Mere Existence: Wednesday, April 23, 3:41 p.m.
Two little boys are beating the hell out of each other in the highway ditch off I-240 E. White tourists in obvious rental cars are slowing down to watch, making grave small faces of concern. A lot of the traffic doesn’t brake at all, though. The boys are fighting next to a car that’s been abandoned for some time, judging from the tickety-looking police notifications on the windshield and the black garbage bag that’s pinch hitting for glass in the driver’s-side rear window. There are no adults in the ditch. The boys’ relationship to the car is unclear. I-240 E is the freeway that leads to Memphis from the airport. I landed in Tennessee less than an hour ago; I haven’t even been to my hotel yet.
One of the boys is wearing a red shirt that’s the exact color and texture of an old-timey gas-station rag. It’s had its sleeves torn off. As I go past, the sleeveless kid sort of vaults himself off the hood of the car to aim an aerial punch at his opponent. These boys are maybe 11, is my guess. There’s no telling where they came from. They could have emerged from the trees lining the freeway, which lead to who knows where. It should occur to me to stop, but it doesn’t; they have more right to be there than I do, or that’s how it feels, anyway. The total duration from the moment I first spot them to the moment they disappear from my rearview mirror is maybe 17 seconds. Because of the freeway traffic, I never hear either of them make a sound.
Cabaret Tragico: Wednesday, 3:59 p.m.
I’m in Memphis to write about basketball, Games 3 and 4 of the opening-round playoff series between the Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a Thunder fan, born in Oklahoma, I’m 34 kinds of stressed out about an OKC team that increasingly seems built for the regular season — explosive, but easy to stop once you’ve figured out their three set plays, and about as adaptable as Scott Brooks’s mousse-scaped hair. On paper, the Grizzlies should have no answer for Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, but paper doesn’t really capture a janky-epic Memphis squad built around Mike Conley’s cool, cool point play and Zach Randolph’s strategic bumping into things. OKC is a race car, but the Grizzlies are a garbage truck that just happens to go really fast. And they’ve got home-court advantage in the series after winning Game 2 in overtime. This should be fun/terrifying.
But I’m also interested in how big-time professional basketball interfaces with the communities where it takes place, so, more than anything, I’m just looking forward to checking out Memphis. That’s a fancy way of saying I’m a tourist. I’ve never been to Memphis. I’ve never been anywhere in Tennessee, except on the way to somewhere else.
I’ve spent some time reading about Memphis, the way you do, and even knowing that any city is too complex to reduce to a single idea, I’m still not sure whether to expect a war zone or a street party. Memphis’s problems are so serious and so well publicized — a black middle class effectively vaporized by the financial crisis, dizzying crime, an imploding education system — that it’s easy to pre-imagine it as something grim and TV-Detroitish, arson husks and blown-out factories, one bad afternoon away from anarchy.1 On the other hand: Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax, staggering cultural riches for a city of more than 600,000. Did any city in the 20th century give America more joy than Memphis, or more sadness? This is the place where Elvis began and where Martin Luther King Jr. died, and I’m sorry, if you can imagine a more complicated legacy than that, you are either from New Orleans or you are lying.
The U.S. Census Bureau actually named Memphis the nation’s poorest large city in 2011.
So I get to my hotel, and it looks like the Tomorrowland version of a mod cocktail lounge. Water jets down from a chrome-plated fountain-obelisk; early-’60s neon lozenges hang at jaunty angles over the reception desk. There’s a statue of Louis Armstrong standing in front of a green-lit disco-ball wall. The whole place is hi-fi as hell; it’s disorienting. It’s also the Hilton. Everyone in the lobby is almost absurdly nice. During my stay in this hotel, I will not ride an elevator without being told to have a good day by a stranger who seems to mean it. And none of this even remotely charts on the racial/cultural/economic graphs I’ve been trained to impose on the city. So that’s the first lesson I take from Memphis: Memphis will always, and instantly, be weirder than whatever rubric you’re using to help you understand it.
Hot Fried Chicken: Wednesday, 7:35 p.m.
My first night in the city I want to eat at Gus’s, so I spend some time exploring the fringes of downtown. Brick buildings, not un-crumbling. A lot of missing panes of glass. A train that looks like it’s been rusting out on the same overpass since the Union took the city at the start of the Civil War.2 Beale Street, a smaller, dirtier, infinitely more appealing Bourbon Street — the French Quarter if it didn’t give a shit whether dentists from Iowa wanted to party there or not. Soul music is spilling out of every bar front. There’s a horse-drawn carriage clopping up the street, driven by an enormous and lavishly bearded man, a Hagrid of the mid-South, who I’m convinced is an actual wizard. The wire frame around the carriage has been bent in the shape of a pumpkin.3 Christmas lights twined around the wires.
