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Memphis

The Memphis trip will likely withstand the test of time on my memory.  In my life, it was the closest I’ve come to getting kicked out of a hotel lounge, it has the deathiest tourist attraction, most tasteless advertisement for wine, and most poor choice of shape for a building not in Egypt.

I’ll start with the landmark. I arrived to typical late February temperatures and a slew of work calls to make. Though I typically don’t leave my high-walled cube during work hours except to go to the salad and sushi bar at Harris Teeter at noon on the dot, I enjoy the freedom travel allows me in doing business while power-walking. Memphis was just not the right place for it. It was cold and windy, and I kept getting distracted by various sights and landmarks I just didn’t expect. Memphis has streetcars? Memphis has a large abstract metallic structure in front of its convention center? Memphis has a museum devoted to fire?

And then, there it was: the most anomalous structure given its context that I have ever seen: apparently, Memphis has a huge silver pyramid on the Mississippi River.

After I’d made the rest of my calls and answered e-mails from my tres chic, windless room in the Madison Hotel, I got in the car and drove to a wireless store, where I wanted to return a cellular phone charger I had purchased in Chicago (and used, once, at the recommendation of the guy who sold it to me). En route, there it was, staring at me: the most tasteless advertisement for wine. And also the most creative. It said, “Dinner without wine is like Britney without hair: not pretty.” The woman had shaved her head not even a week before, and there was already money to be made of the spectacular misfortune.

Speaking of, I was going to Graceland.

Every time I write or think the word, “Graceland,” I hear Paul Simon sing, “Going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee…” and think of being stung by a bee on my knee on Stuey’s Island in Maine at age 3. It was the summer of 1986 and the album had just been released, and it must have come on the radio in the family station wagon. My parents had the best music, Elvis included. Anyway, it’s notable because it’s my first living memory.  I would turn 3 that September.

The drive to Graceland from downtown Memphis is just sad. Like driving north on 155 from Nashville toward Gaylord Opryland Hotel, the route south on Elvis Presley Blvd is lined with rundown businesses, ten years into their decay at least. Elvis themed motels and gift shops promising the most exclusive Elvis paraphernalia all had empty parking lots. I wouldn’t be surprised if an auto repair shop, or a church, brought in more revenues.  After all, I was in the south.

None could bring in more profit, however, than Graceland itself. The cost to park is not on their website for me to verify exactly how much it was, but I remember saying, “Are you serious?” The attendee must have taken me for a businesswoman and not a tourist, because I was redirected to park for free in the empty lot shared by the Heartbreak Hotel and a Graceland gift emporium, a longer walk by no more than two minutes.

Elvis’ private jets, the Lisa Marie and the Hounddog II, the former with a large “TCB” for Elvis’ maxim “Taking Care of Business,” are parked prominently in the lot with the tourists’ cars. They cost extra to tour. In order to purchase tour tickets, you walk past a gift shop, food stands, and a photo opportunity with Elvis. No, you may not have your picture taken with Elvis on your own camera. Tickets range in price from the “I want to birth Elvis’s reincarnated soul but I settled on a lock of his hair on eBay” package ($68, actually titled “Elvis Entourage VIP”) to the “I have AAA, government, and education IDs, and how long does the house tour last?” ($22.50).

To get to the house, you have to ride a tourbus across the decrepit highway, through the gates, and up a big hill. What, no cabled gondola? I will admit I was pleasantly surprised to learn I would be going on an audio tour. I’m not too keen on tours of any kind unless the site is really compelling to me, in which case I’ll want to ask questions. There, I didn’t even want to have to listen to other people ask questions. And based on our tourbus guide’s reaction to the one question I did ask, I wouldn’t be surprised if questions were the reason for the switch to audio tours.

Do NOT ask if it was true that Elvis’ colon weighed 40 pounds when he died. 

The audio recording is well timed, interesting, and easy to follow. You can stop and start it at any time, and you can even opt to hear more detailed stories or audio clips… or take it off and enjoy the silence! But in spite of the constant supervision and presence of other travelers, there’s an overwhelming feeling of death that I haven’t felt in funeral homes or hospitals or homes of famous people who have been dead much longer, like Versailles. I already live in an old Victorian home that creaks and leaks, with a tin roofed turret that sounds like thunder when it’s windy. I don’t need to be in the creepy home of someone dead.

It is really quite deathy.  You’re told from the start that the tour will not go upstairs, because that was a private area of the home for the Presley family. So there’s this divide between the main floor and basement and the upstairs: the known and the unknown or, in a contrary view, between the fantasy and the reality. I never stopped wondering what was upstairs. Ghosts? Stains? (It would cross your mind, too!) The second reason for the deathy feeling is, honestly, the sense that time literally stopped in that house when he died. It’s not the case at all—Graceland has been under the care of several different owners, and I don’t know that every piece of furniture is an original. But a lot of it is right back where it was, warmly lit in low ceiling rooms with wood panel and fabric walls. It doesn’t just look like 1977, it feels like 1977–which is crazy because I was 6 years unborn. My pictures just came out very weird. In one, taken in the basement, my face looks a lot younger than it normally does. And for once, it’s not because I Photoshopped it to look that way. As I walked through, I wondered if the happy couple did lines off of the mirrored tables and whether the furry white bedspread itched or not, and whether the tour was over soon.

