Burning love

Elvis devotees and wannabes gather in Memphis -- and a befuddled reporter tries to understand their passion.

Published August 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The humidity is beyond belief in Memphis. The air, without rain, is wet. My hair takes on odd forms. We are outside the College of Art standing near the 24-foot Elvis whose plastic pants don't wilt in the humidity but blow out at the crouch ever so slightly from the light breeze. "She looks disheveled," Andres says, pointing at me, "as if she had been sinning."

Andres is not alone here in looking for someone who might be willing to sin. In the three days I have been in Memphis I have found an odd mixture of Disney World meets Las Vegas meets Academia -- and in this mixture I think it is the academics who are the sleaziest, whose position of perpetual irony rests somewhere between the tongue, the cheek and the legs, and I guess it's the group I'm closest to. So it's not without mixed feelings that I am here for the annual commemoration of Elvis Presley's death, or "Death Week," as the fans call it. I don't understand the pilgrimage to Graceland, the homage to Elvis, but I adopt the once-removed postmodern explanation, removed from Murray, who, in Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise," visits the Most Photographed Barn in America and says, "No one sees the barn. Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn." And then later, "Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

We leave the convention to crash a party of the Memphis fan club president; Patty Caroll, the photographer I'm traveling with, suspects a shrine. Outside the house, CNN reporters have set up chairs on the front lawn, and television cameras record the impressions of, well, whomever the reporters can get to sit down in the chairs. Everyone down here is two degrees away from Elvis via a veterinarian, a dentist, an impersonator or a person who sees the name Elvis fogging up her bathroom mirror. The media is here on assignment to find the people who encounter Elvis in their bathroom. Patty and I bypass the reporters and go into the backyard, where, by all indications, the party has ended. Like most of the backyards that border Graceland, there is a peephole in its mandatory privacy fence through which one can view the grounds of Graceland. There is a ladder leading up to the peephole, and I wait for a blond woman to descend before I climb up to take a peek. I don't know what I expect to see, but I'm disappointed anyway. It's just some grounds and some horses.

There are empty picnic tables and an impersonator packing up his belongings from the now empty stage. On the back patio there are a few stragglers moving into the house, there are some paper plates blowing in the now even-more-humid air, there is a woman in a wheelchair on the patio sitting alone with her oxygen tank. An impersonator who recognizes Patty comes up and kisses her cheek. "We're crashing," Patty says. "Well, come on in," says the impersonator, "they're great people. I always stay with them when I'm in town." The impersonator looks more like a young Wayne Newton than Elvis, but he is sans costume, and therefore not transformed.

The Bridgewaters' house is a modest ranch house. There are several people in this house but there are also things, Elvis things and non-Elvis things. There is a purple wall with a mural of Elvis. A staff of music floats by within it. In the family/television room there is an aquarium. There is a small piano upon entering. On the piano is some sheet music and a little card from President Clinton congratulating the Bridgewaters on some volunteer work. The couple hosting the party are both dressed in jumpsuits, he with hair dyed an unnatural black with a dye that has colored the portion of his skin closest to his sideburns black also. He bears a slight resemblance to Karl Malden. Mary, the woman of the house, garbed in a black jumpsuit that is similar to country-western wear, sits on the couch like a queen, occasionally touching her long, teased, blond hair. She has powerful blue eyes. She is introducing Jack Smith, who apparently is Elvis' cousin, to someone. "You know Jack Smith," Mary says, as she lowers her hand and moves it through the air like a wand. Outside it has started to rain, which makes the small rooms we are in seem even more carpeted.

Bud Bridgewater takes Patty back to their bedroom to show her the couple's jumpsuit collection. "Don't take her back there," yells out Mary. "I haven't made the bed."

In the living room Jack and his wife leave. On the couch, Mary has been joined by a pretty obviously retarded teenage boy. His eyes roll up into his head and his hands hang from a place high in the air, flapping slightly. "You're really pretty, Mary," he says. He pushes his face over toward Mary and leans his head on her shoulder. "Well, thank you, Donald," Mary says. The room is clearing out. Mary is showing Donald and another woman some photos of what look to be various patterns of light streaking across a Cadillac. "What's that?" I say, pointing at the streaks of light. "It's energy," says Mary. "Elvis energy."

There is a loud burst of thunder and then heavy, heavy rain -- so heavy I feel absolutely trapped in the house. Mary calls in to Bud loudly, "Bring mother in."

"She's fine out there, " Bud calls back.

I realize that they are talking about the woman who was sitting on the porch in a wheelchair. I try to remember if the porch had an awning. "I'll go get Patty," I say to Mary, "we need to leave anyway."

This all took place last year, on the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death, and I thought I was done with Elvis after that, done after the vigil on the eve of Death Day, when to close the service, thousands of people along Elvis Presley Boulevard bowed their heads in a moment of silence and then, with candles lit and swaying, joined in the singing of "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."

I was wrong.

By Gale Walden

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