“You can always order more,” he says slowly, surely and calmly. Worried about having just the right amount of Memphis barbecue, I was quickly assured to settle down. There is also more to be had.
The streets of Memphis seem deserted, until you round the corner to go to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. Turn down into the unsuspecting alley and a whole crowd is waiting to sink their teeth into Rendezvous’ famous charcoal-broiled pork ribs. I am no different as I grab a seat at the bar upstairs to wait with the masses for a table. It all began in 1948 when Charlie Vergos decided to convert his diner’s basement into some of the city’s best barbecue with the miraculous discovery of a coal chute. Presidents and the King himself have all dined below Memphis for the ribs and Greek hospitality in the Deep South.
“Buffalo or Ram?”, the bartender says with the most stern of faces as he examines my I.D. He is referring to college football and testing if I am really 21 and from Colorado. I say neither. Clearly he isn’t in touch with Colorado football. Being in the South, it is mostly college football country, but in Colorado, the majority of people care only about the Broncos. He hands me back my I.D., forever suspicious of my intentions.
Finally my name is called. I’m not a buffalo, ram or bronco. I can only think about one animal. I order up Rendezvous’ famous charcoal broiled pork ribs. With its dry rub seasoning, I realize the best barbecue does not need a sauce. Coupled with beans and slaw, when in Memphis, even if you must face intense questioning to get your pork and beer, you must order up some barbecue.
With a bursting stomach, I take to the streets of Memphis to walk off some of those ribs now clinging to my stomach. I don’t walk long once I find the city’s old streetcars. Memphis has three streetcar routes that go by way of authentic vintage trolley cars. Harking back to Memphis’ past, you can take the Main Street Trolley, the Madison Avenue Route or the Riverfront Loop for a different taste of the city besides barbecue. Adorning bright pinks and purples and more subdued greens, the rickety cars can be heard long before they arrive.
I take the Riverfront Loop, a 2.5 mile long circle with views of the Mississippi River for the heft price of just $1. I mostly take in the views from within the old timey streetcar. Even after the car has made its loop, I notice most of the riders are just along for the ride. They don’t have a destination. Their destination is a wooden seat on the streetcar.
I quickly discover all of Memphis is either within Rendezvous or on Beale Street, the city’s equivalent to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Police keep watch on the debauchery and even serve as photographer to a couple or two.
The next morning, I realize I don’t have time to visit Elvis Presley’s Graceland, his over the top mansion. Leaving the tour for another time in Memphis, I do have the time to wander through the National Civil Rights Museum. Set up in the Lorraine Motel, the museum details the struggle for African American freedom. The museum can be found in the motel for it was on the balcony of room 306 that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The 1950s exterior is still in tact, along with two cars of the era. Within the museum, you can see two of the rooms preserved to look as they did when Martin Luther King Jr. checked in to 306. I pause within that very room and you can sense a presence, a struggle. Unfinished business is in the air, the business of equality and freedom.
Memphis falls right on the border with Tennessee and Arkansas. Its history has been long linked with the penning of blues, the recording the first bars of Elvis Presley and barbecued pork. It has also been a place of change, of strife and pilgrimage. You can feel the past, present and future of Memphis, mostly from the drooping wooden paneled window of an antique streetcar.
Have you been to Memphis?