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I made the observation a year ago that Memphis looks slightly different in the daylight. Nights are blurred and swirled with beads of sweat, booze and music that reminds you of black magic. After dark in Memphis is when you let that seedy part of your soul out.
But the day time is much different. It’s far less sultry. Unless, of course, you are Ms. Zeno. I stumbled upon this buxom diva in a small courtyard off of Beale Street. She caught my eye as she belted out the blues holding the microphone between her enormous breasts. Despite the hilarity, this woman’s got pipes. Check her out!
There has been a lot to fret over lately. The headline in today’s Daily News mentioned something about 401(k)s taking a hit after the Dow plunged 512 points. What’s happening with the debt crisis? What the hell is going on in Syria? But most importantly….what happened to Meg D?
Rest assured, friends. It has been a long (…okay VERY long…) hiatus, but I can say with confidence that I am back baby. Inspired by my good friend Lauren E., who has her own successful food blog (seriously, check it out www.laurenfoode.com, it’s pretty great), I thought I’d take some time to revisit with you fine people.
Next week I embark on a clash-of-cultures, all-you-can-eat-and-drink, groove-to-the-music road trip from Memphis through Delta Blues country and down into New Orleans. Can you smell the BBQ sauce and beer oozing out of my pores, yet? I sure as hell can. Anyway you may be interested to know that both the party-heavy Beale Street in Memphis and the streets of New Orleans are pretty lax on their open container laws. For the rest of you lushes out there, I’ve rounded up some other places in our great nation where you can do what our fore fathers set out to establish: drink freely, which, in effect lends itself to a good life and the pursuit of happiness. Forget the New York Stock Exchange and Representative John Boehner. America must be doing something right.
Where to Drink Freely
Power & Light District of Kansas City, Missouri
The Las Vegas Strip
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee
New Orleans, Louisiana
Savannah Historic District, Savannah, Georgia
Where to Drink Less Freely That Other Places, but More Freely Than Most Places (aka, where open container laws are tolerated)
Duval Street, Key West, Florida
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
Roaming Memphis in the bright of day is sobering. At least, that’s how we felt on Monday as we readied to head back to New York. Our last stop on our list was the National Civil Rights Museum, and I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate way to spend our last few hours.
In the blur of Blues, ribs and beer it is almost easy to forget that Memphis was the city in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. He was killed on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel, which has been turned into the museum. It is eye-opening and, in my opinion, a must for anyone.
Before you enter the exhibit you watch a screening of the Oscar-nominated ‘The Witness,’ narrated by Rev. Billy Kyles, who was with Dr. King the night he died. If at the end you aren’t holding back tears then you missed the whole point of the film.
Wind your way through the history of American civil rights. What makes this exhibit that much more meaningful is that it is located in the South. I don’t think it would have hit me as hard were it located in New York.
The museum takes you up to room #306, Dr. King’s room. Here you can look out a glass window onto the balcony where he was murdered. There really aren’t any words to capture this experience – at least none that wouldn’t sound forced and corny. Just go for yourself. Adult admission is $13 and I would carve out three hours to do it properly. You do not want to rush.
We meandered down to Beale Street and although a good handful of people roamed in and out of the blues clubs and restaurants, it looked more like a ghost town compared to the past two nights. We even made an attempt to get back to Ground Zero to find out the name of Johnny’s band (I feel stupid that I can’t remember), but seeing it empty and silent was eerie and another reminder that the journey really was over.
I’ll be raving about this trip for a very long time. I cannot wait to get back and I will recommend Memphis to anyone.
The whole drive here whenever we mentioned we were going to Memphis we got one of two responses: skeptical looks (which, after last night’s insanity we are still confused about) and “You into Elvis, or something?”
Ok…yes, we went to Graceland. I know I like to pride myself on not being a tourist but, come on. I think if an entire Paul Simon album bears its name it really is worth a visit. And also…it’s Elvis.
I’ll admit I didn’t know much about the King or his palace before my visit, but I was told by my friend Becca (an avid Graceland visitor) to opt for the Platinum Tour Tickets, which cost $34 and include an audio-guided tour of the Mansion; access to his airplanes; access to the Automobile Museum; his Hollywood Exhibit; a pop culture exhibit; access to a wardrobe exhibit; and a self-guided tour of the ’68 Special exhibit.
Elvis bought Graceland in 1957 for around 100 grand. He was 22. I’m 22 and I think I’m making it through the rest of this weekend on $61. It’s good to be the King.
