Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

July 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

[Editorial note: And now for a departure.  I wrote the piece below in 2000.  It’s the work of a young guy in love (with the woman he’d eventually marry) who’d clearly been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace.  I’ve made a few minor edits but left the major faults unchanged.  Looking back over it recently, I decided to post it here before heading back to Nebraska to visit family: a paean to the Midwest, to summer, to Jaime, to hope.]

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

Well there’s a Memphis down in Tennessee and a Memphis in my dreams, and there used to be a Memphis over in Egypt, back when it was the Memphis, and even if you don’t believe it there’s a Memphis, Nebraska. How much of each makes up the one in my dreams? The world may never know.

So I Had This Dream

a couple of months ago, before I was really aware of any of the Memphilia about to break through to my daily consciousness.

The dream took place in Memphis, it was understood, in that perfectly succinct way dreams have of establishing place — and, well, of establishing practically everything else, too. A lot of the dream is unimportant for these purposes, although I’m pretty sure my parents were around and I know my girlfriend was at least a figure in the dream, if not physically there. (It would help this whole thing gel a whole helluva lot better if Jaime were physically there, but such are the spoils of living apart.) Point is, I’d gotten myself to Memphis, somehow.

Memphis in my dream was a magical city. A holy city, perhaps the holy city. For some while I simply rode around in a car, looking out the window at the buildings (I got a feeling of dilapidation) and the sky (senses-heightening blue), hearing music in the background, always music. Then I was walking down a street, surrounded by green everywhere. The city was full of vegetation, lush, rich, overflowing, Hanging-Gardensish. Fertile. It was spring. I missed Jaime.

The music picked up here, as I recall: organs, ethereal dream-instruments. I was suddenly on what I’ve come to think of as Cathedral Row. There were massive temples here. They were stunning, and when I think of them even now I am struck with a profound sense of how truly gorgeous they were, in my dream. One was all stained glass, purple, made entirely of turrets and steeples and windows and Baroque and Gothic elements, rising high into the sky, a sacred Tower of Babel — so, perhaps not a Tower of Babel at all, but its antithesis. Another contained gorgeous sculptures everywhere, flanking the pulpit, jutting right up into the faces of overeager parishioners in the first rows. There were more: I have sinned, I have forgotten.

Duke Chapel, Durham, NC. Photo by Adam Gerik.

What’s Your Point? #1

I’ve never been one of those people that rolls their eyes at people who want to share their dreams. Seems to me that if you’re not interested in what people are dreaming, you’re just not interested in people. Perhaps I oversimplify.

But this dream most definitely had a point, which is, in a way, the following:

I remember writing to Jaime about it, about what a great dream it was, about how bizarre, to dream about Memphis. I wrote a short piece trying to capture the feeling of that dream, the kinds of things I was actually thinking in the dream. It was a “deeply spiritual” dream, if one is allowed to call anything “deeply spiritual” anymore. Put it this way: the Memphis in my dreams was not the kind of place where you have to put “deeply spiritual” in quotes, to show that you know how hackneyed and flaky you’re being, to show how worldly and un-naive and, well, godless you really are.

I love Jaime very much. We have grand plans to live quietly, happily, peacefully together forever after two years of living apart — right now she’s in St. Louis, I’m in Lincoln. I tell her my dreams; she tells me hers.

And it was on my way to see her, when she was home for the summer in Nebraska, that I ran across a sign for Memphis, NE. The sign (MEMPHIS 10) is posted on a shortcut to her house that I’d just recently begun to utilize. When I noticed it, I quite suddenly wanted to go there, to see the town, to write about it (never thinking even once about the dream I’d had, months before; that connection came later). Nothing glamorous, nothing all that smart, even. Just a piece about Memphis– or rather, Memphises.

How to Find Memphis, NE

From Omaha, take I-80 out of town to the Gretna exit. Go through Gretna, take Hwy. 6 down to near Ashland, then catch 63 through Ashland. After a few turns, you’ll be in Memphis.

