A new Memphian offers novices and oldtimers the keys to our city.
My bride-to-be and I couldn't have been happier with our new apartment — spacious, elegant, overlooking Overton Park. We loved the classic cosmopolitan feeling, the crown molding, and the shiny hardwood floors. We stood admiring our park view when a crowd began to gather down below. Soon, police cars sped onto the scene with sirens blazing. Seems check-in day for us was someone else's time to check out. Welcome to Memphis!
I'm no Vance Lauderdale. I've lived around the Mid-South, somewhat sporadically, for the past six years, and in Memphis for the past two. There are no streets here that carry my name (unlike many of our long-time readers) and I'm the only Lauterbach in the phone book. I've married a fourth-generation Memphian who made it clear to me that I had a lot to learn about my new hometown. The process of becoming a Memphian begins, according to her, with baptism by "Joe's special" chocolate milkshake at Wiles-Smith Drugstore. After that, things get a bit more complicated.
I have, however, learned a few shortcuts to getting things done around town that might even help someone of old Vance's depth of Memphian knowledge. I'll be sure to tell him that too, as soon as I get back from picking his cloaks up at the dry cleaner.
Car & Driver
The new Department of Motor Vehicles location at 2714 Union Avenue Extended, 452-7148, opened December 15, 2006. It fills a huge need for the Memphians who don't live in Whitehaven or the northeast corner of the city. It's a full-service DMV, and until now was the city's best-kept secret. Short lines, brief wait times, and convenience make this the place to take your teenager for that driving test, geriatric parent for that license renewal test, or to pick up your new license card in person. Sorry, you can't keep the old picture.
You may renew your license online at www.tennesseeanytime.org, a site that also enables you to renew certain professional licenses, apply for state jobs, and request vital records.
The downtown motor vehicle inspection station can be a breeze if you hit it at the right time of day. I recently went to pay for my tag renewal before having the vehicle inspected (or even knowing it was necessary), so don't bother showing up at the county clerk's office bright and early if you haven't run through a vehicle inspection station. Getting through both experiences with minimal discomfort hinges on that last phrase: bright and early.
Though the city has three motor vehicle inspection stations, the 590 Washington Avenue location is four blocks east of the Shelby County Clerk's Office at 150 Washington, where you'll need to proceed for license tags, vehicle registration, and new stickers following your inspection. There are seven other locations around the city for vehicle registration, though none offers the proximity to the inspection station you can find downtown. Visit www.shelbycountytn.gov for other locations.
Home Sweet Home
Utility activation is a part of the myriad services of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, (not to mention entertainment, thanks to all the shenanigans taking place at our city's utility company). To activate your accounts, or report problems with them, call 820-7878 or visit www.mlgw.com.
You have multiple choices for telephone service, though most of us end up with BellSouth (888) 757-6500 or Comcast 369-5055. Ditto for Internet hook-ups. The challenge will be figuring out how to call one before having said service engaged.
The Shelby County Assessor of Property compiles property values, square footage, construction dates, and can tell you what a realtor might not reveal in your home search. You can also find out what your friends, coworkers, and neighbors paid for their houses, and even see a satellite photo of your property at www.assessor.shelby.tn.gov.
Building permits are obtained through the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, 576-6601 and www.dpdgov.com. Permits are issued only to building owners before any construction, addition, or demolition.
Be sure to check with your neighborhood association for other rules. The national website Neighborhood Link can help you find yours, or help you start your own: www.neighborhoodlink.com.
For online payment of speeding and parking tickets, visit www.epayments.cityofmemphis.org. You'll go to a page that requests your name, license number, and ticket number, before paying by debit or credit card.
The "city services" menu at www.memphistn.gov facilitates driver's license renewal and payment of property taxes, amid other services. It hosts the non-emergency online support center where citizens can report a variety of civic blights, from rats, potholes, abandoned vehicles, and busted traffic signals to excessive yard sales, also known as fencing stolen property. You must register online before logging a complaint.
The "city services" menu additionally holds answers to questions we hope to never have occasion to ask. Where do I call to inquire about an individual who has been arrested? The Shelby County sheriff, 545-5660. My next-door neighbor keeps between 25-30 cats in a cage behind his/her home. Is this okay? Call Shelby County Animal Services, 362-5310. They can also send someone out to look into that pack of stray dogs running through your neighborhood. Sure, that happens in every city. Really. They'll tell you in a most reassuring tone, "Due to the intermittent nature of stray dogs, it is not unusual that several attempts may be needed to resolve the problem." Intermittent nature. Sounds like they've done some research.
