White Girl, Yankee, Goes to Memphis
August 16-21, 2000

To tell you the truth, this road trip did not have the most auspicious beginning.

Mary's eye had been bugging her for a couple of days, and when she woke up on Wednesday, our day of departure, it was really bothering her. It was scratchy, she couldn't keep it open very long, and when she did, it would water and swell up. She decided to take some Advil and let me do the driving, then go to her parents' doctor in Memphis if it wasn't better by Thursday.

So I drove, the whole way, across I-70 to St. Louis, then down I-55 into Memphis. I didn't actually mind it; Mary's car is a sassy 2000 Honda Accord with all the bells and whistles and a built-in lumbar adjuster, so it was very comfortable. She slept most of the way, since her eye had kept her up half the night.

We had gotten a late start, though, while she was deciding what to do, and the jury was out on whether we would arrive in time for Survivor. Her parents had only been in the house a few days and didn't have any cable yet, but did have a TV with rabbit ears that got one station: CBS.

So we hauled ass down the highway, playing a joint-venture version of license plate bingo. (We started out playing against each other, but since Mary was visually impaired and asleep half the time anyway, I was winning 10 to 1 when we decided to join forces.)

We pulled into her parents' driveway at 7:15, happy that we would probably still be able to see the immunity challenge and the Tribal Council. Her parents were out at a minor-league baseball game, so they had left a key with the neighbor across the street.

I start hauling bags out of the trunk while Mary goes to knock on the neighbor's door.

And knock. And knock some more. And walk around to the back porch and knock on that door.

No one is home.

And we are pissed. Not only are we missing the show, but we've just spent nine hours in the car, and Mary's eye is killing her. While we roam around trying to break into the house, someone pulls up at the neighbor's, but it was just someone coming to visit and they told us the family was probably at church.

Great. So we put our stuff on the back porch and go to one of Mary's favorite restaurants for dinner, (Mary moved to another part of Tennessee in high school and graduated from UT) where a TV in our line of vision showed us that Sean was a goner, just like we figured.

Mary's eye is about to explode, however, so we ask the waitress where the nearest hospital is. We checked to see if anyone was home yet, which they weren't, and then went to the emergency room.

Two hours later, at about 10:30, Mary is discharged with a patch over her eye and a prescription for Percoset, her parents are finally back from the damn baseball game, and though they tend to be chatty people, I cut them off with an apology because I was about to fall over dead. They showed me my room and where the bathroom was, and then I did, in fact, fall over dead.

We spent Thursday helping Mary's mother unpack while her father was at work. The idea of spending your vacation helping someone else unpack may sound strange, but I was glad to do it. Mary's mother had a stroke when Mary was about 7, and became paralyzed on her right side. She can still walk with a brace on her leg, but it's basically one step at a time: taking a step with her left leg, then bring her right one up from behind. She can hold light objects with her right hand, but can't lift her arm away from her body.

Obviously, it was very easy to help out. And Mary's parents were incredibly generous while we there. They paid our way into everything and took us out to dinner each night, so I had no problem at all providing some labor.

But, finally, Friday. We got up, got dressed, and headed downtown to Graceland.

"For reasons I cannot explain, there's some part of me that wants to see Graceland..."
--Paul Simon, "Graceland"

The first thing that surprised me was that it is downtown. It isn't off somewhere on some idyllic estate, out in the country. The house is set back a little from the street (Elvis Presley Boulevard, of course), but there's gas stations and motels and crap all around it.

The second thing that surprised me was the size of the house itself, which, from the outside, is not that big. You always hear about the Graceland Mansion, the Graceland Estate... from the outside, at least, it appears to be a very normal-sized house.

The coolest thing about the tour is that it's done by audio. As you board the shuttle bus that takes you up to the house, you are handed a headset and a walkman to wear around your neck. The tape gives you a little introduction as you ride up the driveway, then tells you where to go once you're inside the house.

I thought it was kind of cheap at first, but it really is the best way to do it. You can go at your own pace (Mary and I hung back a little to let the bulk of our group go ahead), and as you stand there looking at the room, you hear Priscilla in your ear talking about a certain evening they spent there. It really brings the whole thing to life, so that instead of just looking at a room full of furniture, you can almost see Elvis walking around.

No, we didn't actually see Elvis walking around. That whole Elvis-is-alive thing isn't still going on, is it?

We saw the living room with the 20-foot couch, the dining room with blue suede curtains, the kitchen where Priscilla pleaded with the cooks to make something other than meatloaf, the pool room with pleated fabric on the ceiling and walls, the entertainment room with three televisions, and of course, the infamous Jungle Room, with the shag carpeting on the ceiling and the waterfall on one wall. You don't get to go upstairs (I think I read somewhere that his aunt still lives up there), so no bedroom, nor the bathroom where he died.