“There’s a pretty little thing waiting for the King…down in the Jungle Room.” – ‘Walking in Memphis’ by Marc Cohen.
The tour of the mansion takes you through the lower floors. The upstairs, Elvis’ private quarters, remain off limits out of respect. You get to see the living room, dining room, kitchen, basement and of course, the Jungle Room. Holy 1970s decor. Shag carpet on the ceiling? What were people thinking? The tour also includes the grounds of Graceland, including displays on his movie career and his many, many awards.
Getting there: If you don’t have a car there is a free shuttle service that leaves from the Memphis Rock’n'Soul Museum every hour on the half hour. I’d carve out a good three hours to do Graceland right.
Not into Elvis? There is still plenty to do. We also checked out the Beltz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art and tomorrow we plan on hitting the Civil Rights Museum. Memphis is also a prime location for people watching. Grab a stool at one of the many bars with front windows and watch the local color pass by. Check out the giant decked out carriages that leave from The Peabody Hotel. While you’re there, see the March of the Ducks, which happens at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Get there an hour early to get a good seat. It’s a little kitschy but the ducks are so damn cute.
Smoky barbecue goodness wafting out of a small alley off Union Ave. between Second and Third streets can only mean one thing. It’s time for a Rendezvous, arguably the most famous (and best) barbecue joint in Memphis. Our night started with a full order of pork ribs, cole slaw, chicken nachos and Heinekens and it only got better from there. By the way, the wait at Rendezvous is very, very long. We waited about an hour, but it was very much worth it.
Feeling sleepy from full bellies we were about to call it a night. Yes, we were sleepy and were considering passing out in our very comfortable beds at The Westin Memphis Beale Street. (Guests should ask for Joan, the concierge, who is a fountain of Memphis knowledge.) But first we wanted to see what all the fuss was on Beale Street. Oh my. The cop-guarded street is closed to cars and revelers are stopped on their way in for a quick ID check. That’s right. We got carded to walk on a street. Why? No open container laws on Beale Street. I knew we were in for an adventure.
We donned the Beale Street badge – a giant cup of Bud Lite (there are beer carts all along the street and most giant beers cost $5). From there we walked up the block as the soulful sound of Blues poured out from every venue. If you’re thinking Beale Street is just for tourists, think again. Packed with locals. And everyone wants to hear who is performing. To play on Beale Street is really to have made it.
We were lured to a small stage in a small pavilion. After watching the guitarists and sax player jam for a while one of the two guitarists motioned to me…to come up on stage. Now, I am not into being in front of people, but I thought ‘what the hell’ and headed up the steps. The guitarist handed me his instrument and I held it flat out in front me as he proceeded to pick and play it while it was in my hands. Probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Saskia and I waited around after the show to say hello to him. Turns out his name is Johnny Holiday (not his real name, but I promised I would keep his real identity a secret). Why Holiday? “Because I’m always on vacation,” he told us. He is the unofficial mayor of Beale Street. Everywhere we went with him folks were calling out ‘Hey Johnny! How you doing?’ We felt like Memphis royalty to be in his company.
Slipping past cover charges (I was introduced as his wife) we made our way into Ground Zero, a club on Beale Street owned by Morgan Freeman. This was to be our hangout for most of the night, as Johnny was to play there at midnight. A voluptuous woman belted out the Blues on stage as we knocked back beer after beer (and maybe a shot or two of Jim Beam, after Saskia opted for that over tequila).
As the night got fuzzier and we all got friendlier it was revealed that Johnny actually held a role in the 2005 movie, Walk the Line. He plays Carl Perkins, if anyone is interested.
The night ended in haze of dancing, singing and some killer solos by Johnny. Memphis, you may have climbed your way into my Top 5 Places in the U.S.
Check out the videos of Johnny at Ground Zero
After almost 900 miles on the road we were ready to blow off some steam. Newbies to Nashville on a short stay can’t go wrong with Broadway between First and Fourth avenues. We had a few must-sees on our list recommended to us by a friend who grew up in Nashville, but first we decided to do a little exploring on our own.
These three blocks are a smörgåsbord for the senses – bright, flashing lights; the succulent smell of grease and fat dripping off of roasting meat; and that familiar twang of country music. We spotted a sign that said “70 Beers on Tap” and there was no question where the night was going to begin.