The most unsettling part was going into the squash court. It has since been transformed into what can only be described as a shrine. Any costumes I hadn’t yet seen behind glass were not only behind glass but also elevated, illuminated, and foregrounded by two stories of tiled gold and platinum records in frames. Footage of Elvis’ performances played in loops on bigscreen TVs suspended from the ceilings. Couldn’t it have just stayed a squash court? It was there that it ceased to be a tour and suddenly became what felt like a flagrant violation of his memory. “Please exit the court and follow the pathway to the Presley gravesite.”

Oh Lord.

Any stragglers from the previous load of tourists and anyone who actually went through faster than I did were gathered around the gravesite. I felt unsure of myself and thought about just heading over to the bus, but if the others could pay a little homage to the King, I should, too. I did my best to “fit in” by standing there, literally, staring down at the graves, and then finally by taking a couple of pictures. I was figuring out how to take a picture of Elvis’ gravestone without getting telephone wires or the backs of some unsightly homes beyond the horse stables when a couple offered to take my picture in front of the grave for me. “Give us your camera, happy to help!” they offered. Awkward smile. Click. I took their picture and left for the bus. No questions on the ride down. It was an almost silent ride. Maybe the weight of the experience rendered some speechless, but I just felt bad. This man is a legend, and I just spent 20 bucks marginalizing him to a spectacle by taking pictures of his home and personal stuff and the spot where he’s buried.

I think of all of the homes I’ve traipsed around—the Hemingway Home & Museum, Monet’s Giverny, Jefferson’s Monticello—and all have lines of tourists, admission fees, bobble-head dolls and puzzles of the namesakes, well-rehearsed curators, and taut velvet ropes. What makes Graceland different from—and by different, I mean more distasteful than—the others?

I think it’s a combination of elements: one, I think it’s Elvis himself. He was a living spectacle and an icon of popular culture; why wouldn’t his house be as flashy? Two, I think it’s the overdevelopment of the area around his house. The visibility of telephone wires and the sound of street traffic from the front door take away from the otherwise somber/glamorous ambiance. Three, not enough time has passed since Elvis’ death. Graceland feels stale, but not so old that one feels removed from his life. Finally, I think the tour forces voyeurism and sentimentality on you at the end with the shrine and the graves. Those should be naturally produced. A little subtlety, please.

I know I’ve exhausted your attention on Graceland. The next is a fun story.

When I got back, I saw the ducks at the Peabody Hotel. Every day at 5:00 PM, the ducks that reside in the hotel fountain make a grand exit to music: they jump up to the top of a stairwell lined with a red carpet, descend the stairs, and waddle straight ahead to the hotel elevator, which will bring them upstairs to retire to their chambers. It is a huge tourist attraction (I’m feeling like less of a businesswoman with every entry…). I would love to say that I intended to see the ducks, but I actually had no idea this was to take place as soon as I arrived. I just heard they had a lovely lounge with a live pianist and, of course, a bar. So the story goes: after the ducks curtsied and bowed (I kid, but it would not have surprised me!) I looked over the cocktail menu and saw that they did a specific cocktail that I like very much. Instead of preparing it the traditional way, though, they prepare it with a rather harsh liqueur I was not familiar with. And the way I like it, it’s done with a flavored vodka. I essentially altered the drink to my liking, assuming the alteration would work well. I brought it to my table, and it was really bad. Frangelico! I didn’t want to drink it but didn’t want to pay for something that was practically curdling my tongue, so I tried to hide behind a big flower arrangement. It does not work like in the movies. The waitress brought me a replacement glass of wine, and I continued to read my newspaper behind the carnations and lilies. Five minutes later, a man tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up from my crossword puzzle. “What is your problem?” he said. “I understand you have a problem.” He kept going. “Were you not planning to pay my staff? I understand you had a drink made specially for you.” Oh my God. And then it happened. I started to cry. I can’t cry when I get pulled over for speeding or when I see a kitten with three legs cough up a hairball, but I can cry over a glass of wine after watching Pavlovian conditioned ducks walk in a line down a red carpet. Great. I explained my situation to him, the whole time well aware of the fact that the bartender was watching me through large sprigs of baby’s breath in the vase on the bar. He ended up apologizing for being so aggressive and welcomed me to stay. But it was a scene and let me tell you—I just left a fat (second) tip, jumped out of my seat, and waddled out that door.

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Streetcar?

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Picture labeled, “Silver Thing.”  I liked this!  When the reflections weren’t  blinding me!

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Firetruck.

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Fire Museum.

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Self-explanatory, really.

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The wine sign.

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Graceland! Exterior shot.

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This was lovely. Before I descended to the scary basement.

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Den. Here it’s interesting to note that Elvis installed three TVs because LBJ had three TVs in the Oval Office. When I visited Austin in May, I saw a recreation of LBJ’s Oval Office at the LBJ Library and yes, there were three TVs. I wanted to know!  I also think there’s something up with the house, haunted-wise, because I look 10 in this picture.  It freaks ME out.

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Bar.

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Billiard room.

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The shrine.

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The tourists.

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There it is… me having my picture taken in front of a gravestone with a telephone pole behind.

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The ducks!

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