"365 things to do in Memphis before you die!" reads one advertisement on the popular social networking site Facebook. "Memphis Bucket List" reads another.
As if the suggestion of your impending death isn't enough, the ads don't offer many realistic ideas for spending your final days here. One ad depicts a mansion tilted on its side with the caption "Memphis Fun!" Another shows a woman in a bikini holding hands with a chimpanzee. Fun!
These surreal little promotions got us thinking: What would our last hurrah in Memphis really look like? How would we Flyer staffers spend our final hours in the Bluff City, if we were leaving town for good ...
Is there any better way to top off an experience than with a last-chance dance? If I learned one thing in middle school, it's that nothing is over until you've had a chance to give it your all on the dance floor, a chance to look at that boyfriend you had that one week in the seventh grade and say, "Do you love me, now that I can dance? Please?"
But this last-chance dance won't be in a musty school gym decked with crepe paper. My last night in Memphis I'm throwing a dance party for the entire city in the only place that could handle such a crowd — the Sears Crosstown building.
CrosstownArts has already commissioned someone to light up the Sears building's water tower. Now imagine lighting up each floor with multiple, simultaneous dance parties. Shaking it to Stax? Check. Gyrating to Elvis? Duh. Soft shoeing, shuffling, swinging, twirling, jumping, grinding, swaying, jookin', cha-cha-sliding, and whatever else you do when you've got a jive in your boots? Oh yes.
Not only is it a perfect way to go out in a city with such a music tradition, it takes place in the one building that seems increasingly to symbolize Memphis' past and potential future. An even greater creative community is on the horizon, and the Sears Crosstown building is our white whale. Let's get everyone together in the building that symbolizes how full of possibility this city is and then do what we're supposed to do when the music is playing — bust a move. — Hannah Sayle
A Rainbow Flag for Bellevue Baptist
As a diehard Midtowner, I try to avoid trips "out east," but sometimes a girl needs to hit up Delia's in Wolfchase Galleria. In times like these, a drive past Bellevue Baptist Church is inescapable.
Every time I pass Bellevue's huge white crosses, I can't help but think they need a little color. White is so blah, so pedestrian. What those crosses need are giant rainbow flags draped across each one. If I ever leave this town, I'd love to borrow that 100-foot rainbow flag used in the Mid-South Pride parade. Anybody have a cherry picker I can use? If that doesn't work, I'd settle for simply hoisting a pride flag from Bellevue's flagpole.
God loves gays, right? That's what I hear from my friends who attend gay-affirming Midtown churches. Plus, Christians love rainbows. Something about Noah and a covenant? If God himself sealed a deal with a rainbow, I don't see why anyone would mind a little splash of Roy G. Biv on Bellevue's crosses.
Granted, the Cordova mega-church doesn't have the greatest reputation when it comes to LGBT issues. Last June, women's softball coach Jana Jacobson was banned from a Bellevue league because she is a lesbian. Jacobson said she was told her "deviant lifestyle" could send a message to Bellevue's members that the church condoned her behavior.
The folks at Bellevue wouldn't be happy about a rainbow flag, but it certainly would help brush up their image. I'm no brand manager, but it's obvious that Bellevue and many other mega-churches (like World Overcomers on Winchester?) could use a little help marketing their message of God's love to people of all colors, creeds, and sexual orientations. — Bianca Phillips
You Can Take It With You
When you're leaving a place or a job or a friend or spouse "for good," it is best to look forward, not back. You're not getting back, that's the point. You're moving on. If I were leaving Memphis, I don't think I would go for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, mainly because newspaper reporters are always looking for unusual people, places, and experiences to write about anyway.
When I have had opportunities to do crazy things — bungee jump, rapel down tall buildings, go to a Blues Ball, bet $500 on one hand of blackjack, swim the Mississippi River, get drunk at a local strip club — I have declined them due to various inhibitions.
Good-byes are not what they used to be. Getting out of touch is a lot harder than staying in touch these days. Telling people off once and for all is never a good idea. Farewell conversations, letters, and columns can be trite and smarmy.
What I would do instead is visit some favorite places and people. The best day to leave is Friday, when the weekend gives you time to travel, move in, and unpack. I would go to the Rendezvous for lunch and probably run into John Vergos and maybe somebody else at the end of the counter where I usually sit. Then a quick stop at the Little Tea Shop to see Sue and Charlie Newman and Mike Cody. Another stop at Blues City Café, where Bud Chittom holds forth. Then over to Miss Cordelia's on Mud Island, where Cordelia's son Henry Turley might be having a sandwich.
Before I left, I'd bag up some Rendezvous barbecue seasoning, a cup of Sue's soup of the day and some hot corn sticks, Beale Street souvenirs to give away, and a Heath Bar cookie from Miss Cordelia's. And grab a copy of the Flyer, Memphis magazine, and The Commercial Appeal. Contrary to reports, you can take it with you.
Then I'd turn on the car radio. I have never met her, but WKNO's Kacky Walton has a nice name and voice. So does Malvin Massey Jr., "Le Pilot" at the jazz station WUMR. As he says in his sign-off, "Yesterday's history, tomorrow's a mystery, today's a gift. That's why they call it the present." — John Branston
On my last day in Memphis, I'm going to dig up the body of Nathan Bedford Forrest. You read that right. I'm going to retrieve the bodies of the Civil War general and his wife (why not?) from Forrest Park and return them to their first final resting place at Elmwood Cemetery. But before I start shoveling, there are a few other last-day-in-Memphis things I'd like to do:
I'd like to get one last look at the Pink Palace's miniature circus, so lovingly carved by Clyde Parke during the Great Depression. Then I'm going to Mud Island and the River Walk to stick my feet in the water of the scale model of the Mississippi River. Next, I'll get a falafel wrap at Pita Cafe on Park and eat the enormous thing in one sitting. To wash that down, I'll order my first and last milkshake from Wiles-Smith. Then I'm off to Shelby Farms to see the buffalo and back downtown to walk up and down Beale Street. For dinner, there are many possibilities. Onion rings at Huey's with a West Coast burger? My beloved Pad Prik at Shang Hai? Anything at all at Do or Fuel? There are no wrong answers. I'll go to Felicia Suzanne's, take a seat at the bar, and soak in the ambience.
But back to that Nathan Bedford Forrest thing. I'm not particularly politically rabid this way or that, but during the protests over Forrest Park a few years back, it seemed to me that grave robbery was the obvious solution. No one stepped up to do it. I'm doing it now.
This plan calls for a backhoe. I'll also need a posse for the heavy lifting. The rest I haven't quite figured ... And who's kidding whom? This is not my last day in Memphis. My inevitable mid-caper arrest will extend my stay indefinitely. — Susan Ellis
Getting Back to Elvis
If push came to shove (and that can happen in Memphis, recently famous for its Grizzlies-inspired grit-and-grind), what undone deeds would I deign to do here?
My primary uncooked seed right here in River City is my Elvis book.
To avail myself of old-style Hollywood hype: Looking at Elvis (A Neighbor's Notes) has been 50 Years in the Making! Well, sorta. The projected title derives from the fact that the King was once my next-door neighbor — a fact documented in several places, including the Elvis-related works of Peter Guralnick, the foremost Presley biographer. (How old was I? Can I get away with saying "a lad"?)
My interest in, and knowledge of, Memphis' greatest musical gift to the world is not limited to that biographical fact. I've kept up with the King, his oeuvre, and his legend as much as anyone over the years, and the articles I've done on Elvis — including the still-merchandised "Elvis: End of an Era" issue of Memphis magazine in September 1977, as well as nitty-gritty interviews with the likes of Sam Phillips and Priscilla Presley — tote up to some 37,500 words. Modestly adapted and spliced to some updates and reconsiderations, those are the core of the book-to-be.
