Monday, August 9, 2010

Memphis Memories

Elvis Presley, BBQ Ribs and a Smuggler

Trouble looms ahead. I'm getting hooked on a new television show, Memphis Beat, that debuted a few weeks ago. The show has great character development, interesting story lines, and great music. Police work depicted in the show has some semblance to reality. As the story unfolds each week, the city of Memphis seems to emerge as its own character. (TNT airs the show on Tuesdays, 10/9c).

A recent episode centered on the attempted murder of a BBQ king. Someone wanted the man dead. The first scene has the main character, police detective Dwight Hendricks (played by actor Jason Lee) belting out Polk Salad Annie as the camera flashes on mouthwatering ribs cooking over open flames. The lens pans across the restaurant where the main cast gather around a table, devouring a pile of ribs while the last notes of that song throbs in the background.

Something about that scene triggered an old memory. My one and only visit to Memphisto visit a drug smuggler.

I apologize right now to those of you with a more intimate and timely knowledge of Memphis and its culture.  My recollections may be way off. I’m working off memories that go back to 1987 during a federal task force case that brought us to that fair city. You know how a name and a scene can carry you to another place, another time. Those ribs and that rhythmic music carried me back to that time. And not to besmirch Memphisthat drug smuggler resided in another state. He just happened to land in a federal institution near this city.

Getting to Memphis became a circuitous journey.  It began in Miami, where our potential witness—a pilot-turned-smugglersat in jail hatching another scheme. We'd learn that our pilot, several years earlier, was hired by our task force target to fly in five hundred kilograms of cocaine and land on a remote strip of highway in Florida. We needed this pilot's testimony to lock down another Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge against our main target about that cache of drugs. We'd just landed in Miami only to learn that our potential witness—our drug-smuggling pilot hired another pilot to land a helicopter on a prison yard and whisk him to freedom. Unbeknown to our intended drug-smuggling pilot, he made a deal with an undercover federal agent. So, we returned to the west coast and waited. An FBI SWAT team clipped our pilot's dreams of flying to freedom. Prosecutors filed new charges on our pilot. U.S. Marshalls transported our flyboy to a facility near Memphis.

Which brings us to Memphis.

Humidity is not something I dealt with much in Northern California where I lived at the time along the Pacific Ocean. I forget how humidity can throw a suffocating blanket over a person. It all came back to me as I stepped off the plane. I do remember how green everything seemed—lawns, gardens, avenue of trees. Green is the first color to disappear in California after spring rains. In the distance, I saw the Mississippi River flowing low, slow, and not-so-blue as it meandered its way south.

I remember everyone we met being polite and friendly. This congeniality was quite a change from other places I’ve visited. True Southern hospitality. No guns. No gangbangers. If there was crime, Memphis kept it out of site. This was Memphis two decades ago.

We had a few hours to kill until our crook could be interviewed. We took a tour of Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion. The guy I traveled with knew his wife would be upset if he visited Memphis without dropping by this rock-in-roll shrine. I found the visitors to the manion more of an attraction than the tour itself. I've always found human behavior fascinating.

After our interview, we made one last stop—a BBQ rib joint near the river recommend to us by other cops. Tried to remember the name, but came up blank. Just a tall brick building a short distance from the Mississippii River, the restaurant located in a basement with a view looking up at the sidewalk. Tried to Google the area and come up with the name of that restaurant. Found a place, but I can't tell if it was the same one we visited. All I can remember is pounding southern music, BBQ ribs to die for, old red bricks, and charcoal smoke. This is what came tumbling back to me as I watched Memphis Beat.

Now, I don’t know how much authentic Memphis culture comes across in the series. To me, many of the scenes run true from what I remember from that one visit many years ago. And, one visit does not qualify me as an expert on that city. It's like saying I know all about San Francisco because I once visited Union Square. My memory of Memphis is just a speck of paint on a rather large canvas. It is not that I never make a mistake.  For example, I thought Jason Leer— who plays Dwight Hendrick—must have been raised or grew up in that part of the country. Wrong. Lee grew up in Huntington Beach, California, moving across town to Hollywood to take up acting after starting up his own skateboard company. See what I know about that part of the south?

But the acting, the music, and the city all seem real to me. It is what I remember from that brief visit many years ago. Maybe someone out there can set me straight. Is it real or not? And can someone tell me whether that BBQ place is still in business? I have to know.

Q: What can you tell us about Memphis?


  1. The restaurant was probably the Rendezvous. you can Google it.

  2. Thanks, Andy. I'll look it up.