You know those things people rave about but actually seem super ridiculous to those who just don’t get it? Like The Bachelor or picking your own apples or all that pumpkin spice bullshit, for example? I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m guilty of it, too. I’ll ramble on about hypnotherapy and how Jurassic Park is one of the most insightful works of fiction of the 20th century to anyone who’s too drunk to get up and walk away from me. Well, Memphis is one of those things.
I will swear to you that a long weekend in Memphis, Tennessee will be one of the best you’ve ever had but to the casual observer* it may seem like I’ve just been drinking too much maple flavored whiskey (seriously, stop it with this nonsense). It’s no secret, even to those who live there—Memphis, Tennessee is weird. It’s a place that needs to be experienced to be understood. A city that needs to be lived in to be loved. And sometimes, a place that needs to be seen to be believed.
* “Yeah, I drove through Memphis once on the way to [insert any city in America].”
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE IS WEIRD.
Memphis, Tennessee is weird and I know that… now. For the first 82% of my life (I did the math—see? Weird.) I was a blissfully ignorant Memphian who never gave even a second of consideration to the fact that I was spending my childhood inside a giant pyramid. And what do you mean your town doesn’t have an alien from outer space running for mayor? Do you even politics, bro?
Having left the state of Tennessee for ruder pastures, I get it now. (If I had a beard I would stroke it knowingly. I’d most likely also dye it funky rainbow colors and bedazzle it with the same sequin hair barrettes I use all over the cat I walk around on a leash because MEMPHIS.) Not all hotels keep ducks in the lobby. Other cities boast celebrity residents that aren’t former professional wrestlers. No one, anywhere, even knows that Memphis, Egypt is an actual place.
Though I can’t call Memphis home anymore (😭), I still visit once a year for my freak fix—my annual dose of WTF and fried chicken. This year, I teamed up with my fave rental car company (at the Nashville airport), E-Z Rent-A-Car, to make the rounds about town and show you some of the Memphis oddities my life would absolutely be empty without. And to make generous excuses for all of them.
YES, WE HAVE A GIANT PYRAMID.
The Pyramid with a capital P—it was just something I grew up thinking was your everyday architectural landmark, not unlike a skyscraper or your run-of-the-mill gateway arch. It wasn’t until someone from the outside world asked me, “What the hell is that?” that I realized maybe it wasn’t normal to see an Egyptian pyramid in the American South. I still responded, “Umm, it’s a pyramid? Ya know… ’cause this is Memphis?,” fully convinced I was stating the obvious. Turns out—brace yourself—not everyone knows that Memphis was actually the ancient capital city of Aneb-Hetch in Egypt. Ergo, pyramid. But don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that, I even confused a MAN FROM EGYPT with this information recently which is—like my Dominican friends who know more about American history than I do having recently completed their citizenship tests—a damn shame.
For your information, Memphis, Egypt was one of the oldest and most important cities in ancient Egypt and located right on the Nile River near the Giza plateau, an area famous for its pyramids. Memphis, Tennessee is not even in the top 10 oldest cities in Tennessee but is located right on the Mississippi River, in an area famous for BBQ sandwiches and overnight shipping. Back in the 3,000s BC the ancient Egyptian city was known by the name of Men-nefer (“the enduring and beautiful”) and was translated by the Greeks into Memphis. A gazillion years later John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson seized the opportunity to one-up those jerks in the newly formed Cairo, Illinois and named their new city Memphis in hopes of it one day being the seat of great kings and whatever the opposite of the Beale Street Flippers is.
As fate would have it, we did eventually get our very own pyramid—a 1991 construction project I actually remember—whose initial concept would have excited many an ancient ruler. Now it excites rednecks and other camouflage enthusiasts the South over. It was initially built as a 20,000-seat sports + entertainment arena and over the years was used by the Memphis State University-turned-University of Memphis basketball team, the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, and some Church of God in Christ “international holy convocations” because this is the Bible Belt and nothing says “intimate relationship with God” like a church service in a 20,000-seat basketball arena known as the Tomb of Doom.
The Pyramid also played host to various concerts and events including the 4th priciest boxing match in history between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson in his last heavyweight fight–a fight out-banking even the infamous 1997 match when Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear to the tune of $100 million. Years later I served beers and hot wings to Evander Holyfield at a bar in downtown Memphis and made less than $20. #incomeinequality The Pyramid, appropriately, also served as the home of the short-lived Memphis Pharaohs of the Arena Football League–so if you take away anything from this post, let it be: “be careful what you wish for.”
