Memphis, Part 1: Getting there and getting lit

I waited around an old, small airport, laying on the carpeted concrete floor next to a outlet where my phone was plugged in for about an hour, waiting for Sal’s flight to land.  She’d told me that I could go on to the AirBnB without her, but I thought it was silly for us both to spend the money for a ride. It wasn’t like either of us had anywhere to be at any specific time.  

I stared up at the white foam panels of the drop ceiling studying how the spectrum of beige concrete columns grew out of them and extended down to me.  The airport had the feeling of an school house built in the ’70s, but they’d added some upgrades here and there. Staggered between the rows of plastic chairs were electronics charging towers, fitted with standard electric plugs and USB plugs too.  

I filled up my water bottle at a large ceramic fountain, the water basin an oval carved into a long rectangular base.  It reminded me of the ones in black and white photos from the south in the past, where above one a sign hung reading ‘colored’ next another to another with no sign.  Here now there was only one, and to my surprise the water pressure was great. I was able to get the bottle filled completely without having to tilt it, directing the high arching stream into my container.

I laid back down and put headphones in, humming to myself in an empty room, just waiting, until airport staff began to show up at the gate.  They slowly rolled in wheelchairs and took seats, reminding me that time was passing. None of them sat beside one another. I noticed that among them, there was not a single young person working, and that they were all people of color.  I resumed stared at the ceiling, contemplating the next 48 hours.

 

A couple weeks before, Sal and I were sharing dinner, talking about women, when she mentioned that she had an airline voucher that was about to expire.  She told me she’d mentioned it to a couple of friends over the past few weeks, but hadn’t gotten any solid takers for a weekend trip.

“Shit, I’ll go,” I told her.  Here face lit up. “Where?”

“Really?” she questioned me, answering, “I don’t know.”

“Hell yeah, man.  You shoulda known.  I’m always down for an adventure.”

She nodded, smiling, but not speaking.

“Where do you wanna go?” I asked again.

“I don’t really know.  Where do you wanna go? Where have you been?”

“Maaaan, I’ve been everywhere…” I started, dragging out my reply, “I mean pretty much…”  I left it open ended, “But I’ll go anywhere really. Let’s find somewhere cheap for me to fly to.”
“Ok,” she agreed, then added, “I was thinking about Nashville.”

I bounced off her idea, “Nashville? Wait, wait how ‘bout Memphis?” I asked.  “I was only there for a couple hours last summer… Well, I guess it’s two summer ago now… Anyway, yeah, how bout Memphis?”

“Ok,” she agreed, “I don’t know anything about Memphis, but yeah sure.”

“I just love the blues, man.  We can go down Beale St…” I started to reminisce, “There’s this bar that has a blue jam every night, man.  Oh, it’s so great.”

Settled on a place, we picked a date, and I looked up ticket prices.  They were stupid cheap and the next day, I bought mine.

 

The airport workers had started to move around a bit, and I noticed the gate door had opened behind me, so I packed up my stuff and stood up.  I swear every other person got off that plane before Sal did, but eventually, she came out of the tunnel.

 

After a cab ride to our house and some fumbling around in figuring out how to get inside, we stood in a small living room, attached to an even smaller kitchen in a cottage she’d booked us.  It wasn’t much bigger inside than my one bedroom apartment back in Denver, but it was cozy and despite there being two other rooms for guests, we were the only ones there.

We wanted to explore the backyard, but only found an exit door through one of the other bedrooms, which seemed to be permanently locked.  I fiddled around with the handle and the deadbolt for far longer than seemed reasonable, but Sal found another way out, through the front door and around a wooden gate to the side of the house.  She met me on the other side of the door and we fiddled a little more before abandoning our efforts.

I hopped out the front door to join her in the backyard where a huge beautiful oak tree had grown, towering over the suburban cottages, whose leaves had fallen mostly and speckled the yard.  They seemed to take up all the extra space left between sparse grassy patches. We sat down on the small patio next to the door that doesn’t open and schemed on the next few days. We didn’t have any solid plans, but we’d come up with some wandering to do, and we decided to make our first adventure to get a six pack and a lighter.

“Did you see a gas station on the way in?”  Sal asked me.

“No,” I responded, “but I wasn’t really paying attention.” I told her.

“That’s surprising.”

I nodded and agreed.  She knew as well as I did that directions and location were heavily ingrained in me.  Part of my identity was keeping track of where I was, and where other things were too.  The map in my head was steadily growing. I resolved with myself, deciding I was ready to be lost for a little while, unabashedly willing to let go of the daily controls of my life.

I let google lead the way.  As we approached the cross street of our quiet neighborhood, a stretch of commercial buildings reminded me of the east coast city where I’d grown up.  Just across the street, a neon sign glowed against dark tinted glass of a hookah bar. Sal and I both noticed it, wondering if it was actually open, but continued on our mission.  A new dollar store stood alone between two dated strip malls. In the next strip, a tobacco shop was open despite the darkness of the night, between a nail salon and a restaurant who’d already closed up.  Train tracks ran diagonally through the street ahead of us, leaving jagged edges in the asphalt.

