I left Little Rock, Arkansas in a rain storm. I was thirty miles out of the city when the rainstorm stopped and turned into overcast skies. I got to Memphis about two hours later, my feet still wet from the water that entered in at the seams. I squelched my way over to the restaurant that my hosts in Little Rock had arranged for me to have lunch at.
Fred, the Pepper Smoker, and his wife Toni are owners of a piece of land, and a smoke shack where Fred smokes peppers. Smoking peppers is an ancient tradition in other cultures, it is a way of drying, qukckly, peppers that might otherwise mold if left to dry in the sun. The process leaves the peppers smelling smoky and with a smoky taste that is hard to beat. They are not to be ate raw, but they can be used in cooking, or as potpourri if a person wants a delicious smoke aroma filling their guests olfactory senses. It can also be used in the making of hot sauce, which is another of Fred’s specialties. Fred’s peppers are very good, and he finds a good market with restaurants. The place that I went for lunch In Memphis was one from the list of customers he has.
McEwans in Memphis is a great little restaurant that isn’t too far of Intersate 40. I parked in a parking garage (parking in Memphis is hard to find and expensive), and attempted to get my fingers unthawed enought to unzip my jacket. My tank bag and helmet in tow I made my way out of the parking ramp and down to the restaurant, which was right around the corner. I entered into a hip looking place, brick visible on the inside, and ornate woodwork giving the impression of an original Memphis building, which it very well might have been. The walls were displaying bright paintings that lit up the place with their color. I stopped in front of the matredee podium and looked around at the varying customers. Most of them were dressed in suits or suit like equivalents for the working ladies. It is a lunch place, only open 11:00 to 2:00, so I figured that the other customers had come for their lunch break. If I had been a less confident person I may have felt out of place in my jeans, tshirt, and squelching rugged boots. The matredee came forward and greeted me, and I gave him the secret message that Fred told me to give. The matredee told me thay had been waiting for me, he showed me my table. It was mere seconds before a server came to help me.
The service was fast, the food was great, and I loved the atmosphere. I felt quite posh sitting in the joint, even despite my wet wool socks that were bunching. I made my way to the bathroom were I used the facilities and adjusted my feet a bit. It had been a long day already and I hadn’t even started. My gratitude for the hot food set before me was aimed at my previous hosts, and after a good look around Memphis I knew I would be thanking them again for the room I would be sleeping in which they had treated me to.
Memphis was, in my very humble opinion, a bust. I expected much more than I got, which was just a few postcards, and expensive parking spots. I went to Beale Street where the best stuff is at, and I found it unwelcoming. I left McEwans after drinking quite a few liquids so by the time I got to Beale Street I needed a bathroom. I parked in the parking garage and made my way down to the street in search of some sort of facility in which to find relief. I approached a man who stood in front of a bar, another matredee of sorts. I asked him if I could use the bathroom and he replied “not unless you are buying something, hunny.”
I smiled real sweet and asked “really?” The man was not budging on his position. He told me no and called me hunny again, so I moved along, a giddy in my step. I stopped at a neat shop with records and postcards and asked an older lady behind the counter if she knew of a place I could go. She gave me a smile and a great response, telling me I couldn’t go there but if I moved down a couple storefronts there would be a place. I hustled along, making a mental note to come back to that shop to buy my postcards from that kind lady.
The kind demonor of the lady at the record store seemed to be a rarity on Beale Street. People who worked there worked there, and they weren’t all that friendly. The people visiting were tourists with enough money to buy the expensive drinks being sold at the bars, and they weren’t all about smiling at the strange girl walking around. As I expected, music was everywhere. There was a blues band playing loudly in the courtyard of a bar which I could watch from the gate, but when I walked two bussinesses down, my ears were met by the pop music coming from another bar. I could hear blues here and there, but the majority was new pop. I believe if music doesn’t have music behind it, if it is all about words covering an unoriginal beat, then it ain’t music. Thats why I love the blues so much. Blues, jazz, and good ‘ol jam music are all about the instruments, and if a vocal is tossed in it is absolutely fantastic. Now all that being said, I felt as though Beale Street was leaning on its Blues heritage to draw a crowd, but drowning it out in order to keep the crowd. The young people coming out of this pop-playing bar didn’t seem to mind the tunage at all. I walked on.