After almost a decade of sitting unused, the Pyramid has been reincarnated into something wholly new and unforeseen: the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop. Hey, you wanted far-reaching notoriety, you got it. What must you have done in your past life to deserve this, P? Regardless, as a (almost) lifelong Memphian, I’m glad the building is once again serving a purpose, even if that purpose is duck decoys and bottles of buck urine.
The Pyramid isn’t Memphis’s only tribute to its Egyptian namesake though. There’s actually a whole pyramid scheme, if you will. In 1985 the University of Memphis opened its Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology with Mrs. Jehan Sadat, widow of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, as the inaugural ceremony’s guest speaker. I visited this museum once as part of a class assignment so clearly I can’t tell you a single thing about it.
In 1987, Memphis experienced its single largest tourist attraction in the city’s history when the exhibition of Ramesses the Great came to town straight from Memphis, Egypt. I don’t think I visited this exhibition personally (I was too busy learning the fundamentals of basic arithmetic and single-file line-forming at the time) but it did play a significant role in my childhood having had parents that wore their matching Ramesses the Great sweatshirts quite often. A couple years later when the Pyramid was built, a replica statue of Ramesses II was constructed and placed outside of it in an ever-growing attempt to stay true to our roots… of wanting badly to be regal and exotic. He now stands tall on the campus of the University of Memphis, just as the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Eddie Murphy would have wanted. Do you remember the time?
In 1990 the Memphis Zoo began a continuing-to-this-day series of upgrades and renovations with a new front gate and entry plaza in the style of the motherland. Imposing columns, an obelisk, bold colors, and a bunch of statues we used to get in so much trouble for climbing on during school field trips are just the start of the Egyptian references. When you see the animal-shaped chicken nuggets in the café you’ll be like “WHOA—just like in the history books, man!”
Now I didn’t know this before I started researching for this article, but the Memphis Zoo’s Egyptian-style façade was no mere conceptual whim. It’s based on actual historical writings and leftover ruins, which is also how they came up with the design for your local White Castle if I’m not mistaken. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away in northern Africa, the Great Temple of Ptah stood in the city of Memphis as one of the three most prominent places of worship in Ancient Egypt. Ramesses II was there; Magic Johnson was not. Little is known about the Great Temple save for the appearance of its main entrance which, thanks to artist rendering, we know looks like… (drumroll please)
WHAT! I mean… WHAT! I wonder if little Egyptian children used to get smacked for disobeying their teachers and climbing on those sphinx out front. Sphinxes?
WE TREAT OUR WATERFOWL LIKE ROCKEFELLERS.
Speaking of duck decoys—as happens so often in casual Tennessee conversation—how about the real thing instead? What started out as a joke between a couple of drunk dudes became an ongoing tradition of keeping live ducks in the fountain of the lobby of the nicest thing we have in Memphis—the Peabody Hotel.
Back in 1933, the then-owners of the Peabody Hotel were drunk after a hunting trip and thought it would be funny to put their live duck decoys in the hotel’s fountain. (I don’t understand the concept of ‘live’ duck decoys either so don’t ask.) Well no one actually thought it was funny—they thought it was fucking hilarious which means, as any parent of toddlers will tell you, they kept on doing it. And here we are in 2017 with “see the Peabody Ducks” among TripAdvisor’s top 10 things to do in Memphis. You’re welcome, every other city people were thinking about visiting instead.
Each morning the ducks take the elevator down from their PENTHOUSE SUITE and walk a red carpet to the fountain where they spend their days swimming, sleeping, and pooping just a short distance away from a restaurant with more bottles of wine over $1000 than I have fingers on my right hand. I’ll give it to ‘em though—they’ve not once had duck on the menu. At 5 p.m. the ducks walk the red carpet back to the elevator and up to their–I don’t know if you heard me the first time–PENTHOUSE. SUITE.
OUR BUFFALO ROAM SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CITY.
A herd of buffalo in a park in the middle of the city has always been as commonplace for me as, say, an ice skating rink in the middle of a shopping mall or a double-decker carousel… in the middle of a shopping mall. But when I tell visiting friends or that guy I married who tells me on a weekly basis, “Memphis, Tennessee is weird.” that I want to drive by and see the buffalo, I always get a “huh???”
Yes, we have a herd of buffalo roaming through Shelby Farms—one of the country’s largest urban parks. Also roaming through Shelby Farms? A couple of stoned guys looking for their Frisbee golf Frisbees and me, taking pictures of squirrels. The herd is made up of about 25 American Bison with babies being born each spring. They’re cared for by park rangers and large animal veterinarians and have been ever since 1989, when Penny Hardaway was just a junior at Treadwell High School and I was busy eating Pronto Pups* at Chicks** games.
