Blog 3: Walking in Memphis

            Mud Island Park and Beale Street are right at the top of the things we want to see in Memphis. The day dawns sunny and calm so we decide to brave the riverfront park first. An aerial monorail takes us across an inlet of the Mississippi to Mud Island, which is really a long peninsula. We chat with a white-haired Japanese tourist, at least a decade our senior, who in heavily accented pigeon tells us that he is touring the USA for a month to see the sights and perfect his English. We exchange pleasantries and, as we exit the tram, hear him introducing himself to the attendants at the monorail terminal. If all our language students were as determined, and as devoid of embarrassment genes as this gentleman, they would all be fluent in six months.

            Our thought is to spend an hour or so in the Mud Island Mississippi River Museum, and maybe stroll for a bit in the park.

But the park turns out to be a third of a mile long topographical map of the Mississippi River, scaled at 30 inches to the mile with a contour level of one ridge to 5 feet vertical depth. The map depicts the river from its source in northern Minnesota to its multi-channeled delta in the Gulf of Mexico. And it is not just the Mississippi proper: side channels trace the contortions of the Ohio, the Missouri, the Arkansas, and, in fact, ALL the major rivers that pour into the Big Muddy. Water is flowing through the river channel, and the stream is deep enough in many places for little kids to wade and splash in. At intervals of every few feet a laminated plaque details what happened at that spot in the river during prehistory, the days of the explorers, the heyday of the stern and side wheelers, the great floods and steamboat disasters, the Civil War, the depression-era realigning and the Corps of Engineers’ shortening of the river’s channels. A half dozen signs point out the location in the floodplain of former bluffside towns that the great earthquake of 1811 crumbled and then sluiced into the roaring river. Other signs point to islands that, as the whimsical spring floods opened new channels and clogged old ones, passed in ownership from left bank Illinois to right bank Missouri, and

from Mississippi to Arkansas. One hour turns to two, and then to three. We take off our coats, as the sun warms the riverbanks (both the real one and the vitual one), and a half hour later our sweaters, too, disappear into our bags.

By lunchtime we are joined by a swarm of school kids from Saint Francis school. Their shirts say Superman but they cavort like giant Gullivers, striding from island to contoured floodplain, leaping from bluff to lagoon, tiptoeing through the oxbow lakes.


            By 1:00 the Gullivers are eating their sack lunches and our stomachs are growling, so we decide to pop into the Museum for a peek and then go have lunch. Wrong! The museum is just as extraordinary as the map. Like the river it flows in a continuous stream. There is no way for a visitor to cut quickly from Omaha to Vicksburg and it is just as well, for each new vista is as fascinating as the last. We enter with prehistory, mammoths and sloths, then the hewers of stone and the builders of mounds. The artifacts are not overwhelming in number, but each is a gem, and the explanatory texts are riveting. We trace the immensity of the efforts and courage of Spanish explorers, and the all-but-nothing that they managed to show for their epic journeys. We walk with the American pioneers, and work the fields of the first plantations of cotton in the floodplains. Half-century by half-century we flow with the history of the river. The pedestrian channel makes another turn and suddenly we are standing on the deck of a side-wheeler. It is clear why the Museum rates its 5-star status. The smokestacks and the wheelhouse tower over us, and a set of stairs invites us to spend a few moments with the captain and mate. Below us the deck is littered with coiled ropes and steamer trunks, bales of cotton and gaffing hooks. Far below, the river water —real water, of course!— eddies and surges in the twilight. We descend from the wheelhouse through the lounge and the game room, where a quartet of riverboat gamblers is playing what looks like poker.


            A mural depicts other gamblers, as well as Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, and all of Samuel Clemens’ beloved characters. Sam, white bearded with pipe in hand, sits in a rocking chair, smugly surveying all that he and the river have created. A family of five takes a hard look at it, but only the father can fathom what it’s about.

            “Come on, the man in the chair: who is it?” he prompts the kids.

             The ten year old has wandered off, but the sixteen year old girl, an expression of total befuddlment blanking her features, struggles to come up with someone.

            “It’s not so hard. The beard, the mustache . . . I know you have seen him before.” Papa is giving hints as fast as he can think of them.

