memphis – a tale of two cities (part 1)

Memphis – home of the blues, Graceland and Beale Street. That’s all we knew about Memphis before we got there. Oh, and one more thing – the Peabody Ducks. Can’t miss the Peabody Ducks. We wouldn’t have known about the Peabody Ducks but for Kathe and Paul, who mentioned that they were a must-see when we got to Memphis. That’s one of the fine things about traveling all over – you meet people who’ve walked this walk and can point you in the right direction.

The ducks are a great story. Five mallards that live upstairs at the grand Peabody Hotel (and I do mean grand). There are five of them. Every morning, just before 11 o’clock, the hotel’s duck master tells the camera-clicking throngs gathered in the hotel lobby that he’s heading upstairs to get the ducks and they’ll be right back. A few minutes later, the elevator doors open and out parade the five ducks, who march down the red carpet to the sounds of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March, climb up the fountain steps, and slide into the water. And there they stay all day, swimming in the fountain until 5 p.m., at which point the duck master lays out the red carpet and leads the ducks back to the elevator and upstairs to their Royal Duck Palace on the hotel’s rooftop. Fait accompli.

From the Peabody, it was down to the riverfront and a walk along the river through Jefferson Davis Park, in hopes of finding a replica of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the replica is down by the river, and if you visit Memphis sometime after April, you’d take the footbridge over to Mud Island and find it there in the River Park. People who visit in March search for a picture on the Internet and move on.

Time for a latte, and we found a coffee shop in Court Square – a stop on the streetcar line in the center of the business district, complete with a quiet little park, hotels and tall buildings.

Downtown Memphis is a compact place, with everything in walking distance. But if you want to leave downtown, it’s wise to get in the car, because immediately outside the city district, it turns from bright lights, big city to rundown, barren. Our next stop was the Lorraine Motel. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the evening of April 4, 1968, on the balcony outside Room 306. The day before, he’d delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, one that eerily foreshadowed the events of April 4. The Lorraine Motel/Hotel closed in 1988 and has since been revitalized as the National Civil Rights Museum. Below Room 306, down in the parking lot, there are replicas of the two cars that were parked there that fateful night, cars waiting to deliver King and his entourage to dinner.

Standing near the cars, looking up at the balcony, I paused for a few moments to consider the volatile year of 1968. People were angry, people were violent, not just here in Memphis, but across the nation. It was an ugly time. I was 14 at the time, without a care in the world, living my teeny bopper life in Canada, and that violence never touched me. It touches me now though.

From violence and death at the Lorraine Motel, it’s across town to the Elmwood Cemetery, the oldest active cemetery in Memphis. As the sign outside said “Lots available.”

Quite a few famous politicians are buried here, but we’re not much into politics, we’re into music. And food. We’ll get to the music in my next post, but let me leave you with a shot of the lip-smacking good BBQ ribs at the Beale City Cafe on Beale St. Oh, man, were they good, so much so that we headed back for a repeat on our second night in town. And while we eat, we enjoy the scenery: one of the best bits of Beale is the interior walls of the establishments along the streets. There is a lot of history hanging on those walls, not all of it kitsch, but you gotta love those pink Cadillacs.

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