I think it hit me when she was descending the staircase. Makeup perfect. Every hair precisely in place. Sequins applied carefully to her aging but still beautiful face. She moved like a Twyla Tharp-trained dancer. She looked like a star. A real star. At the foot of the stairs, a crowd awaited her. She thought it was a movie crew, there to film her comeback role, when instead, she had committed a murder and the onlookers were the press, along with the police, who were there to arrest her and take her from the seclusion of her fabulous old Hollywood mansion. She had gone insane.
No, not real life. But real big, on the Big Screen. It was Gloria Swanson during her final Im ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille scene in the classic film, Sunset Boulevard, and I was watching it at Malco Theatres new Studio on the Square, at 2105 Court Street, the parking lot of which I can see from my front yard.
I was so taken with the fact that I could now walk out of my front door and within 30 seconds be in this wonderful new movie house, with a wine and coffee bar and leather sofas and a patio, that I felt a very gripping sense of pride and satisfaction. I dont know if it was the nostalgia of the movie or my own, but memories came flooding back of Overton Square, the entertainment district launched in 1970 that was once -- that has been for so long -- my stomping grounds of sorts. And now I own a home just on the Squares edge. Something seemed to feel, I dont know, as if it had come full circle. Like a reunion someone else had planned.
Two decades ago, I sat just a block away watching Marlene Dietrich as the owner of a male brothel, her face draped with a black veil, singing as a tuxedo-clad David Bowie played the piano in the wee hours of the morning, the two of them alone in an old ballroom. Her raspy voice crooned Just a Gigolo, from the title of the film, set in a grim post-war Berlin, and it was like magic to see her on the screen again in her last role. The movie played at the Memphian Theater, before it became Playhouse on the Square, which at that time was around the corner in the middle of the Square. I once did an impersonation of Richard Nixon on the stage there while auditioning for a part in the play Lenny, the story of Lenny Bruce. When I sit on my front porch now, shielded intentionally from the world by a wall of out-of-control shrubbery and wild vines, I shake my head when I think of how much blind courage I had then. How so much has changed. How so much, in some ways, though, has remained the same.
I think my introduction to the Square was sitting upstairs in the cool dark room on a sofa one night at what was then the Hot Air Balloon with my high-school buddies ordering, Im sure, a Tom Collins or a Singapore Sling. How sophisticated we thought we were. How those bartenders must have thought, What a pack of imbeciles. We were, after all, just a bunch of Parkway Village kids trying to get out of the suburbs and find our way to the fun and cultured land.
Where the Blue Monkey is today, at 2012 Madison, I recall sneaking in with a friend when it was Mugsy McDougals Sports Parlor (unless Im dreaming). A few years later, when the place became Trader Dicks, I would be ousted for, well, some shenanigans in the womens bathroom with about 20 other people all crowded into a stall. Its amazing that, today, the same mammoth bar with its ancient marble accents and beveled mirrors still occupies an entire wall, though a different one. So mammoth that it had to be taken outside to be turned around and reinstalled when the Blue Monkey owners were renovating the space.
Across the street, theres Melos Taverna, in a circa 1890 building that in its lifetime has been, among other things, a drugstore, a sandwich shop, and the original location of the venerable P&H Cafe, now a legend just down the street. I remember the first time I met Mr. Tom, Melos Tavernas owner. He adamantly refused to take credit cards because the Visa companies had gotten his dander up. Today, Mr. Tom does take credit cards, but doesnt take all the credit for the food, which has gotten only better over the years. In fact, he attributes much of it to his chef of 17 years, Anthony Parks, and to his 16-year-old son, Charles Stergios, who might appear from the kitchen at any time to ignite a dish of some mysterious breaded cheese with Greek cognac, as the entire restaurant applauds at the flaming work of art. But Melos is anything but showy. It is, and has always been, cozy, intimate, warm and laid-back, made even better by the Greek music floating through the air, which Mr. Tom says is the inspiration for the food. (You just have to have Greek music to be able to cook good Greek food, he says.) I recently had dinner there at a table in the front window overlooking Madison Avenue as rain washed down the glass. The appetizer platter alone -- with its hunks of feta cheese, kalamata olives, chicken livers broiled to the consistency of pate, stuffed grape leaves, and an eggplant salad that I eat by the serving spoon full -- is a joy to linger over for hours with a bottle of red wine. Sitting there, talking with Mr. Tom, I felt like I had gone back in time, yet I was glad it was the present. With all due respect to the other fine eateries in town, Melos Taverna is, quite frankly, my favorite restaurant in Memphis. And now I can stroll there from my house any night of the week.