* Because my husband says no one knows what a Pronto Pup is, it’s a corndog.
** Something else I should probably clarify, I’m referring to the Memphis Chicks – minor league baseball team for the Kansas City Royals who were at one point in time called the Memphis Egyptians. ⇠ Well, whadya know!
A handful of generations ago buffalo freely roamed what would later become the Dirty South until they became extinct in the area in the late 1700s. Two hundred years later Shelby Farms superintendent Tommy Hill would bring six American Bison to the park in an effort to restore once thriving buffalo populations. Six. Out of what was once a herd of 30-60 million. Totally. Counts. Besides, it only takes one baby buffalo to turn me into a blubbering puddle of mush.
WE HANG OUT IN HAUNTED OLD BROTHELS.
Memphis, Tennessee is weird, sure, but Massachusetts is weirder. When I moved here I was struck by many differences—the accent, the weather, the gargantuan size of both the seagulls and of people’s iced coffees—the saddest of these being the alcohol situation. I worked at a bar in Boston next to Fenway Park where a man ordered a double Jack & Coke—I was immediately told by management, “We’re not allowed to serve doubles in Massachusetts.” Someone else ordered a shot of something—I was immediately told by management, “We’re not allowed to serve shots after the 7th inning.” To which I promptly told management—“BUT THIS ISN’T THE BASEBALL STADIUM.”
Another time I was at a bar in Boston inquiring about their drink specials—“We’re not allowed to have drink specials in Massachusetts.” Among all that, Happy Hour is not a thing here, you can’t drink on a patio unless you order dinner, and bars close before you even get the chance to get a decent buzz on. Can’t we negotiate here? Give me $2 margarita pitchers on a patio that’s open ‘til 5 a.m. and you can have your legalized recreational marijuana. Keep your clam chowdah and your Matt Damon and gimme my beer in a plastic cup to-go, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
It’s times like these that I yearn for the days of chillin’ in an old whore’s bathtub with a $1 bottle of High Life, watching the sun come up and realizing I have just two hours before I have to be back at work, while my BFF pees in the toilet next to me. If you’ve spent any amount of time in the South Main area of downtown Memphis, you’re nodding your head in agreement right now and you don’t find that statement the least bit alarming.
Earnestine & Hazel’s is a dive bar if there ever was one. To be honest, I remember shockingly (not so shockingly) little about my nights here. I mostly remember eating the one and only thing they serve–the Soul Burger–and being scared shitless because I’m terrified of any place that people use the word “haunted” to describe. It’s been featured in a ton of movies–like that time Legolas visited on the recommendation of Marie Antoinette–and is often visited by celebrities.
The building has endured many life changes, going from a church to a pharmacy, then from a jazz café to a brothel–so, roughly the route taken by Charlie Sheen each Sunday afternoon–and it looks as though a piece of each has stuck around. How the penguin fits into all this, I haven’t a clue. As with most places in Memphis, what would be immediately renovated each time or even condemned in other cities is celebrated here. Our city motto should be, “What? It gives it character.”
If you didn’t believe this joint was haunted based on these photos, read this article. Preferably not alone in your house like I just did.
OUR MOST PERSISTENT MAYORAL CANDIDATE IS AN ALIEN.
I don’t mean he’s from another country; I mean he’s from another planet. The planet of Zambodia, to be exact. Now I’m not all that into politics and part of that is because I believe all politicians to be bozos. Having grown up with an actual loon running for mayor year after year perfectly illustrates my point. I realize the purpose of this post was to explain some of the weirdness of my home city but this one I just can’t. I don’t think there’s a soul on Earth that can explain away Prince Mongo. He’s a nut job—the universe (apparently) is full of them.
Prince Mongo, as he’s known, will be the first to tell you he’s an alien from the planet Zambodia and he’s 333 years old – and has been every year since he started answering questions for reporters. He calls people “Spirits” and over the decades has owned a number of bars and nightclubs around Memphis – none of which, in true Memphis fashion, have been properly condemned, renovated, or even given a fresh coat of paint. He never wears shoes, he used to keep coffins and old toilets in the front yard of his home which is trash even by Tennessee standards, he claims to have hit a golf ball so hard it caught fire (samesies!), his campaign slogan is “Why Not?”, but, and this is the worst of all, the guy is a millionaire. Actually, it sounds like he’s perfect for politics.
What? It gives it character.
Like this post?
Sign up here to get fresh posts + the MWL monthly newsletter full of behind the scenes travel and blogging updates ⇢ straight to your inbox!