Let me start with a question people ask me when I tell them I spent a weekend getaway in Memphis: “So, why Memphis?”

I needed to get away. The “staycation” I took in April was basically a cold, miserable rainout. I decided it was going to be either Nashville or Memphis, because I hadn’t been to either city and I needed to be somewhere where there would be good music, hot sun, and Southern vibes. I’ve been boycotting the US since #45 took office (in case you feel this is an idle threat considering I live in Toronto, I have close family in Texas) but I seriously needed to get the fuck out of Canada and Europe was too expensive and logistically unfeasible for a weekend getaway.

I did my research and was swayed by three things: downtown Memphis was quoted as being very walkable (which meant that I didn’t need to rent a car if I wanted to get around), Memphis has blues whereas Nashville has country (no disrespect to the latter, but I lean heavily towards the former), and, in the words of someone on Reddit, “Frank Black never wrote about Nashville.”

Done deal.

There’s something about grabbing a travel bag and going somewhere alone, whether it be a country or city you haven’t been, and all you have to go on is some preliminary research and intuition. I wanted the three Bs: blues, booze, and BBQ. As long as I could secure those things, the rest would sort itself out. I prefer to immerse myself and come to my own conclusions.

This is the point where I should get something out of the way: you can’t talk about Memphis without talking about race. The city’s composition is over 60% Black. When I skimmed some forum posts about where to go and how to get around Memphis, I would come across terms like “rough areas” and “locals” (as in, don’t take public transit because only locals do that). While not explicit those terms can very easily be cover-talk for Black, as in “Black neighbourhoods” (rough areas) and “Black people” (locals). This is the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while intervening in a sanitation workers’ strike.

You can go to Memphis and pretend that Elvis didn’t exist (seriously, there are few signs, literal or figurative, of the other King outside of Graceland). But you can’t go to Memphis and pretend that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t. Getting back to my 3Bs ethos, the first thing I did when I walked out of the airport was direct a taxi driver to a BBQ place downtown. As I got out of the cab and looked around me (this is in a former warehouse and light industrial district which has gentrified over the last 5 years), I looked across the street and saw the Lorraine Motel.

Exterior of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis TN
Exterior of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis TN

This is both the home of the Civil Rights Museum and, more significantly, the place where MLK was fatally shot on the second floor balcony. Now, I knew the Museum was downtown, however, when your only point of reference is Google Maps I didn’t realize it was also smack dab, right across from a popular BBQ joint. And so, I proceeded to eat a beef brisket sandwich (which was divine, btw) while staring at a very sobering national monument.

I went to the Museum afterward and paid my entry fee and proceeded to walk through the history of Black slavery from the 17th century and the Middle Passage toward the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. I will come back to this later, but Memphis has put a lot of money into improving their downtown infrastructure and one example of where it shows is this museum (and also the Stax Museum, while we’re at it). That said, I didn’t realize the tour would take me not only inside the Lorraine Motel, but up to that storied second floor where I was treated to (on my left) the room where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in, but also (on my right) the room where his body was carried after he was shot. I mention all this so you can understand what I mean when I say: you can’t talk about Memphis without talking about race.

warehouse district, South Main, Memphis TN
warehouse district, South Main, Memphis TN

A point of clarity: immersing oneself is not the same as Having A Great Time. If you want to Have A Great Time, go to a resort; you may not Have A Great Time, but all of the implements for that sort of thing are typically there (free alcohol, sand, surf, and most importantly, lots of other like-minded people to collude with Having A Great Time). I’ve done that, and I respect that for what it is. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer but I’d rather walk into something that is less manicured, where what I see is less protected from socio-economic realities. I’ll add that either choice is ultimately a privileged one: good or bad time, you eventually leave on a plane.

On my list of non-hedonistic things to do was to go for a morning run and cross the newly built Big River Crossing, a widening of the Harahan train bridge that now includes a pedestrian walkway. The bridge crosses the Mississippi River and lands in West Memphis (which is technically in Arkansas). I did this, albeit under the late July Tennessee sun, running from where I was staying in the Medical District, through downtown to the riverside and it was gorgeous (and I have no photos because I don’t take gear with me when I run). The Mississippi is one of the reasons I chose Memphis over Nashville; water is life, and a river like the Mississippi has an almost spiritual power. Crossing it was more than just novel; in some ways I was paying respects. The fact that this was only available to the public in 2016 — you had to otherwise drive (or swim!) across — seemed sort of ridiculous to me. 

Memphis has put a lot of money into improving their infrastructure over the last 7 or so years. From the gentrified former warehousing district on South Main to the tree-sheltered Main Street Mall, it’s evident that, similar to Detroit, the city is reclaiming itself after a period of disarray.

