A friend from New York is coming in a week or so to visit Memphis for the first time. He was a gracious host on my first trip to NYC, so when he emailed me that he and his ladyfriend were coming to town, I started thinking about what all he might like to do. He sent a second email with a slight schedule tweak and this question: Since we're only going to be in town for one day now, does that change everything? Will we be able to fit everything in?
Of course not. Not even if we used all 24 hours in the day would we be able to fit everything in, nor would that be a fun challenge. Half the joy of showing Yanks around is watching them marvel at our relaxed ways and slower pace of life (while still getting everything done). We have no use for all of the unproductive stress and distraction that comes with a needlessly frenzied comportment. Besides, when I'm on vacation I hate being dragged around like it's my last day on earth. Much better to see three places and have fun than seven places and be so tired you can't enjoy anything.
I assured him that we'd have a fine time, and began narrowing my list of must-do/must-see/must-eat spots into a reasonable day's activity that would give a first-timer a decent idea of what life here is like.
And it's more than a trip to a famous house or street. Yes, these are wonderful things that make Memphis what it is, and I'm proud to call them ours. But my everyday life isn't spent partying in neon-lit clubs, eating ungodly amounts of pork, and listening to the blues (though talk about a stress-free, if not fat-free, way to roll).
Show me your city, I had asked of him. Now I'm about to return the favor. The locals are the key to any city. Wherever they are, that's probably where you should be too.
When I shot down to New Orleans for this month's cover story, this was the approach I took. Forget about the famous name places that anyone can find in a travel book. Talk to kooky natives. Find some characters. Wander into strange places and have unplanned adventures. Eat something you'd normally refuse.
Is there an easier city to accomplish these goals other than New Orleans? Just being awake and mobile gets you halfway there. As I trekked down unfamiliar streets and got thoroughly lost in strange neighborhoods, I realized just how alike Memphis and the Big Easy are. We both have had some odd mayoral activity and strange weather occurrences. We have our ghosts, they theirs. We are both rich in music and food and history and culture, yet poverty is rampant. We are both urban and gritty and funky and perhaps even a little crazy. But that's what makes places like New Orleans, the "last living nineteenth-century city," and Memphis, the Bluff City, the home of rock-and-roll, on and on, so different from Anytown, USA.
I'm a local, so I know. I just hope the Yanks can handle it.