A President's Reflections
People and Places

Twenty-Four Hours in Memphis

Posted on July 27, 2012

I started this post while sitting on a late night flight from Memphis to Boston after a whirlwind one-day visit.  The plane was a CRJ900, a “commuter jet,” whose initials must stand for “crammed, rally jammed” and I  feasted on Delta’s sumptuous fare of peanuts and Bloody Mary Mix.  There is just no glamour left in flying.

With some of the Innovation Lab staff, I flew down to Memphis  for a day of meetings.  We first met with Mayor A.C. Wharton (check out http://www.acwharton.com/) and the city’s Director of Human Resources and its Chief Learning Officer.  That a city even has a CLO says something about how it thinks about its people, city employees, and what kind of culture and economy it is trying to build.  The mayor is a visionary and there’s something special going on in Memphis. 

In the afternoon we went to FedEx World Headquarters, a sprawling campus really, and met with the HR director there.  In both cases, we learned more about the acute skills gap in the workforce, the struggle to align competencies with employer needs, and were inspired by the commitment by both the city and by FedEx to improve the lives of the great many adult learners with some credits, but no degree.  As the mayor said, this is not a” plan out ahead” problem, this is a “today problem.”  All were interested in Pathways, impressed with the model, and seem eager to be part of piloting the program next year.

On ereally telling anecdote about the skills gap.  A large brewery decided to open in Memphis and needed to fill 500 job openings.  not a problem in this economy, right?  Indeed, they received 22,000 applications.  From that number they only managed to find something like 200 qualified individuals.  That’s a sobering illustration behind the dry statistics and abstract language of the “skills gap.”

On a happier note, the real beauty of this trip was food.  We got in on Tuesday night in time to walk the few sultry, humid blocks to The Rendezvous, the famous BBQ joint down an alley off Monroe Street.  It looked frozen in 1948, the year it opened, and since then there has been a parade of presidents and paupers eating there.  The melt in your mouth brisket and pork ribs, done in dry-rub Memphis style, were transporting.  With a local draft beer and small sides of coleslaw and beans….well, it made you want to have a cigarette after.  It was that good. 

On Wednesday, we had time between meetings for lunch and walked a few steamier and hotter blocks from our hotel to Willy Moore’s, a little downtown cafateria style place the woman at the hotel told us about. We went in search of that holy grail of all southern meals, the one you just can’t find done right in the north (if I am wrong, please tell me where to find it), the one I craved: fried chicken.  Mine was served with collard greens and candied yams and a corn muffin.  The chicken was not at all greasy, the meat simply moist and the skin crispy good.  Oh man!

I have an eating job.  Lots of events over lots of meals.  So staying fit means eating salad.  A lot of salad.  Salad every day at lunch and for most suppers.  So much salad that I often feel like a rabbit.  Thank the good Lord I don’t live in Memphis or I’d soon look like the Hindenburg.  I was almost relieved to be flying out that night and it was tough to walk past the smell of BBQ in the airport food court, but I strengthened my resolve and walked on by.

I do have to say: people really are nicer in the South.  Quick to smile and laugh, willing to take the time and chat.  Makes we dour New Englanders look like Swedes or Tea Party members.  I know critics will say that the hospitality and warmth are just surface and nothing more than customary pleasantness, but it still makes the day to day interactions sweeter.  Memphis has for a decade been at or near the top of the country’s most violent and dangerous cities list (though Mayor Wharton has lead a dramatic downturn in crime), belying its gracious charm.  Yet there is a sweet quality to the way people engage with strangers.

Sweeter still is Southern language, so much more musical and poetic than the dry terse discourse of the North.  Within hours I found myself saying things like “I’m fixin to get some BBQ” and “Bless your soul…”  It’s easy to see why so many of our greatest writers came out of the South given the musicality and richness of the language. 

Memphis, I am fixin to come back and sit a spell and just soak up your food, music, and charm.  I want to attend services at Rev. Al Green’s nearby church (his “Let’s stay Together” is our wedding song), visit the Jungle Room over at Graceland, visit Sun Records and then drive over to Muscle Shoals — places where some of our greatest music has been recorded, maybe meander down to Oxford, Mississippi and soak up some of Faulkner’s spirit, tour the Civil Rights Museum, and eat as much fried chicken as I possibly can. 

Then I’ll waddle back north to join my flinty New England brethren warmed by your charm, music, and BBQ sauce and start planning my next trip down.

One thought on “Twenty-Four Hours in Memphis

  1. Bethany Perkins says:

    Excuse me… Would someone please kindly help me lift this hundred pound weight that now rests on my chest? … You capture it well, Paul.

    And if you get the urge to go to Oxford, may I recommend stopping through Merigold to meet Mr. Faulkner’s old friend, Lee McCarty, who captures the author’s spirit with so much more than just his art.

    The best (and, admittedly also the worst) things of the South seems to be those still “stuck” in the past.

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