By Shelley Powers
I love Elvis.
Actually, I’m kind of required to. It’s a Mississippi thing, I guess, like knowing how to brew the perfect pitcher of iced tea or saying “sir” and “ma’am” to everyone from your parents to attendants at the McDonald’s drive-through.
So, going to Graceland has felt like a “must do” for me for years.
And I finally checked it off my list this past August when I went with my brothers, Ben and Cooper.
But, oddly enough, the trip I had expected to be all about Elvis ended up not being about Elvis, or even his home. It was about…well…the people at Graceland, people I had been all-too-ready to judge before I even got to know them.
NOTHING BUT A HOUND DOG
Before I go any further, I feel I need to qualify what I mean when I say, “I love Elvis.”
I’m not a super fan, but I certainly enjoy his songs when they pop up in a shuffled playlist on my phone. And I’m amazed at his talent and charisma, which have transcended his death to influence artists even today. I also take more than a little pride in the fact that, not only were Elvis and I born in the same state, but that my dad in his younger years (at least in my eyes) bared a resemblance to The King.
For people in this little corner of the world—especially for the generations before me—being connected to one another is important…but being connected to Elvis is magical.
I’ve heard more than my fair share of stories about Elvis sightings (the living Elvis, not the after-death sightings). From seeing him tooling around Memphis on his motorcycle to glimpsing him at a barber shop, having a story of seeing Elvis as an everyday person is a badge of honor.
My Elvis story is a non-story at best. I never saw him in person, but my Uncle Rusty was going to take my cousins, Heidi, Jeannie, and Darin, and me to see him at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum in Biloxi in 1977. We were all devastated when Elvis died in August of that year.
So, as I barreled up I-55 from Jackson toward Memphis with Cooper this past summer for a weekend visit with Ben, my hopes were to make some personal connection with The King by seeing his famous and beloved Graceland.
WISE MEN SAY, ONLY FOOLS RUSH IN
Let’s be very clear on one thing: Cooper, who’s 23, had absolutely no desire to see Graceland. None.
He was simply along because he and Ben were going to a hip-hop concert that Friday night…and, to be honest, because Ben was pulling out his smoker and cooking us some ribs that Saturday.
Ben and I had pulled rank on him as older siblings and told him categorically that “no, you can’t stay at the house in the air conditioning and play video games and watch movies while we go to Graceland. You’re coming with us, and we’re going to have fun.”
I woke up early that Saturday and sat in my room while Ben and Coop slept in, recouping from their late Friday-night concert. I quietly sat in bed with my phone and made my morning Facebook checks.
As I was scrolling, I began to notice something odd. My friends were posting pictures of Elvis. Lots of pictures. I did a quick Google search for an explanation and hit palm to forehead when I realized what day it was.
I stumbled out of bed and down the hall to find Ben letting his dogs out.
“Full disclosure,” I said, as I entered the kitchen.
“What?” he threw over his shoulder.
“Today’s the anniversary of ‘the death.’”
Ben stopped and looked at me. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I wasn’t. It was August 16, and all I could picture was the utter chaos that was to be Graceland that day.
The mere fact that Ben knew what I meant when I said “the death” without any qualifier should tell you how Mississippians speak of The King and how solemn this anniversary is. We all know what’s meant by “the death,” just as we all know what’s meant by “the birthplace.” Not a manger, but a shotgun shack in Tupelo, MS, where The King of Rock and Roll was born.
“I kind of think we have to go, now.” I said.
Ben thought for a minute. I could almost see the throngs of people running through his mind. But then he drew his lips in a defiant line, took a deep breath, and slightly nodded. “I think we do.”
So after we woke Cooper up—who was even less thrilled about the trip with this new revelation—we all got ready then piled in the car and headed to south Memphis.
We had no idea how long the day was about to become.
CAUGHT IN A TRAP; WE CAN’T WALK OUT
Elvis Presley Boulevard takes you to Graceland. On one side of the street you have the stately, yet modest mansion sitting behind a stone fence and the iconic gates that open onto a rolling lawn with perfectly manicured grounds.
Across the street, however, is bedlam. It’s a strip-mall-meets-bus-terminal-meets-food-court-meets-weigh-station-to-Glory. The crowds that will, inevitably, climb aboard a shuttle 30 at a time to drive directly across the street for the tour must first wait interminably in this Presley Purgatory.
We waited there for three and half hours before our tour of Graceland, which was only scheduled to be 90 minutes long.
Sooooo….we had plenty of time to eat, shop, and do a lot of people watching.
As we walked though the multi-acre parking lot past Heartbreak Hotel and toward the music wafting from the stores and the restaurants, we passed cars bearing license plates from all around the United States. Georgia, New York, Kentucky, New Jersey, Missouri, Virginia, Texas, etc., each car seemed to be from a different state.
We bought our tickets and immediately made our way to the gift shop for some swag.
I was in line, waiting to purchase an Elvis mug, a magnet, and the TCB lapel pin Ben just had to have, when I met my first Graceland regular.
“You’ll be back for more,” said a sure voice behind me.
I spun around and came face to face with a man in his late 60s/early 70s, who was wearing a shirt that was unbuttoned about three buttons too far and who had gray hair sprouting from under his Confederate-style hat down to his shoulders.