Further east, at Cooper and Madison, where the Loony Bin comedy club is today, there once was a La Baguette (before that and before my time, unfortunately, it was the site of the famed Burkles Bakery). In those days La Baguette (which still has a location in Chickasaw Oaks) was the closest thing in Memphis during the late 1970s to a hippie-haven coffeehouse. A nice French restaurant by night but something else by day -- on cold winter afternoons, hordes of people who all knew each other gathered for the savory lentil soup and coffee and rabid conversation. I can still see the swirl of sour cream that topped the pureed legumes. At night, I waited tables there, with a crew who would later go on to become well-known artists and chefs and jewelry designers. We are much older now, but still spry. And many of us keep in touch.
And then there are the buildings that seemed to be cursed somehow. In its early 70s heyday, the site most recently occupied by Cancun was the Mississippi River Company. It would later be named after a new owner, Wink Martindale, whom my mother dated in high school. Once, while eating dinner there with my father and stepmother about 20 years ago, I pulled a cigarette out of a pack and lit it at the table -- only to realize that it wasnt your standard kind of cigarette. Busted. . . . Between various incarnations, that building would sit empty much of the time.
Theres also the French Quarter-looking building at Florence and Monroe. Nothing stuck for very long, until Side Street Grill came along a few years ago, and took off like wildfire with its martinis, cigars, steaks, and very loyal crowd.
And lets not forget the old Bombay Bicycle Club on Madison near Cooper, which since its demise in the late 80s has had more than its share of for lease signs. Its been a sports bar, and housed a couple of failed restaurants, including Ciao! in the early 90s. Recently it became the swank home of Boscos Squared, a welcome addition.
But when it was Bombay it was a magnet. There are enough stories about that place Im surprised no one has written a book. In the kitchen, a sign on the door of the walk-in refrigerator announced: Anyone caught with whipped cream cans not serving a table will be fired! It seems that employees and regular patrons alike had developed a fondness for inhaling the nitrous oxide from the cans, copping a one-minute state of euphoria, and thereby leaving the whip-ped cream a can of useless, messy drool.
Other memories that come to mind: The early-1980s rave nights at T.G.I. Fridays -- a mainstay on the Square from the start -- where Midtown ingénues and female impersonators modeled everything from leather sheaths to hats made from detergent boxes during impromptu fashion shows; and nights at Palm Court, where I worked for a short time as the maitre d. Before the restaurant opened, it had been an ice skating rink. I cant tell you how many times customers asked me if the ice was still underneath the newly carpeted floor, to which I always replied, Why, of course it is. We peel back the carpet every night after closing and skate the night away!
There was and still is Le Chardonnay, perhaps the darkest, coolest restaurant in Memphis. There was and still is Paulettes, famous for its crepes and popover rolls with strawberry butter -- not to mention the addition it took on a few years ago when the owners finally acquired the tiny white frame cottage next door that for nearly 20 years remained a private residence in the middle of all the hubbub. And its neighbor to the east, Yosemite Sams, has held on with the same kind of grip.
Overton Square was a great place to grow up. Today, its a great place to be a grown-up. I can walk out of my front door and have Indian food, French food, East-West fusion cuisine, Mexican food, great steaks, Cajun food, Greek food, gourmet pizzas, down-home food, and my favorite -- Le Chardonnays escargot in a bath of cream and garlic and tomatoes and herbs. I can hear rock-and-roll or live jazz. I can buy antiques or futuristic furniture. I can see plays and live comedy. Or I can just sit in the dark coolness of a movie theater, watching blockbuster new releases or off-the-wall films about British croupiers or old classics with Gloria Swanson in all her glory.
When people from out of town ask me why I stay in Memphis, I usually simply tell them that its a hard thing to explain; that they dont live in my neighborhood. I usually dont go into what I really think and feel: That there is something to be said about a present and a future thats so tightly, so endearingly, wrapped in the past.
[This article originally appeared in the October issue of Memphis