Memphis has the Blues


The Pyramid – Formerly an arena and convention center. Now, believe it or not – A Bass Pro Shops Superstore

Memphis, Tennessee is, to me, a disappointment. It is unfortunate to come to this conclusion because, you see, I love Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis has so much to offer. It has all the things I dearly love.

There is interesting geography. It sits in a stately way high up on a bluff overlooking the mightiest part of the mightiest river in the world. And their biggest Mississippi River bridge is named after explorer Hernando de Soto. That’s pretty cool, right?

It has history. Sun studios, right downtown, has pictures of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the same photo. To borrow a joke from comedian Rich Hall, “If you were a religious scholar, that would be the equivalent of having Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and ….. Carl Perkins in the same picture.”

And Memphis has Food (and yes that is a capital F). There is barbecue and more barbecue and catfish and fried chicken and sweet potato pie and fried okra and did I mention barbecue. There are very few places on this planet where I can say that I never ate anything I didn’t like. Memphis is one.

I have watched school kids doing gymnastics in the street down on Beale. I have ridden the monorail over to Mud Island. I have walked the whole length of the coolest thing a geography buff can imagine (a scale model of the Mississippi River a hundred yards long). I have stood on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in the very spot where Martin Luther King was cut down and was overwhelmed with the intensity of the place. I have walked along the riverfront and watched as the Mississippi Queen hove into sight and docked right in front of me. I have ridden the antique trolley cars down Main Street and up the riverfront to the giant gleaming pyramid (bigger than at least the little ones at Giza.) I have eaten at BB King’s and the Blues Cafe, and the Flying Fish, and Gus’s and Interstate and Corky’s and ……..yes, even the Crazy Canuck. And I have walked past St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital which I think you must concede is about the greatest goddamn place in the world considering how many kids they help every year free of charge.

So what is there to be disappointed about when you are in Memphis? After all, you can tour the Gibson guitar factory. You can listen to live blues every night of the year down on Beale Street. If you are prone to historical self-flagellation you can visit the Cotton Museum and relive the bad old days when slavery was a fact of life and cotton was more valuable than human beings. You can go to a city park named for the First Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps go see the toilet Elvis died on (okay, actually they won’t let you see that, although they will let you gawk at the rest of his house and click photos of his grave with your iPhone). And after the guilt and shame there is, of course, barbecue. So why do I love Walkin’ in Memphis and yet, sometimes hate Walkin’ in Memphis.

It’s because I’m sometimes scared of Walkin’ in Memphis. Memphis is beautiful and historical and thought-provoking and, yes, tasty. But it is also dirty and gritty and in-your-face and yes, scary. I do not walk around Memphis at night unless it is with a group and then only those couple of blocks from the hotel to Beale Street. And though I do sometimes walk around alone in the daytime I am, more often than not, ill at ease. I have walked and ridden busses all over downtown Chicago and I have walked the length of Manhattan from China Town to Central Park but in almost no other city I have visited have I been so circumspect simply walking around.

I recognize that I am a panhandler magnet. There is something about my goofy red face that screams “he’s a sucker, he’ll give you a dollar.” And I have dealt with panhandlers from Ottawa, Ontario to Key West Florida (and by dealt with I mean that I gave them a dollar.) But I have never been aggressively followed down the street for blocks by a panhandler in any other city. I did a bit of research and discovered that Memphis has been “battling” these spangers (spare change artists) for years with almost no progress.

A Memphis blogger who lives downtown has documented numerous strategies these panhandlers use to coerce and if necessary threaten passers-by into giving money. There are the squeegee-men who wash your windows at a stoplight and then demand payment. New York famously cracked down on their squeegee-men and made great headway on their panhandler problem. There are the “fake parking attendants” who “charge” drivers to park in metered downtown spots. There is the “tour-guide” gimmick where a panhandler offers to lead tourists around the downtown area to local sights or restaurants and then demands payment once they arrive.

I encountered a version of this scam with my crew on an overnight in Memphis last year. The large middle-aged man hailed us as we walked up the street and told us he was an official ambassador for the city of Memphis appointed by the chamber of commerce and that he was assigned to help tourists navigate the downtown area. When we refused his services he immediately dropped the charade and cursed at us. There was even a young woman, probably early twenties, who came up to us with a clipboard and said she was authorized by the Peabody Hotel to solicit donations for her girls soccer team who was raising money for a trip to New York. As part of her well-rehearsed spiel she said that she understood that there were a lot of panhandlers in downtown Memphis and that I could see her ID and letter of permission from the Peabody if I wanted. When I said that I would like to see those documents she cursed mildly and stormed away.

But worse than the “ambassador” and the “fundraiser” are the aggressive “bums” who demand money and, if you do not give it, will follow you down the street verbally assaulting you and sometimes invading your personal space.

So what is a good bleeding-heart liberal to think about a place like Memphis. “Round ‘em up and lock ‘em up” just doesn’t appeal to me as a solution to the problems that come with poverty and disadvantage. But, on the other hand, don’t honest, law-abiding folks have the right not to be afraid while walking down the streets where they must live and work and hopefully play?

My research has led me to believe that we must make a distinction here. Despite our intuitive response the fact is that the homeless as a rule, are not panhandlers and panhandlers, as a rule, are not the homeless. The old man I wrote about lying on the street in Philadelphia is not in the same Venn Diagram circle as the able-bodied young “grifter” who tried to “show” me around Memphis. People who have looked into this conundrum have found that most of these con artists have a home, even sometimes driving into town to run their scams.

These panhandlers are criminals. Their activity is very little different, and is actually akin to, the ponzi scheme of a scumbag like Bernie Madoff. Their crime is worse, perhaps, than Madoff’s because they poison the natural instinct to kindness and charity that we all feel.

There are truly people out there, like the homeless man on the streets of Philadelphia, who desperately need our help. The aggressive panhandlers of Memphis are a different breed. They deserve our scorn not our dollar. The Memphis blogger who has devoted his time to this problem recommends making your donations to organized charities who run soup kitchens and rehabilitation programs in Memphis and other cities. This seems like a logical approach.

I would not discourage you from visiting Memphis. As I have illustrated there is a lot here to see and do and appreciate. Just visiting the Loraine Motel and nearby Civil Rights Museum is something every American should do. But, as an amateur tour guide (a free one) I would offer the following advice; go during the daytime, walk around in a group, stay at a nice hotel, and use your powers of discernment to avoid the scammers and help the truly needy. There is a difference.


by: Dustin Joy