Arts & Culture

A Nice Jewish Boy Returns To New York: The End Of The Roads

The journey home winds down, but not without a religious experience in Memphis. Read More

By / September 8, 2011
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Day 12: Memphis

“Tell me are you a Christian child/And I said ‘Ma’am, I am tonight”’ I sing along, eyes closed, like I have for twenty years. I don’t care how obvious I’m being, I’m in Memphis.

“I’m in Memphis, I’m in Memphis,” I say like a mantra. I’ve been idealizing the city as long as my brain has been capable of idealization and “Walking to Memphis” is entirely to blame. I wanted to live that song—to shed my Northeastern pretension in favor of something more authentic, or, well, black—to turn myself over to the will of the city and be mistaken for a Christian.

Yet, when I do “touch down in the land of the Delta Blues,” all I’m thinking about is my glasses, or lack thereof. “If I can’t keep track of a stupid pair of glasses, how do I expect to survive in New York City,” I berate myself and turn my car upside down. I jostle around my suitcases, blankets, and garbage bags filled with miscellany like hangers and matchbooks. It’s the last stop on my trip and only now do I confront the fact that I’m moving. I stare at the driver’s side door wondering if I could rip it off—I can’t. And I shouldn’t because I’m in Memphis and I’ll need it to drive downtown. This city is supposed to fall for me, and I it, and we can’t do so from my hotel’s parking lot.

Downtown Memphis looks more like Phoenix than I imagined—polished, impersonal, new. It’s less the place where B.B. King made his name and more the home of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and their seven-year-young arena.

Beale Street’s essence has been cut with a bit of Las Vegas and a bit more of Disneyland. The street is blocked off to cars, so white blobs can stumble and bumble into other white blobs, perhaps hoping to stick to one another, becoming a bigger, blurrier white blob. Mostly, they look like they’re having real fun and I wish was one of them.

I have written down the names of two “non-touristy” blues clubs, so we depart whatever this is for something a bit more like what I’d hoped Memphis would be.

We pull up to the first venue. It’s boarded up and must have been for a while. There is one car in the parking lot. Its lights are on. We don’t ask for directions.

The second venue is open. It sits in the back of a very poorly lit, even poorer paved parking lot. Inside, there is no live music, just a DJ and scattered tables of older black couples. We look back at the bouncer for some guidance, or at least a welcoming head nod. Completely void of affect, he offers up, “There is no band tonight, so…” The sentence lingers there as none of us want to speak and accidently say something racist. My friend who has joined me for my trip’s last leg smiles, I nod, and we scurry back to my car.

It’s 10 p.m. and our night is kicked. I’m sleeping in Memphis but do I really feel the way I feel?

Day 13: Memphis

First thing in the morning, I show up to Graceland with almost no opinion about Elvis and leave the same. It’s a silly place, with silly décor—think porcelain monkeys standing upright, debating which sequined lightning bolt pillow to steal.

After, while eating the best fried chicken of my life, I meet Willie, owner of Four Way Restaurant. He speaks in a low, deeply accented mumble. I’m able to make out that he’s lived within five blocks of this place every day of his sixty-three years and he bought this place ten years ago to save it from closing down. I spot a photo of Martin Luther King eating: “Is that here?” Willie: “Yep, that’s why this place needed to stay open.” When we leave, I shake his hand and thank him for everything.

At the gas station, leaving town, I inquire about the mini pecan pies they’re selling at the register. The cashier laughs at me—I guess no one asks about the food—and tells me, “I’ve never tried them so next time remember to tell me how they are.” I leave, and for those eight steps to my car, I’m walking in Memphis.

Day 14: New York City

“Are you excited to be back?” asks a friendly acquaintance from high school, who in my two-year absence has become good friends with one of my best friends’ girlfriends. It’s the same question I’ve already been asked by six closer friends. Worn down, I tell her the truth.

“Four hours ago I had to pull over to the side of the road before entering the Holland Tunnel. I’d seen the skyline and I couldn’t breath.” I explain there wasn’t anything specific I’d focused on, yet I’d never been more physically frightened in my life. I catch her looking around for an out when I tell her that if my friend wasn’t in the car, I might have turned around en route to Austin or Nashville.

She excuses herself (I assume out of fear that my nerves are contagious), before I can tell her that earlier I spent an hour looking at my phone debating all of tonight’s invitations. Most of the people I asked showed up, and I love many of them, but I’m frozen, overwhelmed from trying to decide whom to talk to next.

Epilogue: Brooklyn

Here we are—time to wrap it all up with a cogent, comprehensive, optimistic bow. I’ve spent every day of my five weeks in New York putting off writing this, hoping for something symbolic or idyllic to drop onto my laptop. It’s become another straw on my back broken by plans to make. I’m left not even capable of writing about being incapable of writing, dismissing it as just another thing to do.

I’m gridlocked. This past week I’ve seen three acquaintances on the Subway and quickly walked the other way, evading friendly conversation. I’m exhausted just thinking about turning on my personality and talking loud enough to be heard over the train’s dissonant metal-on-metal clanking and crashing.

I stare at the blank “To” sections of “what are you doing this week?” e-mails, assuming every night I don’t see people I’m losing a friend. I forgot how much friendships in this city are determined by what bars you like patronizing. Everyone cancels each other out, so instead I sit at home looking at too many attractive and projectable OkCupid profiles with no intention of actual interaction—it’s just more plans.

Still, I have a deadline and I’m wide-awake at 4:30 in the morning, having heard two guys loudly smoking a cigarette outside. From my bed, I can see the Chrysler building. I imagine years ago King Kong, giant mallet in hand, used it as his version of the carnival strongman game and the scalloped, escalating lights ended up stuck that way. I love that building in spite of it being so easy to love. I can talk about giving up and living in Marfa but it doesn’t have this building—it barely has any buildings. After traveling through over a dozen dynamic, romantic, comfortable cities I can imagine living in many of them. But I don’t want to. I want to get my ass kicked daily, knowing that this building is watching over me.

Before I embarked, I thought I might die on the road in any one of a plethora of ways. I might have been scared and sweatily uncomfortable, but I never did die—not once. Ever so often, I not only didn’t die—I ate inspiring BBQ and kissed a girl with knee-buckling eyebrows and was embraced by brusque townies (or at least I think I was). Only time (alive) will tell if the trip prepared me to move back here and muddle through discomfort for the chance of something singularly New York. I hope to bring to this city my newly acquired, lukewarm acceptance of danger and headfirst stupidity. Also, I really hope I don’t die.