Earlier this week, I found myself with an entire late afternoon to kill in downtown Memphis. My plan was to meet a friend of mine at The Rendezvous (legendary ribs) that evening and drive to Tunica, Miss., to lose money I didn’t have at a video blackjack table and make eyes at the ladies playing the nickel slots. But for about five hours, it was just Memphis and me. Here’s how it all went down.
I’ve spent time at the Memphis airport but never the heart of downtown. The first goal of the day was to find decent parking. I found a garage near The Peabody and paid $10 to park until 5 p.m. I thought this was really expensive for 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, but that might be cheap compared to other times. The Peabody is a very old, lovely hotel with probably a million ghosts. It’s also one of those places that pretends to be a lot more luxurious than it is. I also got the vibe that I was underdressed in my jeans, Marty McFly vest and JDN ball cap. Inside the lobby, people were milling about, drinking cocktails and admiring the interior. There is a thing about ducks with this hotel, but I didn’t really want to learn about that. I needed to find someone to point me in the direction of food and cigars. You can always count on solid information from people in a smoke shop or locals drinking at bars at 2 p.m. I seek those people out in every strange city I visit, and they haven’t failed me yet.
The girl who sold me a New York Times and a pack of Twizzlers in The Peabody's lobby said that she personally doesn’t enjoy cigars but that if I needed to “do that to my body” I could go to Havana Mix. Memphis has a bit of a “beggar” problem, I noticed. During the two-block walk to the cigar shop, I was asked several times for money. One guy even tried the classic “feets” joke on me. You know this one, right? A guy will bet you $10 he can guess where you got your shoes. Logically, he can’t know that you bought your shoes at a J.Crew in Knoxville three years ago, so you take the bet. Then, he responds with, “They’s on your feets!” and you owe him money because, technically, he’s correct. Don’t fall for this one. I arrived at the Havana Mix and immediately felt right at home—as I do in most cigar shops. There’s something incredibly comforting about cigar smoke for me. Sharing a smoke with a good friend—or strangers, in this case—is one of my favorite pastimes. If you can’t learn about a city after a few hours in a cigar shop, the city isn’t worth learning about.
I was the stranger in the group of seven, but Rob and the guys at Havana Mix made me feel like I was just a regular part of the group. The store is a large expanse of comfortable chairs, tables and a walk-in humidor that looks like a tiki hut. Over the next hour, I smoked a delicious Fuente Rosado Gran Reserva and talked at length about the best ways to get women to like you. We all agreed that in order to get a woman to be interested in you, you cannot be in pursuit. Instead, you need to do something excellent in her presence and just not care beyond that. We all agreed that there comes a point in life where two consenting adults can do whatever they want to do without all of the “games.” I also learned that drag queens in Atlanta are almost criminally convincing. I purchased a few more cigars on my way out and assured them that I would be back in the future. If you’re ever in Memphis, stop in and see the folks at Havana Mix. The next stop for me was food, and there’s plenty of that on Beale Street.
Beale Street has a completely different feel on, say, a Friday night in the middle of summer. I realize that my first impression of this historic area was to be skewed because of the time of day and season. Still, I didn’t expect it to be so grim and depressing. The beggars were out in full-force, some of them without limbs. The “stores” were filled with useless, tourist-themed crap and silly voodoo products. However, even at this early hour, there was blues music echoing out of almost every doorway. I heard one guy doing a spot-on impression of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and some guy playing a slide-guitar version of "Wagon Wheel." My Urban Spoon app had a ton of suggestions, but I was feeling peckish for some gumbo and ended up as the only person inside Kings Palace Cafe. I ordered a beer and a cup of the seafood gumbo (which was delicious) and spent the next few minutes chatting with Kenny, the owner. He gave me a list of other places to try a quick appetizer and drink. I told him that I’d had enough of Beale, and he sent me up to Main Street and a little gastropub called The Local.
Memphis is a city that looks as if it’s constantly on the rebound. I was told by several people that it always appears this way but that nothing ever really changes. This weird personality disorder is evident on Main Street: an antique trolley system still in operation, high-end restaurants right next to the Family Dollar and, again, an incessant amount of panhandling. I snuggled up to the bar at The Local and ordered a rum and Coke and a cup of chorizo chili. The atmosphere in The Local was not unlike places like The Social in Chattanooga—lots of interesting, young, middle-class people. The servers were drinking tea, and we talked about that. I lied to them and said I was a klezmer musician rolling through town (I was getting bored at this point). Luckily, my friend showed up, and we went to dinner. We spent the next day losing money and smoking cigars. Thanks for having me for a few hours, Memphis. I’ll see you around.