Then we walked out around the back of the house a little, and there is an actual estate back there; I think they still keep horses, although we didn't see any. Then you move into the truly fun part, the Trophy Room, which is really more like a Trophy Maze. All the great Elvis memorabilia is in that room. The gold and platinum records, the Grammys (only two, for gospel recordings), the costumes, the album covers, the movie posters, the merchandise (Elvis lipstick?), the press clippings. It was really amazing, especially for someone like me, who was only 5 when he died.

There really won't be anyone like him again. I mean, no one is ever going to pay $11 to go tour Michael Jackson's estate, or Madonna's, or Garth Brooks's. He helped launch the era of rock-n-roll, and before a time when every move was reported on Entertainment Tonight. The most scandalous thing about him was his death; the only semi-tabloidish thing he did in life was hit on Priscilla when she was 14, and even then he ended up marrying her.

The tour ends at his gravesite, which also has the graves of his mother, father, and grandmother. I didn't notice this, but apparently the tombstone spells his middle name wrong ("Aaron" instead of "Aron," or vice versa), which helped to fuel the speculation that he was still alive. Ridiculous, but I do wonder why they never bothered to fix it.

We headed back to the gift shop and I bought twelve dollars' worth of postcards (they're in the mail, everyone) and an Elvis Week 2000 commemorative coozie (let's face it, "tacky" was the word of the day).

And that was it. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and fully intend to go back again. I have never been a huge Elvis fan, but I have always wanted to go to Graceland. It's just such an American thing to do.

This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.
--The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speaking of American.

You do have to take the good with the bad, sometimes, and on the recommendation of a friend, we spent Saturday afternoon at the National Civil Rights Museum.

I had never heard of it, did not even know it was there, until I was talking to Laura just before I left. She had driven across the country between her first and second years of law school with a friend, and they had stopped in Memphis also to see Graceland, but saw a sign for the NCRM and decided to go there too.

Martin Luther King was killed at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis in 1968. In the mid-70's, ownership of the motel transferred to a charitable trust, and the Museum opened there in 1991.

The tour starts in a movie theater, where they play a brief film which is basically an overview of the civil rights movement and the purpose of the museum. You then move on to the exhibits, which start with a history of slavery and the Emancipation Proclomation. You basically move chronologically through the museum, and every major event has some kind of interactive exhibit. The historical exhibits are mostly pictures and documents with very detailed explanations underneath, until you get to the mid-1950's, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The interactive exhibit? The bus. You can walk onto the actual bus that Rosa Parks was sitting in when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

It was the most incredible thing I have ever experienced. You walk on the bus, and there is simple gray life-size statue of Rosa Parks sitting in her seat. The signage above her, where ads usually are, have been replaced by a short description of the events of that day, how she sat in an empty seat in one of the first five white-only rows, and the conversation between her, the driver, and the man wanting her seat.

And piped in around you is an angry male voice. "Move to the back." "I said get up, woman. This man gets your seat." "You better move to the back where you belong, or I'm calling the police." "I said MOVE!"

And there she sits, her bag on the seat next to her, her expression complacent, but steadfast.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has walked off that bus with eyes welled to the brim. I was stunned, just stunned, because I realized that this isn't something that happened a long, long time ago, in a distant, undeveloped, uncivilized country. It happened right here, in America, not 50 years ago.

There were exhibits like that for every major civil rights event. There is an actual lunch counter with similar statues, and behind them is video of black men and women being ripped from the chairs and beaten just for sitting there. There is a picture of a young white minister beaten to death for eating at a black diner. There is a large wheel you can spin to see what kind of excuse the voter registration clerk is going to give you as to why your registration is going to be denied this time. There is powerful video of 15, 16, 17-year-old kids holding their heads up and walking into previously all-white schools while rotten fruit and racial slurs are hurled at them.

The tour ends at Martin Luther King's motel room. One wall has been glassed in, and the display details the evening, minute by minute leading up to his death. The bed is unmade, the tray of leftovers from his meal still sitting there, a jacket tossed on the second bed.

The whole afternoon just left me speechless. Mary and I talked about it on the way home, and were really disgusted by how little we knew before we walked in there. We obviously knew about Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, and a little about Brown v. Board of Education, but not enough, not nearly enough. Our American History classes in high school taught us about slavery, obviously, but after the Civil War, minorities disappear.

And we know why. It's shameful, how hard African-Americans have had to work, how many lives have had to be given up, to enjoy the freedoms the American part of their heritage was supposed to guarantee them. And it's shameful how much the rest of us take those freedoms for granted.

I know I'm not qualified to say anything about this. One trip to the National Civil Rights Museum does not an activist make. It made me think, that's all I'm saying.

We headed out Sunday and made half the trip, stopping over to stay with Kay and her mother outside St. Louis. We met Kay's new boyfriend (thumbs way up), had dinner and frozen custard, then Kay and I stayed up talking while watching The Whole Nine Yards with half an eye.

Then up this morning, back in the car for the haul across Missouri, back to my apartment and laundry and little kitty-face, for the next day and a half, anyway.

It's good to be home for a while, but it was a great trip. I had as much fun as I thought I would, and I learned a great deal more than I thought I would.

You don't get very many vacations like that.




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