From Wahoo, just catch 77 South to the turnoff for 63 East, right before you go through Swedeburg; 63 will take you right to Memphis’s doorstep. (But watch out for the turn, to the right; sneaks up on you. Look for the Country Keno sign.)

From Nebraska City, you’ve got a hike, but not too bad! Just take 75 N to Union, then hop on 34 E for a ways (25 mi?) ‘til you get to the intersection with 63 N (there’ll be a sign for Alvo), and take that right ‘til it ends, breaking off into 6 roughly E and W. Take E ‘til that same Ashland turnoff, 63, up to Memphis. You know the rest.

Or, if you’re coming from Lincoln, like us: you can take the N 14th St. shortcut to 77 (no gravel necessary!), or you can just get on I-80 E and take that to 77, go through Ceresco and Swedeburg to that 63 E exit. Skip Ithaca; get to Memphis.

Failing that, head toward Ithaca, Ashland, or Mead. You’ll find it eventually.

Some Interesting Connections

“Memphis,” the word, can be translated a few different ways (hieroglyphics being a tricky medium for even the most skilled Egyptologist), but it’s most likely that the name means “White Fortress” or, more poetically, “White Walls.” Memphis was the original capital of the unified Egypt, the city which brought together the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, perhaps 15 miles south of the apex of the Nile delta. As such, it was the home of pharaohs and, correspondingly, a religious center.

Temple of Isis at Philae near Memphis, by "Son of Groucho."

Elvis Presley, whatever there might be to say about his (un)originality or mimicry of black forms or rather simple and/or derivative sense of rhythm, was one hell of a singer and did much to unify the Northern and Southern halves of this country in a sound, in rock and roll (however short-lived it was). Would the Beatles have happened without Elvis? What about rap?

Elvis loved Memphis. He built his own White Fortress there, Graceland, a complex structure which allowed him to be simultaneously worshiped and utterly alone behind his many different walls.

Graceland, Memphis, TN, from discoveringelvis.wordpress.com

Most intimately linked to the ancient Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god (but so much more!) who had his main temple there. Ptah seems to have always been an anthropomorphic deity, but his humanity was almost completely concealed within a skullcap and tight-fitting cloth which resembled a leotard. Only his face and hands remained visible. One is somewhat reminded of Elvis’s sequined-jumpsuit Vegas days.

It’s tempting to consider Ptah as the very first rock god, predating Bacchus and Christ and Liszt and Elvis. Ancient Egyptian love songs often call upon him to bring lovers together at night — what more rock-and-roll sentiment exists? In those same songs, Ptah is often known by one of his many appellations, “Ptah Beautiful of Face,” attributable to the fact that Ptah’s skin was made of pure gold. It virtually begs for hieroglyphic newsreels of Ptahmania sweeping the Nile basin, girls swooning at his dreamy eyes, his full lips, his gentle-yet-powerful hands.

Then there are the representations of Ptah themselves, which offer perhaps the most perplexing and intriguing evidence of Ptah-as-superstar. The god is usually shown grasping a narrow staff which symbolizes royalty and which is topped with an ankh (life) sign. The whole thing, held close and directly in front of him, comes to roughly chin-height and is eerily similar in design and appearance to an old-style microphone — such as the one Elvis swings to the side in that very famous photograph, face contorted mid-croon, pelvis swiveled, knees buckled, hair pompadour’d. Ptah as king of rock and roll? Maybe so. Elvis as life-bringer and sexual liaison? Too obvious to expound upon.

The young god Presley, from (yes!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com

Annoying (but Crucial) Autobiographical Information

We drove to Memphis, Jaime and I, on one of the hottest days of the year. July; mid-afternoon. We escaped from the hot tin box in which I lived and sweated, took off with windows down and radio up. That’s our sort of thing to do.

