"Some of y'all never been down South too much ... Down there, we have a plant that grows out in the woods, in the fields, looks something like a turnip green. Everybody calls it poke salad."
Soft white leather boots planted at his sides, Elvis Presley grinds slowly in a matching jumpsuit decorated with beaded fringe and silver buckles running down the sides. Tan and slender, he looks at once menacing and on the verge of laughter. He whips his arm into the air and the audience lets out an involuntary scream.
"Lord have mercy."
Along with five or six other guests, I'm huddled around a faux-'50s television in the lobby of the Heartbreak Hotel in Memphis, watching Elvis perform "Polk Salad Annie" in Las Vegas, circa 1971. It's 2 a.m. Though she has seen the footage countless times, a woman in a baby blue parka sitting beside me sighs loudly as she watches Elvis pace up and down the stage.
Aug. 16, 2002, marks the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death, but I'm in Memphis in January to celebrate his 67th birthday. Both anniversaries -- birth and death -- are an occasion for annual fan pilgrimages. Having loved Elvis' music ever since I can remember, I've spent 22 hours in a car and crossed seven states to be here. Tonight, the Heartbreak Hotel, located several hundred feet from Graceland and surrounded by fake topiary shaped like pianos and guitars, feels like the Vatican Holiday Inn.
The woman in the parka follows Elvis with her eyes, dabbing them with a balled-up Kleenex. "God," she says to herself quietly. "Oh God."
In the Heartbreak Hotel cafeteria, Brenda is dreamily picking at her breakfast while "Love Me Tender" drones softly from a ceiling speaker. Brenda, in her late 30s and pretty, tells me she's a homemaker from Texas. She says she has always felt drawn to Graceland. This is her 12th visit. "I used to bring the kids, but now my husband says, 'What is there to do?' But I just love being here. It seems every time I learn something new. So now I just drag along whomever I can find."
This time Brenda brought her brother Buddy, who wears a thick mustache and a baseball cap and seems skeptical. "My cousin makes fun of me," Brenda is saying. "'Why can't you e-mail me just once without mentioning Elvis?' So now I just use the word 'blank' instead. And my e-mails are just full of 'blanks.'" Buddy rolls his eyes.
I ask Brenda what she likes best about Elvis. "Oh, I don't know," she replies. "I just love him. I know he's not Jesus Christ, but he was different." Brenda says that someday she would like to move here and maybe get a job at Graceland. Nevertheless, as she looks around the tables, which are occupied by groups attired in Elvis hats, shirts and buttons, she seems a little out of place. "I know there are more diehard fans here than I," she says almost apologetically.
Buddy snorts. "I'd hate to meet them," he says.
At an adjacent table, a man in his early 20s is telling a rapt audience of middle-aged women about an Elvis pinball machine he bought at a garage sale for $200. When he's not working as a telephone operator, John Daly operates the Elvis Memories Loop, an e-mail service that has more than 300 subscribers. He collects only authentic historical Elvis artifacts and displays them in his "Elvis room." Daly exudes an air of authority and looks a bit like a young Phil Spector. Nevertheless, he has to be careful about decorating his Elvis room because he still lives with his parents.
He fills me in on some tenets of Elvis fandom: "There are two types of fans. There's the type that come here when they're passing through town, and then there's us: We eat, sleep and breathe him." And: "Serious fans don't like to be called 'fans,' because it implies fanaticism." Also: "We don't like impersonators. They look cheap. Their outfits look nothing like the real thing, because Elvis spent a fortune on his costumes."
The women seated around Daly are members of the If I Can Dream Elvis in Alabama Fan Club. A heavyset blonde in an Elvis sweatshirt hands me a card. It says "Sharon Parker -- I Love Elvis." Parker tells me that when she recently had knee surgery, she received hundreds of letters and cards from "Elvis friends" around the world.
I ask everyone what they like most about Elvis. "He was always there for us," says Parker.
"He couldn't live like us," someone else says. "He gave up his life for us."
A young black woman in a maid's uniform announces that we have to leave the cafeteria because she needs to vacuum. Daly suggests that we go up to his suite to watch "Follow That Dream" on the hotel's 24-hour Elvis channel. Before we do, Parker recites a prayer: "Thanks for the love and friendship we found through each other and Elvis Presley."
At the Marriott on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, behind the IHOP, about 500 Elvis Presley fan club officers and their dates are packed into the hotel's ballroom for a meal of London broil and pink champagne. They have traveled here at their own expense to attend the annual Fan Club Presidents' Luncheon.
