Although the target destination for today was Memphis, we decided on a slight detour to the town of “Hot Springs”. It might be difficult to guess the town’s reason for being, but I’ll put you out of your misery and let you know that it is a spa town built on “hot springs”.
As we were to later to find out from the proprietor of the cafe where we stopped for lunch (more on that later), Hot Springs enjoyed its hay-day in the first half of the 20th century, when a number of spa resorts thrived in the town.
It also was home to an enormous infirmary where people came to enjoy the recuperative powers of the sterile waters from hot springs. He also told us this aided a lot of returned servicemen in treating the venerable diseases they brought back from the war, but that was a little too much information, particularly over lunch.
Most of the bath houses fell into disuse and have since been converted into galleries, boutiques or upmarket spas. The Buckstaff Bathhouse was one that has continuously operated as a bathhouse, so despite the chilly overcast day outside, we chose to see what a bathhouse experience was all about.
Segregated into male and female facilities, stepping into the bathhouse was like stepping back in time. In the men’s facilities, a 50-something African American called James informed me he was to be my bathhouse assistant during my visit, and deposited me into clawfoot tub filled with water directly from the springs, warmed to a constant 106 degrees fahrenheit (40 degrees celsius).
After 15 minutes in the hottub, being pummeled by the jet stream created by an antique contraption in the bath, James came and gave me a full body scrub down with a lufer. Being scrubbed down by another man is not an experience I am familiar with, but sometimes you just have to roll with it.
When he got me out of the bath, he (correctly) identified that I have a bit of soreness in my lower back and a few knots in my shoulders. Pleasingly, he then said “other than that, you’re in pretty good shape”. I like James.
At least, I did until I reflected on the population base that I had been observing for the past couple of weeks were the people that James was using a point of comparison, and then I didn’t feel his comments were any great cause for celebration.
After the hot tub, he had me sit in the “Sitz Tub”, like an old fashioned ceramic wash basin, set about a foot off the ground. I was about to ask him the derivation of the name, until I realised it is a “tub you sitz in”.
With the Sitz Tub having worked its magic on my lower back, it was into a personal steam room, set at 140 degrees (60 degrees celsius), followed by a hot towel treatment then and then finishing with a shower. Quite an array of treatments all within an hour.
Strangely for me, throughout the process James was very subservient and didn’t allow me to do anything. At one stage I went to pick up a towel and he almost snatched it away from me, letting me know firmly but politely that that was his job.
James had worked at the bathhouse for 35 years, and I guess his actions were simply those that he had grown used to over the years, but for me, it seemed entirely unusual and a bit uncomfortable.
Having done something good for our bodies, we decided to balance things and went to the Colonial Pancake and Waffle cafe for lunch (as mentioned above). Feeling a bit decadent, Jane had an enormous waffle and I had a stack of pecan pancakes, both with maple syrup and ice-cream. Granted, it was not the most healthy of lunches, but god damn it was good.
We drove through the afternoon, via a quick drive through Little Rock (no sign of Bill Clinton), arriving in Memphis in the early evening. We found a hotel near the famous Beale St, dumped our bags and went out in search of the Blues.
The main block of Beale St is closed off from traffic in the evenings for pedestrians and is lined with bar after bar with live music. Even though the central theme is blues, the variety of music you can find is vast. Starting with a group playing Johnny Cash and Johnny O’Keefe covers, we moved to a dimly lit, smoke filled bar featuring a band with a lead singer who looked like he had eaten a small child but had a fantastic gravelly voice that rasped out a range of blues tunes.
Throughout this band’s set, a number of people from the crowd got up and “subbed-in” to the band to play guitar or bass. One guy came in and joined the band for a song on saxaphone, then promptly left as quickly as he arrived.
We briefly visited the famous BB Kings and watched the “BB Kings All Stars” band play, complete with a brass section, then finished in a small bar I had stumbled across on my last visit to Memphis. At that time, I went back to my room and announced on Facebook the almost religious experience I had had in a small bar listening to a guy playing blues harmonica (it was late, I may have had a few drinks … )
Coincidentally, the same guy was playing in the same bar, albeit with a new band. I spoke to him between sets and he confirmed he was the same guy, and he told how the band I had previously seen had broken up soon after my last visit.
It was a bit of a bitter-sweet moment for me. It was good to be able to see him play again and share it with Jane, but kind of sad this guy with immense talent that I had thought was on the cusp of a great career, was still playing in this same small bar in Memphis, holding out a trash can for tips between songs. Who knows, maybe grand success and this venue aren’t mutually exclusive, but I kind of hope if I ever see this guy perform again, it will be in a bigger venue built on the back of his next phase of success.
At least next time, I should be able to remember his name.