Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gritty, Groovy and Gettin' It

"That's some Karen kind of shit" is a favorite expression of my friend and traveling companion.

She uses it to refer to when unexpectedly great things happen to me unexpectedly and far too often.

Leaving Richmond, we were going through security and she was directed through normal, intensive screening while I was waved through as pre-checked. Her reaction to having to remove shoes while I sailed on through? "That's some Karen kind of shit."

So this morning as we're planning our outing to the Stax Museum, we debate walking (2.9 miles each way) versus driving (when we both enjoy a good hike) and decide to hoof it.

After about a mile and a half, the neighborhood goes down dramatically and soon we're walking through a large public housing project. Everyone who passes us on the sidewalk or sees us on the other side of the fence is unfailingly friendly and polite.

About two miles in, we spot a uniformed man in front of a firehouse shouting to us asking if we're lost. Nope, we're fine.

"You need to come look at our map?" he calls. Nope, we have our direction. "You need to come look at our map!" he yells, no longer a question. We cross the street to the firehouse where 9 or 10 guys are gathered around a table.

One tells us he spotted two white women across the street and was concerned. "If you'd weighed 80 pounds, you might've been crack whores, but you didn't," he says. I assure him we're not. Another asks where we're headed.

When we say the Stax Museum, they are appalled. Apparently the next section of our walk is through an even sketchier part of town than what we just left. They insist we go back and get a car or take a taxi.

"Wait, we'll drive you," one says, standing up, "in the fire truck." Another three guys stand up, too and we head to the bay to get in Engine #5 for the ride back to the Madison Hotel.

"Ever ridden in a fire truck?" the handsome one asks. Nope, can't say that I have, but it's a pretty fine view from up there. On the way, the two firemen riding in the back with us ask where we've been so far and make some recommendations.

When we reach the hotel, my new fireman friend takes a picture of me in the truck for posterity. Another hops out to help us down, causing the doorman's mouth to drop open before he remembers himself and welcomes us back.

As the firemen wave and drive off, the doorman asks how our ride came about and is aghast that we attempted to walk to Stax. "Next time, ask me before you walk," he insists.

We wave goodbye as we head down the block to get the car and, without even looking at me, my friend says, "A ride home in a fire truck, that's some Karen kind of shit."

Whatever. I think it was the best possible outcome of our morning. We got in a two mile walk, made new friends and got to ride in a fire truck for the first time in our entire lives.

I call that a pretty frickin' fantastic way to kick off my second day in Memphis.

You must admit, a drive to the museum is pretty anti-climatic after that. Fortunately, the museum itself wasn't, but then I'm all about some downtown Soulsville.

Of course I'm going to love a museum with an R & B soundtrack blaring in every gallery, even Walter Bell, whom I saw last October at the Folk Fest.

One of the last galleries was floor to ceiling album covers, a crash course in musical history.

"The Country Preacher: The Reverend Jessie Jackson"
"Melting Pot: Book T and the MGs'"
"Presenting Isaac Hayes"
"Love Man: Otis Redding"

And my absolute fave: "David Porter: Gritty, Groovy and Gettin' It"

Per our lecture from the firemen, we then drove, not walked to Payne's Barbecue, a bastion of Memphis-style ribs.

The cinder block building was even more bare bones than Gus's Fried Chicken and yet had a simple charm to it. Plastic tablecloths, plastic blinds and Saran-wrapped cake slices on the counter made up the decor.

We each got a rib plate, meaning it came with two slices of white bread, mustard-based cole slaw and probably the best pork and beans I've ever had because there was so much shredded pork in them.

The ribs were some kind of sweet (Coca Cola? maple syrup?), almost too sweet to our taste, not that we didn't gnaw every last scrap of meat from the bones.

Next on our agenda was a stop at a nearby gluten-free bakery my friend had discovered online. Following directions, we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood. Mary's Bakery was in a house in the trendy Cooper Young neighborhood where we'd lunched yesterday.

Mary answered the door to the arts and crafts-style house and explained that she had her commercial kitchen there. Leading us in, we smelled baking and saw huge bags of flour everywhere.

It seemed odd, but maybe not for Memphis. Mary said she'd been gluten-free for 31 years and sold us a dozen chocolate chip cookies before we headed back into downtown.

Ditching the car, we walked to the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel.

It was kind of eerie seeing the bank of balconies on the motel, so familiar from photographs and newsreels of Dr. King's assassination. The museum had been built on to the side of the motel.

Beginning with the slave trade, the galleries worked through the present with interactive displays, lots of audio and video and installations such as a city bus (Rosa Parks) and a Greyhound bus (Freedom Riders) with sculptural figures around them.

I was fascinated with it all until two groups of middle school students caught up to where I was and I had to put up with teen-aged hormones confined to a museum on a beautifully sunny day. So much suffering despite their teachers' best efforts to engage them. Their favorite moment was taking pictures of each other in the recreation of MLK's jail cell.

Wandering home afterwards, our heads swirling with so much stimulus after two museums, we stopped for coffee (her, not me) on a patio and then took the path along the river (do not swim in the Mississippi, it's dangerous) back to the hotel.

The doorman smiled widely when he saw us, asking how our day had been. "You look like you've been having fun."

So far, so pretty groovy. Let's see where it goes next.

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