I was sad to find that this place of music, and art, a place that had a hand in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, didn’t have any art. I saw one mural.
It was in the middle of a central gathering place that had a group of African American musicians setting up for a show later in the day. There was a lot of space for art all over the blank brick walls, but from what I saw there was only one mural. There was a Civil Rights museum right nearby, and had I checked it out I may have felt differently, but I left feeling like a place of black empowerment had become a white persons drinking dream.
I went back to that smiling lady at the record store and bought postcards from her. I walked towards the park that runs along the Mississippi at the end of Beale Street. I was met by a man who introduced himself as Kevin. He was African American, and he was friendly, asking me how I was and then asking where I was going. I had no reason to lie to the man so I gave him a vague answer about going to the park. He told me that he and his two daughters loved the park and he told me what he thought I should check out. I spoke with him about this and when there was a short break in the conversation he asked me if I had any change to spare. I did. I reached into my pocket and pulled out two quartes and handed them to him. He told me he had to feed his two daughters, and, didn’t I, “Diamond, have a little more?” I told him no. And Kevin told me, “I’m looking for two dollars.” Again I told him no. He smiled I wished him a a good day and continued my walk to the park. I got there to find it was closed off, probably for construction.
I walked by Kevin again on my way back to the parking garage and Little Wing. I asked him if he had any more luck and he told me “No Diamond, I haven’t.”
I could relate.
I left Memphis with a bad taste in my mouth. One day I will probably go back, and one day I will see the cool bits, but the best part was my stop at McEwans and then meeting the lady at the record store, and then Kevin.
My next step after that was to go to Clarkdale, Mississippi. A place that was an old birthplace of the blues and was filled with it to this day.. according to the internet. This was where my hosts in Little Rock had set me up with a room at. It was 70 miles south of Memphis so it wouldn’t take long to get there. I was looking forward to touring a town that had BLUES Blues and maybe even listening to some before hitting the sack. I rode Highway 61 down to Clarkesdale without bit of a an odd feeling in my stomach. I attributed it to the Memphis visit and rode on. I took the exit in to Clarksdale and the feeling only increased.
61 had taken me through lots of farmland. There weren’t many houses, but there were some. Entering Clarksdale I got to see the start of residential area, and I was met by ramshackle. The city was full of graffiti. I figured downtown must be better because that’s where I was staying, and the internet had advertised it so well. Downtown did not live up to my expectations, it did a great job at disappointing. The buildings that had once looked like nice businesses had windows broken out. Half finished graffiti was everywhere. The place was a dump. I got to the Blues club that my room was supposed to be situated over and noticed that it looked closed. I parked beside two nice limos on a cracked up parking lot. The fancy, clean limos looked out of place beside the club with its graffiti, and the uncared for parking lot. The feeling in the pit of my stomach had grown immensely.
I ended up leaving Clarkesdale and going to a sweet little Bed and Breakfast in Tunica, Mississippi that my frinds in Little Rock found after I called them. Tunica is halfway between Clarksdale and Memphis. Clarksdale, I found out, was a town filled with violence, a place a person doesn’t want to hang out when night comes around; or at least that’s what the kind couple that owned the B&B in Tunica told me. Tunica, on the other hand, was a place of peace and wealth. Something that had become a reality in the 1990’s after the development of the casinos that surrounded the little burb.
In driving through Clarksdale had observed only the faces of African Americans, it appeared that I was the only Caucasian.
It has been hard to figure out how to articulate what has been going through my head since the ride in and out of Memphis, that’s why I haven’t wrote about it yet. This is a heavy topic and something I know of a bit from living around reservations in Minnesota, but something I feel I know nothing of when driving through the Delta.