The "city services" site is a not-so-user-friendly blend of PDFs and HTML, but the information is all there.
In case you're not keeping up with local news, the Memphis Police Department has enough to do without your calling them about your lost cat. The non-emergency line 545-COPS (2677) handles everything that isn't a current, threatening situation. MPD urges the use of 911 only in situations of active violence or intrusion. If someone is breaking into your house, call 911. If you go out to your car in the morning to drive to work only to find your tires slashed, call the non-emergency line. And your boss.
I, too, thought that my right to suffrage as an American citizen was guaranteed in the Constitution, but what the founding fathers fail to mention is that you must register before voting. Any public library is the way to go, though you may also register when picking up your inaugural Tennessee driver's license. The Shelby County Election Commission website www.shelbyvote.com directs you on the hows and wheres, provides absentee ballot request forms, and locates your precinct.
Those desirous of a run at public office must file a petition in person downtown at the election commission office at 157 Poplar Avenue, Suite 109, just half a block from where you might end up after your election. The friendly, knowledgeable staff can advise you on which offices sit vacant, which are up for election, and even provide you with an assessment of your chances of winning certain races. I, for instance, was directed toward the upcoming Arlington Board of Aldermen race, rather than the city mayoral campaign. Was it something I said?
Birth and death certificates are available through the Health Department, and may be requested over the phone, 544-7600, or in person at 814 Jefferson Avenue. In either case, an $8 fee must be submitted along with a photocopy of your identification.
For other public records, search the excellent Shelby County Register of Deeds website at www.register.shelby.tn.us for current property deeds and a range of historical information. The site displays death records dating 50 years or older, and documents pertaining to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If you think that your trashcan has been unjustly skipped for a weekly emptying, call Solid Waste Management, 576-6722. The department has a supervisor in your neighborhood on pickup day, and they should address the oversight immediately. For more information about garbage and recycling services, including a list of recycling drop-off locations, visit www.memphiswaste.org.
Downed power lines, gas leaks, or burst water pipes at home, or in the street? Call MLGW at 544-6549. A busted fire hydrant is the Fire Department's issue, so call the fire hydrant repairs division at 320-5351.
Speaking of fire prevention, the Memphis Fire Museum coordinates the fire department's free smoke detector installation program. They'll also provide a free smoke detector inspection at your home. Both services are subject to availability, so call the museum at 320-5650 for more information.
For time, weather, and news on the latest fried-fish creation at Captain D's — commercials really are everywhere — dial Jam-Jam-1 or 526-5261.
Marriage licenses can be obtained, no less than 30 days in advance of the wedding date, at 150 Washington Avenue downtown, Millington City Hall at 7930 Nelson, or 1075 Mullins Station Road. No blood test required! The next step might take you to the Graceland wedding chapel (800) 238-2010, or, depending on the circumstances leading to your nuptials, you may prefer Ministers in a Minute, a mobile minister service, to provide a clergyman at a moment's notice, 754-4700 and www.ministersinaminute.com. Shotgun not included.
Be a Tourist in Your Town
Now that you're hooked up and legal, take some time to explore the Bluff City. Our eclectic museums and attractions need you. All Memphis museum operators say that they see far more foreign tourists than they do Memphians. Visiting our own local museums reminds us not only of our heritage — all bloody and glorious — but also of our reputation around the world as a city like no other. You'll see people from all nationalities and cultures touring the city and you realize what a special place we live in.
Through our museums, you can trace the city's development from an Indian village on the bluffs of the Mississippi, to cotton capital, music mecca, and civil rights battleground, all within a mile and a half, from the banks of the river to 706 Union Avenue.
We'll start our hometown tourist trip where it all began, and flow through our city's story from there.
Mud Island River Park. The fact that this place was named Mud Island — and it stuck — is pretty delightful. I'm guessing that Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane was not consulted. It sounds susceptible to flooding, and perhaps not all that inhabitable. According to writer Shields McIlwaine in the classic 1948 cultural history Memphis Down in Dixie, a shantytown of scrap and cardboard huts once occupied the strip.
The Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island is a must-see. Visitors can take the shortest monorail ride ever, or a walk over the bridge at 125 N. Main Street. You may also sleep under the stars next to the mighty Mississipp' on the second Friday of each month between April and October, though I think April or October would offer a more humane experience than any of the months between.