This gets involved, but one of the big reasons Memphis has always been on an eccentric trajectory with respect to the rest of the South is that the North captured it early, in 1862, and used it as a supply base for the duration of the war.
This is the characteristic Beale Street carriage design, but I don’t know that yet.
It’s barely twilight, and nobody’s really out yet. Tomorrow night, before the game, I’ll watch a maybe 10-year-old boy do reverse handsprings down the middle of the street while a pregame crowd applauds, but this evening, the city’s just going through the motions. There’s something strangely intimate about seeing it like this — like watching a dancer tapping her toe in her sleep.
Game 3: Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m.
Courtside at Grizzlies-Thunder. I’m set up at a rickety folding table with a couple of actual journalists. To my left there’s a section of season-ticket holders, mostly elderly good ol’ boys and their wives, and overwhelmingly white — the crowd at FedExForum gets darker, in a way that’s hard not to notice, as your eye scans upward. It’s a happy crowd, though, or at least that’s the vibe from down here. The good ol’ boys are greeting each other with elaborate mid-South enthusiasm — you goddamn bastard I thought they done threw you out this place how much I gotta spend to get some damn legroom — and the old lady next to me is eating peanuts and shucking the shells with enough zest that they ping off the metal flooring. Waitresses with credit-card tricorders keep coming by to make sure the season-ticket holders are OK, and there’s a weird Southern-churchy thing some of them do where rich-seats fans will sort of take hold of their sections’ waitresses’ wrists and shake them a little while sharing some deep eye contact, as if to say, We’ve been through the season together and now it’s about to get serious.
The chaos around the press table is immense. I’ve never been courtside at an NBA game before. Fans shoving through on their way to seats somewhere else, ushers checking tickets, vendors looking for marks, everyone trying to navigate too-narrow gangplanks. The table is pushed, kicked, leaned on, fallen into, and bumped; it never stops shaking through the entire game. I’m two seats down from TNT’s sideline reporter, and I’m telling you, it’s a miracle that these guys make it to their interviews on time.
Here’s something about Memphis, though: Little kids on the way to their seats will look you in the eye and smile.
The crowd is tremendous, ecstatic. The second the ball tips off, the good ol’ boys assail the world, but mostly me, with a continuous blare of righteous feeling, sections of which sometimes break clear and reassemble themselves as found poems:
YOU ARE TERRIBLE
YOU ARE TERRIBLE
ARE YOU 36 BECAUSE THAT WAS HOW OLD YOU WERE THE LAST TIME YOU MADE A GOOD CALL
The guy next to me, who’s evidently the peanut lady’s own personal good ol’ boy, and who is wearing what I’m pretty sure I can ID as $1,100 brown oxfords, has his own chant going:
He keeps it up for 30 minutes at a time; it’s incredible. He’s a huge Zach Randolph fan, and will periodically just start chanting, “Z-BO! … Z-BO! … Z-BO!” (including once when Z-Bo is on the bench). He’ll also occasionally change this up and scream, “Z-BU-DOHHH! … Z-BU-DOHHH!” so passionately, he’s basically scatting.
If you follow the NBA, you already know what happened in the game — how the Grizzlies charged out to a (going from memory; and again, I’m a Thunder fan) 745-point lead, which the Thunder erased in the fourth quarter after a searing comeback capped off by a brain-melting four-point play from Westbrook; how Memphis pulled away again in overtime to take a 2-1 lead in the series. What you maybe don’t know is that everyone in the stadium spent the entire game waving yellow “Growl Towels,” which, when shaken, shed an extremely fine yellow dander, so that by the fourth quarter the stadium sky was raining towel fuzz. Or how apeshit people went when the pro wrestler Jerry Lawler came out during a commercial break for a bit in which he hit a mock Thunder fan with a chair.
Here’s what I watched: Tony Allen. What an amazing player. I mean, terrible at many things, capable of truly staggering mistakes, but still: amazing. On the bench, he was out of his seat and flexing with excitement — there’s no other way to describe it — after just about every Memphis basket. He would plead with the crowd to be quiet; he would plead with the crowd to be loud. The place hung on every move. In the game … well, look; I’ve been watching Tony Allen play basketball since he was a scoring threat for Oklahoma State in the Precambrian Era.4 This was the closest I’d ever been to him in person. I don’t think I’ve seen such an un-self-conscious human being. It’s actually unnerving. What he wants is completely written on his face, and nothing he does to get it has the power to embarrass him. Pauline Kael once wrote that Clark Gable looked at women like “Well, sister, what do you say?” Tony Allen looks at everything that way. Half the reason he’s so effective guarding Kevin Durant — despite giving up five inches in height and an order of magnitude in talent — is that he isn’t worried about looking stupid; he’s just not. It’s a completely unpretentious, fearless, and vanity-free approach to basketball, ugly and inspiring, totally honest and openly dishonest at the same time. And as wary as I am of these kinds of comparisons, I can’t think of a better style of play to represent the city of Memphis. I loved watching it, even when it worked and broke my heart.