Broadway Brewhouse Downtown (317 Broadway, there’s another one at 1900 Broadway, as well) is a comfortable sports bar-meets-saloon with wide, open windows and very friendly hosts. Saskia and I tried the local Nashville brew, Yazoo. I had the Pale Ale and Saskia opted for the Amber. In all honesty, while good, they weren’t very memorable so after one each we switched to old favorites – Red Hook and good ol’ fashioned Bud Lite. Hey, at least we tried.
After knocking back a few of those it was time to eat and we heard there was no better place than Jack’s BBQ, also on Broadway (so good, in fact, that when we told the bell hop we were going there he felt inclined to remove his hat and exclaim ‘amaaaaazing!’). And he was right on the money. We had barbecue brisket sandwiches, mac and cheese, potato salad, cinnamon apples and two Yuenglings. That food didn’t stand a chance lasting on our plates.
Next stop? Robert’s Western World, next door to Jack’s. This is the one-stop-shop for country music. Even Saskia, a claimed non-fan of country (cut to her eye rolls as Garth Brooks played in the car) seemed to enjoy herself. We befriended a 78-year-old oil tycoon and his family. Their names escape me but I think that has more to do with Bud Lite than them not being memorable. He offered to teach me how to dance but I respectfully declined. I don’t need to embarrass myself in front of an entire bar of two-steppers.
Lastly head over to The Stage if the sound of country gets to be too much. This bar is great for rock and roll and yes, more dancing. Saskia and I enjoyed some Fat Tire beers before we called it a night.
And that, my friends, is how it is done in Nashville.
Live music at Robert’s Western World
If last night I was happy you need a whole other word for how I feel tonight in Nashville. I’m staying at Union Station Hotel, A Wyndham Historic Hotel in a Station Master’s Suite, #620. Holy hell.
The hotel is built in a restored 19th-century railroad station. Picture a huge arched, stained-glass ceiling in the lobby and two wooden, sweeping staircases. That was definitely a sight for two weary travelers.
The living room is the size of my entire apartment in New York. The bedroom is just as large. As I write this I’m on my full-sized couch watching one of two (yes, two) flat screen TVs. La Quinta who? Don’t get me wrong. La Quinta is great for crashing. It’s cheap, clean and breakfast is included. But this is how a hotel stay should be. It’s so nice that Saskia and I were very, very close to saying “F*** it” to Nashville and ordering room service and a bottle of wine…but we probably would regret that in the morning….maybe.
It really doesn’t matter to me where I travel, as long as it is someplace I have never been before. Right now? I’m in a La Quinta in Kingsport, Tennessee and man, I have never been happier.
Having said that, I’ve been on the road now for nearly 16 hours so maybe my delight is more having a shower and clean sheets rather than being in a brand new city. (From what I can tell, Kingsport is your run-of-the-mill strip of chain hotels and restaurants. Nowhere you’d send a postcard from.)
In front of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate. Admission $22.
The adventure started as I rolled into Washington, D.C. at around 2 a.m. this morning. Cut to five hours later when I was up and getting an egg and cheese sandwich at Sidamo Coffee and Tea (417 H Street NE…and delicious!).
Saskia (my copilot) and I, bleary-eyed and unshowered (it’s a road trip…), were on the road by 9:30 and we managed to clear the entire state of Virginia in one day. The highlights? Two things jump to mind: scenery and food.
If you’re ever driving in this neck of the woods I highly recommend routes 29 South and I-81 South. Both will take you through the lush Blue Ridge Mountains (and yes, they really do look blue as the sun sets behind them and the mist rises over. Beautiful.)
We stopped for lunch in Shenandoah, Virginia, at Cousin Boogy’s, a roadside barbecue joint. For $13 combined we got barbecue pork, cole slaw, spicy chicken and hand cut fries. The owners, Tony and Michelle, prepare everything by hand and serve it up in the dining room, which can only be described as part rec-room, part diner, part home kitchen. The floor is sticky with spilled soda and the walls plastered with photos of local patrons as the twang of southern radio plays in the background.
Cut to dinner. A Southern staple. Cracker Barrel. What are we missing in the North? This place is pure gluttonous American glory, and I truly mean that in the best way possible. For $10 I was served up a sirloin steak, salad, baked potato and corn bread, while Saskia happily ate grilled catfish, corn and carrots for $7. The rest of the menu contains all the large-portioned favorites from chicken and dumplings to fried okra. And after you dine you must hit up the kitschy country store, which sells old time candies, candles, gardening tools and “I Love America” paraphernalia. I’ll go back to being my portion-controlled, New York-snobby-self tomorrow. But for tonight I bask in all of Cracker Barrel glory.