Mud Island also offers Mississippi River canoe excursions and a miniature replica of the entire river that you can splash around in.
The museum takes you as close as you're likely to get to the legends of the Big Muddy. The exhibit begins with a 7th-grade social studies brush-up on DeSoto, LaSalle, and Marquette and Joliet. It's a wonder the river doesn't run blood red with the centuries of broken truces, betrayals, and massacres as the Europeans and Native Americans attempted to coexist. The only artifacts on display that remain from the pre-eighteenth-century bluff are guns, swords, cannons, knives, arrows, and hatchets.
The artifacts from the eighteenth-century suggest civilization in the form of flatware and booze jugs. The dioramas and rusty metal are well and good, but the museum comes alive with its depiction of nineteenth-century steamboat culture. Anyone who's ridden Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean will feel faintly familiar with the Belle of the Bluffs, a replica of an 1870 steamer where you can wander the decks, inspect the coal boiler, and hear strains of saloon piano.
The Riverfolk Gallery is worth the trip. Here you'll see life-size wax likenesses of Mark Twain, a Bunyanesque keelboatman, steamboat captain T.P. Leathers, riverboat gambler George Devol, and showboat entertainers Jeanne and Tommy Windsor, she in two-piece with a sequin top and fishnet stockings. Clean family fun!
Next, the theatre of disasters briefs us on centuries of boiler explosions, capsizing, disease, and drownings on the river. The 1970s educational filmstrip cautions us to the hazards of traveling aboard "fragile, flammable, floating wooden palaces," also known as steamboats. The soundtrack crackles like old pine burning as the cries of victims of past disasters fill the small, wall-to-wall-up-wall carpeted theatre. The narrator acknowledges that though disasters still occur on ol' muddy, "today people don't go hunting trouble with the river." Entertaining and informative!
The music artifacts are nothing to sneeze at despite the presence of numerous other music history museums in the city.
The Cotton Museum at 65 Union Avenue, 531-7826 (www.memphiscottonmuseum.org) opened in March 2006 in the old Cotton Exchange Building. The industry abandoned its old headquarters in the 1980s, but its story lives on in 3,000 square feet of exhibits beneath the cotton trading board that displayed the latest prices in the global cotton market scribbled in chalk. The exhibits don't shy away from the dehumanizing effects of the industry, particularly on centuries of African Americans bonded in slavery on cotton plantations, and mired in sharecropping smaller cotton farms after the Civil War through the 1970s.
The artifacts include manacles and locks used to confine slaves, and samples of manilas, the currency of the African slave trade. The museum also focuses on the technological achievements of the industry, from Eli Whitney's eighteenth-century invention of the cotton gin, to the age of mechanization in the twentieth century, and the computerization of the twenty-first-century cotton game.
In its mission to display the cultural im-pact of cotton, in addition to the economic, social, and technological imprints of the industry, the museum exhibits costumes worn at the annual Cotton Carnival and Cottonmaker's Jubilee, in addition to artifacts of the blues, a topic covered well elsewhere.
The W.C. Handy House is located at 352 Beale, 527-3427. If you're lucky, you'll hear Sam "Black Smoke" Wiggins picking his guitar and singing on the front porch of the house where the blues was born. Some controversy exists as to whether or not this is the house, since the city updated address numbers between the time Handy lived on Jenette Place in the early twentieth century and the preservation of the home and its move to Beale in the 1980s. As one online review of this attraction put it, "a far cry from the opulence of Graceland." Audio tour narrated by Priscilla Presley not included. You do, however, hear the facts of Handy's life and times from the knowledgeable "T" Bryant of Heritage Tours as she guides you through the two-room shack. The financial situation of an African-American musical innovator compared to that of a later white innovator like Elvis comes into focus as well.
Speaking of music, this is the only city in the world where you can follow the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley from public housing to global icon. You can sleep where the boy King slept at the restored Lauderdale Courts at 185 Winchester, Apartment 328. Elvis spent his teenage years here, and the curious lad wandered to Beale Street, East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, and Poplar Tunes to soak up the sounds of the city. Book the "Elvis suite" by calling 523-8662 or online at www.lauderdalecourts.com.
From there the Elvis trail winds to Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue, 521-0664 (www.sunstudio.com). The knowledgeable guides here milk the two-room tour for all its worth. Plenty of pilgrims find the experience moving, transcendent, like a visit to a holy shrine. They swoon from the emotional gravity of it all. The lack of air-conditioning is what had me on the ropes, but no matter. Standing in the room where rock-and-roll was born, surrounded by the acoustic tiles that absorbed the sounds of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, and posing for a snapshot with the microphone they sang into is must-do Memphis.
