Memphis Part 4: All Good Things Must End, but if you can, end them with Booze and Rugby

His friend and assistant coach owned the loft on the river where we were going to watch the game.  Tim enthusiastically explained to me how they would often banter back and forth, casually arguing about the logistics of the game.  Dickie was a retired Eagle.

The kid inside of my head was losing his mind, had lost his mind, I was so excited to have found rugby people and to be having such an easy connection with a stranger. That’s how rugby is though. Rugby is family, no matter where you go.

The All Blacks vs Ireland game, at a loft, overlooking the Mississippi River in the home of a retired Eagle.  I was freaking out. And Tim shared my enthusiasm. As we bounced back and forth in conversation, our energies increased. We talked faster and more vividly. We made more bad jokes and laughed heartily.

“…yeah, and there’s a rooftop desk and we’re gonna have mimosas.  We’ll go up on the roof during halftime. And there’s a beautiful white couch…,” he joked, “…a beautiful white couch that no one’s allowed to sit on,” and he laughed, teasing about his assistant coach.

We talked and talked and talked some more, as continuously as possible while also eating, which is pretty continuous for a couple of rugby players.  We talked so much that his girlfriend was no longer involved in the conversation. There was a break for a minute, and I looked over at her,

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I pleaded a bit with her, knowing she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Tim said, “Yeah, she’s used to it.  It’s ok.”

She laughed pleasantly and nodded her head telling us that she knew when this man started talking to someone about rugby that he wasn’t going to stop, and she knew that with whomever he was talking also wouldn’t stop.  There’s an intensity about rugby players that I’ve never found in another group of people. It’s a passionate subculture, no doubt.

 

As 3 o’clock approached we paid our tabs, and got ready to go.

“How did you get here? How are you getting anywhere?” he asked me.

“I walked here,” I told him, “I had an uber drop me off in the Square earlier.”

An idea popped up and the expression on his face changed, revealing it.

“Do you wanna come with us? You could just catch a ride to the match with me.”

“Yes! Of course!  That would be so great!” I can’t believe how everything is lining up so well.

I grab my pack full of clothes, and follow him out the door.

I thank them both over and over, excited about the great opportunity and how wonderful it was that I found them, so kind and welcoming

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” I continued, “I mean, Saturday’s a rugby day.  I wanted it to be something, ya know?”

We piled into a Mini Cooper in the parking lot.  Before I realized what car were taking, his girl climbed into the backseat.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.  “I don’t mind.”

“Yeah yeah,” she assured while pulling the front seat back towards her, clicking it in place, “I’m small.  I fit back here just fine.”

We take the Cooper back to their house, Tim telling me, “We gotta get my car.”

I chuckled to myself and decided to tease a little, “Oh, so this isn’t yours?”

He laughed back at me, motioning to the backseat, “No, no, this is hers.”

 

Their house is a rancher in a cute suburbanish neighborhood.  It doesn’t seem like the city.

As I walk in the door, I’m greeted by a couple of dogs, wagging their butts and tails simultaneously.  One is young, and jumping up and down. I calm her, kneeling down to petting them both while I wait for Tim to get ready to leave.

He comes back out from the kitchen carrying a six pack with four left.  He’s ready to head to the loft. I tell his girlfriend it was very nice to meet her, which she reciprocates.

“Have fun,” she tells us, “I know it’ll be a good time,” smiling at us both.

Outside, we hop in his early 00’s Jeep Wrangler.  The top’s off. It’s a two door with no back seat, so I toss my pack over the frame and nestle it into the bed by the wheel well.  He jumps in, cracking a beer and offering me one. How can I say no?

He’s drinking Fat Tire.  I point it out, “Even you, there with your Colorado beer, New Belgium.  I see you.” We cheers to that.

On the way to the loft, we chat more about rugby.  Parked, I grab the two leftover beers in their cardboard cradle and the one I’m still sipping on, and my pack.  I wasn’t sure if it’d walk away. Maybe it wouldn’t have, but I thought it best to bring it with me.

At the bottom of what appears to be a warehouse, we ring the buzzer.  Dickie responds over a crackly speaker, buzzing us in.

Inside, we walk through a foyer area and up to the third floor, and into a beautiful pad with the kitchen and the office at the center of the layout sitting about four feet above the living and dining rooms which surrounded them.  On the opposite end of the loft, the living room and the beautiful white couch that is not for sitting.

It isn’t long before Tim sits down on it, crossing his legs out in front of him and extending his left arm across the back.  In his right hand, he raises a beer to his lips. It was all definitely a joke with the couch, now fully confirmed.

