The plane trip was like any other trans-Pacific flight – long, boring and left me with a neck that felt like it had been put through a wringer and then driven over by a car.
The uniformed gruffness of the customs officials, all para-military machismo in their crisp blue uniforms, but smiling warmly when told by the gangly Aussie that he’s off to Graceland.
Beers at LAX – quaint, faux-bar bars with grid iron on countless flatscreens so that you can’t but watch the heavily armoured men dashing back and forth on the neatly measured green fields. Talking to a few friendly American commuters, learning their life stories over just a few pints and having the minutae of NFL rules and strategy served up in a concise and enthusiastic manner. The college team from New Orleans has golden helmets, what a sight!
Stopping at the Blue and White café in Tunica on the way from the Memphis airport – a classic American diner with chequered floors and delicious burgers. Our waiter, a large and friendly girl happy to serve someone all the way from ‘Orstraliah’.
Clarksdale in the early afternoon, wide, pot-holed streets baking in the sun, buildings faded and boarded-up. My room a huge space behind the big bar in town, it was once the offices of the Delta Cotton Co. and still sports the old bureau and even a vault, complete with hand-painted steel safe.
The streets are busy with traffic – a huge change since I was last here. Blues music wafts along the streets from a dozen little shops, haphazardly hand-painted signs proclaiming various bits of blues memorabilia and musical equipment.
To Hambone Gallery in the evening to see some music – there is always music in Clarksdale. Hambone an inviting space filled with a plethora of folk and blues art, a stage in front where the zoot-suited ‘Bilbo’ Walker holds court, belting out raw covers of classic rock’n’roll hits. Jetlagged as hell but brought alive by the loud music, cold beer and friendly Southerners.
In fact, everyone here almost already knows me – ‘Oh, you’re Jaawwwn’s son! Heck, we lurve Jawn!’. It feels like being the son of celebrity and it’s nice to be so embraced by strangers all the way across the world.
Buying some groceries at the local Save-a-Lot – all the big stores are on the highway, too far for jetlagged, non-driving ole me. The older black woman at the register all scowls and surly until I fumble with the American cash and she realises I’m not from ‘round here and she beams a big smile and we have a little chat about Australia.
Eating burgers and fries, brought out in little plastic rattan trays, everything disposable, the oil and mustard dripping down my skinny arms.
More music, every night, more people who know my dad, who love this town, who are excited and engaging and so friendly. There’re many people here now from other parts – tourists from all over the world, and many new residents moved in after brief, heart-stealing visits.
Helping the house keeper move some laundry up the steep, graffiti-ed staircase; she’s the embodiment of Mamee from Gone with the Wind – short and round and slow-talking, slow-moving. Perhaps she’s as old as the town? She has a big warm smile and tells me about a recent knee replacement – still she launders and cleans, enduring all. We share a chuckle, about what I’m not completely sure, her accent is thick like jungle. But we share a chuckle.
A new coffee shop in town, shiny, clean and air-conditioned, bustling with visitors and a whole new raft of local people; all drinking caffe latte and cappuccino from huge paper cups.
Dinner at someone’s house, an erudite Californian photographer who’s lived many years in Asia and has a glorious collection of exotic and beautiful art on his walls. Delicious food – so good to have something home cooked after so many days of burgers and fries!
Sitting on the kerb outside my room in the muggy warmth of twilight, dragonflies buzzing back and forth around the abandoned buildings, huge pick-up trucks and SUVs doing much the same. Lots of cars but very few pedestrians. To walk is not really the culture, I suspect. Occasionally, a young black man on a bike will roll by, but otherwise all windows’re are tinted.
More drinks another night, the whole town buzzing with Saturday energy, every flat screen in every bar once again beaming football at every drinker. Talking to a guy who grew up here, left as soon as he could, got a job at NASA, a high-flyer now in the robotics field, back to visit his mum and he’s amazed at the changes.
A lazy Sunday afternoon, buskers playing at a handful of little stages. The heat radiates from the cracked asphalt and everyone is moving slowly. An Italian couple performing wonderful music – all the way from Europe to play music from the Delta. A guy in patched overalls who makes his own instruments out of whatever is at hand, fascinating sounds coming from old car parts and industrial vacuums, even a portable piece of flooring with percussive power – it captivates the Italian chanteuse and she spends an age stomping on it rhythmically, her brightly coloured dress billowing about her legs.