Mary Lou Edwards
"Ma'am," the lady from the Visitors Center responded, "This is Elvis Week. There ain't a room for miles around--not even one with a bathtub never mind a swimmin' pool. Why the whole town is jam-packed. Fans come from all over the world!"
Welcome to Graceland, a place we'd managed to avoid but finally agreed to visit thanks to the relentless badgering of Gianna, our 12 year-old Elvis groupie. Elvis had been dead since 1977. Twenty years later, I assumed he'd have very few fans left so I made no advance hotel reservations.
Having driven the last 400 miles in a rain storm, "no room at the inn" was the last thing I needed to hear. I had four little girls in tow, ourdaughters, Gianna and Lia and their friends twelve-year old Amy and seven year-old Elise. They'd been good sports for 800 miles, but it was obvious they needed to work off some energy. My husband's twitching eyes suggested he was a bit on edge, and the "are we there yet" and "we're hungry" whines were not helping matters. The single stroke of luck had been that I walked into the Visitors Center alone and no one else heard the dire news. If my husband found out that I'd not booked a hotel during Elvis Week, he'd go absolutely ballistic. I had to get to a phone. Please, God, take pity on me and come through with a last minute cancellation I prayed.
I spotted the Family Fun Buffet--a drenched purple dinosaur waved people into the parking lot. "There's Barney!" I cheered, "Let's eat here!" With the sigh of a martyr, George turned into the parking lot.
"Go ahead and get a table while I stop in the Ladies Room," I said as they tore out of the van and streaked through the monsoon. Exiting the van, I slipped and plopped into a puddle. The soggy dinosaur waddled over and giggled, "Mam, let me help you. You look like you're in trouble." If Barney only knew I thought.
Limping into the restaurant, I found the Yellow Pages and a phone and dialed six hotels in a row only to hear, "Sorry, booked solid." On the seventh, I hit pay dirt. Yes, they had a room and they were located right across from Graceland! Is this luck or what? I thought. It proved to be or what?
I found George in the dining area, cradling his head on the table, exhausted from the long stormy drive. Each of the girls was inhaling a plate of desserts--cupcakes, pie, brownies, ice cream, Jell-o and cookies--all smothered in marshmallow fluff.
I winced at George's willingness to let the inmates run the asylum, but something told me I'd be pushing my luck if I started lecturing on nutrition. Instead I herded everyone back to the van and gave George directions to the Graceland Hotel.
"How did you find this place?" my husband asked as we turned into the ominous parking lot. Huge, burly men in uniform surrounded the property. "It looks like they have good security," I observed. "Good security? Are you nuts? They're carrying shot-guns."
"Maybe the hotel wants to discourage the Graceland fans from running across to use the bathrooms."
Later I learned of Graceland's unusual historic odyssey. Long ago, when a local doctor built what was to become Elvis' Graceland, the property was in a very rural area far outside Memphis. Years later when Elvis bought the house, Memphis had grown some, but the area was still a good distance from town and semi-rural. In the last 25 years, however, Memphis had grown by leaps and bounds and Graceland now sat in the middle of a rough, drug-riddled section of the city, but the armed militia did strike me as a bit over the top.
The desk clerk's tattoos suggested he could be an Insane Disciple gangbanger, but his demeanor was more menacing.
"Whatta you want?" he barked, as though we were trespassers.
"You have a reservation for Edwards," I said, gawking at his inch long pinkie nails and the hotel's Early Trailer Park decor.
"Oh, yeah, yer the lady called a few minutes ago. Room for six. That's $400."
"$400? You must be joking," I blurted. Making a quick recovery, I said, "If it's not too much trouble, may we see the room first?" We did not need to get on the wrong side of this guy.
"OK," he shrugged, "we'll take the stairs--elevator ain't workin'."
"This place gives me the creeps," George whispered as we made our way up the dingy stairwell. "It's either a drug den or a whorehouse."
"It's convenient to Graceland," I whispered back, "we'll push a dresser in front of the door."
We exited the stairwell, creeping along like a company of moles. The hall smelled of cigars and sweat. The carpeting was threadbare and stained.
When the intimidating desk clerk unlocked the room, the kids tore past us and immediately stripped to their swimsuits. I wanted to accept this room, but a layer of grime covered the bedspread,carpeting and windows.
I had to think of a diplomatic way to back out of this deal without aggravating the frightening thug.
"Girls," I called to the boisterous brood, "we can't stay here. We need more beds," I added, as we made a beeline for the door.
"Stop!" the biker ordered. "You din't seen the beds in the adjoining room." The adjoining room was a miniscule closet in which two sets of bunk beds had been crammed. The soiled mattresses had no linens.
