We stood outside the Best Western Benchmark, on Union across from the street from the famous Peabody burdened with ill-gotten booty from Graceland and the Elvis Mall. The parking attendant had just whisked away Fergie, the lime-green rental Ford Focus when Sister #4 decided that she really needed a cigarette before we made our way up to the third floor. I had not booked us a smoking room.
So there we stood in the damp, crisp Memphis afternoon watching the traffic on Union. We talked about the Jungle room and how nice, though, damp the 40-degree weather felt compared to Minnesota in February. Sister #4 leisurely smoked her cigarette and rifled off plans for the evening.
“Excuse me ladies,” he said as he approached. “Do you have an extra cigarette?”
Sister #4 dug into the pocket of her Oregon Ducks coat and produced a pack of Marlboro Lights, and handed him one.
“You from Oregon,” he asked as he cupped his hand around the cigarette and shielded the lighter with the bill of his New York Yankees cap.
“No,” I said. “We’re from Minnesota.”
“Minnesota,” he said drawing out the three syllables. “What’cha doing down here in Memphis?”
“We went to Graceland,” I said holding up the bags of ill-gotten booty.
“Yes, of course. I’m Gino,” he said thrusting his hand out.
“I’m Jodi,” I said taking his hand and shaking it. “This is my sister.”
“This your first time in Memphis?”
“I was here once, in college. But it was only for a night.”
“You’re gonna love Memphis. It’s a great town. I moved here when I was six, to be raised by my Uncle Fred.”
“Really,” I said because I didn’t know what else to say.
“Yup. I remember when Beale Street over there nothing more than liquor stores and pawn shops. Man that street has some history. I used to shine shoes down there on Beale back in the 60s when Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker would play their music on the sidewalks. They’d keep their tip jars on the sidewalk in fronna them and just play and play. Yup, that’s back before them entertainment companies started buying up all dem buildin’ and making it all nice.”
“Wow,” I said again, for lack of anything better to say.
“Yup, there ain’t much about Memphis I can’t tell you about. What else you gone do while you’re here.”
“We’re going to Sun Studios and the National Civil Rights Museum,” Sister #4 volunteered.
“Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King,” Gino said. “Thems was some sad times for Memphis. So, what you want to know? Ol’ Gino can tell you everything you need to know.”
“So, where can we get some good barbecue,” I asked.
“HOOOEEE,” He said stomping his feet with glee and turning about. “I just knew yous was gonna ask that. That’s what everyone wants to know. Gino, they say, where can we go to get the good barbecue?”
Sister #4 and I just laughed as Gino started walking towards the end of the block.
“C’mere,” he said motioning us towards the alley between two hotels.
We looked at each other and shrugged. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, daylight; we decided we were safe and walked towards Gino.
“See, right down there? That’s Charlie Vertigo’s. That’s where you go for some good barbecue. You gotta go in the backway. A few years ago he opened up the front way, but you know people still come in through the backdoor.”
“Right on, we’re staying right here,” I said pointing to the Benchmark that was about 10 feet from the entrance of Charlie Vertigo’s.
“That’s a nice place,” Gino said.
“Thanks so much,” I said. “I’d have never thought to go there.”
“You’re ever so welcome. Brrr, it’s cold,” he said. “It must be nice to you, but here, in Memphis this is cold.”
“Yeah, it seems pretty warm to us,” I said.
“We’ve had a tough winter,” Gino said. “I usually stay at a mission a few blocks away. But they only let us stay five nights before they charge us. It’s been so cold this winter; I’ve already used up my free nights. It’s $7 to stay the night. I’m not asking you for $7, because people should tell you for free about this fine city and where to get the good barbecue. But if you could spare anything, I’d really appreciate it.”
“Here,” I said handing him all the loose change a few dollars from my pocket.
“I’ve got some too,” Sister #4 said giving him a few more dollars and bunch of change. “Is that enough? I can go up and get some more.”
“No,” he said. “You’ve been more than generous.”
“Thank you Gino,” I said and turned to leave, suddenly quite uncomfortable by the whole situation.
“Thank you,” he said pulling my arm as I turned and hugging me. “Are all the girls from Minnesota as nice as you all are?”
“Most of them,” I said over my shoulder.
“Don’t forget,” he shouted, “Charlie Vertigo’s. They got the good barbecue.”
“Do you think we did the right thing,” Sister #4 asked as we entered the warm lobby of the Benchmark. “Should we have given him the money? I just felt so bad, I wanted to go up and give him more. Maybe I should get some more so he has enough to stay for the night. I didn’t know what to do.”
“We did just fine,” I said.