Blues Travelin': Part II – “Yo Bob…”

I’m goin’ to the river maybe by and by
yes I’m goin’ to the river, and there’s a reason why
because the river’s wet and Beale Street’s done gone dry”

–W. C. Handy

Note: This is part two of a three-parter. The first part of this story is here.

Monday

The sun came out the next day and it got even warmer. I didn’t notice right away because I was in conference sessions all day and took my midday meal at the Networking Luncheon, in which each table has a topic and you can choose a topic based on something you know a little about, or don’t know about but want to know more. Getting to know other tech writers for some reason has been very difficult for me (I’m the lone textsmith at my company and I’ve been there since the late Precambrian), so I always take advantage of the luncheon to try to make some tech writer friends. I sat at the “Flare” table (Flare is a help authoring tool by Madcap Software that I use) in order to chat with other Flare users.

The Mississippi River between buildings of downtown Memphis. Arkansas is yonder.

I met several nice people; a guy whom I have actually encountered and been helped by in online support forums for Flare who goes by the handle “docguy”, and a woman named Amber who’d flown from Melbourne Australia at her own expense to participate in the conference because her company couldn’t afford to send her and she wanted to be here. She told me when I ran into her later that I had something stuck in my teeth. What would the world be like without Australians?

Fried green tomatoes right out of the skillet. Step on up.

A mixer on the roof of the hotel was scheduled for early evening, and because of the rain of the previous evening the talk all day had been about moving the event inside if it was yucky out. But when I stepped out of the elevator hall onto the roof — being met there of course by a friendly, freshly pressed hotel staff member who smiled and asked how I was — I was shocked at how warm the evening was. The sun was heading down but still very bright and the only clouds in the sky were cheery little cumulus puffs. Aside from the annual February Tease Seattle’s been uninhabitably cold so far this year, consistently ten degrees colder it seems than normal on any given day. Standing on a rooftop in the evening without a thick coat in Seattle would be impossible at this time of year (most times of year, in fact), and I was a little disoriented. Coat-lag.

I mingled for a while, actually did a good job getting out of my shyness and engaged some more folks in banter. It helped that a debate broke out about the propriety of putting sour cream, bacon crumbs, chives and grated cheese on fried green tomatoes, which were being fried up in front of our noses right there on the roof. I thrive in situations like that, though that’s not to say that my lively additions to the melee helped clarify anything. Incidentally, I had never had FGTs before and I could have eaten them all night. I normally give a wide berth to passing fried foods, but this was definitely not a time to stick to dietary principles. I hoisted the When-in-Rome and hove to in the lee of the tomato bar.

Beale Street on a night when it's not raining...wall to wall blues fans. This is the outdoor patio of King's Palace Cafe.

A street artist captures siblings for a visiting family.

I tried to find some people to link up with for a dinner outing, preferably over to Beale Street, whose thunderous music reached our ears riding the warm breeze from several blocks away (this was another surprise: it seems that often when you’re outside in Seattle, all you hear are freeways). I knew someone would have to be going out to eat, especially on a night like this, but discovering them was the problem. Many of the speakers hang out together, and while they are not necessarily aloof they also don’t make announcements about their dinner plans. Also, some people come to the conference with some or all of their colleagues. I had no one, and while it was fun to be on an adventure — I enjoyed traveling solo in my twenties — I missed my wife and daughters and felt a vague sense of dread as I headed to Beale Street alone again.

The difference a little water makes on Beale is unbelievable. Gone was yestereve’s rain and in its place were mobs of people, standing on the sidewalks, crossing the street (which is a no-car zone between Second and Fourth), even one guy doing flips down the center of the street — you know, head over feet in fast arches like a gymnast — and crowding around the bars and tables and stages in the restaurants. I wandered around a bit just taking in the various sounds, perusing the gift shops that were all full of Elvis and Betty Boop and tacky jazz and gaudy blues gear.

The music venues are one after another on Beale.

I saw a sign for gumbo outside a cafe that looked like it had a few free tables and got a sudden hankering. I asked the man standing outside with menus how much for a bowl of gumbo. He flipped the menu around  a few times trying to find the price, mumbled that this wasn’t his normal joint, he was working several places this evening. I asked where he normally worked, and he said the Blues City Cafe. He said the gumbo over at Blues City was exceptionally good; the recipe had been stolen out of Baton Rouge several hundred years ago. I didn’t necessarily believe this but I liked the idea. On the other hand, I had already walked by Blues City and it was crowded to the gills because of the live music. This place had no music, at least for the moment, so I went in and sat at a table. I waited a while for someone to say something to me, offer me water, something. Then I waited some more. There was a woman behind the bar and a young man moving around quickly doing something with buckets, but no one seemed to be minding the customers. A group of girls that had come in before me still had not yet been addressed either, though they were involved with their phones and didn’t seem to mind. I’m kind of a stickler for service, so I left after about eight minutes and walked up to Blues City.

Gary Hardy and the Memphis 2. The math adds up. On the screen is a photo of the "million dollar quartet" -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins with guitar, Johnny Cash and Elvis on the keys.