This year's theme is "Follow That Dream," the title of a 1962 comedy in which Elvis plays a Florida homesteader and sings "On Top of Old Smokey." At the podium, Patsy Andersen, Elvis Presley Enterprises' perky fan relations manager, is introducing Elvis' costar in the film, Anne Helm. Also here are Gavin and Robbin Koon, identical twins who appeared in "Follow That Dream" as children. The Koons are wearing bifocals and matching crew-neck sweaters and peer glumly at the audience.
Next, Patsy introduces the Browns, a country harmony trio who toured with Elvis in the '50s. At the podium, matriarch Maxine Brown, who looks a lot like former Texas governor Ann Richards, regales the audience with a story in which Elvis' mother, Gladys, chides her son for "not wearing no drawers" onstage. There's some strangled laughter, but many of the fan club officers wear expressions indicating they find the anecdote in poor taste.
Patsy announces that she has a surprise, but first, fan club officers come up to the podium to present gifts to charity in Elvis' name. The Irish Elvis Presley Fan Club presents $1,500 to the Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. The Elvis Friendship Circle in Shreveport, La., donates 168 pounds of peanut butter to the Northwest Louisiana Food Bank. It is announced that the Elvis Heart of Gold Fan Club in Kahoka, Mo., has given six teddy bears to the Missouri Highway Patrol to "help comfort children who have been involved in accidents, domestic abuse or other traumatic situations."
Finally it's time for the surprise, and Patsy introduces a Disney executive named Kevin. Kevin wants to share a preview of an upcoming Disney animated feature that features seven Elvis songs, but says he must make sure no photos or video footage are leaked prior to the film's release. "We can't show this until all the cameras and video equipment are on the floor," Patsy interjects playfully. "If I see any pictures on the Internet, I know where you live and I will find you and kill you." Everyone laughs. The laughter subsides somewhat when a squad of security guards fans out across the room, checking for cameras.
Finally, the lights dim and a montage from the animated film "Lilo and Stitch" is shown on two large-screen TVs. The film concerns a young Hawaiian girl who adopts a space alien disguised as a dog. (It would be released in the spring, with impressive box office results.) When Stitch, the alien dog character, begins singing "Can't Help Falling in Love," the room bursts into whistles and applause. This happens every time Stitch sings an Elvis song. When the lights come up, Kevin says that thanks to "Lilo and Stitch," a new generation will be introduced to the music of Elvis Presley. Everyone applauds.
On Graceland's front lawn, a photographer from Sports Illustrated is taking pictures of a tall young black man in expensive-looking sneakers. A security guard tells me the man's name is Shane Battier and that he's the star forward for the Memphis Grizzlies, the city's new NBA franchise. "Do some air guitar," the photographer instructs, and Battier strikes a '50s greaser pose, gyrates his hips and strums the air.
Built in 1939 by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas D. Moore, Graceland still looks more like the home of an affluent physician than of a man who has sold a billion records. The Georgian colonial that Elvis bought in 1957 for $100,000 is far more modest than, for example, the homes of the rappers and heavy metal musicians profiled weekly on MTV's "Cribs."
Downstairs, in a rec room furnished with three TVs, a stereo console, a soda fountain and a small glass sculpture of a monkey, one of the lemon yellow walls is emblazoned with Elvis' logo: the letters TCB, which stand for "Taking Care of Business," wrapped around a lightning bolt. Upstairs, the Jungle Room is upholstered in floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting and decorated with faux-African recliners and an indoor waterfall. In the adjoining room, a globe-shaped bed covered in fake crimson fur has an eight-track player built into the canopy.
Most of the details, however -- a football jersey, framed portraits of Elvis' parents -- are reminders that when he moved here, Elvis was a 22-year-old who never touched anything stronger than Pepsi. His favorite activities included gunning a golf cart loaded with high school friends around the property and renting out movie theaters and the local amusement park at night. Much of Graceland still looks like the home of a wealthy, unsupervised teenager.
In the backyard, a few sleepy horses graze behind a fence. There's a small office and a smokehouse that Elvis converted into a shooting range. The old slot-car track has been replaced with the Hall of Gold, an exhibit of Elvis' gold and platinum records, of which there are a formidable number. The racquetball courts now house an enormous glass obelisk from BMG Records, proclaiming Elvis "The Greatest Recording Artist of All Time," as well as a collection of stage outfits from the '70s. With their gold inlay, rhinestones and peacock feathers, they look like costumes from a kabuki production of "Grease."