Bicycle Cops Taunt a Bear: Friday, April 25, 4:15 p.m.
One of my favorite weird stats is that Tony Allen was the first player in OSU history to score 1,000 career points in two seasons. Tony Allen! It’s like finding out that Carmelo Anthony broke assists records at Syracuse, only real.
I’m pressed against a plexiglass window in the Teton Trek bio-display region of the Memphis Zoo, watching an actual grizzly frolic in a large blue-brown pool. The bear is submerged from the neck down and is playing with what looks like a blue plastic dog dish, batting at it with big paws. Occasionally, it gnaws at the edge of the dish like a prospector verifying gold. The pool comes right up to the edge of the glass, so you can see the bear’s body loosely sprawled underwater whenever it swims in close enough.
There’s no one out here but me and a quartet of bicycle cops, dressed in bike helmets and Oakleys and comically tiny shorts. They might actually be security guards; it’s not clear. But enforcement figures of some kind. They have chest badges. Knees not even maintaining diplomatic relations with their shorts’ hems. They are on their bikes, absurdly. One of them is making what reads as a frankly desperate plea for the bear’s attention by pounding on the glass, I mean really whaling on it. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to pound on the glass. I consider setting the guy straight but I worry that my beating at the hands of four men whose shoulder-padded tops only emphasize the extreme smallness of their uniforms’ pant-component would be even more traumatic for the bear, emotionally. Eventually the grizzly does mermaid over to the cops and sort of idly snaps at them, which sends an ugly thrill through the whole detail.
“He’s like, just give me one good shot at these guys, just one,” one of the cops laughs.
“Oh, he’d take it. Look at this SOB,” another one says.
“He’d love it. Bet we look tasty!”
“This glass wasn’t here? We’d be dead, haw haw.”
They fantasize for a while about their own hideous demises. I’m close enough to appreciate the bear’s tender nose and slim, oddly horselike snout. Some of this may be the water-distortion effect, but the grizzly is the size of all four cops put together. What I would do if I could will the glass away is a question I’m glad I don’t have to face. After a few minutes of prime taunting, the team loses interest and formation-pedals away down the Teton Trek’s main path, alpha predators supremely adapted to the challenges of their environment. The grizzly goes back to its frolicking.
Would It Be a Sin? Saturday, April, 26, 1:15 p.m.
Everyone is friendly in Memphis, everyone, even the tour guides at Graceland, whose life is a never-ending hell of buses, tangled audio-guide cables, tassel fringe, ersatz ’50s diner fonts, pompadours, sequined capes, mirrored staircases, and emergency-defibrillator protocols. My own tour group is made up of about 50 percent Elvis impersonators (shockingly young, tall, skinny, mostly dressed in ’70s-era jumpsuits with various permutations of the TCB logo spangled across their backs, hair and sideburns theatrically overdone, clearly part of some nouveau-camp school of impersonation that values caricature and irony over verisimilitude, making them thus somehow less postmodern than regular Elvis impersonators) and 50 percent old people (old), along with one guy in his mid-forties who realizes halfway through the tour that every music lover should own at least one Elvis Presley CD, “because Elvis had his own sound,” a discovery that he repeats loudly and slowly for the rest of his time at Graceland. The tour guides deal with all this with phenomenal good cheer, from the moment we enter the transit bus at Graceland’s pre-tour staging area to the moment we are disgorged, post-mansion, at the Graceland ice-cream shoppe. It’s heroic. They’re bright and clear when they direct a lost Aloha From Hawaii–era Elvis to Elvis’s horse paddock; they’re gentle in repositioning the women moved to kneel and pray around Elvis’s grave in Elvis’s meditation garden. In relieving the carnage visited upon the tour’s old-person contingent by the complimentary audio guides, they are nothing short of astonishing. Uncontainably frustrated septuagenarian Bryll-creamed RV owners crying, “God dame it, I’m still hearin’ about the god-dame Jungle Room!” while blocking the path through Elvis’s racquetball court receive swift and compassionate attention. One has but to bellow, “It says press number 33, there is no number 33!” to be met by a mild angel prepared to help one press the number 3 twice.
Graceland itself is pretty much the shag-carpeted monument to medium kitsch that you’ve pictured. I liked it, more or less. It’s an honest place, in the sense that one of the signal achievements of 20th-century American celebrity was the elevation of egoistic interior decorating. You want a monkey statue in your citrus-yellow TV room? Install it. You want a mock-Grecian colonnade around your chemical-blue contemplation fountain? Put it on the heart-shaped-bed account; who’s going to stop you, the Duchess of Cornwall? Let your wallpaper say who you are. When you die, they’ll sell tickets.