Embarrassingly, I have never been to Memphis, TN. Or Memphis, Egypt. I first saw the Atlantic Ocean last year. I have never seen the Pacific. I have flown on a plane exactly three times — each time to Boston, within the last year, to visit Jaime. This is, I think, not a terribly unusual state of affairs for a kid from Nebraska.

I’ve lived here my whole life, first in Norfolk (pop. 22,000 or so), then in Hastings (pop. 23,000 or so), then in Lincoln (pop. 150, 000 or so). I will more than likely be leaving it soon, quite possibly for a city with a pop. in the millions. I’ll miss it; I feel a kinship with this place, its people, its sky, its land, even though I’m not a farmer or a farmer’s son. (However, one doesn’t need to travel far here — either geographically or ancestrally — to feel that connection to place, to country.)

So this would be my first Memphis — at least, my first physical Memphis. It seemed fitting. I’d like to go to Tennessee, see Graceland, hear some blues — I’d like to go to Egypt, sometime, maybe, for a while — but Nebraskans like me, for better or worse, filter life through these tiny towns.

But so could I be more in love with this girl Jaime? It was the first summer we’d had together, and the trip to Memphis started, at least in part, as just an inkling of something I would like to do with her. She enjoys exploring such places as much as I do, I think. At any rate, we would get to ride around together, talking, listening to the radio, sweating.

We were doing just those things as we neared Memphis proper, and we actually missed the turn to the town, and had to turn around. As we did so, we found a radio station (I think it was NPR) broadcasting an interview with Charles Brown, the great blues musician.

And wouldn’t you know it, he was talking about meeting Elvis, the King.

What Memphis, NE Has to Offer

There are quite a few very beautiful trees standing in the midst of cornfields around Memphis. One gets to be a connoisseur of such things on the Great Plains; there are some fine examples of the phenomenon in the vicinity of Memphis. The road we took also has a lovely stretch upon which both shoulders are covered in vibrant purple wildflowers, the grass coming right up to the white lines. The flowers — and, hell, Highway 63 in general — are highly recommended in the early hours of summer mornings.

Memphis is also very near the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center, which may not sound like a whole lot but is really a pretty big deal, taking up whole bunches of land for ruminant, porcine, and bovine studies, forestry training and research, innumerable crop yield projects, and Lord only knows what else. The site seemed to emanate a kind of mad-science vibe, for me. I think this comes partly from my own ignorance if not outright timidity when it comes to agriculture, and partly from the aura which surrounds the idea of Memphis. To me, the town’s name stands for magic, mystery, alignment with things I don’t or maybe can’t understand.

University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As not-one-but-two signs point out at the turnoff to Memphis, the town also has “Methodist Church Worship” at 9 AM. I’m not sure if that’s everyday or just Sunday. In any case, worship services are available if you should want to visit: fear not for your soul’s constitution.

And while we’re on the subject, that same Methodist Church Worship is presumably held in the town’s dominant (and loveliest) structure, the Iliff Methodist Church. It is a simple, white, steepled chapel with some lovely painted-glass windows and a charming lack of improvements such as aluminum-and-glass doors or a message board bearing embarrassing inspirational messages.

Town hall in Memphis, NE. Photo taken in 2000.

Memphis has a town hall that looks an awful lot like a storage shed, but this seems to be the unofficial town hall; the other one is just a normal, modest structure, with an old, rusty basketball rim in the driveway.

There are those black sans-serif sticker-letters (the kind that usually advertise things like drink specials on Bud banners in the windows of bars) everywhere in town, including on the advertisements for Methodist Church Worship at 9 AM. Someone’s got a truckload of ‘em, but we never did ask who.

Memphis has a green rectangular sign proclaiming the existence of itself and its 117 inhabitants.

For the residents’ correspondence needs, there is an absolutely tiny post office in the middle of town which flies the American flag proudly, if not really all that high. One gets the sense that the flagpole is short so as to draw attention away from the size of the post office itself.

