We weren’t meant to be in Memphis, or not yet, anyway.
But the lure of two of my family members – my Dad and brother – being in the country was great. Even greater still was the lure of ambushing them. As Erik said, ‘It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.’
So, after we disposed of our very sad, slightly grey pork loin in the Charleston Holiday Inn swimming pool bin (which you can read about here if that comment lacks context), we jumped in the van for our ten-hour drive to Memphis for project ‘Ambush Linklaters’. The drive was largely uneventful, although was almost made significantly longer by an attitudinal Google Maps app which kept rerouting us. I thought we had been super sneaky in our ambush plans (I even roped my mother in from Australia to call them on the auspice of ‘checking in’ so we could figure out what their plans were), so I was disappointed when we rocked up at the same dinner joint as them when we meant to be 700 odd miles away and my brother simply said “here they are” . Apparently, my second phone call to find out their exact locale as we entered the outskirts of Memphis was less than discreet. It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.
But, we were in Memphis with my Dad and brother, and that was all that mattered. We caught up over Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, whilst I answered my brother’s many queries about middle America, and marvelled at how far I had come in four months. Yes, you have to tip in a place like this. Yes, you will like iced tea. No, it doesn’t have sugar if you ask for unsweetened. Yes, when they say fried pickles they mean deep fried pickles.
After dinner, we checked in at the Econolodge, where Dad and Tom were staying. This was a dreary affair of a hotel, set atop an even drearier parking lot. As we walked the halls to our room, we tried not to touch anything. We arrived at our room, hoping for the best. Alas, our key didn’t work, so I guarded our luggage whilst Erik went all the way back down to the ground floor to wait 20 minutes for the desk clerk who had decided to abandon her post. When we finally got into our room it reeked of stale cigarettes, the hot water didn’t work, and our coffee pot looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the hotel opened in the 1970s. Not wanting to face the MIA desk clerk again, we decided to make do (and perhaps get an STD check later on).
As we wandered the streets the next morning marveling at the beautiful abandoned art deco buildings, we realised the state of the Econolodge was representative of Memphis itself, which has surely seen better days. There is nothing that represents a great city well into its decline more than a boarded up, midcentury office building with a revolving restaurant that has most of its windows broken. We spent the morning in the library, which left us feeling even sadder about the state of the world, before retiring to a coffee shop for the rest of our working day (Tom and Dad meanwhile enjoyed the excellent Civil Rights Museum and toured Sun Studios. Damn this working holiday.)
However, not all is lost in Memphis. We met up later that day for a cocktail in the Peabody Hotel and to watch the Peabody Duck March. Watching these five ducks waddle from their fountain in a four-star hotel foyer to the lift which took them to their purpose-built $200,000 duck penthouse was one of the most joyful things I have ever experienced.
After cocktails and ducktails, we wandered down Beale street – a part of Memphis that is fortunately alive and well – for a drink, some live music, and some local food.
Our two nights in Memphis were bittersweet: we shared some great times with some of our favourite people, but it is sad seeing such a wonderful city in such a state of disrepair. We will be back in Memphis on leg 2 of our trip and hopefully will get to know the good parts of this tired old southern belle a little better.
We just won’t be staying at the Econolodge.