Going to Graceland

Usually a Lyft means a furtive half-hour drive on heaving pot-holed suburban freeways with high-strung New Jerseyans racing to get me to Newark Liberty airport. Every now and again, though, I get to hang in the back seat of a car in an altogether more relaxed state. Today is one such day. I decided to take today off months ago, and drank just enough last night to make sure I didn’t get up early. I go for a run, dry off, change, and book a ride from my Air BnB to [Memphis, Tennessee, I’m going to] Graceland.

The sun is shining, my hangover’s in the rearview, and the Lyft app tells me to expect Lamontre in a white Dodge Charger. My grin broadens when three minutes later the iconic American muscle car growls around the corner of Marion St., rear windows cracked, blaring The Arrows’ “I love Rock and Roll”. I open the door and the car smells strongly of weed. Lamontre reaches back to clear a bunch of shirts and underwear from the back seat and coyly excuses the small pastel blue homemade bass guitar in the seat well. Turns out he made it himself, and his wife painted it. He passes back a six-string backpacker guitar, also blue – not handmade. He’s teaching himself slowly – E chord, A, chord, B chord, scales and theory – and wonders if I can play.

Lamontre is a Rasta-capped black welder from Memphis in his mid-fifties who’s spent about ten years of the last thirty in Milwaukee because that’s where the work was. Now he drives for Lyft twelve hours a day. He lost a daughter a few years ago, but his other child is 25 and bore him grandkids, which is partly why he keeps two booster seats in the car with his laundry. Lamontre is the author of three books, about various events in his life from the points of view of imaginary bystanders. His sister put them on Amazon. He’s a self-taught music producer too, but until recently never got around to applying himself to the craft he’s admired his whole life in rock, blues and jazz guitarists.

He had an old white guy in the car a few weeks ago who tuned the backpacker guitar and unimpressively just played E, A and B. They stopped at an ATM and when the dude got back in he began playing and singing the blues! Lamontre is so excited telling this tale – like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. His naive enthusiasm is intoxicating. It also distracts him a little from driving, but hey – apparently about half the people he picks up can play a little guitar. I tell him I’m a horrible guitarist and a much better drummer.

Lamontre recently put little red stickers on all the places on his guitar neck he can play ‘E’. He asks if I’m an investor or an inventor and if I’ve ever heard of anyone else doing that. I confess I know of hundreds of music teachers who do it routinely, and that I only wish I could call myself an investor (I’m no inventor either, just banging around on things other people make). Lamontre is thrilled to be on his new guitar-learning journey, since he has the rest of his life to keep learning. What an utterly joyful perspective.

He drops me off at a cavernous café near Elvis’s Graceland mansion. I can’t figure out where the entrance is for people who want to eat in, so I just stand and watch a parade of beautifully attired Southern black folks in their Sunday suits queueing to buy lunch, suddenly feeling terribly self-conscious about my disintegrated faith, slovenly attire, and the copy of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists I’m (now coyly) carrying under my arm. I walk to Graceland and am turned away at the gates – apparently you can only arrive there by shuttle bus. I stroll the quarter-mile to the bus stop and museums, grab a burger and a beer at Gladys’ Diner, and look on Amazon for Lamontre Maxwell. I purchase What These Eyes Have Seen with alacrity. It’s 54 pages long and will arrive in the mail next week. Now, for reasons I cannot explain, some part of me wants to see Graceland.

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