In the Meditation Garden, a crowd of visitors outfitted with headphones and digital recorders stands silently around a small fountain. They look down at gravestones inscribed with the names of the Presleys. Several months after Elvis' death, in 1977, Vernon Presley moved his son's body here from nearby Greenwood Cemetery, which became inundated with fans. Gladys' grave is adorned with teddy bears. Elvis' is heaped with flowers and cards, and a dozen more wreaths and plaques are lined up along the side of the swimming pool. There is a guitar made of lilies, a red, white and blue floral arrangement bearing an intimate inscription from a French fan and a metal-and-wood plaque nearly as tall as a man, engraved with the names of five fans from Osaka, Japan.
In 1962, when Elvis built the Meditation Garden on a solitary corner of the property, Graceland was located in a bucolic spot adjacent to the Mississippi border. The only reminder of the city was Highway 51, a two-lane road that connected Memphis and Jackson. Today, Elvis Presley Boulevard is bounded by Graceland Plaza, a sprawling strip mall that houses an assortment of antiseptic diners, souvenir shops and mini-museums devoted to Elvis' cars, planes and personal effects. The highway takes motorists to the casinos in Tunica and the university in Oxford, and farther south, all the way to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The Meditation Garden hums with the sound of traffic. Standing near Elvis' grave, a well-dressed middle-aged man begins to weep. His wife tries to console him, but he buries his face in his hands and turns away.
"No one knows why Elvis never appealed to the intellectuals," Todd Slaughter muses. "In England, we have our share of college professors and members of the clergy, but they are in the minority. Most of our fans are blue-collar or no-collar."
A short, jovial man with the manner of a beauty contest emcee, Slaughter is almost certainly the world's foremost Elvis fan. As president of the Official Elvis Fan Club of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, he oversees more than 20,000 members. Moreover, he has been filmed with Elvis not once, but twice. Slaughter expounds on the intricacies of the Elvis phenomenon with the good humor and studied patience of a QVC salesman, which, in fact, he has also been. Earlier in the morning, he presided over the shaving of a casino hostess's head, an event that raised $1,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. As we speak in a hallway at the Marriott, several fans approach him for an autograph.
"Elvis penetrated the youth," Slaughter offers, making it clear that he is not opposed to an occasional bit of ribaldry. He says that while the Elvis-oriented summer camps his fan club operates in the U.K. attract a clientele in their 20s, the majority of the members became hooked on Elvis as teenagers in the '50s. He has been bringing British fans to Graceland for more than 30 years, and says that the experience has changed. "Back in the '70s, the tours were very sex-driven, but most of the fans are now too old to shag."
He greets an old acquaintance cheerfully, clapping him on the back. "How are you, you old pedophile?" he says.
When I mention an Elvis prayer meeting I heard about recently, Slaughter nods his head gravely. "The U.K., we're not a religious nation. For us, it's a holiday. The Americans, though, they can take it a bit over the top."
It's an overcast afternoon and downtown Memphis is deserted. Even the neon signs on the newly gentrified Beale Street, once home to saloons and gambling parlors where the blues is said to have originated, can't change the mood.
At Elvis Presley's Memphis Restaurant, Beale Street's grandest new establishment, Patsy is conducting an Oprah-style question-and-answer session with Anne Helm and the Browns. Patsy is blond and slim, and wears black leather slacks and a sweater with a flamingo pattern. She is questioning Bonnie Brown about her teenage romance with Elvis. Bonnie, who wears her hair in a plush silver helmet, concedes it was exciting, but demurs on the details. There are some disappointed groans among the tables.
"Can you tell us whether Elvis was a good kisser?" Patsy probes gently.
Bonnie Brown pauses to think. At a nearby table, a woman wearing a large Elvis button loses her patience. "Come on, he was out of this world," she yells.
During the Q&A, a couple in their 60s watches the action from a table near the stage, nodding occasionally. June and Gene Koine have been coming to Graceland since 1976, when they were among the privileged few who spoke to Elvis in the Graceland driveway. June, a soft-spoken former kindergarten teacher, says her fan club is called TCEM in Ohio With TLC, which stands for "Taking Care of Elvis' Memory in Ohio With Tender Loving Care."
When I ask her whether she likes Elvis as a person or as an entertainer, June pauses to think. "I have my own Elvis," she replies finally. "There's love that goes from me to him and from him to me."
"I love him like a brother," Gene offers. "It's like when you meet your girlfriend or wife for the first time, and there's that special electricity. You just can't explain it."
