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A Native's Take on Memphis

Cruising the city of gritty music, with stops at some unsung landmarks.

July 08, 2001|LINTON WEEKS | WASHINGTON POST

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Listen up, boys, I say to my two sons on a recent southerly swing, here's a little tour I like to call My Memphis.

Corny? Absolutely. Immodest? Of course. But this is where I was born and reared. (Crops are raised, my mother says; children are reared.) Where I misspent my youth. Where I met my wife, Jan, 27 years ago and fell in love. I know this town. And if my two sons--Stone, 16, and Holt, 12--want to know me, they need to know My Memphis.

In fact, even if they don't want to know me, they need to know Memphis. You should get to know Memphis too. It's a cool and complicated city--full of dreams and drawbacks. I'll show you some of both. Plus we'll see where a movie star once lived, find old friends, meander through a museum or two, taste some mighty dry ribs and hear a little free music.

But first, a quick stop by Elvis' house. Not Graceland, boys. Everybody goes there. About 600,000 faithful last year. Instead, my family and I drive by the house Elvis owned in 1956, just before moving to Graceland. It's a privately owned, unassuming one-story white-brick ranch style at 1034 Audubon Drive, in a residential neighborhood near Audubon Park.

Birds sing the blues up above. There's a concrete bath for them in the front yard. A white brick wall with a black wrought-iron fence on top runs along the street. In the back yard, there's a pool and a couple of pink plastic flamingos spiked into the ground.

Very few folks know about this place. Owners Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen hope to change that. The couple have written two books about the King--"Memphis Elvis-Style" and "The Best of Elvis--Recollections of a Great Humanitarian."

They bought the house in 1998 for about $180,000 and plan to restore it to all its Eisenhower-era glory.

While snooping around Elvis' yard, I run into an old friend. Carroll Todd is helping his mother-in-law move from her house across the street. I went to Memphis University School with Carroll. Last time I saw him was about 25 years ago when he was at the Memphis Academy of Arts taking sculpture classes. I bought his first piece, a plaster Endymion, for about $35.

Today the shepherd is crumbling in my front yard and Carroll is a big-shot sculptor selling his pieces for thousands of dollars apiece at a gallery in New York. That's so Memphis, to run into Carroll. It's a small town wrapped in a big one.

The boys, my wife and I cruise on down Highland Avenue, and I point out the WHBQ-TV building--once an ABC affiliate, now a Fox station--where tights-wearing wrestlers Sputnik Monroe and Jerry Lawler (the brute who crushed Andy Kaufman) "fought" on Saturdays in the 1960s. My Sunday school teacher, Lance Russell, was the studio announcer. Many's the Sunday we would ask Mr. Russell, "Is it real?" referring to the pile drivers and head slammings in the ring, not the particular New Testament miracle he was teaching us about.

At Highland Park Place we take a left. I want to show the boys the home where I grew up, but first I point out another house down the street, 3420 Highland Park Place.

"That's where Cybill Shepherd lived when she was in high school," I explain.

"Did you know her?" Stone asks.

"I knew her brother," I say. "But she had no earthly idea who I was."

The boys, I realize, have no idea who Cybill Shepherd is.

On our way downtown, we ride by Rhodes College, a lovely little liberal arts school that's hidden away on a verdant campus near the Memphis Zoo.

My great-uncle Charles Diehl moved the college from Clarksville, Tenn., to Memphis in 1925. There's a stylish statue of him in front of the library and a gateway nearby named for my uncle, William Hunt, who was killed in World War II. My mother and father met and fell in love at Rhodes. So did Jan and I.

Feeling romantic, I take the whole family to one of the coziest restaurants in Memphis. Elegantly comfortable, Paulette's in Overton Square is owned by George Falls, who is--follow me, now--Jan's sister's husband's brother. Remember, it's that kind of town.

Driving downtown on North Parkway, we pass St. Jude's Children's Hospital, a place of true miracles where I worked for a time while I was in college. Then we spy the majestic Pyramid sports arena looming on the skyline.

Before we reach the Mississippi River, where a bridge would take us into Arkansas, we turn south for the National Civil Rights Museum, an ambitious monument to the decades-long struggle that stretched across the South. As we walk to the front door, a man emerges into the sunlight.

"Afternoon," I say. "It's a beautiful day."

"It is when you walk in," the man says. "But when you come out everything looks different."

He's right. One display after another lays out the tragic history of a racially rent America. There's a luncheon counter like the one in Greensboro, N.C., and a city bus like the one in Montgomery, Ala.

The whole timeline leads up to the walkway outside the Memphis motel room where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

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