MEMPHIS — Postcards from Memphis.
Searching for the soul of this city, where the Warriors either might sprint two steps closer to glory or crash facedown, I stumbled into a time warp.
The lobby of the anciently elegant Peabody Hotel, where I have come to visit Elvis, is jammed with people waiting for something. A parade?
At least 300 people, upscale country-clubbers by their look, crowd the lobby around an ornate fountain.
It is the Walk of the Peabody Ducks! Five ducks swim in the waters of the fountain. Every afternoon, in an elaborate ceremony, at the cue of the Duckmaster, the ducks leave the pond, march down a red carpet to the elevator and proceed to their rooftop digs, a marble-and-glass duck palace. Every morning, same ceremony, they return to the lobby.
I have seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and at Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. Those ceremonies can’t carry the jock of the Walk of the Peabody Ducks.
Five trained ducks marching on a red carpet to their penthouse. Walking in Memphis.
About 5 miles from the downtown Peabody, but in another universe, I cruise through the Orange Mound district. This was the first neighborhood in the U.S. built by and for African Americans, in the 1890s.
For decades, it was the Harlem of the South, a beacon of the black American renaissance. The Orange Mound fell on hard times in the ’60s and ’70s, but in recent years is bouncing back. It’s still the type of neighborhood where most of the businesses have crude, hand-painted signs. If you want Memphis grit-n-grind, here you go.
The motto of the Memphis Grizzlies, and really of the city itself, is Grit-n-Grind. Guard Tony Allen is know as the Grindfather.
A plaque at a downtown mural reads, “We are a culturally diverse, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ... grit-n-grind city.”
Outside an Orange Mound beauty parlor, Rodney McChriston is enjoying the sun.
He’s a hoops fan. Played ball at Midland Junior College in Texas in the early ’80s, the backcourt running mate of mighty-mite Spud Webb.
“I’m a die-hard Grizzlies fan,” says McChriston, wearing a Jordan-logo shirt. “If you ask me, I’m sayin’ two-nothing (Grizzlies win the next two in Memphis). Realistically, I’ll go for a split.”
I ask him about the grit-n-grind.
“It’s part of Memphis,” says McChriston, whose wife styles hair in the salon. “Everyone in Memphis is hustling, working, grinding it out. It’s what we do. Like my friend in the truck there. He throws papers (delivers newspapers), cuts yards, everything. Do what you have to do. Grit-n-grind.”
No March of the Peabody Ducks in the Orange Mound.
This is the city where the King and King both died.
It’s a shock when you drive up to the National Civil Rights Museum, because it’s built around the preserved remains of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in ’68.
You’ve seen the photos, and suddenly you’re there. You stand on a second-floor balcony next to Room 306, where King was staying when he came to town to support the garbage workers’ strike, wading into a sea of hate and violence, as he did on a regular basis.
On the desk of King’s Room 306 is an opened carton of milk and two ashtrays filled with butts. You’re standing 5 feet from the balcony where King was shot from a boardinghouse bathroom window across Mulberry Street.
He was shot in the neck. The man who ran to King’s fallen body found a cigarette in the reverend’s hand. The single rifle shot to his neck had blown the knot off his tie.
“Longevity has its place,” King told a packed auditorium in a stirring speech the night before, scorning fear of death. He said it wasn’t about what might happen to him, but, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them? ... I’m not fearing any man.”
No time for Graceland, but I pop into Sun Records, where Elvis Presley broke into the recording biz, cutting a record for his mama, under the eye of Sam Phillips.
This is rock ’n’ roll ground zero. Carl Perkins recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” here.
Elvis changed the world. He wasn’t involved in the civil rights movement, but he spawned the rock ’n’ roll generation, which carried the ball in the civil rights fight.
Elvis ghosts? I return to the lobby of the Peabody, to Lansky and Son clothing store in the lobby, and say “Hi” to Hal Lansky. His father was Elvis’ clothier for much of his career. They teamed to popularize Elvis’ pink-and-black motif.
Lansky and Elvis bonded when the teenage Presley stood outside the shop, drooling at the clothing in the window. Lansky fitted Elvis for his prom tux right here at the Peabody and later sewed signature suits for the King, including his checked Ed Sullivan jacket.
Later Elvis was too Hollywoody. Early Elvis was all grit-n-grind.
I check into my hotel. Ask the clerk if she’s a Grizzlies fan.
“Grit-n-grind!” she beams.
Scott Ostler is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @scottostler