I smiled and said in a sing-song voice, “Oh, I don’t kno-ow.”
“Everyone comes back for more,” he replied.
I smiled again, nervously, then paid and left quickly, making a mental note to kill my brothers for meandering out of the store and leaving me in line by myself.
I found the boys and tried to launch into my tirade but couldn’t divert their attention away from their discussion about lunch choices. They were hungry and, since I was too, I refocused my energy and we all decided to amble over to Rockabilly’s Diner for a burger, fries, and a drink.
As we sat in that diner, we got to really see a broad sampling of the folks who visit Graceland. There were a lot of Baby Boomers and older. There were also a lot of men with unbuttoned shirts and a lot women showing ample portions of décolletage. Both sexes used an alarming amount of hair products, and trending, at least that day, was a shocking number of sideburns (men only…from what I could tell).
So, when Marie Westwood of Perth Western Australia (one of five Aussies I met there that day…Qantas must have been running a special) came be-bopping into the diner wearing her modest-yet-adorable poodle skirt, neckerchief, and ponytail, I had to walk over and take her picture. She was as happy as her outfit and was tickled to have her photo made.
I asked her if she had ever been to Graceland before, and she explained that she has flown in from Down Under every year for 12 years. I stood there, a bit stupefied, and asked, “Why?”
Marie lit up. “All the people I get to meet!”
Completely missing her point, I just smiled and thanked her.
After we ate, the boys and I decided to sit outside for the rest of our wait in the courtyard area at Graceland Crossing. As we sat down on a bench, we couldn’t help but notice one slender, blonde boy wearing a shiny black jumpsuit with fringe. He. Was. Awesome.
Temptation got the better of me as soon I spotted him hovering around some adults, and I made my way over to ask if I could take his picture. Not only did they all jump at the chance for him to be photographed, they started telling me their tale.
Elijah Allen Bousman (who was not only rockin’ the jumpsuit, but who posed like a pro for his photograph) and his family are from Illinois. This was his second year to visit Graceland, but it was the first year for his brother, Ezekiel Elvis Bousman, named, of course, after The King. The boys had journeyed with their grandfather, Jerry Domer, who was so proud to be there for the first time with his grandsons. Jerry eagerly listed for me all the times he’d seen Elvis perform, starting when he was 10 years old and saw Elvis’s first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Not long after meeting Elijah and Jerry, our shuttle number was called and my brothers and I moved from the courtyard to the queue for the shuttle, where we waited for another 30 plus minutes.
In line with us were all kinds of folks: Boomers, hipsters, parents, grandparents, hard-core Elvis fans, folks who looked as if they had been coerced into coming (Cooper led this category), and so many others. There really wasn’t any one type of person…well…except when it came to being photographed before boarding the shuttle.
A genius marketing tool, an outdoor photo shoot is set up for everyone in line to pass through on their way to board the shuttle. Each person has a chance to have his or her picture snapped in front of an enormous painting of Graceland (complete with gilded frame). After our long wait in line and watching group after group stand and give the same awkward, staid smiles, I turned to my brothers and said, “Look, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”
Both nodded, and on our photographer’s count of three, we struck our best Graceland pose (see photo atop this article).
Everyone in line laughed and applauded. And I walked away knowing that, no matter what that picture cost, I was going to buy it. (It cost $25 for those of you who were wondering.)
As we boarded our shuttle, we were handed iPads for the self-guided tour, voiced by none other than John “Have Mercy” Stamos. Cooper turned down the offer of the device, a move I envied as soon as I put the lanyard over my head and felt the moistness of a thousand necks touch my skin.
We took our seats and off we lumbered for our one-minute drive across the street and through the gates of Graceland.
And the tour, finally, began.
There’s not much I can say about Graceland that hasn’t been written about over the years. Yes, it’s smaller than I thought it would be, and it was definitely decorated in the era of more is not enough. I can’t even share with you any of the photos I took without the clearance of Graceland’s Corporate Office.
But, like I said…none of that really matters. You all know about the shag carpet in the Jungle Room. And I’m sure all of you have seen pictures of the stained glass peacocks in the iconic living room.
We toured the house and grounds and ended poolside at Elvis’ burial site, which was bordered by heaping piles of flowers and stuffed animals laid there by fans. Finally, we walked back to the shuttle, past an alley of flowers and wreaths sent by people from all over the world in memory this legendary entertainer named Elvis Presley.
ALL MY DREAMS FULFILLED
So, I’ve been to Graceland. Done.
Did I have my magical Elvis moment? Experience a connection to The King?
Not really. I don’t think seeing his home could ever resonate with me as emotionally as hearing his music does.
But I am glad I went.
From the chatty guy in line at the gift shop to ponytailed Marie the Aussie to Little Elijah and his brother, Elvis, to the hipsters who made out in line in front of us, and, finally, to my wonderful brothers who made the whole trip completely worthwhile, Graceland, to me, is just about having fun, letting go, and opening yourself up to the myriad of other folks who made the long trek to visit the home of The King.
Marie, you were absolutely right…and, who knows, maybe I’ll see you on trip number 13.