Memphis, NE post office. Photo taken in 2000.

But as bucolic as all of this might seem, Memphis surely sees periods of heavier traffic, for the town is also home to a state recreation area — a lake, in other words. The lake is man-made, and was created for the booming (now ailing, maybe dead) ice factory the town housed in the early twentieth century. It’s a small, peaceful, pretty lake which comes right up to the road and says hello. On the night we visited, it was completely untouched, completely still.

Near the lake, on the outskirts of town, is a big pink ranch-style house with a huge lawn. Jaime and I both found the house intriguing, partly because of the color and partly because of the proliferation of lawn ornaments (miniature porcelain gauchos, horses, a flamingo or two; oversized porcelain frogs) and partly because of the fertile garden in the backyard, replete with flowers and vines climbing the walls of an enclosed porch. It conjured images for me of the town’s “crazy lady,” living there for unknown reasons, generating gossip and willful tolerance in the other townsfolk. Tending her plants, talking to her lawn sculptures.

The town’s bar — Don’s Bar — is a nice enough place, with fairly good food and a prime rib buffet on Saturday nights. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, maybe, but listen, don’t go just for Don’s. It’s standard-issue small-town Nebraska.

Memphis has some streets named after places from antiquity or related to its namesake — Cairo St., for instance, but sadly, no Beale — and some that are just odd, such as Gahala St.

One of those streets leaves an indelible image on my mind’s eye. We turned onto this street, only to find it abruptly ending before us in a wall of wild grasses, trees, and brush. A fire hydrant poked out of the scrub near where the side of the road should’ve been, had the road continued; a cardinal perched on the ruins of an old foundation. How to explain such a scene? Perhaps as the place where a town simply ended, where the walls were erected when its capacity was reached.

What’s Your Point? #2

Perhaps there is no exact point, but a thought did occur to me, while trying to understand the significance of these Memphises. I was thinking of how a piece on Memphis, NE, might be perceived, and the imaginary catchphrase I kept attaching to it was “a travelogue from Real America.” And it kept ringing false.

Because, hey, look: if a fake America exists anymore– and by fake I mean an unseen, Dream America — if it even exists anymore, it is embodied in Memphis, Nebraska. Everything else has been made real, or has made itself real — and by real I mean visible, mediated, artificial — simply by showing itself to us again and again and again, over and over, via innumerable sources. The country is rapidly turning (or has turned) into a big dumb cruelly elitist entertainment complex, and Memphis is just about all it has left of a dreamworld. Not in a fantastic sense, or in an On the Road sense: in the sense of being simply unattainable. Mars, New York and every city on down the line, Tibet, the ocean deep, etc., etc. — everything else is far too real. But Memphis, NE — well, no one looking to make a buck has ever gotten Memphis quite right. Not many have tried. And not many will, more than likely. It’s a hardscrabble life in Memphis, and there’s no bureau of tourism to send out glossies of the buffet at Don’s Bar.

The white walls of this Memphis, while perhaps not intentionally erected, are certainly real and exist in the marrow of every villager. It’s not a matter of avoiding the world. It’s a matter of needing those outer walls to feel safe enough, perhaps, to dissolve those inner walls. Not easy to survive at the center of the universe; not easy to cope with depression and loneliness; not easy to live with the same 115 people every day; not easy to commune with the ones you love.

Why do I love and treasure that dream I had? Getting inside the walls. The walls of Memphis, my own walls. And to me, Memphis will always be a matter of love.

What I Wrote Right After My Dream (Which I Just Recently Rediscovered)

…Memphis is unbelievable. There’s all this greenery (just like You said Everything was so green You went Down South after I left and You loved how green everything was and You said Maybe someday we could live there and I laughed) and the weather is beautiful. Memphis is a revelation. (I expect Graceland…)

Suddenly I’m alone in Memphis (thinking I miss Her, She would love this) and surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful cathedrals. They are enormous and tall and I feel like a very small child looking up at them.

