Memphis - I am the lone rider on the Madison Street trolley in Memphis, Tennessee. The driver stops in front of a little bar to get a sandwich.
"They sell beer to go?" I ask when he returns.
"You wanna get one?" he asks. "I'll wait."
In Toronto, this scenario might happen on a cold day in hell, but courtesy is common in Memphis, where hotel desk clerks, maids and maintenance men all greet guests with a casual "Good mawnin'."
Virtually all the hotel employees are black, as is every bus and trolley driver in the city. In fact, Memphis is a primarily black city with little areas like Beale Street that attract white tourist. Music fans and assorted carousers can ride to the bars of Beale and back to their hotels on vintage trolleys that circle the downtown on old tracks like antique toy train cars.
A free shuttle service takes visitors to Elvis's kitschy mansion, Graceland, and Sun Studios, where the King recorded his first hit, That's All Right, Mama. The shuttle also makes a stop in a rundown neighbourhood at the corner of McLemore and College. Here sits the fabulous Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built on the site of Stax-Volt Studios, which has been reconstructed in the museum. Legendary artists who recorded here include Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Staples Singers, Albert King and Isaac Hayes.
I'm the only white person on the long bus ride to the edge of the city and Germantown's Wolfchase Galleria, where prosperous-looking Memphians shop at Brooks Brothers and Victoria's Secret, buy their kids candy at Godiva Chocolatier or take them for rides on the fantasy carousel.
On my way to develop some film at Wolf Camera, I consider taking a couple of pictures of the Galleria. "That's strictly forbidden," says an employee. "There'll be extra plainclothes security out there today, because word has it there may be a gang initiation happening here."
These initiations, she explains, involve abducting a woman or, preferably, a mother and child.
Off Beale Street sits W.C. Handy Park, named after the Father of the Blues. Playing there this afternoon is the After Dark Band, whose guitar player, Linear, lets me sit in and says I can come back any time. I tell him I'm thinking of jamming at Wild Bill's, a juke joint in north Memphis rumoured to have a cooking house band, and also that someone told me to check out a bar behind the Airways Mall.
"Oh, the Blue Worm," says Linear. "It's trying to be what Wild Bill's already is. Might only be a few people there. Wild Bill's is a better bet."
Two days later, my fellow traveller and I retreat from the scorching heat to the shade of an outdoor bar on Beale. Making conversation with the bartender, a punky-looking lady with green hair, I relate the tale of the gang initiation, wondering what happens to the abductees.
"They get murdered, that's what," she answers. She speaks sadly of two friends of hers, one of whom was shot to death by teenagers two years ago, and another who, just the week before, yelled at a teenager for throwing a rock at him and wound up critically injured with gunshot wounds. She's moving away from Memphis in a week and can't wait.
I bring up the talk I had with Linear about juke joints. Wild Bill's, she says, should be okay - college students go there. Just cab it. "But do not," she said, "under any circumstances go to the Airways Mall area. You will be taking your life into your hands."
Back in Canada, I call the Peabody Hotel, a plush Memphis landmark and former meeting place for cotton traders. Explaining that I'm a blues lover who wants to visit Memphis, I'm transferred to the concierge, who recommends the guided juke joint tour offered by American Dream Safari.
In the coded language of Memphians, he adds, "Some neighbourhoods are a bit sketchy."