Memphis Part 3: Alone but Never Lonely, A Survey of Rugby Culture

Saturday morning we woke up late with throbbing heads and we ventured out of the house, our packs on our backs, away from our tiny cottage towards Overton Square.  We’d heard there may be a rugby game going on in the adjacent park, but in asking around what we must see, Overton Square kept coming up. Our uber driver dropped us off on the corner of a block lined with restaurants, and we walked north to the park.  

We wandered through the park from one corner to the opposite and around the rest of the perimeter, but found no rugby field.  Beautiful old trees hung above our heads, their trunks spaced out, sharing the sunlight in the canopy above and providing geometric patches of shade along the great lawn.  

Sal’s flight left much earlier than mine, so she was really in the last moments of the trip.  For both of us, hungover was an understatement. We were really only getting by because of a special green plant, the realest of all hangover cures.  High, we floated around the park looking for a rugby field into our last moments together. We knew the airport was small, so she hung around longer and later than we could’ve back in Denver.  

We’d been trying to make Saturday a rugby day, to extend our adventure just a little bit longer, but to no avail.  It was the day of the first Chicago weekend, the All Blacks flying in from New Zealand to face off against Ireland.  No doubt it would be a hell of a match, and I was set on finding a place to watch it later, but now we were just trying to find some local teams.  Rugby undoubtedly fosters a wonderful community all across the States and we wanted to find them. We’d even heard about Overton through a women’s rugby group on social media.  We had to give it a try.

As we meandered, I told her the story of the night before, asking her what she’d already forgotten.  We laughed about the silly things. We wondered in awe about the crazy things. I asked her about her long conversation with the dishwasher.  She reminded me of our plan to go to the gay club. We giggled and giggled, sharing a wonderful lightness of existence that only two great friends can share.

There was a certain understanding between the two of us.  It had set in almost immediately at the opening of the trip.  The whole thing was gonna be easy. The two of us were gonna be easy.  And we were just gonna go, just gonna flow, with whatever energy led us around Memphis.  We were both completely fine with being out of control, with exploring and probably diverting from whatever loose plans we had set.

Suddenly, it was time.  Sal left.  I was alone.

My phone had started acting up.  The battery was dead or dying all the time.  And as was trying to message someone about finding a rugby match, but my phone died completely.

Sal had asked me just a few moments before, “What’re you gonna do for the rest of the day?”

I hadn’t really thought about it until she asked, but after a few moments I responded, “I dunno.  Maybe I’ll just get drunk.”

Now that my phone was dead, it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do.  I’d go to a bar, sit down, have the bartender put my phone on charge, and have a beer or two.  I decided to wander back down to the Square. We’d made our way nearly all the way around the Park, but I still hoped to find a hidden rugby field and a match.  Worst case, the end would drop me back down at the Square. I headed south.

Parts of Overton reminded me of Baltimore, at Patterson Park, the people out enjoying the day and the overall arrangement of things.  I reminisced a bit about laying in the grass on a blanket with old friends. I caught myself before I went too far. I was set on not being caught up in the past moment or in the future.  I wanted to be present.

One more block below the park, catty corner across the intersection from me, the sign for Huey’s broke up brick building faces.  It had been recommended to us more than a few times when talking to the locals. It wasn’t a barbeque place, though, so our interest had slipped out of the foreground.  Everyone said, ‘if you want a really great burger, you gotta go to Huey’s,’ so I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for a kind bartender.

Inside it was busy, most all of the dining tables and high tops were taken.  There were only six open seats at the bar, all singles between pairs, except the corner of the bar in front of me, where three chairs sat empty.  Initially, I lay my pack down below the bar and sat in the middle set of the three so that there was then a consistent checkered pattern of empty bar seats, but after I ordered a tall Wisacre IPA, I decided to move over around the corner, to leave the two seats open together in case another couple came through.  