Graceland is located at 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard, 332-3322 (www.elvis.com). We've all heard it ad nauseum but Graceland is amazing. Before moving to Memphis, I dreamt of someday hearing Priscilla Presley's warm voice in my ear, feeling the shag below my feet, wondering, "Why can't I go upstairs? Aunt Minnie's dead!"
Graceland is what happens when a dirt-poor Southerner suddenly gets to live without financial limitations. While many Elvis fans ponder what the King would sing if he lived today, I wonder what sorts of excess he could've accomplished with today's technology. Seeing a 1970s superstar home frozen in time seems a little quaint by today's standards. The man worked with what he could, though. A bed on his private jetliner, three TVs in his "study," and retro-chic animal prints attest to as much. Elvis isn't the only King, however, to have left this world via Memphis, Tennessee.
The National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street, 521-9699 (www.civilrightsmuseum.org), tells the story of the long struggle for African-American equality in unsparing detail.
Interactive exhibits put you on a Greyhound bus in the 1960s South to be subjected to racist bullying, and in the middle of a swarm of police dogs and firehose blasts in Birmingham, Alabama.
The most poignant, authentic moment that any museum can offer takes place when you walk out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and stand in the spot where an assassin's bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.
Memphis Fire Museum, 118 Adams Avenue, 320-5650 (www.firemuseum.com), stands alone in the country as a museum that combines history, wonderfully restored fire department artifacts and equipment, and a state-of-the-art interactive fire safety education program. Highlights include a talking horse and an anxiety-attack-inducing burning house simulation. You stand inside while a carelessly discarded cigarette engulfs a sofa in flames, the fire spreads to the walls, consumes the oxygen, and breaks out the windows. The temperature builds as the flames fill the room, smoke masks the exits, and eventually the sirens shriek.
The museum is geared towards educating children to the perils of fire, and they are reminded throughout to avoid smoking in bed.
The Pink Palace at 3050 Central Avenue, 320-6320, is the perfect showcase for that special blend of Mid-South innovation and eccentricity. The taxidermy (love the buffalo!), the dioramas of Civil War amputation, the iron sarcophagus, the miniature folk-art circus, and the full-scale replica Piggly Wiggly are some of the things that make people who grew up in Memphis cooler than other people. Was all this stuff in the house when Clarence Saunders lived here?
If a walk in the park is your thing, Lichterman Nature Center at 5992 Quince and Memphis Botanic Garden at 750 Cherry Road offer a quick getaway to nature within the city limits.
Jim Lee ruled the river in the nineteenth century like Boss Crump later ruled dry land. When his sea legs failed him, though, he spent his last years convalescing in an upstairs bedroom of the ornate Victorian mansion at 690 Adams, listening for the steamboat bells on the river.
After Mississippi River boatman Tom Lee (no relation to Jim) saved 32 people from drowning on an Engineers Club of Memphis outing gone terribly wrong in 1925, the engineers figured that the least they could do was build Lee a home. They finished the house at 923 Mansfield in North Memphis in 1927. Lee stayed there until his death in 1952.
The house where Aretha Franklin was born at 406 Lucy Avenue was most recently appraised at $6,700. How about some R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the queen of soul's Memphis roots?
Jazz bandleader Jimmie Lunceford lived here in the 1920s on what was then E. Iowa Avenue. What's left of the house still stands at 578 E.H. Crump Boulevard.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech — the one where he proclaims that he has been to the mountaintop — at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ at 930 Mason Street (off E.H. Crump Boulevard between Third Street and Danny Thomas Boulevard).
From newcomer to oldtimer
Over two years in, I've gained a feel for the city. It has its potholes, its stray dogs, its black eyes courtesy of truly seismic historical forces. But the mythic qualities of Memphis swirl all around us. The mystical terms used to summarize the place, the things people say about Memphis being one of the last real American cities, a city with soul, are all true. When I listen to All Blues Saturday on WDIA, when I'm sitting in the lobby at Cozy Corner waiting for a sandwich, sitting in the lobby of The Peabody sipping a Brandy Alexander in December, or perched on a log in Harbor Town watching that river roll on by, I feel like there's no other place like it on earth. No place like home. No bluffing.