This one is painted green, yellow, and purple (purple Purple’s your favorite color how you would love this) and the whole building is covered in sculpture and it’s like Memphis is suddenly Oz.

This one is huge, wide, creamy brick with metal corners and somehow I know that it is alive.

This one is almost completely stained glass and there is a purple stained-glass fountain inside which makes me want to cry.

There are riots of flowers outside.

(I am not laughing anymore.)

When I Think of Memphis

my thoughts start to wander, and I end up thinking about all of them. It becomes a conflation of my impressions of those cities, centered on the small town I visited.

I think of Elvis, in his pink castle on the outskirts of town, not terribly unhappy, putting together lyrics from those black sticker-letters and strumming a guitar, sitting on his back porch, amid the gauchos and gigantic frogs and the other kitsch he’d strangely become related to in another world far away. The alchemists and oracles in the ARDC laughing madly over their magics, creating cows that never stop giving milk and ears of corn as big as Cadillacs. Pyramids on the floor of the lake, buried beneath water, their stone guardians and sloped walls defending their inhabitants from intrusion, violation. A jukebox in Don’s Bar playing Charles Brown’s blues. Kids coming together to walk after midnight, guided by Ptah to the Church at the heart of town, to walk the streets and hold hands and make love their own. The trees in the cornfields spreading their limbs over the cornstalks like revival preachers blessing their congregations. The white walls, too tall to climb, at the place where the streets end in a profusion of weeds. The whole town set down in the middle of the plain, encased, like the City of Gold, Jerusalem.

And I think of love, Jaime, and wanting to make those walls between us disappear. I think of times when they do, when they have — when we have walked the streets of Memphis together, amid the riot of flowers and through the towering cathedrals.

She’s in St. Louis right now. It’s only four hours from Memphis, Tennessee, she tells me. Will we get there? I can only hope; I can only hope we go together, hand in hand.

The American Nile floods Memphis, TN, 2011.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone.

Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem.  It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation.  Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory.  I don’t claim to know why that is.  I just know it’s so.

DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things.  He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more.  (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)

The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos.  It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:

…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war.  But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.  As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare.  Warfare is warfare.  We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”  The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible.  It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.  The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that.  No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.  Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.

This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.”  It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination.  The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.”  (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction.  Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)

DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic.  A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes.  Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols).  In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.

DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak.  He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems.  There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations.  All of this is by design, of course.  His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.

A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness.  Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us.  I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John.  And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.

No, It’s Not a Bait Shop

January 30, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Good Omens.

Here’s an unexpected delight: Newton Pulsifer and Anathema Device (great names in this book) in the car, desperately trying to figure out how to avert the Apocalypse:

“….They say that Armageddon will come about because of the Antichrist being good with computers.  Apparently it’s mentioned somewhere in Revelations.  I think I must have read about it in a newspaper recently…”

Daily Mail.  ‘Letter from America.’  Um, August the third,” said Newt.  “Just after the story about the woman in Worms, Nebraska, who taught her duck to play the accordion.”

Nebraska is actually mentioned a number of times in the book–surprising, for the work of two Brits–but Worms?!  Worms is a tiny, unincorporated town in central NE, kind of near Grand Island.  Named, I believe, after the town in Germany where Luther defended his criticisms of the church–the famous (ahem) Diet of Worms.  It is home to one of the world’s most delightfully named bars: the Nightcrawler.  Jaime and I once attempted to visit, but we went on a Saturday night and, believe it or not, the place was packed.  I think it was Prime Rib Night or something.  Anyway, it’s supposed to have great bar food.

I could only wildly speculate on how Gaiman (or Pratchett–but I suspect Gaiman) came across this bit of American arcana.  Delightful, though, to imagine the pasty, black-clad Brit drinking PBR with the locals at the Nightcrawler on a Husker game night, is it not?

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