I’ve been to all 50 states. But 11 of them I was only passing through, or making a surgical strike.
But I have spent a few nights in Memphis, Tennessee.
I had already been to Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville seemed normal, and greener than I expected, although I was not sure what I expected.
I saved Alaska and Hawaii as my 49th and 50th states to visit. Alaska and Hawaii. Just typing Alaska and Hawaii evokes feelings. So, Alaska and Hawaii were in my final five of the fifty to visit -- along with Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. Yin Yang, if you will.
Turns out Memphis, Tennessee, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, is a visitor vortex if you are surgically-striking the Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi tourism triumvirate.
New York droll comic Todd Barry answers a friend's question about a show in Alabama: "You know, chairs, lights... Oh, I get what you're looking for. Well, the Klan leader picked me up at the airport..." Again, I was not sure what to expect.
Memphis is a shipping hub -- home of FedEx. FedEx and the high-speed detachable quad chairlift are two world-changing inventions during my lifetime. Both seem obvious in hindsight. The high speed detachable quad chairlift is more important to me, but I recognize society has been transformed by FedEx.
When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight, use Federal Express. At the dawn of Federal Express, every package, even if going across the street, flew to Memphis, was sorted by humans, and put back on another plane to where it was going. Simple. Not quite high-speed detachable quad chairlift brilliant, but smart.
Now, your FedEx package more likely visits odd places not Memphis, like Elko or Gary or Enid or Lima.
But Memphis still has FedEx. And Beale Street -- where jaw dropping child prodigies of Riley B. King stun regulars, and are ignored by barbeque'd tourists.
Beale Street has a modern Westin complex including Gibson Guitars and the Grizzlies' home court. I use the Westin as my home base for the triumvirate and try Arkansas first.
Eastern Arkansas is mostly agricultural; small towns with small town things, just like in my vaunted home state.
Northern Mississippi and Alabama are more dramatic -- hills, forests, and stop-the-car thunderstorms. Tupelo, home of Elvis is a living medium-sized city. Mississippi seems normal.
The Alabama that I saw also seemed normal. Muscle Shoals, Alabama hosted famous recordings by Boz Scaggs, the Staples Singers, and Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock". Even Mick and Keith recorded "Wild Horses" in Muscle Shoals. Mick is hard to please. My Alabama experience was much like Todd Barry's -- normal.
Then came Labor Day Saturday in Memphis.
One of my college mates is a FedEx executive, moved to Memphis years ago. He has tickets to Old Miss at University of Memphis at the Liberty Bowl. He meets me at the Westin, we have brunch on Beale Street and go to the game. Nice way to cap the trip.
All is essentially fine. "I am drenched in sweat. How do you handle this humidity?" "You get used to it." We have some excellent food, taking in the amazing Saturday morning musical talent. An electric vibe.
Ever see a SEC football game? At brunch, we notice red shirts everywhere. And women in red. Not just red sweatshirts like you'd see in the northwest, but red dresses. Hundreds of them. Red dresses everywhere.
Beale Street is overwhelmed with Ole Miss pre-functioners. Not a blue shirt in sight. University of Memphis is a commuter school, and its alumni are not drinking on Beale Street at 9am. At Ole Miss, football is high tea.
Ole Miss is a destination SEC school, in Oxford, Mississippi, south of Memphis. Ole Miss has 24,000 students; the flagship university of the state.
Ole Miss has existed in Oxford as a public institution for 172 years. For 114 of those 172 years, black students were not allowed to apply for admission, but that is not exactly the point of this story.
The sea of red invading our blues brunch spot was fine. Then they broke in unison into the "Hotty Totty" chant, with lyrics about "rim, ram, flim, flam" which was annoying, as their chant blindly interrupted the child prodigy we were enjoying.
Some nice fellow in red befriended us and gave us chartered bus tickets to the game, which we took and used. The red-shirted Ole Miss alumni association had rented several off-duty Memphis Transit buses (and drivers), running a multi-bus rodeo pickup right off Beale Street with seas of red, and two northwesterners in shorts, filing onto the buses. Pretty well organized for the south.
We're on. Other than the red, all is normal. "When did you graduate Ole Miss?" I look at my Birkenstocks and admit our native geography. Normal stuff.
Then the Liberty Bowl approaches.
The bus arrives at the stadium, and police are at the entrance road gates and we are temporarily delayed. The bus stops.
Finally, the real south moment happened.
The Memphis Transit bus driver stands up and addresses us.
“I don’t mean no disrespect…”
Now I think I do know what to expect.
“…but it shore is nice to see white folk on a Memphis City bus.”
“There’s 160 of us bus drivers. And only nine of us are white.”
“May only be eight tomorrow.”
A few minutes of collective bus silence later we arrive at the stadium.
One redshirt gives the driver $5 as we exit.
I ask one of the astonished redshirts “What just happened?”
“Memphis has never gotten over MLK.”
In Seattle, this bus driver would have been Iphoned, on the news, twitter-persecuted, and placed on administrative probation before halftime.
After that public admission and pay-off, even the red dresses and theoretically-tolerable drenching humidity seemed normal. Just like Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.