All the Feels in Memphis

We’ve gone into Memphis three days in a row this week, and it still doesn’t feel like enough. (You know that’s significant coming from me.) The thing is, Memphis has such a deep history in civil rights; it’s on the beautiful Mississippi Delta; its old architecture is gorgeous; the people we’ve met are super-southern friendly; the food is locally unique; and the music here is steeped in tradition. I have enjoyed nearly every minute in this town.

I can’t even begin to describe what I’ve learned about the history here, so I’ll just show you what we’ve done. You know we visited Graceland one morning, which was an eye-opener for this non-Elvis fan. After that we hit as much of downtown as we could.

Walking near the River

We started out one morning near the park that runs alongside the Mississippi and strolled around without an agenda.

The river itself is very very low here, and the park alongside it is closed for construction, but elsewhere we saw innovative playgrounds, downtown city parks with benches and food trucks, and lots of public art.

Some parts of Memphis have retained old, beautiful architecture (Tracy took those photos, not me). We saw abandoned, beautiful old buildings, old buildings being used for new apartments, new buildings that stood out, high-rent locations right next to boarded-up old shops, just everything. And lots of neon signs. We wandered and looked and sat and looked and wandered some more.

We saw the famous glass pyramid everyone talks about that’s actually a Bass Pro Shops (!!!) with a hotel integrated and a bowling alley and viewing deck. Oddly, the only photo I got was of this sturgeon swimming among the kiosks of flannel shirts. It was a weird place.

Activists for Rights

The entire time we walked, we saw historical markers and art instillations about the history of the people of Memphis. We stopped and read every danged one, front to back.

This installation shows and tells about the people who worked for women’s rights throughout Memphis’ history. I hadn’t known that this city had been instrumental in the suffragette movement).

And this, of course, is the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on the balcony, above where those placeholder old cars are parked. Built behind the motel is the National Civil Rights Museum, which some people find controversial, as in they think it desecrates the place where King was killed (I know because I walked by some protesters on the way).

We didn’t go into the museum because, damn, it was hard just walking around the hotel. Kiosks played video of the sanitation workers’ strikes that Dr. King had addressed initially but was planning on organizing more, plus the riots that turned violent when he left town for a few days, saying he’d be back. And you know what happened when he returned.

Photo upon photo, video after video of angry, brave, desperate people marching and getting beaten and sitting in protest for basic rights, of police spraying them, hitting them, shouting at them. Essay after essay describing what individuals did, what was done to them, what groups planned, how hard they worked, what they didn’t accomplish and what they did.

Along a small park by the hotel are installations of photos and essays on aspects of the movement, from fatherhood to artistry to activist athletes. I had to walk by myself to take them all in, because tears were just running down my face. I knew some of the details and lot of the names and faces, but not all of it, and never had I experienced all that information in the same place, at that place.

I felt guilty for being part of systemic racism, proud for being part of this human race that is astonishingly strong in overcoming oppression, sorrowful for the times we’re in when we seemingly have forgotten that division is the answer to nothing.

And just like Memphis, a group of dancers with a boom box at the edge of the park brought me back to our plan of exploring the city.

Southern Folks

We caught the final ”Trolly Night” of the summer, when the businesses of S. Main St. stay open late, bands play outside restaurants, art galleries have open houses, and people stroll the streets, drinks in hand, at a slower pace than up on Beale Street.

That’s where I met Erica, who had opened her mobile boutique just a few days ago. Look at her adorable trailer she’s parked on the curb and opened as a shop: I just had to go in. And it didn’t matter that her clothes and accessories are way too fancy for me; she welcomed me in and showed me around, and I told her about my favorite mobile clothes shop: Colby’s Clothes Mobile, where I used to buy something each time I saw Colby at a music festival.

People connecting. This theme I saw again and again in Memphis.


Memphis’ role as an incubator of music: I just didn’t realize it had been so significant. We walked by (or read about) Stax Studios, Sun Records, Elvis’ clothier and favorite restaurant, B.B. King’s joint, just … everywhere.

The two bands we caught on Trolly Night couldn’t have been more different. A trio of young Black men playing sax-driven, laid-back jazz, and then a trio of old white folks playing an assortment of mandolins, guitars, and, get this, a saw with a bow that sounded a lot like a theremin.

The owner of the record shop hosting the second trio introduced himself to us: he gives local talent a place to play and sells their CDs, and he was a mighty nice man a little perplexed by why we were enjoying the band so much from outside. It was all good.


So. As I was planning this trip, I asked around for recommendations on what’s best to eat in Memphis, and the consensus was ribs: the best place for dry and the best for wet. We went for dry, reserving a pick-up time, at the famous-est place, to grab and then eat in the park.

The pictures don’t do them justice because once I’d pulled them apart I didn’t stop to take any more shots. Lots of spices rubbed on, and juicy, tender meat, which apparently isn’t common for dry ribs.

I saved the astonishingly good sides of coleslaw and beans and rolls to snack on at High Cotton Brewery, where we played cards and enjoyed sunshine and reflected on a few jam-packed days.

On the way back to the campground one evening, I discovered that, although Tracy knows White Castles (due to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the cover of which we recreated for some reason related to boiled peanuts), he didn’t know there’s a southern counterpart to the slider chain. So we picked up a “sackful,” which completed our tour of the south.

Food, music, art, rich history, and one mighty river that runs through it.

6 thoughts to “All the Feels in Memphis”

  1. Making me hungry here!

    I can kind of understand (but never ever condone) the way many white people try to shut down discussions on racism and systemic racism and the history of racism because it is intensely uncomfortable for us to contemplate. But their way out is cowardly and self-centred. Pretending it didn’t happen will never solve anything, we *need* to feel the feels before things can hope to change.

      1. I know! I tried to hook her up with Colby with @colbysclothesmobile but I think Colby is very busy. I love the idea of your own little shop on wheels.

    1. Yeah, I have so many mixed (mostly terrible) feelings about it all so much that I don’t even know how to respond. How about, I agree!