            Finally the teenager’s face lights up with recognition. “Colonel Mustard!!”


           We make a few more turns, muttering to ourselves how they will never top the side-wheeler, when we find ourselves in the gunroom of a Union ironclad, rolling out the canons as we approach Confederate positions on the bluffs off our port rail. The sergeant barks an order, the guns fire, and the exhibits roll on and on like the river. Now it is the sound of Delta blues and the story of the musicians who created the style that swept the world and gave birth to rock and roll. Another twist and turn and we are on the bridge of a towboat pushing a raft of twenty-five steel barges loaded
with grain and lumber and coal. Through the towboat’s window we can see the water streaming by both sides, the riverbanks passing and receding, the bridges downstream growing larger and larger as we approach them. They look very much, in fact, like the bridges downstream from the river park and, when at the end of the barge exhibit, we emerge once again onto the riverbank, there are the actual bridges, and there is a towboat every bit the same as the one we have just been helping pilot, maneuvering to the center of the channel so as not to hit the bridge’s pillars. We suppose the captain knows, as we now do, that 150 years ago his boat would have been towing a single barge, and that when power boats evolved into barge pushers, the name lagged behind.


            By now it is nearly three o’clock and we are glutted with data and sensations but still empty of lunch. We take the monorail back to the car park and drive downtown for California burgers and unsweetened tea at Huey’s, a legendary Memphis eatery. (Hello to our own Huey, in far off Japan!). Then, restored and sated, we walk the few blocks to Beale Street. The wind has picked up, they sky has gone gray, and the temperature is beginning to drop.


            Years past, Linda and I joined the parade of faithful to Graceland (as in From the Ganges to Graceland), encouraged by all the Elvis nuttiness and Paul Simo

n’s anthem. This time it is Mark Cohn who sets us walking in Memphis with our ears tuned to W.C. Handy and the Delta Blues. The Beale Street of song and story was the home of the blues trumpeter and composer W. C. Handy and the location of the honky-tonks and juke-joints which gave birth to the style. The Beale Street of 2013 is only two short sad blocks long, cordoned off by Memphis police as a pedestrian walkway. Beale isn’t what it was — how could it be?— but its sense of what it wants to be today is not all clear.


            Today’s Beale leans toward Coney Island boardwalk: ice cream stores a

nd tee-shirts; tacky memorabilia in overcrowded show windows. Seven or eight bars promote themselves as juke joints, but they don’t have the look of places where people might hole up for long hours and wrap themselves in blues. These doors don’t invite you into a safe-from-the-street world of friends, white but mostly black, making, listening, and dancing to music. These bar fronts are wide open, gaping to the street, flashing neon come-ons like gaudy hookers, advertising happy hours and two-for-one pitchers as if they were tourist traps in Cancún. One-time drop-ins from Iowa and Rhode Island, not brothers from around the corner. Most of these joints have music playing inside, music canned and amplified to a painful level.

 This mid-afternoon it pours out of the gaping façades and puddles like cacophony in the street.


            In another way the whole Beale Street scene is a museum. Labels tacked on buildings say what places used to be, whose house stood where, who did what in which bar, and when; Statues of the greats, and plaques. Some buildings have disappeared, and the spaces they have left behind have been reconfigured as performance venues. In one, a narrow stage crammed between two brick buildings,

 three guitarists and a drummer blast out bluesy rock to an audience of maybe seven people and a street teeming with seven more. In another space, the site of Handy’s former house and current statue, on a small stage a singer, drummer, and blues guitarist with a green guitar entertain a throng of me, an older couple in blue hats, and a dreadlocked street person asleep on a park bench.


            Beale is midway, museum, and theme park all in one. Salvaged store fronts house gift shops. Behind one 1920s façade that is propped up by scaffolding, is an open courtyard with a cafe, a few cast iron tables, and a food cart. A block further down Beale the façade of the art-deco Daisy Theater has been repainted a red and white that gleams brighter than it must have ever done when it was a living place.


            I spend an hour wandering about, listening, taking a few photos, and then head off to join Linda in a warmer refuge a couple of blocks away.  As I leave Beale I look back at the sawhorse barricade at the end of the street, take one last picture, and walk away muttering to myself, “What does Beale Street have against reptiles?”