Day 18: Memphis and The Kings

by James

Light was streaming into Brittany’s living room through a sliding glass door when I came to on Saturday, June 4th. I was on a leather couch caty corner to the kitchenette. Gentle knocks of glassware connecting with counter-top came from nearby arrhythmically. I looked up to see Brittany making coffee; if she was aware of my consciousness, she didn’t show it.

I spent a few minute rolling around and taking occasional glances at her as she moved deftly through the small kitchenette. There’s something very soothing about being half-awake and watching a pretty woman make coffee in the quiet AM.

After a few minutes of playing dead on the couch, I rattled my sooty vocal chords enough to signal that yes, please, I’d like a cup of coffee. Brittany drinks her coffee black, so I poured myself a cup as dark and we began the sacrament of early morning coffee-drinking in its purest denomination.

Meanwhile, Mike stirred on the couch parallel to the kitchenette. The three of us wandered a sparse conversation as Brittany made herself a sandwich for work. She told us that she may not be back tonight since she was scheduled to babysit late, but it was fine if we stayed at the apartment without her.

We said our thank-yous and goodbyes and she left, forgetting her sandwich. Mike and I took it slow, since it was a rest day. We eventually collected ourselves, ate a few toaster pastries, and got moving for Memphis.

Brittany had told us about a bike path which leads from Cordova directly into midtown, so we scouted that out on our phones.

We tried like hell to find the path, but all we managed to do was cycle through tall weeds for a few hundred feet before deciding that we were lost. We short-cut back to the main road through someone’s yard and finally found the path after a mile or so.

East Memphis or West Africa? In search of pavement.

When we hit midtown, we exited off of the path and headed towards a UPS store. Mike had some maps and a book he wanted to ship back and I had a notebook I hadn’t touched the whole trip. I think the only handwriting I’ve done thus far has been on credit-card receipts.

We found the UPS store, locked the bikes, and went in. I gave Mike my netbook and milled around the store, freezing in my own sweat, while he talked to the lady tending shop. The radio was tuned to a local station playing overly-sugary, Auto-Tune’d R&B that was a caricature of itself.

Our next stop was a bike shop. I went in to the place while Mike rummaged around in a convenience store for cheap nourishment.


Mike and I suspected that my rear races and cones1 were pitted, so I told the well-kempt redhead at the counter as much. She asked in response if the wheel was out of true and I told her no, no, I’m pretty sure it’s something in the hub. She then started into this spiel about oh well you know that’s something we’ll put you on the calendar for and I’m not sure there are any mechanics available today and… etc. I then told her that this wouldn’t be possible, since I was riding cross-country and would be leaving town tomorrow.

This had her totally recalibrated. She let out an “oh that’s awesome!” and ran to the back with the Trek, telling me that she couldn’t promise anything but she’d see what she could do.

I meandered around the store, complimenting one of the employees on his selection of the Hot Chip track that was playing softly over the stereo. A stout black mechanic with a pierced eyebrow wandered out from the back and told me that we needed to talk about my bike. I grinned, knowing what a goddamn heap it is, and followed him back to his stand.

In a smooth, northern baritone, the mechanic explained to me that he could tell, even before taking the wheel off, that some vibrations spelled bad news for my hub. He said that rebuilding the hub, i.e. taking it apart, cleaning it out, reapplying grease, and reassembling, was probably futile, but he may be able to do it. He also said he could check to see if he had any new wheels that could be substituted in for the current one.

I steeled a second and then asked the mechanic what kind of price-range we were talking for a new wheel. He shocked me by replying, “oh, thirty or forty bucks.”

The Trek on the operating table.

I basically tackled him with an affirmative response and he, probably wondering which paper mill I grew up in, went into a closet to find a suitable wheel. He came out with some slick looking, double-walled piece of work with thick, fresh, spokes and told me it was a little more expensive than he’d estimated: $45. I told him to go for it and he went to work. I watched him, sitting on a wooden stool next to the stand.