The front door was mobbed. A grey-bearded older gent asked me for how many and I said one, and I could see that that was not what he wanted to hear. He told me to hang out a bit. Several parties of more than one were waiting on the sidewalk by the door, the place was so packed. The man came out after a few moments and suggested I go into the other door and order at the bar, the menu was the same, so I went around to the other door and took up a seat at the bar. I ordered a bowl of gumbo and listened to the show. Gary Hardy and the Memphis 2 were on stage. They have a habit of playing a few notes of a song and then pausing while Gary regales the audience with some interesting history about the performer. When I came in he was telling the scandalous tale of Jerry Lee Lewis, and after that they played a number of Johnny Cash songs, and Gary sounded a lot like Johnny, really.

The gumbo was really tasty, hot, though salty to the point that the flavors were a little overpowered, if that’s possible (I thought salt was supposed to enhance the flavors present, but this salt seemed to have a voice of its own). Maybe whoever the recipe was stolen from let it be stolen so the thieves would perish of thirst on the run? As the clientele shifted around me over the next half hour, it came about that a woman was sitting on the stool next to me and her husband was standing behind me. I offered him my seat and in so doing pulled the pin on a torrent of southern-fried friendliness. He wouldn’t hear of rousting me from my seat but I told him I was about to square up and skedaddle, and he asked where I was from. He and his wife were farmers in Kentucky and had stopped in Memphis for a treat. They had eight thousand acres of wheat, corn and soy. They wanted to buy me a beer for the road and I felt bad declining. We chatted loudly over the antics of Gary, who was now saying that the U.S. government had systematically eradicated the name Billy Joe from the earth by inducing country singers to kill off characters with that name in song lyrics. (As proof, he asked for a show of hands how many people named Billy Joe were in the crowd and there were none. Q.E.D.)

Dr. Feelgood play to a crowded room. I had to elbow people aside on the sidewalk to get this shot.

I didn't go into the Rum Boogie Cafe, but it had one of my favorite signs.

I felt a warm glow from my interaction with the farmer couple as I headed back to the Peabody, and it made me wish I’d just hung out with them for a while, or that they’d showed up before I’d eaten. I realized afresh how eating alone is just one of the worst human experiences, an unnatural situation despite how often it occurs. I loved the gumbo and the music but what was the point? It doesn’t feel worth it to travel if I have to eat by myself. It really made me feel blue. I had the blues. I had the Memphis blues on Beale Street, because I couldn’t turn to my soul mate and say, “hey, you wanna hear my favorite palindrome? It’s ‘Yo Bob, mug o gumbo, boy!'” and because she would already have heard it a million times.

To be continued…

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11 Responses to “Blues Travelin': Part II – “Yo Bob…””


  1. 1 Mom March 22, 2012 at 09:11

    That’s ma’ boy. Keep it coming. You WiLL write that book one of these days…in your “spare”‘ time

    Ma

    • 2 Matt March 22, 2012 at 11:58

      Mom, thanks as always for your unflagging support. Having spent your first years in South Carolina, you probably would have registered an instant kinship with the hospitality and friendliness of folks in Memphis, though I know you were never a fan of noisy and unkempt music forms, or dingy smoke-filled bars, for that matter. :)

  2. 3 leatherhead109 March 24, 2012 at 08:28

    Brother,

    I find it ironic that even though you and I are so extremely different, on occasion we mirror each other so much. I likely would have walked the same path and had much the same experience as yourself. I surely did often enough while traveling Post-1st Marriage and Pre-Second. Memphis was a derelict city when I was there in the Marine Corp, but I found the south revived when I went there several times in the early 90’s. But like you, I missed my soul mate and though I saw and experienced much Southern culture, I never got to share it with anyone. Which, I too found profoundly blue. Traveling is often that way for me now, even when accompanied by firemen.

    Glad you have family waiting at home.

    • 4 Matt March 24, 2012 at 13:58

      I didn’t know you’d been in the Bluff City, Ben. I wasn’t paying very good attention. As you say, without your family traveling ends up feeling a bit like an odyssey of the soul, something you have to endure.

      • 5 leatherhead109 March 24, 2012 at 14:58

        I was in Bluff City several times during my stay in Millington Tenn., just due East of the ‘hood. Not somewhere I wanted to explore back then, the haircut was a dead give away for getting yourself pulled over and having the sheriff go, “Weeeellll, what have we here?” Once, while exploring I took a wrong turn and ended up in Old Miss, then coming back failed to negotiate the snare of exits and ended up in ARkansas. One didn’t want to misplace oneself in those days. There were parts of Memphis we Marines were not welcome.

  3. 6 Kip March 24, 2012 at 12:50

    I remain hopeful that your mother is right (Mother’s are right, you know!), and you WILL write that book one of these days! I am patiently waiting. I know a little bookstore on Mercer Island that would feature it right up front…..

  4. 9 Jana March 30, 2012 at 16:53

    Chalk me up as the fifth pre-order, please.

  5. 10 Matt March 30, 2012 at 19:43

    @marni, jana,
    Thanks for the votes of confidence. :)


  1. 1 Blues Travelin’: Part III – Kings « Just Wondering Trackback on March 29, 2012 at 22:44

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