When June had cancer surgery last year, she asked the surgeon to play Elvis' music in the operating room. Her cancer, she says, is now in remission. Like many of the fans I've spoken to, June gets angry at the media for their portrayal of Elvis' personal problems, which she says is hurtful and misinformed. "Elvis had glaucoma and arthritis," she says by way of explaining the drugs found in Elvis' system during the autopsy. "He chose friends who were not loyal."
June and Gene tell me that their children like Elvis "all right," but they are concerned about their 9-year-old grandson's latest musical obsession. "It's one of those rappers who is always saying bad things about the police," June explains. "Elvis would have never done that."
The morning of Elvis' birthday is unusually frigid, and a crowd of sleepy fans wrapped in scarves and mittens strolls to the Graceland gazebo to hear the Proclamation. In addition to being excited to hear Mayor Willie W. Herenton declare Jan. 8 Elvis Presley Day in Memphis, everyone is happy about being allowed to walk up to the mansion without having to take the shuttle bus. Shivering in the cold wind, the mayor quickly outlines Elvis' contributions to Memphis and Tennessee, and everyone walks briskly to Graceland Plaza for complimentary cake and coffee at the Chrome Grille.
At a tiny Formica table wedged behind a disemboweled pink Cadillac, a young Asian man with a black pompadour and sideburns shows off the back of his leather jacket, which is airbrushed with the young Elvis' face. Johnny "Elvis" Newinn, a college student who recently placed second in a national impersonator competition, says he first heard Elvis' music when he was growing up in Vietnam. His father sang him the songs while accompanying himself on guitar.
Johnny's father, Henry, is sitting beside him. "When I lived in Hanoi, Elvis was a symbol," he recalls. "He was born with nothing, and became a millionaire." Henry is president of the East Asian Elvis Fan Club, which is located, it turns out, in Dallas. He says that the entire student body of an elementary school in Beaumont, Texas, recently joined the club.
"Mostly minority kids," chimes in Cynthia Presley, who in addition to being the secretary of the East Asian Elvis Fan Club, curates a traveling exhibition of her own Elvis memorabilia. Like the elementary school students from Beaumont, Cynthia Presley is not Asian. She says that she changed her name to Presley in court, and prefers the 1960s Elvis because he was the most sensual.
At a table in the center of the Chrome Grille, a man clad in black leather and rose-tinted sunglasses who looks remarkably like Elvis sits with an aloof, aristocratic bearing. When I introduce myself, his eyes suddenly fill with tears. A gray-haired woman in a white fur coat sitting beside him gently pats his arm and, in a thick German accent, says: "It's OK, Junior, tell him." After composing himself, Junior removes his glasses and fixes me with pale blue eyes. "My name is Elvis Presley Jr.," he says, "and Elvis Presley was my daddy."
The tale Junior relates falls somewhere between "Rosemary's Baby" and "The X-Files." Born to Elvis' high-school sweetheart Bonnie Marie, Junior was concealed from the world for fear that the revelation would derail his young father's career. While Elvis was kind to his illegitimate son, he was oblivious to the abuse heaped on him by Vernon Presley and Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' longtime manager. Pausing frequently to steady his emotions, Junior speaks about being drugged by his father's cronies as a child, held near-prisoner on an island off the coast of Florida, and later getting blacklisted as an aspiring singer by the Colonel. "People wanted Elvis to believe he was in control, but he wasn't," Junior says darkly.
Ursula Egger, the woman in the fur coat, says she met Vernon's second wife, Dee, while Elvis was stationed at an Army base in Germany in the late '50s. When Elvis was discharged, she returned to Memphis with Vernon and Dee, at whose home she babysat Dee's three children and, she says, Junior. Stroking Junior's arm, Ursula recalls how Elvis loved her homemade cream puffs and horsed around with his son in Graceland's backyard.
When I wonder why he doesn't attempt to establish paternity with a DNA test and challenge the Presley estate in court, Junior smiles ruefully. "Most of my life has been wasted," he says. "But in my heart, I've forgiven my father. I don't want to go through any of that."
This morning, however, Junior is despondent because the Elvis Presley Enterprises publicity director has again declined to leave him a complimentary pass to Graceland, where he says he has not set foot for 16 years because he refuses to pay the cost of admission. "I will not pay them money to see my half of the house."
He is interrupted by an elderly woman, who hands him a large eagle-shaped brooch decorated with rhinestones. "Happy birthday, Junior," she says warmly.
"God bless you," Junior replies, his eyes glistening with tears.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
"Do you know what the fans tell me most often?" Patsy Andersen asks me. "They say, 'I saw Elvis perform, and I knew he was singing just to me.' Now, you and I know that onstage, Elvis couldn't see 5 feet past the footlights, but he made every single fan feel like there were just the two of them there."