As I watched his steady hands disassemble the bike with practiced ease, we got to talking. Turns out that this guy had made a cross-country trip himself: West Memphis to San Francisco. He said that he’d designed his own route over the course of a few months, taken a leave of absence from his gig, and had made the trip in a month, meeting his girlfriend at the end.

His route had cut farther north than we’d planned to; he made it all the way up to Portland, then cut down the coast on route 1.

Mike found his way to the stand, and the mechanic (who wore a khaki uniform which had him named “The King”) continued talking about some of the wild antics he’d seen sleeping on the beach in California and kicking around Portland.

In Portland, he’d said, a cycling community had gathered at the top of the biggest hill in the city to descend on kiddie-bikes. Some participants were wearing full-facial masks and, twenty seconds after the safety rules were explained and the race started, someone crashed head-on into a parked car.

By now, The King had my hub decomposed into its constituent pieces and showed us my horribly-pitted cone. A new wheel was definitely in order; he slapped it on and we kept chatting about our tour, places we should see in Memphis, and his plans to move to DC with his girlfriend.

After he’d finished with the wheel, he went on with a general tune-up unprompted. He adjusted my rear-derailleur, tweaked my cantilever break pads (a real pain in the ass; he did a bang-up job in seconds), and oiled my front-derailleur cable.

The bike was spic and span, so he led us up to the register. I was expecting a bill of at least 90, 100 dollars, but when we got to the counter, he told the redhead to charge me a meager $10 bucks for labor.

Dennis and me.

I got a picture with The King, whose name turns out to be Dennis, and he slipped Mike and I business cards.

If you’re ever in Memphis, check out Peddler bike shop; they took great care of me. Many thanks to Dennis and the redheaded girl.

Once outside of Peddler’s, Mike and I decided that we were hungry for lunch. After stopping by a hardware store for a few extra bolts, we headed to a place Dennis had recommended in Cooper-Young, the Young Avenue Deli. We hightailed it up south Cooper and, a few minutes later, sat up at the Deli’s bar for shrimp sandwiches and a few boutique brews. A neon sign towered over the dark, high-ceilinged ballroom, telling us to EAT.

The Young Avenue Deli.
Oh hi lunch.

The beer filled us with a pleasant buzz that made the hazy heat and bright glare of the outside world disorienting and slightly comical. We decided to find a coffee shop so that Mike could make use of rabbit2 to do some detailed route planning.

More of the Deli.

Google referred us to a place a few blocks up, Otherlands. We pedaled there and were pleased with what we found; a very roomy shop playing good music, spread over multiple rooms. We found a central table within the biggest of the rooms and got to work. Once Mike was set up with rabbit, I could either fuss with my cellphone or read the first few pages of On the Road. I chose the pulp, which was readable but a little abstract for my tastes. Later, Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme came on.

Outside of Otherlands.

Oddly enough, I think this was the first time I’ve hung out at a real coffeeshop; back in northern Virginia, there’s really no reason to go anywhere but Starbucks, so I never had strayed. The difference is about what you’d expect: the atmosphere is marginally more interesting and the pastries are twice as expensive.

One of the rooms in Otherlands.

I made sure to tag the bathroom chalkboard with a supply/demand curve to compensate for all the mostly-thoughtless, artsy bullshit that was up there already3. Mike was done, so we bought a few baked goods, snacked, then left for Beale St.

Mike got carrot cake here.

I had a few thoughts between the coffee-house and Beale.

One of the dirty Beale side-streets we were warned against.

From age 6, it’d been glass-clear what my daily, weekly, and monthly schedules should resemble. I easily fell into the 13 years spent in K-12, then the additional four years in college. I adopted the weekly itineraries that come with both.

Fifty years ago, this automation existed only up until age 16; sure, high school was expected, but not everyone wanted to (or needed to) go to a college. Now, college is a given. In five years, most interviewers will scoff if you haven’t attended grad school.

