Part 3 of a Real Southern Men Adventure
Welcome back to our tale of how RSM Kris Wheeler and I took Beale Street by storm as we attended Elvis Week. When last we checked in, we had just left the Cedar, shabby home of the premiere Elvis collectibles show. From there, we headed back to our downtown hotel, freshened up and made our way to Beale Street, camera in hand, for some EOTSs (Elvis-on-the-street interviews).
We grabbed some shots of the new-ish Main Street Mall, a pedestrian-only area in the heart of downtown lined by shops and cafes in historic buildings. I say pedestrian only, because there was no car traffic allowed. However there were street cars and horse-drawn carriages. Therefore you can feel safe strolling down the thoroughfare … as long as you avoid being killed by a small train or stepping in horse “exhaust.” How very 19th century. Looking past the quaint shops and eateries, I begin to see Main Street Mall for what it really is: one of those urban renewal projects that is seen as a great idea by outsiders, but probably viewed as an expensive flop by locals because of the overwhelming number of empty storefronts.
Before and after Main Street, we shot the happenings at the Orpheum Theatre, which was hosting the finals of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest. I expected to see a crowd of mostly older men and women – people old enough to have seen Elvis in concert. Instead, I saw a steady stream of young and old, but mostly young. Beautiful young women dolled up in their finest, accompanying their mothers to the social event of the summer were the norm. There were a few men, most of whom boasted some sort of Elvisness on their person, be it the chops, a t-shirt of the King or a replica TCB necklace like Elvis’ band and inner circle would wear.
A few yards away, a Japanese family gathered around Elvis’ statue for photos. I’d like to tell you they traveled all the way from Japan to do this, but I think I overheard some very Southern accents in their conversations. Oh, well … just pretend I didn’t tell you that part and stick with the hyperbole of folks traveling from half a world away.
We meet a couple of Elvises down in the thick of things on Beale. The first is a short, somewhat roundish guy from Rockford, Illinois who calls himself “Johnny Ace.” His high-pitched voice, genial demeanor and willingness to debase himself by wearing a full Elvis jumpsuit and bad wig in a crowd this size reminds of someone. Didn’t the infamous “Chicken George” from season one of Big Brother also hail from Rockford? (Later, at the hotel, I compared images of the two men, which were inconclusive. A business card from Johnny Ace with his real name on it, however, settled the matter. He was no Chicken.)
The second of our pair of initial Elvi was a guy from “New Yawk.” Neither of these guys sounded anything like The King. Through the course of interviewing a number of Elvi over the weekend, many of them tell us they started down this strange, jumpsuited path because someone in their life told them they looked like Elvis. Yet none of these men looked alike. This led me to wonder: has anyone ever actually seen a picture of Elvis? Sideburns, a pompadour and a jumpsuit aren’t enough. The guy was tall, charismatic and had cheekbones like some kind of chiseled Greek god. Sorry, guys, but very few people in this life look anything like Elvis … and none of you do.
With enough material in the can for one night and being completely exhausted from our 5:30 am departure from Birmingham, we called it a night. We got back to the restaurant just as a sever thunderstorm bore down on Memphis. We put away the cameras and retired to the hotel restaurant for a night cap. Said restaurant was a TGI Friday’s and was packed to the rafters. That’s when the evening got really interesting.
Before I go any further, you should know this about Kris Wheeler: black women love him. I mean LOOOOVE him. I don’t know what it is, but they hang on his every word and flirt with him like nobody’s business.
On our way into Friday’s, we encountered a group of lovely African-American ladies. They had made the drive up from Tunica, Mississippi with the hopes of having an evening out on Beale. The thunderstorm sent them indoors. By the time they got a table, they had been waiting three hours. At TGI Friday’s. Take a moment and let the absurdity of that wash over you. Kris would check in with these ladies periodically over the course of the evening to upbraid them for not saving him a seat. They loved every second of it.
We found a couple of seats at the bar. A lady beside me announced as we sat down that she had better go “before she stayed too long,” intimating that her libations had put her in an unusually good mood. She was supposed to rise early the next morning to hand out water to runners at the Elvis 5K.
“I won’t do anybody any good if I’m hung over,” she said. I suggested she shouldn’t worry so much about it and that a well-loaded water gun would suffice. If the runner’s failed to catch the water in their mouths, they’d only have themselves to blame. Testing the limits of her good mood, I asked my new friend if I could borrow some money. She agreed. Alas, she left before we could come to terms on the amount.
About that time a rough-looking gentleman had a seat beside Kris. And I’m using the word “gentleman” so loosely as to strain credulity. This guy was a mess. It was only later that Kris informed me the man had been kick off Beale Street before wandering over to Friday’s. I don’t know what one has to do to be kicked off an entire city street. I don’t want to know.
Over the next half hour or so, I heard loud, guttural utterances coming from the man, all aimed at Kris. Rather than brushing the guy off, Kris chose to match him grunt for grunt, look for look.
“Look me in my eye!” the man demanded of Kris, cocking his head to one side and leaning toward him.
“I’m looking you in the eye,” Kris replied jovially.
“No, look me in my eye!” he repeated, craning his neck at an awkward cant. “You gotta mean it. From the heart!” Kris mimicked the head tilt, which seemed to satisfy the man. I’m still not sure how Kris decided which eye to look into, since one was staring at the ceiling and the other the floor. Somehow, he made it work.
Kris excused himself, leaving me with no protection from the man, who seemed to be teetering on the very edge of sanity. First he tried to get my seat so he could harass a couple of lovely young ladies beside me. He’d already made some remarks to them earlier, earning their scorn. (He’d also tried to come on to a couple of blondes at the other end of the bar only to be informed that they were lesbians. A large friend of theirs bowed up like a cutworm on a tomato vine, and the man backed down.)
“I don’t think these ladies would like that very much,” I told the man. Fortunately, he didn’t shiv me right then and there, but instead returned to his seat. Then something worse than a shivving happened: he started talking to me. It was loud in the bar, and we were a good six feet apart, so I could only make out every fourth word or so of his drunken ramblings.
We watched some ESPN, and he commented on the NFL pre-season. I’m usually really bad at small talk, but if it keeps me from getting shivved, I’m good.
“I’ve been a Steelers fan,” he growled, “Since I come out my mama’s–”
I can’t go any further with that sentence. Suffice it to say the man belted out a certain P-word with more ferocity and volume than should ever happen, especially in a crowded restaurant. Taken aback, I could only half smirk and turn back to the TV. Clearly this was the wrong reaction. He bellowed the word again.
“My mama’s [redacted]! I came out my mama’s [redacted]! [Redacted]! [Redacted]! I came out my mama’s [redacted]!”
Please, God, make it stop.
“First one out!” he added. And here I didn’t even know it was a race. “I’m the oldest.”
Trying to bring civility back to the situation, I asked how many brothers and sisters he had. One of each, it turns out.
“My mama had three babies from the same man,” he boasted.
“I’m the only one,” I replied. “Only child.” This struck him like a blow to the gut.
“Damn!” He studied his drink with one eye, the TV with the other. “Damn! I got to think about that …”
Kris soon returned and I bolted for my hotel room. Our friend at the bar was soon ejected for harassing the other customers. We never saw him again.
Join us next time for more insane adventures from Graceland. It only gets crazier from here …
And to see a little of the footage that necessitated this madness, check out Duke & The King on Kickstarter.