&H Cafe, the self-appointed "beer joint of your dreams," is like the archetype of great dive bars. You wouldn't walk in there if you didn't know already that it was a great place to be. Which it is. Back in 2002, then-unknown local Memphian and film director Craig Brewer made his first film, which he called "The Poor and Hungry" after this bar. It used to be run by a woman named Wanda, who looked like the Madame of some run-down speakeasy, and who has since (sadly) passed away. There are all kinds of tributes to Wanda on the walls at the P&H, which is great for all of us who used to go there and spill our souls to her when we were poor and hungry. When I moved back to Memphis, I thought I had "outgrown" the P&H and didn't go for a while... but it only took one trip back to remind me that there's just something invaluable about those bars where everybody knows your name.

8. National Civil Rights Museum
The Lorraine Motel was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's assasination, and it has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. A lot of people resisted this change, but I think that this is one of the best museums in the country. Visitors literally walk though the history of race-relations in the United States as they proceed through the museum, culminating in a trip to the very balcony where MLK was shot. I'm not much for ham-handed sentimentality, but a trip through the Civil Rights Museum is profoundly moving. Visitors who come to Memphis often spend their time trying to see the "sites" like Graceland, Stax, Sun Studios, Beale Street, etc.-- all of which are definitely worth seeing-- but if I had to tell someone one single place they should visit while in this city, I would say the Civil Rights Museum. It's impossible to walk out of there the same person as when you walked in.

9. Music, Music, Music

All great American music was born in the Delta. We're the home of Stax, a.k.a. "Soulsville USA." Also Sun Studio. Also Beale Street. Also, the Full Gospel Tabernacle (Al Green's church). And if you're not so much interested in music history as in hearing somre great live music, well, you can go to the FREE outdoor concerts at the newly-renovated Overton Park Shell. You simply can't get away from music in this city. It's everywhere. It's everything. Hell, we practically invented it.

10. Annual "Elvis Week" Candlelight Vigil
It just so happens that my birthday falls in the same week as "Elvis Week" (also known as "Death Week") every year, which commemorates the memorial anniversary of Elvis Presley's untimely passing. The main event of Elvis Week is the candlelight vigil, which turns out tens of thousands of people to pay their respects to the King of Rock-n'-Roll. No matter how hokey or corny you think Elvis is, you absolutely must see this event at some point in your life. It is the definition of Americana.


petya said...

Smart City is one of my favorite discoveries from when I first started doing "Memphis research". One of the things that I remember reading was some guy saying that he loves that in Memphis he does not need to teach his kids about race and diversity.

emma b. said...

Hey, your birthday may be in Elvis Week but MY birthday is on Elvis DAY (an eleventh birthday present I used to joke). I hope we get to celebrate the three of us in Memphis while I am in the South... it's been a longtime goal.

The Clapp said...

1) Texas BBQ is better...sorry to ruin your fun....
2) Isn't it weird that the National Civil Rights Museum ends after MLK's death? I realize that given it's location it seems to make sense, but then it is not really a museum of the history of all civil rights struggles?

Terry said...

The Sputnik was orginally built by the Balton family. The restoration was also done by the Balton family (Scott and Jeff Balton of The Balton family has been in the sign buisiness in Memphis for over 100 years, so they are responsible for many signs in Memphis. The famous Holiday Inn Great Sign is one of them. Precision Sign Company and Frank Balton Sign Company are still owned and operated by members of the Balton family.