For the first time in my life, riding through the mostly-dilapidated Memphis streets, it wasn’t clear what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be a month from now. Hell, if I wanted to stay in Memphis a week longer, I could do it (though Mike would be none too happy).

It made me wonder if this increasingly set path laid out for younger generations is a recipe for boring, uninventive people. Isn’t the key to leading an awesome life figuring out how to best spend your time? How can we expect to be good at macroscopic time management if we don’t start practicing it until we’re 25, following some template life for the first third of our time?

There’s a whole beautiful world out there and we’re spending our youth taking Cultural Studies classes from a 34-year-old Yale graduate and paying exorbitant prices for vapid textbooks with our parents’ money.

Realizing that my time is my own to spend hit me like a crowbar and what a rush it was.

We got to Beale St., locked the bikes, and toddled around.

Beginning of Beale.

Beale Street is a huge tourist trap. To be fair, we didn’t see it at night when the bars are all pulsing and the air is full of slide-guitar, but we couldn’t find any bluesy dives. I’m sure they house great music at BB King’s, but it wasn’t the Mississippi-delta grit we were looking for.

We headed north of Beale to the Flying Saucer, a large beer bar reputed to have a huge selection. They did, and we enjoyed sitting at an old, wooden table and perusing the four-page menu of beers more studiously than accountants in early April.

Mike and I placed an order with the saccharine-but-serious barmaid, the one that works every high-volume tap in the country, and sat sipping brews and talking.

Inside of the Saucer.

Since we were buzzed and on our day off, this is the first time Mike and I got to have a lengthy non-trip-related conversation. We talked about Christianity, which led into a debate about whether or not there is such a thing as Truth. I was in Truth’s corner; Mike, being a mathematician, demands perfect rigor and therefore disqualified any sort of absolute from being useful. Eventually Mike denounced all of statistics by poo-pooing the Central Limit Theorem, me palming face and shaking head the whole way. Clearly, we were pretty sauced4 by then.

We closed our tabs and then decided, for some ungodly reason, to head 15 miles south into the part of Memphis we’d been repeatedly warned not to enter after noon in order to see Elvis’ house and then eat fried chicken from a place called Uncle Lou’s. We hit the saddles at 5PM.

It was a long 15 miles, and the neighborhoods got bad quick. It was uncomfortable for a while, but that’s compatible with the theme of the trip so we went with it.

Around Elvis’ house, the surroundings got a little less hostile, but we couldn’t manage to find the King’s place. The house seemed to be engulfed in an Elvis-themed department store. We circled the grounds and then gave up, heading east for Uncle Lou’s.5

We hit Uncle Lou’s, again in a rough part of town, and chowed down on fried chicken, thick biscuits, and candied carrots. While we ate, Cops played on a television placed front and center, the volume cranked appreciably. I thought it was an odd choice for a restaurant, but it had some strange consonance with the rest of the place.

Mike ordering at Uncle Lou's. I think, if offered, Mike would probably have accepted a position there.

As we left Uncle Lou’s, we noticed that the sun had set. The shortest route available back to Brittany’s couch was 16 miles, 10 of which were through Memphis. A wild misadventure followed, which I won’t detail here6.

A tame beginning to the way home.

We ended the terrifying ride home with a stop by a gas station near Brittany’s place. We bought a Gatorade and an ice-cream sandwich each and inhaled them outside the store to rectify the evening.

When we finally got back to Brittany’s, all that was left to do was pack and conk. I hit the lights, satisfied with our coverage of the city.

Most of Memphis is crumbling and worn. No less, I enjoyed the day and the places we saw.

  1. the parts of the wheel which the bearings rest against.

  2. “rabbit” is the hostname of my netbook

  3. I preach even on vacations.

  4. not a pun. not a pun.

  5. Elvis, you may or may not have simply ripped off music from blacks and popularized it, but, either way, you’re the guy that sang it and for that my hat’s off to you. Sorry we couldn’t make your house.

  6. mostly just consisted of us going the wrong way on big roads, cycling through very creepy industrial areas, and navigating scary neighborhoods.

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