A couple of months ago, I was sitting at a sidewalk table having breakfast at a restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. That bald guy who starred in Lost was sitting two tables over. Mary Louise Parker, of Weeds fame, went in and picked up a to-go order. Other people who looked beautiful and who were probably famous were sitting all around me. There were lots of little dogs. People wore tight V-necked T-shirts and had perfect breasts and good hair. And the women were good-looking, too.
My waiter brought me a steaming mug of coffee and some fresh bread. Perhaps noticing that I was the only person not wearing over-sized sunglasses and was therefore obviously from out of town, he asked, "Where are you from?"
"Memphis," I said.
"Oh, wow!" he said. "That is such a cool town!"
"You've been to Memphis?"
"No, but I've heard a lot of great things about it."
"Well, yeah," I said. "It's pretty great."
I don't think the guy was blowing smoke to get a big tip. I think he really thinks Memphis is cool. A lot of people do. I've gotten similar reactions from locals at other exotic spots around the world. Memphis is known as a cool place.
What makes the world at large think Memphis is cool? And if we're so cool, how come so many people who live here bitch about it so much?
The short answer is that Memphis is cool because so much of the world's pop music culture started here. There's nothing cooler than rock-and-roll and the blues.
We also have horrendous poverty, as witnessed by our national leadership in bankruptcy and mortgage-foreclosure numbers. But our problems are also the source of our cool, if you think about it. The blues weren't created at a country club. Rock-and-roll wasn't born at prep school. The Memphis music that the world now listens to was created by poor folks — former slaves, sharecroppers, and country rednecks.
A big slice of our current economy is based on the tourism generated by the commercialization of those early achievements, via Beale Street, Stax Museum, Sun Studio, Graceland, the Rock 'n Soul Museum, etc. People visit, have a great time, and spread the word that Memphis is cool.
The challenge we face is obvious: to make Memphis as great for all of us who live here as it is for those who visit.
That would be cool.