Saturday, October 22, 2011

Marfa Road Trip: Memphis to Marfa, Part One

The fact that I have yet to post about the final leg of our trip is exemplary of just how exhausting the last three days of driving were. By that time, the shiny hope of embarking on something new was dulled by my tired eyes that just wanted to get there already.

It is my feeling (and I think my Mom would agree) that the road was split into three distinct emotional parts. Our drive from Chicago to Memphis was all curiosus; seeking eyes and a fascination with just how long Illinois really is. Memphis was a series of good-natured, unfortunate events and a puzzle of a city that seemed at once stuck in time and museum-fied. After we left Memphis and spent time at Ole Miss (which was culture shock in a way I had never felt in my own country), we winded down through the Mississippi Delta, accidentally following the Blues Trail, a seemingly romantic fate, but more common than it felt to us. The Mississsippi Blues Trail consists of more than 100 Blues Trail Historical Markers throughout Mississippi, mostly concentrated in the western delta region. In fact, you'd have to try pretty hard not to be immersed in the Blues history of Mississippi, like be in another state perhaps. Before I get into the wet, dusty magic of the Mississippi delta, I need to talk about Memphis.

Our night in Memphis was the only hotel stay we had pre-booked before we left Chicago and, besides Austin, it was the only chain hotel that we stayed in. I generally hate staying in Fairfield Inns and other chain hotel/motels - something about the carpet gives me the willies. It’s a struggle to feel present in Memphis or whichever city I'm visiting if the interior of my hotel is the same interior as my hotel in say, San Diego or Lubbock. There were certain cities we visited that demanded we stay in a smaller bed and breakfast, just to feel the place, but Memphis was not one of those places.
The only place I would have rather stayed in Memphis was the Peabody, just to be closer to the tourist trap of The Peabody Ducks. I won’t hide the fact that after my Mom dropped me off in front of the Peabody, I breathlessly ran through the ornate hallways, looking for the best vantage point from which to watch the ducks march out of the elevator, down the red carpet, and up the custom-made duck stairs into the fountain of the Memphis Peabody Hotel. I’m still practicing self-guided meditation to figure out why I’m particularly susceptible to tourist traps involving small animals and men in tails. So far, I know its somehow connected to my clockwork tears at the mention of Princess Diana or JFK.

Here’s a little history:

The Peabody Ducks march from their Duck Palace on the roof of the Peabody Hotel to the lobby fountain of the historic Peabody Hotel at 11AM and 5PM everyday, led by the esteemed Duckmaster. I wish the position of Duckmaster was no ceremonial title, but I’m pretty sure it’s not even a ceremonial title, but the a great opportunity for an out-of-work actor with a service background. The original Duckmaster, former Peabody bellman Edward Pembroke, was also the longest reigning Ducksmaster, holding the title for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. As with all great traditions that end with Alice standing in a crowd full of chumps with a camera, it all started with a practical joke. After drinking too much Jack Daniel’s, the general managers of the Peabody decided to play a trick on one of their bosses by putting their live duck decoys from a recent hunting trip into the ornate Peabody Fountain - since then the tradition has been franchised out to many of the Peabody hotels throughout the country, but we won't think about that because - Look! Marching ducks!

Curious Peabody Duck Facts

1. Duck hasn’t been served in the Peabody since it’s reopening in 1981.
2. The ducks do not have individual names because, as it says on the Peabody’s website, “The hotel recognizes that its resident waterfowl are wild animals, not pets”.
3. Ducks working the Peabody gig only get to reside in the Royal Duck Palace for three months before returning to the farm to live out the rest of their days among the plebian ducks.

Before we visited the Peabody, my mom and I woke up early to hit up Graceland before the line became ridiculous. I was really excited to go to Graceland because this kind of stuff just gets me. I’m not sure why, but I now it’s a kind of base place that I don’t want to explore quite at this moment.
Now, I love Elvis’ music, but Graceland was completely bizarre. I was in the minority of women who did not dress up for Elvis. There were short shorts and lipstick and bouffant hairdos and billowing skirts and high, high heels.

My mom had said that we have to visit Graceland just to see the retro interior decorating of the mansion and I agree that was the most interesting part. The Jungle Room was filled with chairs that took the “claw-footed” look to its ridiculous extension. The walls and ceiling were filled with mirrors and six televisions. What struck me most, besides how small the place is, is the fact that Lisa Marie Presley is still here. She’s watched her father’s home be turned into a museum, all of his photos, paintings, kitchen equipment, ashtrays and outfits be lined up behind white velvet ropes.

It was this similar sadness that struck me when my Mom and I visited the Lorraine Motel, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum. Inside, it’s a wonderfully informative museum, with a winding exhibit full of information, most definitely more than we could absorb in the two hours we were there. But on the outside, as you approach, and at the end of the exhibit, when you can walk into the motel rooms in which Martin Luther King, Jr. and his friends stayed, you are struck with the gruesome reality of what happened in that place, not that long ago. The museum replaced the bloodied slab of porch concrete outside of Dr. King’s room with a fresh pour of concrete, which now draws just as much attention for its jarring freshness in relation to the surrounding porch slabs.

For me, our visit to the Lorraine brought up questions of what it means to turn a specific place into a museum. Along with the exhibit within the Lorraine itself, your price of admission also allowed you to visit the building and park across the street, from which the shots were fired. My mom and I agreed that element of the museum felt too much like assassination voyeurism. There is a line to be toed here, between informing yourself, paying homage to the event and the movement, and historical tourism, which seems appropriate for landmarks of the civil war, but feels almost dismissive only fifty years later.

It has to be mentioned that on our first night in Memphis, my Mom locked our keys in the trunk of the car. This was a Sunday, but it only took an hour or so for our surprisingly phenomenal locksmith to show up with his bag of variously sized crowbars. When it comes to locksmithing, I always thought that it was a more sophisticated version of the clothes hanger in the window technique. But it turns out that if a locksmith can get into your car that way, it’s a pretty good chance that a thief can get in your car that way as well, so car manufacturers have made it extremely difficult to locksmith a car door – it doesn’t hurt that the car company can then charge you an exorbitant fee to reprint your car key (try upward of $300 if you have a BMW). Essentially, I watched as this very interesting locksmith named Pete broke into my trunk by disassembling the back seat.

As he rummaged through my canned goods and once neatly folded Hanes underwear, Pete told us about living in Memphis and the locksmithing trade. Some of his stories were funny (like the extremely fat woman who refused to get out of her front seat while he attempted to break into the trunk) and others were sad, about having to carry a gun while locksmithing in the uglier parts of Memphis and opening someone’s trunk only to find pounds upon pounds of cocaine.
When we told Pete where we were going and how we were getting there, he told us to buy a gun. He said in a joking tone, but when he saw that we weren’t taking him seriously, he changed his voice. Down here, he said, everyone carries a gun, it’s an unwritten law. Two women driving this car (gesturing to my 1993 Oldsmobile with its gender equality sticker) through southern Mississippi? Buy a gun.

To be completed.

1 comment:

  1. I'm curious to know why you thought the Delta was so interesting.

    You began telling me last night, then the conversation trailed off toward math for some reason. :)