Sterling/Silver: Saturday, April 26, 8 p.m.
Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a leathery antediluvian racist who should be drummed out of the game of basketball. This has been obvious for a long time, and is testified to by a long pattern of what’s politely called “troubling behavior.” But now Sterling, or someone who’s alleged to be Sterling, has been recorded saying Sterling-like things in a voice that strongly resembles Sterling’s. Opinion suggests that the NBA will finally have to take action, so league commissioner Adam Silver, who’s flying to Memphis for the game, uses his press conference to address the situation. He’s very late to the interview room, which feels appropriate, since the league has been late to the Sterling problem for years.
When Silver finally shows up, he’s what would politely be called “careful.” He’s starting a process that will lead to Sterling’s investigation and possible censure; in the meantime, he has to protect the league from any possible lawsuit from Sterling’s camp. This means that tactically he can’t say anything too leading or disrespectful. He can’t talk frankly about Sterling’s history or share any personal feelings about the case beyond a generalized disapproval of the comments on the tape. As a media strategy, it’s perfectly legible, and he executes it deftly. He ducks questions without being obviously rude; he promises due process for “Mr. Sterling” without apologizing for him. From the league’s standpoint and the league’s lawyers’ standpoint, it’s a satisfactory performance. It’s what everyone expected. It’s what I expected. I know all this.
As I’m sitting there, though, I find myself practically shaking with fury. I’m angry in a way that I can’t fully explain to myself. Everything Silver says makes sense as long as you confine your thinking to abstract procedural tactics. As communication, though — as a human utterance, intended for other people — it’s a disaster. Silver repeatedly calls Sterling “Mr. Sterling” while referring to V. Stiviano, who recorded the tape (she denies releasing it), only as “the woman.” He refuses to acknowledge that Sterling has long been followed by what would politely be called allegations of racist behavior. Sterling, who reportedly once asked a potential coach “why you think you can coach these n——.” Who, according to testimony from former employees, routinely says stuff like, “They smell, they’re not clean” when describing black tenants. Who, according to Elgin Baylor, openly favors a “Southern plantation–type structure” for the Clippers, with “poor black boys from the South” playing for a white head coach.5 Silver’s not interested in any of this. His comments are so abstractly targeted that you can’t even call them honest or dishonest. They would have to mean something for those concepts to apply, and they don’t. He doesn’t work for the fans, and he’s not here to speak to them. He’s here to make predefined moves in a game that has no direct relevance to almost anyone who will hear his comments.
That this is understandable doesn’t make it any less gross when Silver refers to Sterling as part of “the NBA family.” I am not in a good place, vis-à-vis the commissioner’s priorities, when I leave the pressroom for my seat at what now seems like kind of an afterthought — I mean the NBA game.
Game 4: Saturday, 8:38 p.m.
The Grizzlies crowd, though. Those guys will cheer you up. The towels are out and the roar in here sounds like an unafraid army. We’re on our way to the third straight mind-warping overtime game in the series, and the Thunder win this time, thank God, and I’m completely invested from about the fourth play because sports gets you even when you’re disgusted with it. Even when Kevin Durant isn’t scoring and Reggie Jackson is carrying the load for your team and you’re rooting against a city you’ve come to love, sports still gets you. I think I’m even glad that it does.
Do you know how many conversations with total strangers I’ve had in Memphis? Normally I can barely talk to people I know well; here, it just seems like the most natural thing to start chatting with the guy next to you at the breakfast counter about the history of whiskey manufacture, or with the couple one table over about the Ann Peebles song on the barbecue-joint jukebox. I’m a tourist; maybe the cultural modalities underlying my ease here are not all flattering to me, I don’t know. Being here felt how it felt.
At some point, the chants from the good ol’ boys in the season-ticket seats start overlapping, and I’m hearing:
YOU ARE TERRIBLE REF
Z-BO … Z-BU-DOH
And around this moment I finally notice what it says on the front of the Growl Towels everyone’s waving. It says: “WE DON’T BLUFF.” And it hits me, finally, why I felt so furious about Silver’s performance in his press conference. It’s because he said this stuff in Memphis. I don’t just mean because of the glaring racial issue, though coming to the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and declining to criticize someone whom you could politiely call an alleged lifelong bigot is maybe not the most electrifying leadership. It’s also because Silver’s brand of evasive nonspeak felt doubly insulting in a city this weird and raw and open about itself. Memphis may be old, busted, and rude (but so, so nice!) and the answers here may not match up with the questions. But it’s not lying to you, or at least not like that. The answers mean something. Isn’t that the whole point of Graceland, why it somehow makes sense in this city? That you can at least be honest with yourself? That you can at least try? Tony Allen scores 14 points, and it breaks my heart, even though the Grizzlies lose.
More on Donald Sterling: