Memphis rhythm

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Tennessee
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Many would undoubtedly scoff and wonder why the hell i had come to Memphis at all.

I didn't go to Graceland. And i didn't bar-hop on Beale St. I didn't even see live music. I barely went down town. And i didn't eat BBQ. Or not the meaty core of BBQ. just beans and 'slaw.

Memphis, the continuation of the plummet south, into warmer climes and vivid greens. Memphis, Tennessee, a city in a state of what was briefly and bloodily the Confederated States of America. I was in Memphis to get a taste of the South. Doing so took all my time, and left nothing for Elvis or the Blues.

On the greyhound south we passed a sign advertising 'all you can eat catfish buffet'. this i took to be quintessential South. Much of what i experienced felt the same way.

Memphis was hot and sticky. My body surrendered to the rhythms of the day; siestaing was accidental but inevitable. Big meals and hot middays meant a lot of time spent sitting in the shade or indoors. It is a rhythm i remember pretty well from Latin America and Spain. The mornings and evenings are all a-bustle. When midday comes i could be found seated in the shade at one of the two houses i was welcomed into. There was beer and there was malt liquor and there were a few of the artsy folk of the city.

In the south, you eat. Even if you don't go for meat or really like the rather gruesome BBQ adverts, you still eat. When you go to the drive in to watch gorey zombie flicks, you still throw a couch and a grill and some beers in the back of the pickup. Maybe here at last is the logic behind the huge truck phenomenon; how else can you be sure of being well-fed and well-rested wherever you go? Again, you surrender to the rhythms of the south.

The food, as mentioned, is big. It is also spiced and spicy. Memphis was the first i saw of any sort of popular alternative to the fast food joints that so proliferate. The typical BBQ place is dingy in old vinyl and lino, with a rusted, faded or missing sign. But it is local run and local patronised. And each one if unique and has its own recipes. The food, to be fair, is still greasy and enormous and salt, sugar and vinegar heavy. But at least it has taste. Even a vego eats big and eats well here. 

An afternoon excursion took us and the pickup out of midtown, and way out into the greenery and fecundity of the Mississippi woodlands. On a thin road hemmed in by tall trees and wire fences is hidden Voodoo Village. Local legends tell of the community of this street variously kidnapping and sacrificing animals, chasing off outsiders with machetes, or blocking off their retreat with an old bus. They also speak of strange rites, rituals and healings.

The place when we arrive is deserted, save for some very loud, very angry, very ragged looking dogs who bark from behind the barbed wire fences. Further back beyond the fences is a mess of rusted old cars and dishevelled houses or shacks. And in amidst dog, car and house are hundred of strange works of art, painted in garish, bright colours. Some are completely abstract, some are shaped like people, or suns or stars or houses. Some are covered in nails, the spikes sticking outwards. Despite the intense reds blues and yellows, they are an unsettling assortment. The sheer number speaks of a manic, inscrutable frenzy of production. The gateway bears the name GOD carved over and over again, forwards and backwards in red blue and white. i don't think the allusion is to American patriotism. It too is unsettling.

The mangy dogs slipped through the fence somehow, and we decided to leave quickly. I still have no idea what that place is all about. Again though, one of these perfect crystallisations of the South. Or rather what the South has been mythologised as. In Memphis i began to see that a lot of these images have to come from somewhere. The South is very much what it is imagined as. But it loses nothing for all of this; its reputation is already so sordid and surreal and full of contradictions and mysteries.

One final Memphis experience. A night out at the speedway, its rickety grandstands jutting out over a sea of trucks in the muddy carpark. Not many sedans parked here. Stepping through the mud and up to the ticket booth felt like slipping back in time. I don't know how far exactly, certainly before all the 9/11 hysteria and mania. There was no weapons check and no Xray machines. There was no request for ID when buying beer. Before the national anthem everyone stood silently while the announcer prayed through the loudspeakers, for protection and blessing for the drivers, for blessings for us all. And then the anthem, hands on hearts and backs straight, eyes proud.

The racing itself was all noise and speed and mud. Cars hit walls and spewed smoke and spun in the mud. The noise was intense, clods of dirt showered the audience. There were cheers and there were engine roars. There was brightly coloured steel and battered old cars that were all engine and nothing else. And there was the checkered flag and winners, but i have no idea whether the winners won anything, or whether they just like driving in circles around the muddy track.

And some of the drivers came out, wiped the grime from their face, and sat with their wives and litters of kids in the audience. And they drank beer with their buddies and the speedway old timers. and the kids slurped ice cream and clamoured when free caps were thrown into the stands. And beyond the track the sun was setting in its most magnificent shades of red and orange.

And it was all rhythm, the older calmer rhythm of life in the South. And of life itself, the dogs barking, the trees growing and weeds insinuating themselves everywhere, the people eating, drinking and laughing and growing old. The sun setting and the heat dissipating, and it all cycling endlessly.
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