I love Memphis but the cab ride is cold, and I’m headed for a two-star hotel downtown, so I keep my fingers crossed. I’m back in town to do an exhibit at Graceland Mansion, another at Jay Etkin Gallery downtown, and a second Sirius Satellite Radio interview.
The lobby is low frills. It has the feel of an airport rental-car counter. A uniformed valet sleeps in an armchair near the door, pretending to read a magazine that now flops on his knee. Across the courtyard I notice a rib joint all glassed in with big windows all steamy and inviting looking. Is it just a mirage? The vision of a real Memphis Bar-b-que joint, right in the carport of my hotel really looks too good to be true.
I give the menu board a dazed stare, when a pretty little hostess touches my arm and says something that ends with “Baby.” My mind trips a switch and I’m back in the years I lived in New Orleans. I miss these simple little southern kindnesses, so rarely heard in the northern cities, These Baby, Darlin things. “Pardon Me?”
“What can i get for you, Sugar?” she smiles, pulling my mind back into the room. In the City of Broad Shoulders, they don’t play it that way. You’re more likely to get the thousand-yard stare, which is supposed to mean something like, “what do you need, hurry up, there’s a bunch of other people behind you, and you’re workin my nerves”. But this is Memphis now. And certain social graces apply. Of all the things I miss about living in the South, these social graces and this “What can I get you Baby-Darlin-Sugar” stuff is right up there near the top of the list. I miss that a lot.
“I just want some ribs or a sandwich or something, what’s really good tonight?” “Well the ribs are always good” she replies in the same melodious drawl. The aroma in the place testifies mightily to her claim about the ribs, and I needed no further persuasion there, but I venture further. “What kind of sandwich is good?” “Try the pork shoulder sandwich, you’re gonna like it.” I liked the sound of her confidence in that sandwich, so I order it with the slaw on the side and sit down in a booth to watch the goings on.
A pack of young cops in two booths toward the back finish their meals and horse around with the owner, putting each other in headlocks and shit. Across the room a panhandler chats with a man in a wheelchair, while a guy that looks to be a deliveryman sorts through order tickets and brown paper bags, stacking them in rows. Another group jokes with a waitress? they seem to know. It’s kind of hard to tell exactly who works here, and who is just hanging out. But that seems to be part of the charm of the place.
Most just seem to be happy to be warm and inside. And the rich aroma of down home Bar-B-Que in the place is heavenly.
I look back toward the hotel lobby across a cold empty swimming pool. Scattered leaves and a old lawn chair line the bottom of the empty pool, and add a nice touch to the broke-down atmosphere of the old hotel.
But back inside the rib joint is full of life. The Chefs jostle and joke and hammer away at the pots and pans. Everyone seems to be buzzing off the action of the kitchen and jamming to a crackly jukebox. Most seem to know each other and are in no rush to go anywhere at all. Besides, the temperature was like 20 degrees outside. Who needs to rush out into that? We have everything we could possibly want right here in the rib joint.
The edges of black vinyl-letters spelling out “R Ribs” curl away from the moist plate glass. The place is bereft of conventional charm, but leftover bits of decoration still work their half-hearted magic. Fragments of glitter and ribbon, from happy parties long past, do their best to bring us cheer. And a half-tattered Santa flutters gaily under a heating duct. It kind of worked.
Lost in my daydream, I don’t hear my order being called. But someone waves at me, and I snatch it up with a quick nod and make the journey back across the carport. Past the vacant swimming pool, a few lonely coke machines, and up to my 9th floor room.
The Bar-B-Que is heavenly. I flip open the City Magazine on the desk of the room. This one is called “Memphis Downtowner” and right away I see a photo of one of my paintings in there, and an article about the show at Jay Etkin Gallery, which opens tomorrow night! I’m starting to feel at home here in Memphis!
The Sirius Radio interview is a blast. A good-vibe DJ named Argo, interviews me and even lets me cue up and play a couple of Elvis songs on the broadcast. My licensing agent Steve Scebelo is in there, along with Media Assistant Alicia Dean and Archivist Robert Dye Jr. both from (EPE) Elvis Presley Enterprises. We clown around in the studio, and Dye’s camera is flashing. Robert Dye Jr. is a historian and archivist for Elvis Presley Enterprises. He’s one of these people with a dream job. Photography Manager for the Elvis Presley Archive, basically the gatekeeper to images of the most photographed man in history.
Dye is an amazing photographer in his own right. His father, Robert Dye Sr. was one of the very first professional photographers to ever take pictures of Elvis. These very, very early photos of Elvis are riveting to look at. They show candid, unscripted backstage photos of Elvis flashing that million dollar smile taken so early on in Elvis’ career, you can still see the rough-around-the-edges Elvis posing and flashing his bad-boy sneer. There is freshness in the Robert Dye Sr. photos that can’t be beat. You can even still see the rough rope-knots that Elvis has on a makeshift guitar strap. They show a fresh-faced Elvis right out of High School, before the money came. At the time Elvis is playing local fairs and nightclubs. The Dye photos foretell big things to come for Elvis.
The interview breaks up and we walk back across the street toward Graceland and the EPE offices to have some meetings and look through a set of images of Elvis taken during the years he played Las Vegas. Robert also shows me a whole set of thumbnails of the Gold Lame Outfit. These are very cool. We look at a ton of photos and have a couple more meetings and then people are starting to fade from hunger so we hop into someone’s SUV to go get some dinner with Iris Houston, the Licensing manager at Elvis Presley Enterprises. Iris takes us to dinner at Pearl’ Oyster House. A very tasty spot just a block or so from the Jay Etkin Gallery. The lunch was awesome. Iris Houston has a quiet and quick sense of humor. One of those people whose wit kind of sneaks up on you, till all of a sudden you’re laughing till your stomach hurts.
From Pearl’s Oyster House, we walk the couple blocks over to Jay Etkin Gallery, and see that Jay has done a beautiful job of installing the show. Jay Etkin is a tall distinguished looking guy with a lot of cool Memphis stories. He’s more or less the Mayor of the this ultra-hip neighborhood that grew up around his gallery at 409 S Main St. The gallery itself is a huge vintage loft and really looks like a movie set. In fact it was the set of a Hollywood movie, (I forget which one), but Jay Etkin himself is really fun and down-to-earth and his beautiful gallery is surrounded by some very good restaurants and very hip night spots. The opening is a smashing success, Jay seems to know everyone in town, and the crowds just keep pouring in.
Around 10 o’clock, Steve, Robert Dye Jr., and I head out to catch a late night dinner at another restaurant just north of the Gallery, and are lucky to score a table in the jam-packed place. We just kick back, have a few beers, some delicious seafood, talk about Memphis history, and are soon ready to hit the pillows back at the hotel. Steve and I both have 6am flights so we will be weary travelers. Memphis is just plain cool. I can’t wait to come back here.