Mystery Train

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Bidding farewell to bachelorhood by getting drunk in West Tennessee.

The Film: Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 anthology of tourists searching for America in Memphis

The Potable: A one-gallon bucket of rum, beer, grenadine, and homemade “zig-zig” juice

From the first time I saw Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni trudging through the Louisiana bayou in Down by Law, I’ve had a dream: to see America as Jim Jarmusch sees it. To visit the great cities and places that represent the soul of both the auteur’s oeuvre and these United States. The sprawl of nighttime Los Angeles. A dead and dying Detroit. Strange, not-so-sunny Florida. I checked New Orleans off my list in September, attending the bachelor party of my old friend Lorenzo Kuznetsov Abernathy [name changed for privacy], and with my own wedding right around the corner, I set my sights on another Jarmusch backdrop. The Bluff City, Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock and Roll, the BBQ Capital of the World; the fellas and I boarded the Mystery Train to Memphis.

Not literally, of course, and the first thing the film gets wrong is that getting to Memphis will be severely complicated by a storm in Atlanta, forcing multiple guests to abandon their flight plans and rent a Dodge Challenger for the 13-hour drive from Washington, DC. I planned to drink no less than four bottles of schnapps on the plane, but was instead repeatedly told that no, there is not a backseat open container exemption for light beer, and to please stop wiping Cheeto dust on the cloth seats. Whatever, Will. Drunk driving laws are obviously smart and good, but I fail to see why they should apply to passengers.

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Upon arrival, however, the film becomes more accurate. Even in the downtown area, traffic is minimal, the neighborhoods intimate. Several scenes show the characters ambling along the sidewalk, which we certainly did our share of, though they talk about Star Wars far less than my friends and I do. Two of Jarmusch’s characters take a tour of Sun Studio, the site where rock music was purportedly born. This is a disputed claim, naturally, and rock and roll has an ugly history of racial appropriation. A genre with roots in rhythm and blues that was repackaged for white audiences. The museum offers only a passing mention of this sordid past, instead focusing on Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. At the time, I felt very clever for recognizing this fact, but then realized that I only wanted to tour Sun Studio because it was a recording site for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Deeply conflicted, we all donned our newly purchased Sun Studio t-shirts and shuffled to a nearby brewery.

There are other Memphis staples that Jarmusch, too cool for school, refuses to include in his travelogue. It is almost criminal, for instance, that not one of Mystery Train’s three tourists orders a half-dozen wet wings from Central BBQ. The pulled pork, the mac n’ cheese, the banana pudding. “A round of ribs,” I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin still wrapped around a cutlery set. Good Lord, it put us all to sleep.

Jarmusch also overlooks Beale Street. A bit touristy, perhaps, but also the most alcohol-friendly street in Tennessee, so we had to check it out. Be warned, dear traveler: if you arrive drunk, you will leave…much drunker. You will sample several bars, drink several plastic cups full of local Ghost River Golden Ale, chased by a PBR tallboy. Most bars have an open door policy, though Coyote Ugly charges a cover. Luckily, one member of your party will want to enter so badly that he offers to pay for all eight of you and will then wander up and down Beale in search of an ATM.

In Mystery Train, one traveler sees an apparition of Elvis in her hotel at night. I cannot speak to the authenticity of this, though I can say that I dreamed of a tuxedoed waiter bequeathing me a crystal dish full of that banana pudding.

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But Jarmusch’s biggest omission is the most distinct feature of the city’s skyline: the Memphis Pyramid. Built along the banks of the Mississippi River in the grand Egyptian tradition, it was designed as a sporting venue, hosting several NBA and NCAA games, boxing tournaments, as well as concerts. At the time of this writing, the Pyramid has been converted into a Bass Pro Shop megastore, the company logo emblazoned across the building’s south face. Good God, how tacky, we all said, but that didn’t stop us from going.

The store’s designers did an excellent job of bringing the great outdoors inside, one of the pyramid’s triangular walls rising behind an enormous waterfall, fish tank, and gun department. To the left, an artificial pond, restaurant, and an Arctic Cat TBX 700 EPS ATV parked on a fake rock. A toy gun range made to look like the set of The Rescuers sits near the entrance, and the entire store smells like the fudge freshly baked in the old time General Store. It’s certainly tacky, but I must say, there’s something soothing about browsing pontoon boats while nursing a hangover.

Can anyone make a convincing argument that Mystery Train’s liquor store holdup should not have occurred inside the Bass Pro Shop, instead? Poor location scouting.

Verdict: see my TripAdvisor account

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