Friday, June 10, 2011

Walking in Memphis

With the mercury rising into the upper 90s here in Washington, D.C., I am reminded of a lesson I learned in my 20s about walking in Memphis.

The August I touched down in the land of the Delta Blues -- Memphis, Tennessee -- to visit my dad it was hot hot hot. Temperatures were hovering at 105 in the shade and the air was as thick as stew. I was visiting from London, and accustomed to walking everywhere the London way: briskly and purposefully.

While my dad was at work, I set out, briskly and purposefully, to explore the city. By the time I reached the nearest bus stop on Poplar Avenue, I was feeling faint. As I sat in the glass-roofed shelter like an ant under a magnifying glass, I remembered a story I had heard about a woman in Iceland who had been trapped in a hotel sauna overnight. In this grisly but unverified account, she had cooked like a chicken. I could feel the same thing happening to me.

Please God, I thought, do not let me pass out at a bus stop in Memphis. I held onto the metal seat to steady myself as the minutes dragged by and still the bus did not come. And then I saw him, walking down the median under the full sun. He wore workboots and a wife beater and looked as cool as Christmas. But it was the way he moved which captured my attention: a slow, rolling saunter. I watched him come closer, draw level with me, and head off into the heat.

Just then, the bus pulled up, and I got on. But I had learned an important lesson and I always remember it on hot days:

When in Memphis, walk like a Memphian.

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