Here in St. Louis, where I am now staying with my Aunt, Uncle, and two sweet cousins, I got the opportunity to see Ferguson, Missouri. Unless a person has been living under a rock we all know about the small area to the North of the infamous St. Louis Arch. Right before I took off on Little Wing in September news was filled with images, and words, about the whole thing. As I made my way across the country I would stop at varying places and get an update on the happenings by way of the news. This racial strife thing is always an issue, it seems.
My aunt took me on a tour through Ferguson in her van after we dropped the boys off at school. I saw a nice looking neighborhood that looked like a lot like the rest of the St. Louis neighborhoods I had seen. The difference was the fenced off sites that contained burned rubble, and the graffiti covered plywood that patched up the windows of empty looking businesses. Meanwhile, as I sat in the passenger seat ogling the destruction, people went around their daily lives, carrying shopping bags, and walking with their children. I even saw people fueling up their nice, 2015, vehicles at gas stations, while the sun shone down and glistened off the nice lawns that graced the front of sweet brick homes. It was a normal place, with normal people, something I hadn’t seen on the news.
What do I make of all this? Good question, I don’t know. I took off on this trip searching for answers as to what the world was all about. What is the world all about? Good friggin’ question.
I rode through the Mississippi and I felt out of place. I don’t feel out of place often. Around really nice neighborhoods filled with lots of money I get that feeling, but not in poor neighborhoods. Apparently there is a difference between poor and poverty.
How does the world justify the extreme dichotomy between the people who made Beale Street what it was and the privileged people who now attend it? Why is Clarksdale — an old home of the blues, only 70 miles south of Memphis — filled with violence and negativity while Tunica has been saved by the casinos? Before the 1990’s, when Tunica was rescued from itself, it “was one of the most impoverished places in the United States, semi-famous for the particularly deprived neighborhood known as Sugar Ditch Alley, named for the open sewer located there.” (Source: Wikipedia)
I have no clue what to make of this, but in my humble opinion Ferguson, Missouri is not the only place with problems. The problem, I feel, is racial strife. Even in Clarksdale wher the populayion is a majority black, why is that? Why is this impoverished town so segregated? It felt ignored. It felt like white people rode in on motorcycles, saw the population, and decided to leave the town without spending a nickel. I could leave. I had the means to get out of the town. I was being treated by two wonderfiul indviduals to a nice place to sleep that night, I had options. What do the young people, who grew up in the town, who might feel out of place there, what do they do when night comes around? What are their options?
This exploration may have lead to more questions than answers, to be honest. Even so, I’m glad I have done it. The questions will nag on my mind like the squelching boot, that holds up my sopping wool sock, bothers my foot. I would rather have the wet boot making me uncomfortable in the cool rain than no boot at all. I am happy to have my mind racing with uncomfortable questions and thoughts. I don’t mind that it is constantly being bombarded with new observations that lead to new ponderances. I would rather be out riding in the uncomfortable climate, than staying at home, feet comfortably propped, waiting for the news to tell me their answers. Eventually my boot will dry, and my sock will be only a stiff reminder of the rain I faced earlier. I can take off the boot and change the sock.
I arrived in Tunica, Mississippi, ready to rest and have a quiet night to myself. The owners were very nice, and it turns out they are art lovers, so we had a great discussion. I called Fred and Toni in Little Rock and thanked them for everything. I knew the next day I would be in St. Louis, visiting my family, but that evening I was ready to soak in a nice tub, to warm my bones and my racing mind.
2 thoughts on “It’ll Beale Alright. What Do We Have To Louis? Take Off Your Boots And Stay Awhile”
Sure a shame you couldn’t hear the Blues music. I’ll bet you return. Good read, as always, Hugs, Chuck & Marilyn
Your take, naturally, is most interesting, dear Diamond. Thanks for your post!!