As soon as late summer of this year, I hope to be emulating such colleague-authors as Michael Finger and John Branston in reading manuscript pages aloud in this or that bookstore or watering hole. And as soon thereafter as possible — hopefully before dear old Mempho global-warms itself up in flames — I hope to have a published version in stores. — Jackson Baker
I think I'm gonna splurge. "Splurge."
I think I'm gonna splurge. Spluuurge.
I might as well splurge ...
I'm undulating to a song from the 2010 album Rapocalypse. Satire, emphatic and carelessly seductive, underlies every syllable of this anthem to excess delivered by Lord T (he of the 18th-century wig) and Eloise (he of the 14-carat skin and hair rollers). Their movements onstage are fearless: peerless in a peerage all their own. They dip and sway and rhyme in costumes at once outlandish and evocative of a forgotten age. I can almost imagine Lord T rap-sodizing on the floor of Parliament: "More swagger than you have ever heard of. ... Check please. You know it's on me." All to strains from a harpsichord and violins. East Memphis meets Buckingham Palace meets thumping ghetto meets Amadeus!
This is aristocrunk. The haves having — and never having not, by Jove. Anything goes and everything's possible. I'd never experienced this twosome in person, but now that I have, I can see exactly where their notoriety lies. Part parody, part performance art, part biting social commentary, they are, indeed, Chairmen of the Bored. Ludicrous, decadent, witty, and oddly appealing in their matter-of-fact frivolity. Or is that just the Champagne talking? All in all, a surreal way to spend my last day in Memphis, the city that produced Elvis, Stax, so many others ... and now this.
Everyone needs a good splurge from time to time. — Lindsay Jones
Sun Studio and the Lorraine Motel
Memphis is a tourist town, but most of us who live here probably don't experience it that way too often. Weary of the "Memphis as mausoleum" model, most locals are focused on new restaurants or new musicians, new or rehabbed public spaces, the state of schools and crime and budgets, the fortunes of local sports teams — and that's how it should be. It's been years since I've visited most of Memphis' core tourist attractions.
But if I'm saying goodbye to Memphis, there are two such places to which I would make sure to pay final respects: Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel.
These aren't your typical museums, they're sacred sites — they have more in common with Gettysburg than Graceland. Popular history tells us that rock-and-roll was invented at Sun Studio — on July 5, 1954, to be precise, when Elvis Presley recorded his first single, "That's All Right."
This story is a simplification of great historical forces, obviously. There are many earlier incidents that can lay claim to being rock-and-roll's birth, some of which — the 1951 recording of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," for instance — also happened at Sun. So think of it this way: The birth of rock-and-roll experienced a lengthy labor. The process may or may not have started at Sun, but that's where it finished — in a stylistic synthesis of blues and country (with crooner pop and gospel audible in the creases ) more catholic and more complete than what had come before.
The social meaning of rock-and-roll was about integration, and it's no accident that the art form emerged and evolved in lockstep with the civil rights movement. For this time, at least, musical change both reflected and provoked real change. And that journey ended — in a way and for a moment — at the Lorraine Motel in 1968, when an assassin's bullet fell Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Lorraine is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, but the balcony on which King was standing is still there; the motel room he was staying in has been re-created and preserved. And when you turn the corner leading to the room — to that balcony you know so well from the photographs — you sometimes hear King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. There are few more powerful experiences.
From July 5, 1954, to April 4, 1968: Fourteen years of nationwide cultural and social revolution separated by a mile-and-a-half walk. Memphis is and should always be looking forward, but that historical journey is essential and unavoidable. — Chris Herrington
I won't go into details, but the court records, sealed for 50 years, would tell you why I left Memphis so abruptly. Let's just say I gave my testimony that put the Lauderdale family behind bars for a long time, and then I vamoosed. The U.S. marshals took me into custody, and before I entered the witness protection program, they gave me one last day to enjoy the city I called home. Just keep a low profile, they said.
