This week, I went to Graceland for the first time. Graceland needs no explanation yet simultaneously demands it. Graceland is the Momma and the Poppa of tourist traps. It is Disneyland for old people, the Eiffel Tower for people whose more present reality is Paris, Texas. I have wanted to go my entire life, and Graceland knows this. This is why Graceland charges $35 dollars entry fee, and why its tour packages go up to $150 just to see the inside of Elvis’ private jet. Graceland is too expensive. It knows it’s too expensive. What are you going to do, not go? it sneers, as you hand over your money.
This trip comes at the tail end of a two-and-a-half-week tour of the American South. I have had beads thrown at me in New Orleans, fired a .38 special in Austin and been frightened for my life in Alabama. We have a little over $100 left in our holiday savings account, and two days before we go home. Gavin looks askance at me, and to his credit, only asks me once: Do you have to do this?
If you have ever driven through America, you will have noticed the churches. We whizz past them while eating fistfuls of dry cereal. The First Episcopalian Church of Tennessee. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Louisiana. There is a Christianity for everyone here, but no real heartland, no concrete direction to pray toward. This is part of my explanation when we are waiting for our tour to start, although he has not asked for one. Graceland is the spiritual everyplace, because Elvis is for everyone. He’s a cheeseburger. He is pop culture’s ground zero. He is the first music I ever listened to, in my Dad’s car, us both imitating the Presley snarl he was raised on.
John Stamos narrates the audio tour, and this is obviously a long-running private joke between everyone who works at Graceland.
“When John Stamos starts talking, please proceed up the stairs.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please listen to the audio instructions provided to you by John Stamos.”
Wry smiles and eye-rolls between everyone, and you wonder what it’s like to work at Graceland for your summer job. Elvis Presley indirectly employs about a quarter of the youth of Memphis, it seems. And that doesn’t even factor in the people who we don’t see: making the fridge magnets, polishing Priscilla’s wedding china, combing the knots out of the shag carpeting in the Jungle Room. We walk through the perfectly choreographed tour, timed so hundreds of identical tours can pass through each day. My fists are balled the entire time. Elvis. Elvis lived here. Elvis’s china monkey. Elvis’s racquet ball room. Poking and peering through Elvis’s taste to confirm what we already know: that Elvis had no taste.
I think of Paul Simon’s Graceland the entire time I am there: my travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets. I’m looking at ghosts and empties.
I never understood that line until I actually went to Graceland, until I actually looked at the empty sockets, and felt the acute strangeness of poking around a home that is no longer a home. We are used to this in Europe: we are freely invited, as members of the tax-paying public, to wander into the homes of 17th century nobles and mutely judge their spoon collections. But being in a historic site that was last occupied properly in 1973 has a queerness to it: you are reminded not to take flash photography of a 40 year-old white leather couch, not to fiddle with the knobs on Elvis’s three televisions in the basement rec room. We are meticulously preserving things that are barely old with the firm knowledge that they are important and need saving.
And I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
I have a peculiarly emotional set of friends, and four of us – me, Harry, John and Ella – have an after dinner ritual that we’ve been performing for a couple of years. I don’t know how it started, but we sing Graceland. It’s not a question of whether we will sing it, but whether it is yet time to sing it. We sang it when John was well and we sing it now he is sick, too. We have sang it smiling at each other, roast beef still stuck in our teeth, wondering how anything could ever be as nice as this. We have sang it with our eyes closed, which is embarrassing, but we have.
John and Ella’s flat is tiny, and famous, and at any given time Harry or I could be carrying a set of keys to it. We are told dinner will be at 8, but dinner is served at no earlier than 10. This is because Ella and I will be squealing in the kitchen with our arms around each other, because we have both read the same children’s novel, and we have both remembered the same line, at the same time. Or, because of a fight about the correct way to pan-fry a pigeon steak. Or, because, someone will have eaten all the ingredients, and Ella will have swatted a hand away in righteous fury. “Caroline, you fucking gannet. GET OUT OF THE PARMESAN.”
As we drive out of Tennessee and into Mississippi, I put Graceland on the radio again and sing it. Thinking, too much, about the last year. Connecting, too much, two things that are not connected. Elvis has no connection to John, and Graceland bears no semblance to the Tiny Flat whatsoever. The narrative does not intertwine, and to suggest it does would only garner reviews that a writer tried to make her Trip Advisor review of Graceland about her sick friend, and how conceited of her to do so. That a writer felt she had no right to write about her sick friend – and indeed, doesn’t have a right to write about her sick friend – and found a vague excuse to do so.
Regardless, me and the man I am in love with drove through the Tennessee state line while I cried and sang Paul Simon’s Graceland at the top of my lungs. I cried because it isn’t fair that John has cancer, because it isn’t fair that Ella has a boyfriend with cancer, because it isn’t fair that Harry and I have a friend with cancer, because Gavin’s girlfriend’s friend has cancer. Because everyone has a right to a holy place, and because The Tiny Flat is ours, and how unfair that disease should be allowed to trespass into it in such a crass, overdressed way.
That’s Graceland for you, though. It kind of overstates the point. It’s too big, too much, too expensive. It takes a little too long. And as much we are here for each other, it is here for everyone.
Posted by Caroline