Unfortunately, by the time the bus departed Vicksburg, it was already dark, which meant I could not see much of the Delta region (I think there was a blues musician who defined the ‘Delta’ as being everywhere between Catfish Row in Vicksburg and Beale Street in Memphis). I could see that it was flat and not as forested as the ‘Heartland’ (the region of Mississippi where Natchez and Vicksburg are located). There was also a 15 minute stop in Greenville (the hometown of Jim Henson of Muppets fame), where I got to see … the bus station.
The nicest thing I can say about transportation in Memphis is that there is little traffic, so that if one has a motor vehicle, one can move very quickly through the city.
Public transit, however, sucks. I had to deal with this as soon as I arrived in Memphis, because when I got to the Greyhound station, the last local bus had already departed. Because the last local bus departs at 10 PM (it did not help that the bus I arrived on was late, thus arriving after 10 PM). I had no choice but to hire a taxi, because the Greyhound bus station is located at the edge of town near the airport, rather than in a location where tourists (other than those on their way to the airport) would want to be. On another day, I had to take the taxi *again* because the buses had stopped running early in the evening.
The Amtrak station, sensibly, is in downtown Memphis. The Megabus stop, however, is at a *different* bus station which is even further away from downtown Memphis than the Greyhound station. Making transfers between Amtrak/Greyhound/Megabus would be tricky in Memphis.
The silver lining is that I got to talk to taxi drivers. One was a native of Memphis, and another was an immigrant from East Africa (he did not specify which country). I asked the East African driver what he liked about Memphis. “I will be honest – nothing” he said. Then he admitted that he liked the low cost of living in Memphis, but he likes nothing else about the city. He was very surprised to learn that San Francisco’s population is only a little bigger than the population of Memphis, and that San Francisco has a much smaller land area (a lot of people, I have learned from my travels, are really surprised to learn that San Francisco has less than a million residents).
I also remember, on Beale Street, seeing a large group of (white) police officers. I asked one of them for directions, and they asked what I was looking for, and I said I was looking for a bus stop. The police officer replied “Memphis buses aren’t known for being on time, or safe.” Well, when I did ride the Memphis buses, I thought they looked remarkably clean, and all of the passengers were friendly to me. I actually felt safer on the buses of Memphis than I would on many San Francisco buses. The passengers were also clearly lower-income blacks. On the one hand, I suppose a police officer who works in Memphis knows much more about crime in the area than a tourist who has never been to Tennessee before. On the other hand … I wonder whether the police officer claimed that the buses were dangerous *primarily* because nearly all of the passengers are lower-income blacks, not because of how the bus passengers actually behave (well, I suppose that when the police officer said that Memphis buses weren’t safe, he might have actually meant that the drivers are reckless rather than meaning that the passengers are dangerous, though I also did not witness the bus drivers engaging in recklessness).
One of the first things I did when I arrived at the hostel was pick up a copy of the Memphis Flyer, a weekly newspaper in Memphis. It contained this opinion piece about public transit in Memphis.
I talked with one of the staff at the hostel where I’m staying at about public transit. He said that the 56 bus was really nice because it was frequent – it came every 30 minutes. In San Francisco, a bus which only comes every 30 minutes is an *infrequent* bus (the only buses in San Francisco which are scheduled to be less frequent than every 30 minutes between the hours of 6 AM and midnight are the buses which cross the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge). He was amazed that San Francisco even has buses which run 24 hours a day. He said that most guests end up using Uber because the buses are too troublesome. My stupidphone is too stupid to use Uber, but even if I could use Uber, I prefer to hire taxis because taxi companies pay drivers fairly (unlike Uber).
I’ll present two more examples of transit fail. First of all, there used to be a trolley which ran in downtown Memphis, but it hasn’t been running for at least half a year (I’m not sure of the timelines) because the trolleys kept on breaking down and the public transit agency didn’t fix them (I told the staff member at the hostel that they are probably being sold to San Francisco, and that San Francisco’s public transit agency will probably fix them and put them on San Francisco’s streets because they tend to do that with other cities’ old streetcars). Second, the bus stops … do not state which bus line stops there. I have to guess, or look it up on the internet, and even then I can’t be sure. Even in the bus stations I couldn’t find a system-wide map – the only place I saw one was the hostel. I understand that MATA (the public transit agency) is broke, but surely even a broke public transit agency can have a sign indicating which bus lines stop at a given stop.
I did not expect Memphis to have as good a public transit system as San Francisco but … San Antonio actually has a decent bus system. Is it too much to ask that Memphis have as good a public transit system as San Antonio, Texas?
Anyway, I liked the hostel. It’s inside the First Congregational Church, which outside has signs saying things like “We’ve been called radical, liberal, progressive … we just thought it was CHRISTIAN” and “Though our building is yellow, we’re going green … recycling, solar panels, farmer’s market, trees & garden” and “Faith, compassion … and bike repair.” In addition to the hostel, the church also contains a bike repair shop and a store which sells fair trade goods.
There is also a farmer’s market which is hosted in the church’s parking lot. At the farmer’s market I bought some tea from a women who blends her own teas. She in inspired by the vampire novels her friends write, so some of the tea blends she sells are named after characters and/or places from her friends’ vampire novels. I also bought vegetables from a farm which is actually just six miles north of the church. The next day, I cooked up those vegetables – it made for a pretty good meal. It was, in a sense, the mostly authentically Memphian meal I could have eaten.
The church/hostel in in a neighborhood called Cooper-Young. It is a hipster neighborhood. This was very convenient for me, as a vegan staying at the hostel, since like any self-respecting hipster neighborhood, it has a vegan restaurant, and it was within walking distance of the hostel (which is very important when public transit is so bad). Everything I ate at Imagine Cafe was delicious. Cooper-Young is full of houses built in the early 20th century, and they are both bigger and have bigger space around them than most houses in San Francisco (or New Orleans, for that matter). When walking away from the commercial streets, the avenues are lined with these towering trees which are still decked out in fall colors. Even if my camera’s battery weren’t dead, I don’t think I could have captured the effect with pictures.
There was also a set of train tracks which ran near the hostel. I could hear the horns from the dorm bed. There was also one time when I had to cross the train tracks and … there was a train which was stopped, at the crossing, for more than twenty minutes. The cars turned away, but I could not because a) I was not sure where the nearest alternative crossing was and b) it was probably too far a distance to walk anyway. I was tempted to jump the train just to get to the other side. Yet another incident of Bad Transportation in Memphis.
Next to the train track, there was this large puddle. I noticed it during my very first taxi ride from the Greyhound station because it looked odd. The next day I figured out why it looked odd – it was frozen on the top. But when I stepped on it, the ice easily cracked, and there was still liquid water in the puddle. The little kid in me thought that this was fun.
It seems that everywhere I’ve gone in this trip, the local people have been apologizing to me for the cold weather. The people in San Antonio apologized to me that I had come at such a cold time of year. The people of Natchez apologized that I had come during a cold wave. The people of Vicksburg apologized for the cold. (To be fair, the people of New Orleans did not apologize to me – they said that being in New Orleans in cold and rainy December was much better than being in New Orleans in the hot and humid summer). And in Memphis, the people, once again, kept on talking about how cold it was. I told all of them the same thing – “The place I am going to next is even colder”. And that was almost always true – the only exception was that New Orleans was not colder than San Antonio.
So, that was my ‘life’ in Memphis. In the text post, I’ll discuss the touristy stuff I did in Memphis.