"Look," Elise crowed, "a clubhouse!" The older girls scampered up the ladder.
"I figgered they'd like it," the biker remarked. "You git sheets at sign in."
As I sagged into defeat, I thought to ask about the pool.
"Sir, where is the swimming pool?"
"Filled it with see'ment during the remodel."
"No swimming pool?" I exclaimed loudly so the girls would hear. Thank God, they did.
They flew out the door chanting we want to swim...you promised... They couldn't have been more appropriately obnoxious if we'd rehearsed.
"They prolly covered a few ho'tel guests with see'ment when they remodeled," George remarked, as we squealed out of the parking lot.
Within minutes, he stopped in front of a Buy Your Elvis Souvenir Here store. "I'm running in to buy Graceland tickets," he said. "You did such a great job creating this disaster, think about straightening it out, Sweetie."
Threatening bodily harm if anyone dared leave the van, I found a phone and called the Visitors Center with a gut-wrenching tale that happened to be true--four children, an exhausted husband, a marriage at stake and nowhere to go.
"Well, we do have a special facility for emergency situations," the Greeter drawled. "It's a ho'tel on the outskirts of town that is completely filled up, but during Elvis Week, and only during Elvis Week, Memphis allows them to subdivide their banquet room into small cubicles and put some fold-aways in--that's all I got."
"We'll take it," I said.
"Now, mind you, this is special for Elvis Week since it is against the Memphis Fire Code. The roll-aways are $50 per night. Check-in is at eight and check-out is at eight and there's a swimmin' pool under the escalators in the lobby."
My husband returned. "Did you find a room at Heartbreak Hotel?"
"No, but I found a cubicle with six roll-aways. Check-in is at eight."
"Cubicle? Check-in at eight?" He viewed me with narrow-eyed suspicion. "Are you sure this isn't a homeless shelter?"
"No, it's a Suckers' Shelter--the roll-aways are $50 each. Did you get the tickets?"
"As Elvis liked to say, I take care of business. There's a Silver ticket for$25 to tour Graceland, a Gold ticket for $40 that includes Graceland and Elvis' Auto & Cycle Museum and a $50 Platinum ticket that covers Graceland, the Auto Museum and Elvis' plane-the Lisa Marie."
"You did get the Silver ticket, right?" I asked holding my breath.
"No, no, Little Woman, I splurged on Platinum. Tomorrow, all Elvis, all day."
I should just slit my wrists now, I thought.
The aroma of chlorine stung our nostrils as we entered a lobby with a guitar-shaped pool. Good ‘ole boys in blue jeans and their girlfriends in Daisy Dukes were swan-diving off the escalator rails, beer cans in hand as Don't Be Cruel blared over the sound system.
"This isn't a pool," George shouted over the din, "it's a huge toilet. The bacterial count must be astronomical. If Elise contracts a flesh-eating disease, her parents will sue our asses off." Elise's parents were attorneys.
His point well-taken, I declared, "Girls, no swimming just yet."
"Please, please," Lia screamed in my ear, "could we at least put our feet in the water and let the fish bite our toes?"
"There are no fish in swimming pools, Lia," I snapped.
"Yes, there are," she insisted as she dragged me to the edge. "Look at the bottom!"
"Oh, my God," I gasped as I ran over to my husband who stood mesmerized by the Fellini-like scene. "You are not going to believe this. There is shit in the pool."
"Really," he said, "I'm shocked."
A bellboy with a bullhorn bellowed, "Edwards' room ready!"
"Oh, great," George said, "Jist win I was goin' ta order martinis fer the kids and let them chill by the toxic latrine."
Up the escalator and into the third floor banquet room, we found our cubicle with six cots, each covered with a white tablecloth, and the banquet room's refrigerator.
"I've never stayed in a hotel before, Mrs. Edwards," Amy announced. "Why is there such a big refrigerator in our room?"
"That's where you buy food," Gianna, who'd gotten us into this train wreck, explained. "It's filled with little bottles of whiskey and bags of peanuts."
Suddenly I realized we hadn't had dinner and it was ten 0'clock. Since the buffet binge, the kids had only had more sugar--candy bars, ice cream and gallons of Slushees. George volunteered to get some hamburgers. He returned with $20 worth of vending machine junk food.
"You're not going to believe this, but they lock the hotel doors at 10 to keep the ‘riff-raff' out."
"Mr. Edwards," Elise, the future mini-litigator piped up, "tell them we demand to get our suitcases so we can put on our pajamas."
"Oh, no this will be more fun," I interrupted, "We're going to eat Doritos and Twizzlers and then sleep in our clothes!"