On our left across the street, an unbranded gas station was marked with a dingy yellow canopy and header around the building.  The tall glass windows and the front door were barred by dark steel. Cigarette and beer price posters tempted behind them. Catty corner across the tracks, on our side of the street, the green lime lights of a BP station shone brightly.

“Which one do you want to go to?”  I asked Sal.

She shrugged, looking over at me, “I don’t know.”

I took another look.  

An old Pontiac had just pulled up to the gas pump at the unbranded station and parked.  Next to him, two young black man exited the store, gesturing playfully at one another as they conversed.  The BP station looked dead.

“Let’s go here,” I nodded towards the unbranded station, “It looks a little more real.  I like that.”

I paused for a second, because we had been wondering if we could buy beer at the convenience store.  I pointed out the advertisements in the window which had spurred another question as to whether or not it was full alcohol content.  I told Sal that I had never heard about the reduced content beers in grocery stores until I’d moved to Colorado and that frankly I thought it was pretty uncommon and weird.

I waited for a couple cars to pass then led Sal in a jaywalk across the street and through the parking lot.  We walked around the back of the Pontiac, up on the sidewalk, and through the doors of the store as a bell jingled above our head.  The cashier stood in a plexiglass cage that had become opaque, a collage of cardboard cutouts from tobacco products had been taped up, facing outwards, a menu for the patronage.

We moseyed down through an aisle of junk food towards the cooler at the back of the store, but not without first noticing a locked display case of paraphernalia.  

At the beer coolers, I eyeballed the tall boy cans, considering a malt beverage for the night.  I was shocked at my inability to remember the slang term for the extra large cans, and I asked Sal if she knew.  The only help she gave me was the term in Spanish “caguama” which I resolved to adopt into my vocabulary.

They had all the basic six packs- Bud, Coors, PBR, Miller, Busch- all varying degrees of piss water.  I was looking for something made in Tennessee, telling myself “When in Rome…” We had two options, but decided on the pilsner since Sal isn’t a fan of IPAs. At the front counter a brown skinned man checked us out, adding a gray lighter and a black plastic bag to our purchases.  He quickly moved on to the customer behind us before we had evacuated the tiny counter space, but neither of us was mad about it.

 

Back at the cottage, we hung out in the back yard for awhile with our Tennessee beers and a little weed.  We looked up tourist spots to check out. We were right around the corner from University of Memphis so we decided to get up in the morning and romp around campus a little.  We found a botanical garden nearby for another option. We did a little searching to figure out where the best Memphis barbecue joint was, deciding to have lunch at Central BBQ the next day.

By the time we put together a rough game plan, we still had energy to go out, and even though it was a Thursday I convinced Sal to check out Beale St for a couple of hours.  

Really, I was searching for what I’d found there before.  In one way this is an odd thing to do in, but in another it is so natural to a traveler who is revisiting.  The nostalgia I felt remembering Elena and I hanging out for only a few hours on Beale St on our cross country trip is highly romanticized in my head in a way no other place is and no other time is.  We were really free in those hours and we were really enjoying every moment of freedom that we had, trying to hang on to them whilst knowing that our trip was coming to an end.

But Sal and I didn’t stay long on Beale St.  There weren’t many people out and although there’s always music, we decided that we didn’t want to stay out too late.  We wanted to be ready for a full day of exploring, so we checked out a little corner bar, had a few beers, and then we ubered back to our neighborhood.

The idea of the hookah bar resurfaced so we decided to take a walk there.  Both of us really enjoyed smoking hookah though it wasn’t something we did often.  Sal had indulged more in the past, back in college, and she went on lively about the hookah setup she’d had in her college house.

The dingy strip mall hookah bar was cheap and mostly empty.  Two booths of patrons sat in the smoking room. We chose a black leather couch up against the shaded windows where the neon sides had flashed outside.  A waiter brought out the glowing ember and a hookah for us. As we sat down on the couch, we sank through the springs nearly to the floor, the wooden board at the front of the seat couch pressing into our hamstrings.  

Across the room from us was a group of black kids smoking and playing music.  I couldn’t’ help but watch curiously as one girl casually gave another a lap dance.  We chatted a little between hits but were quiet more often. One of the friends across the room was DJing.  He was absolutely killing the set. He’d been playing tracks from the new Chance record, some Kendrick, Cole, and Tribe, really giving an overview of the best hip hop from the year.  

Sal noticed my familiarity with the playlist.  It was undeniable. I’d been shoulder dancing along in my seat and singing along with all the hooks.  I’d even gotten a couple verses in, but rapping is hard for me.

Eventually he came over and sat down on the couch between Sal and I.  We shared hookah with him, trading shotguns of smoke back and forth. When Sal got up to use the bathroom, he tried to kiss me.

I didn’t try to make it awkward when I didn’t let him but it still was.  He apologized, but I explained to him that I wasn’t mad, but that I just wasn’t into it.  Soon thereafter he rejoined his friends.

We finished our shisha and decided to turn in.  We walked back home giggling, a little tingly from the tobacco, but mostly buzzing on each other’s energy and ready for our next day of exploring.