Behind him, a huge panoramic window, from ceiling to floor, overlooks a couple blocks of downtown and out to the Mississippi.  We’re only a couple blocks from the water, and seated high enough that we have a clear view of the sandbar and the bridge and the white foam that topples over itself on the river.  A dark green forest across the banks complete the scene.

Tim introduces me to Dickie, and I give a short overview.  I thank him so much for having me. I recognize his Irish accent.  He dismisses my appreciation in an accepting manner, waving his hand at me in a way that makes me know that he thinks I should expect such hospitality.  He’s probably 65 years old, maybe older, small and just a tad bit frail. He’s in good shape though, just past his hayday. His hair is stark white and he wears black rimmed glasses.  He’s proper.

He walks up into the kitchen and stands where the sink overlooks the living room.  He asks if we would like a mimosa.

“Of course,” I tell him, standing to receive it from above.

Throughout the match, he makes sure our mimosa glasses stay full until he run outs of champagne nearly at the end.  He doesn’t realize he’s running out either, until it’s gone and he’s already told me that he’s going to make me another.  He apologizes profusely, as I try to telling him it’s ok, but Tim saves us,

“Oh no, don’t worry, there’s another beer in the fridge.”

 

A few of the Memphis women had shown up and were drinking and watching with us.  One has a kid. She’s about six, an adorable blond headed girl. She runs around some, but also watches rugby wit us.  We chat back and forth about the game and our clubs, and I tell them that they should all come out to Denver to play or just hang out sometime.  I tell them about our D1 side and how we’d have a good match.

At halftime, we take the moment to climb the stairs up to the roof of the building.  It’s a flat roof, the kind of building that the stairwells ascending are the only thing that breaks the uniformity.  Now we’ve broken it too, leaning on the balconies at the edges where we gaze out on the Mississippi. We’re just south of a big accidental fork, where a road bridge splits the river.  The side closest to our bank is muddy, a dark khaki color, the surface water hugging tightly against the sandbar. The opposite side of the leg is deeper, wider water, still foggy but much more diluted.  The far bank is wooded, and sticks and branches are floating along with the river.

I am half drunk just staring at the water, in awe of its sheer power.  Down the balcony from me, a few of the girls are playfully chatting and the coaches are having a conversation of their own.  I look up to see this and for a split second feel very isolated and alone, but I am used to this feeling. It is something that I often inflict upon myself, but in this moment it is a contradiction.  I realize this quite quickly without having any deeper thoughts about it, and time saves me. I begin to walk towards the girls, thinking I’d like to be part of their play, but the coaches signal that it’s time to head back downstairs for the second half so we all follow.

The rest blurs by.  We settle into the white couch, watch parts of the game, and spin off into talking points concerning some game play or referees call as our little 6 year old friend takes turns sitting still and hopping up, to which her mother commands her back down.

Now, we’re nursing our beers.  We’ve all had quite a bit to drink.  We’re loose. We’re all friends now. That’s the real beauty of the rugby community.  Yes, there’s too much binge drinking, but it’s used as a tool for forming community. I can only qualify that as a redeeming quality.

Once the game has finished, the girls ask me what I’m doing, but I tell them I have a flight to catch back to Denver.  Kindly, they offer to drop me off, but I ask more than once if it’s out of the way, because I don’t want to be an inconvenience to them, but they insist.  I am so grateful for these wonderful people, especially in this moment, at a time when I didn’t think I could be more full of gratitude.

I realize that my experience of isolation on the roof was in part a feeling that I was separate from reality.  The magic of my afternoon was unbelievable, like nothing I could have ever dreamed up, and that I felt separate because I couldn’t realize that it was real.

 

At the airport drop off, I reach in my pocket and pull out the little bit of weed that Sal and I hadn’t smoked.

“Hey, do you want this?” I casually ask as I extended my arm into the front seat towards the girls.

One of them quickly grabs it from my hand, trying to keep my car seat bound backseat companion from seeing it.

“Yeah, thanks so much!”

“Nah, it’s nothing,” I reply, “Thanks so much from dropping me off.  It was so great to meet you all and your coach. I just can’t believe all that really happened.  I had such a great time.” I probably rambled on a bit more, saying we’ll see each other again soon, and make promises to come through from the Mardi Gras tournament.

“What’s that mommy?”  the little girl interrupts me.

“Oh nothing,” she replies, “…just some candy.”

I shut the car door behind me and wave back to my new friends as they pulled away from the curb.  Inside the airport I am full of joy, so much that I could’ve floated home to Denver on my own lightness.

 

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.