"Yippeee," Elise shouted. "When I tell my Mom and Dad what we did on this vacation they're not going to believe it!"
"After Elise's parents finish with us, we'll lose our kids to the Department of Children and Family Services," George commented, "and I'm not going to appeal."
"Let's try to get some sleep," I said, confident he'd relent and appeal after a few months.
At six George announced it was time to rise and shine. No tooth-brushing, no showering--no dressing, for that matter, just breakfast and head over to Graceland. Arriving at eight, we found a huge crowd ahead of us.
"Probably everyone comes here first," my husband figured. "Let's start at the airplane instead."
After an hour and a half in the plane line, we entered the cockpit of the Lisa Marie, Elvis' beloved jet named after his only child. He must have decorated the plane about the time his drug use was spinning out of control. Only an hallucinogenic could have prompted 24 karat gold-flecked sinks and gold-plated seat belts. WARNING-DO NOT TOUCH! signs were plastered everywhere. Suddenly alarms and bells were going off and security was rushing the plane as though a sniper was holed up in the fur-walled bathroom. Lia was not in sight. Sure enough, she had jumped on Elvis' bed. Within minutes, we were escorted off the Lisa Marie. Being kicked off the plane suited me just fine.
We stood in line for only an hour at the Graceland Auto Museum to view the Pink Cadillac, Ferrari, John Deere tractor and Harley. This time the temptation proved to be too much for Gianna who climbed onto the King's Harley when our backs were turned and, again, Elvis' security force promptly took care of business. We were back in the broiling sun before we'd even seen Elvis's tractor.
Sensing I was near meltdown, George suggested a bit of shopping while he stood guard over our little terrorists outside. I ducked into the Elvis Store where I found a colossal supply of ashtrays, lamps, guitars, lawn mowers, teddy bears, teapots, brassieres--all with The Great One's Coat of Arms, a lightning bolt. The only thing not on display was a replica of the toilet seat he was sitting on the night he fell off the stool and died on the bathroom floor.
As I exited the store, I found Gianna wailing--she wanted to buy an Elvis guitar, Elise pouting--she needed an Elvis wig--and the other two arguing.
"I think they're hungry," my husband said. "Let's go to the Elvis Café."
They ordered Elvis' favorite--a deep-fried sandwich of bananas, peanut butter and marshmallow fluff with a side of French fries and a deep-fried pickle. The big girls shared a piece of Sweet Potato Cream Cheese Pie. Lia and Elise had Moon Pies.
We waddled over to Graceland where the line of mutants from another planet snaked around the block--75 year-old ingenues with lightning bolts tattooed on their breasts, dudes in high heels and make-up, a man in SCUBA diving gear and a lady with a raccoon on a leash to name but a few. Taking up the rear, Lia threw the mother of all tantrums-"I hate Elvis! This is the dumbest vacation I ever went on in my life! This is all Gianna's fault! I am sick of Elvis and his stupid songs!"
"Calm her down," George hissed. "People are staring."
"Staring? At us?" I ranted. "They're staring at us?"
"Mom," Lia, having tantrumed out, called to me, "what does 'Elvis sucks elephant dick' mean?" I spun around to read the graffiti that completely covered the five-foot stone wall surrounding America's second most visited historic residence after The White House. Amy ran over with an eye-witness report. "Mrs. Edwards, a guy dressed like Elvis just peed on the wall to clean off a space so he could write something." "Amy, maybe it was Elvis peeing," Gianna suggested. "That lady over there in the nightgown told me Elvis is not dead."
I could not fathom what I'd done in a past life to deserve this. Would our country make it to the new millennium, I wondered, and, more importantly, did we deserve to?
At last we entered the hallowed Graceland.
Saddam Hussein had nothing on Elvis in the home decor arena. The "jungle" den, the billiards room, the TV room where Elvis shot out the screen once when he didn't like the program, the gun room where he practiced target shooting, past his parents' bedroom, into the kitchen where he'd made his ‘heart-attack on a plate' snacks-we saw it all. We ogled his trophies, Gold Records, jewelry, costumes and awards. The only significant sacred site we did not see was the infamous bathroom.
The tour ended in the Meditation Garden where speakers, hidden under bushes, blared How Great Thou Art. A bit to the left of the swimming pool, flanked by the tombs of his parents, Vernon and Gladys, Elvis rests.
His autopsy revealed he'd ingested at least 10 different drugs, including morphine, within the last 24 hours of his life.
How many drugs, I wonder, would Elvis have taken if he'd known Michael Jackson would one day be his son-in-law? Would Elvis be included on the Platinum Tour of Neverland?