I decided I would spend my day exploring all the weird places I had often wondered about during my work as a history writer. And the feds were able to pull a few strings to make it happen.
I began by getting a special tour of the old Marine Hospital, abandoned for almost half a century. I roamed the dusty corridors where so many patients had lived and died and ventured down into the basement, supposedly haunted because that's where the hospital had its morgue. The high point (literally) was my climb into the cupola. Surrounded by a ring of carved-stone columns, I enjoyed a wonderful view of the Mississippi River, until the marshals realized I was a perfect target for a sniper. So that ended that.
Next, the marshals and I went downtown, and I got to venture inside the long-closed Sterick Building. Once billed as "The Queen of Memphis," this building originally had a fantastic Moorish-style interior of glittering marble and ornate chandeliers. All that was removed or covered up with sheetrock when the Sterick got an ugly makeover in the 1970s, so all I found was nasty shag carpeting and musty offices with cheap furniture.
A few blocks away, the marshals let me into the empty Lincoln American Tower. The elevators had been switched off years ago, and it was a long hike up all those stairs, but it was worth it to see the original offices of Lloyd T. Binford, the insurance company president who built the skyscraper in the 1930s but who is mostly remembered as the city's notorious censor. What were you thinking, Lloyd, up here in your grand office, when you kept Memphians from seeing Charlie Chaplin movies because you thought he was a "London guttersnipe"?
Back out in the hallway, a trapdoor led to the roof. I clambered out and found myself standing in that tiny rectangular crow's nest that's perched so precariously on the peak of the building. Ever seen it? Well, I've been there, done that.
This wasn't exactly keeping a low profile, the marshals warned me, so we went underground — literally. I had always wanted to see some of the old tunnels stretching beneath the city, and I got them to open the sealed doors to the dank tunnel beneath Front Street that once linked Goldsmith's Department Store to its parking garage.
Then it was back to the river one last time. The marshals weren't happy about my final request, but it's always been on my to-do list, and when I invited them to join me, they quickly changed their minds. I'm not sure where they found the go-karts, but racing them up and down the Bluff Walk was definitely an adventure, and seeing pedestrians leap over the railing to get out of our way added to the fun. Sure, we broke a few laws that day, but just try to find me, cops. I'm outta here! — Michael Finger
Summer is Summer
For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, nothing beats Summer Avenue.
If I only had one day left in Memphis I'd spend it taking a slow, windows-down drive along Summer — the most diverse and interesting street in town — and I'd eat everything I could get my hands on.
What's for breakfast? That's easy. The country ham biscuits from Bryant's Breakfast are one of the seven wonders of the breakfast-eating world: sweet and salty like some thick-cut American prosciutto.
Lunch options would include a Southern veggie plate at the Cottage, the great hot-and-sour soup at Panda Garden, or a sampling of homestyle noodle dishes and sushi from Edo, where they make a homemade orange Jell-O so damn good you'll rethink everything bad you've ever thought about Jell-O. But since this is a list of things I'd do on my last day in Memphis, how can I not have barbecue? On Summer, the choice is limited: Central or Top's. While the former is clearly the more upscale option, I'd go with Tops, which, like Bryant's, has been a part of the Memphis landscape since the early 1950s, and looks it.
For dinner I'll have one of every taco they make at El Palmar. I'll have an asada, a chorizo, a pastor, a pollo, a lingua, and a tripas and a chile Rellenos taco, which finds everybody's favorite cheese-stuffed deep-fried poblano perched on top of a corn tortilla. At a $1.60 per taco, maybe I can double up.
The best thing about having dinner at El Palmar is its proximity to La Michoacana, a fantastic store that specializes in homemade Mexican popsicles (paletas) and ice cream (helado). My last popsicle — if there ever had to be such a thing — would be La Michoacana's chili cucumber paleta.
Late-night snack? There's nothing special about the popcorn at the Summer Drive-In. But my last day in Memphis ends with a double feature. — Chris Davis