Thursday, November 8, 2007

Trip to Graceland for Elvis Week was royal adventure

by Mo Palmer

So I'm going to deviate from routine and indulge in gonzo journalism, which is my favorite kind. That's gonzo, not Bonzo. Bonzo was a chimp in a Ronald Reagan movie. Gonzo is when the reporter is inappropriately enmeshed in the story.

The photo is Girard Boulevard Northeast, looking north to Lomas. Notice the two lanes, the small sidewalk, the big trees. Today the trees are gone and it's a hurry-up four-lane drag, unsafe for pedestrians, children and pets.

In 1956, it was a quiet residential street, with shade under which angst-ridden adolescents could loll on soft grass to agonize about boys and the head-rock daddy Elvis Presley.

I've told you how I accidentally discovered Elvis. Unfortunately, my epiphany came too late to catch his performance at the Armory. I became unbearably "cool." I fell in love with the greasy-haired cat and cut my hair into sideburns.

I had a color photo of him on my bedroom wall. He's wearing the blue velvet shirt his mama made him. My friend Anna stood up on the bed, gave him a smooch, swooned back onto the mattress and the whole frame collapsed, bringing down the wrath of parents.

I had all his records. You could rig those 45rpm record players to repeat the same song over and over and over. I didn't have any lipstick, charm bracelets or souvenirs they sold then.

Instead of focusing on my unspeakably square teachers — from whose gaping mouths cascaded boredom — I dreamed about how Elvis would discover and adore me, even though I was but 13.

I designed clothes for our tours, in size 6, notwithstanding the fact that I was a size 12 or 14. Dreams are dreams, dudes.

He did fall for a teenager but it was Priscilla Beaulieu, not me.

He went into the Army and fickle pickle that I was, I forgot all about him. I remembered him in the late '60s, when "In the Ghetto" wafted from the radio. We used radios then. There were no boom boxes or iPods.

I loved his ersatz "protest song" but, still as cool as The Fonz, I so was into the Beatles, the folkies, the Who, and all that acid rock. I was shocked when the announcer said the rich baritone was Elvis.

I spaced him again until the '90s, when for some obscure reason I became fascinated with his fans. They had so much sincere love, loyalty and devotion to a dead guy. Some say he's alive but few people survive an autopsy.

My undergraduate work was in sociology. I was destined to answer the "hunka hunka burning" question, "WHY?"

I read all 4 zillion Elvis books. I joined a fan club. I designed empirically verifiable surveys. I reserved a bus ticket on a nameless line because it offered the cheapest fare. I booked a room and rented a car. I obtained permission to interview in the Visitor's Center. I was psyched for Elvis Week, when everyone descends on Graceland to celebrate his life.

Memphis is big, but what did I know? I packed as though going on safari. Clothes, shoes, coffee pot, blow dryer, detergent, fabric softener, prescriptions, sundries.

I got a door-locking device for my zero-star, no-amenities motel. I brought audiotapes, microphone, film, batteries, cords, The Albuquerque Museum's tape recorder and expensive 35mm camera (with permission).

I had letters of introduction from respected UNM professors. My borrowed bag weighed 1,000 pounds. I don't do matching luggage. Paper bags work fine.

My son dropped me off downtown. Paul Simon's "I'm going to Graceland, Graceland" jangled in my mind.

I should have known when I saw 50 people in the waiting room and the inbound bus was late. I gathering up my tote and books (James Michener's two volume "Texas") and I got in line, anxiously observing that the bus was stuffed.

The frazzled driver got off and hollered, "I'll take the first 10 people." Those mothers leaped on board. I was number 15.

"Wait!" I cried. "I have a reservation!" He replied: "That system doesn't work. Somebody shoulda told ya, lady." The bus split.

About 35 people settled in to wait for the midnight bus. My stuff was en route to Memphis, unaccompanied by me. I demanded they stop the bus. I demanded my money back. They demanded I get lost.

Defeated, I telephoned my son. Luckily he was home. This was before cell phones, even. I phoned bus stops along the line to send back my bag. By now I was out of shock and in a high snit.

Finally I begged "long distance information, get me Memphis, Tennessee." Whenever we connected, I got put on terminal hold or got hung up on. Eventually, I got a human. I didn't care about my rags, but I was sweating the museum's equipment. I still have that enormous phone bill. I had to cancel the room, cancel the car and notify Graceland.

Four days later my things came back mildew stinky. It's humid down South. It took forever to recoup the motel money, the bus fare. I was stuck for some of it. I would have sued, but the company was in bankruptcy or something so there was no point.

Elvis Week went on without me. Thirteen years later, I'm still trying to save enough money to go but prices have quadrupled. I need a "Send Mo to Graceland" fund.

There's always a bright side. My underwear got to go to Graceland. Paul Simon should write a new song.

Whatever happened to customer service?

Note from Sandra, the transcriptionist, in February, 2012: I remember Mo's big trip to Memphis, and seeing her right after she was home, and wasn't supposed to be, because I was her next-door neighbor, in Princess Jeanne, near Wyoming. I remember her frustration and sorrow and fear about the fact that the camera was off without her. I still read this with a "What next!?" anticipation, and was relieved (again) when the camera was returned. I love Mo's writing!

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, February 3, 2011.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:

(Courtesy of The Albuquerque Museum)

A typical Albuquerque teenager stands at the 400 block of Girard Boulevard Northeast back in 1956. In the '50s, Elvis made teenagers swoon and Duke City youngsters were no exception.