It put me next to a pair of older women catching up over mouthwateringly juicy burgers, talking of very mild domestic things like their plans with their children for the holidays.  I only eavesdropped briefly, and with much lack of interest.

The bartender was cute, but I hadn’t started a conversation.  He was busy. His smile was kind, with dark eyes and dark hair, and a little button nose.  He was probably in his early thirties with no ring on his finger, but I was high and I was hungover and I wasn’t concerned.  I knew that three o’clock that afternoon, the most important rugby game in the US was about to be played, at least for 2016, and I really, really wanted to find the Memphis Rugby team before the game, because I knew they’d be watching it somewhere.  I sat there wondering what I would do. There were a couple bars that we’d been told would be playing the game, and I resolved to go one of them if I didn’t make any other headway.

For now, I sat and drank my beer, looked over the menu, and hoped my phone would charge and hold a charge long enough for me to survive the rest of the day.  There was a dull din of conversation around the restaurant, but no trigger words pulled my attention to listen. A nice blues mix played above us, floating around the restaurant, about the din of conversation.  

I ordered a burger with a fried egg on it, medium rare, because at what real burger joint should you get anything other than medium rare?  I mean, medium is acceptable, if you’re conservative burger eater, but I had no respect for those who order their burgers well done at a place that knew how to cook burgers, and dammit, if the locals were telling me that Huey’s knew how to cook a great burger, than I was gonna give it the best go.

Not long after I’d ordered, a couple came in and sat down at the two seats next to me at the bar, and I was happy that I had moved over leaving a place for them to sit.  By that time, I had started to try to entertain myself by staring up at the television where a college football game was on. It didn’t do much for me, but I thought it made me look a little less weird sitting there by myself, not talking, just drinking.  The bartender came by at the right time in perfect intervals, just to make sure I was ok, and when I needed a new beer. I was dull, but he was still very attentive.

In feigning interest for the football game, I couldn’t help but notice the couple beside me was a handsome pair.  She was quiet, but precise. I hadn’t yet figured out what they were talking about. He was very enthusiastic, a passionate man.  She often just listened to him speak.

I hadn’t made eye contact or given them a once over yet.  It’s a hard thing to do discreetly at a bar when someone sits down beside you.  After a while, I heard the ultimate trigger word, ‘rugby,’ and I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm.  

My burger had just come out, as had theirs.  We were eating together.

“Did you say rugby?” I asked the man.

“Yeah,” he said back.

“I’m a rugby player,” I told him.

“Really,” he asked, “What’re you doing later?”

“I don’t know,” I started, “I’m here visiting from Denver.  I wanted to see a match at Overton Park, but I didn’t find any.”

He replied, “Oh yeah, they don’t play there anymore,” breaking eye contact to look at his burger.  “They used to… But there weren’t any games today because of the All Blacks match.” He picked up his burger.

“Yeah, I did hear that,” I told him, “But I was still hoping to find a game.”

“Well, there was one at the college earlier,” he told me as I nodded to him affirmatively.  The conversation paused as we simultaneously bit into our burgers. Then he continued, “Wait! What are you doing later?  We’re going to my friend’s house to watch the All Blacks match.”

My face lit up.  I mean, my face had already lit up just to have someone to talk to about rugby, but the illumination grew when he mentioned the real spectacle, the event, the connection, the community.  

“You should come, you should come,” he invited me with vigor, “Here’s the address.  You should come!”

I beamed a smile at him.  “I would love to. I would love to,”  I repeated myself out of excitement, “I’m not doing anything.”  

Then we started in on all of the rugby talk, like we were old friends catching up.  We talked front row technique, comparing new and old. We spoke on East Coast rugby.  I apologized to his girl for being so dominant of the conversation, but she dismissed me.  I learned that he was the coach for the Memphis D2 women’s team. We formally introduced ourselves between burger bites.  He told me that some of his players were coming to an apartment on the river later to watch the game with his assistant coach.  He was so excited about the apartment and the match, and I was ecstatic to join.