Main Street Mall, Memphis TN
Main Street Mall, Memphis TN

This investment doesn’t go much past downtown proper (although it does look like the trolley system has been updated); this is evident when you’re travelling through the vast stretches of mixed residential/commercial areas surrounding downtown — a lot of it looks sprawly and neglected, though this by no means is any indication on the character of those who call it home. As walkable as the downtown core is, if you don’t have a car in Memphis your options are limited (I ended up using taxis and ride-hailing services to visit Midtown and South Memphis)

And yes, I did go to Beale Street and ended up seeing a pretty decent blues act, Vince Johnson & The Plantation All Stars, at the Blues Hall Juke Joint (attached to the Rum Boogie Café). Like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, it’s a bit of a zoo, but a little bit of that doesn’t hurt anyone. BBQ spots I would recommend: Central BBQ (I am told the downtown location is not as good as the others), Rendezvous (old school), and A&R (out of the way but worth it). Speaking of zoos, locals are also quite proud of their zoo (“We’ve got pandas!” someone shared with me while also sharing portions of their BBQ sausage at Rendezvous, which was delicious). And did I mention the running of the ducks?

BBQ pork shoulder sandwich, A&R Bar-B-Que
BBQ pork sandwich, A&R Bar-B-Que

For a city of under 700,000 people, Memphis has a lot to offer for the solo traveller looking to immerse themself, even those who, yes, simply want to Have A Good Time. 

That’s where the blog post is supposed to end, right? Matt gets back on his plane blah blah blah.

There’s more.

It was particularly good hanging outside the local cigar shop at night. Locals (yes, the “locals”)  I spoke with seemed happy with most of the development happening around them, perhaps indicated by the fact that I, a complete stranger from Canada, chose their city as a destination for a weekend getaway. Southern hospitality is not a cliché, it is a fact of life and it’s something I miss when I’m in Toronto, which can be quite judgy and cold. There’s a “hangin’ out” culture in the South. People like to sit and sip something cold and hang with each other. I met some wonderful folks. cigar bandWhen they heard I was from Toronto, one of the first things remarked on as we sat in camping chairs outside the cigar store was Caribana (the informal term for The Toronto Caribbean Carnival).  “Damn,” a man said, shaking his head, “Caribana makes Mardi Gras look like a child’s birthday party.” They spoke about it with the sort of awe that one talks about, well, a massive party. This is one of the few times I’ve been in the States where I was made both proud and slightly awkward about something happening in my own city. Sure, I’ve heard plenty of variations on “Your country doesn’t get drawn into wars” and “You don’t have gun violence like we do,” which I never know what to do with because we are far from an innocent or noble people. But the awkwardness in this case was because if I’ve ever been to Caribana in my life I couldn’t tell you when that was, and I’ve lived here over 20 years. Not only that, but I live a 15 minute walk away from where a lot of it happens. And here I was, hanging with a group of people  just under a thousand miles away who were extolling its virtues beyond that of New Orleans’ vaunted February spectacle that was half the distance.

A few days after I got back, I was sitting with my partner on our patio. I told her I wanted to go to check out the Caribana parade, which coincidentally enough happened to be the Saturday after I returned. We were both game, but on the morning-of I could sense some hesitation.  Caribana was this noisy, messy thing that happened on the other side of the QEW, which in previous years we could hear spilling out, bouncing back to us off the condo towers: driving soca rhythms, amplified announcers calling out to crowds. Imagining  being there, I was concerned about getting caught in shoulder-to-shoulder chaos with no way of accessing the parade (or exit). But we sucked it up and walked to Roncesvalles, crossed the bridge over the highway, and lo and behold, the parade was heading towards us.

You want to know what we saw? Joy. Joy, boundless self-expression, loud music, body positivity, dancer at Caribana parade, 2019and people — families, singles, couples, friends — coming together to see each other. I also saw a lot of people “hangin’ out” in the same carefree way as I saw and experienced only a week earlier.

I couldn’t help afterward but come back to that question I was asked, “So, why Memphis?” I feel part of the disbelief behind a person asking this question might be that — instead of New York City, or Montreal — going to a city smaller than Nashville I opted for a lower-profile destination whose population and culture was largely Black. And I couldn’t help but feel as my partner and I walked back home that following Saturday, talking about what we’d expected vs what we actually experienced, having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, that this was a “So, why Memphis?” of my own:  an unexamined blindspot tied to a Caribbean cultural event in my own city, which raises questions I need to answer for myself around race.

I don’t know how to end this, not without sounding trite or self-righteously self-congratulatory (even for a blog post). I originally wanted to say: explore the world around you — you’ll be thankful. I will add that it’s equally as important to take note and reflect on the more mundane world in your backyard, which can go unexamined that much easier.


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