Patsy and I are drinking Diet Cokes, sprawled on the carpet of an empty conference room at the Marriott. She has worked at Graceland for 20 years, which is difficult to believe, because Patsy, who looks a little like Vanna White, appears to be about 35. Her job is to communicate with the officers of the 600 fan clubs around the world via daily faxes and e-mails. It is, she lets on, hugely time consuming, but the fans' appreciation -- like the hundreds of cards and letters she receives every Christmas -- makes it worthwhile. "I could probably travel around the world and never have to pay for a hotel room," Patsy says matter-of-factly.
Patsy seems to adore the fans nearly as much, and says it is sometimes difficult to balance her obligations to Elvis Presley Enterprises with her relationship with the fans, some of whom she has known since the '70s. "Often it's easy to forget that we are a business, and are here to make a profit."
The questions fans ask Patsy most often concern Elvis-related tabloid stories and Elvis' daughter Lisa Marie. She also receives frequent testimonials about the life-altering power of Elvis' music, and describes a recent letter about a suicide attempt that was foiled by an Elvis gospel song heard in a supermarket.
Perhaps the largest wave of correspondence addressed to Graceland came in the wake of Gail Brewer-Giorgio's 1988 bestseller, "Is Elvis Alive?" The book, which claimed that Elvis had staged his death in 1977, came packaged with a cassette containing someone who sounds like Elvis discussing the attempted assassination of President Reagan, which took place in 1981.
"What amazed me is we did not get a single letter that was angry at Elvis," Patsy says. "Almost all of them were along the lines of 'Your secret is safe with me' or 'If you want a home-cooked meal, I have an empty guest room.' Everyone was just so happy to think that he was alive."
At the Marriott, the Elvis Presley G.I. Blues Dance Party is in full swing. This year the party has a patriotic theme, and the ballroom is decorated with tinsel and tiny American flags. A DJ is playing "Jailhouse Rock" while several hundred fans gyrate on a fold-up dance floor; on a video screen, an early-'60s Elvis in an army uniform is serenading co-star Juliet Prowse while riding a ski lift.
At the edge of the dance floor, a plump Japanese woman in a fuchsia sweater waves a Heineken in time to the music. She is wearing a large rectangular button that says "Elvis '67," with a red LED that blinks over the "i." In broken English, Yoko, a cosmetics company employee from Tokyo, explains that she has been to Graceland "50 or 60 times," and that this year she almost didn't make the trip because of worries about terrorism and anthrax. When I ask why she finally decided to come, she replies: "For Ervees."
Everyone is waving the tiny American flags because the DJ is playing Elvis' rendition of "America the Beautiful." The song has recently been rereleased to take advantage of the post-Sept. 11 boom in patriotic recordings, and despite the lack of radio play its climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard singles sales chart, making Elvis the only performer to reach the Top 10 55 years apart.
Over the loud music, Shantay Violette is talking about her Elvis journey. "When my father passed away, I went into a deep depression. I don't know what I would have done without the help of my Elvis friends." Last year, Shantay, a handsome woman who creates an impression of vigilant sobriety, founded the Always on My Mind Fan Club. These days, much of her time is devoted to publishing the bimonthly newsletter and responding to the 300 e-mails she receives every day.
Shantay says Elvis memorabilia completely covers her bedroom walls and has nearly reached the top of the room's 30-foot cathedral ceiling. Her most prized possessions are the four scarves Elvis gave her, and a tiny bottle of water from Graceland's pool, where, thanks to a lenient security guard, she took a dip in 1976. "I want it around me," she says thoughtfully. "Elvis always lifts my spirit. I know I can always rely on him. It's hard to go through a day and not have some part of Elvis touch you."
She looks for a while at the groups of fans clustered around the dance floor. "It's like Elvis is the tree, and then there are the branches, that are the fans," she says. "And the tree continues to grow."
Shantay's daughter Lyndsey, who at 12 is the youngest member of the Always on My Mind Fan Club, has been an Elvis fan since she was 3, and says her favorite song is "Viva Las Vegas." She says her best friend Shannon likes Elvis OK, but most kids her age don't. "At school they sometimes make fun of me and say, 'Elvis is dead.' I just ignore them."
Just then "Viva Las Vegas" begins playing, and Lyndsey screams and runs to the dance floor. Everyone dances frenetically to "Viva Las Vegas" and "The Girl of My Best Friend" and "Clambake" and "Hound Dog" and "Little Sister" and "Polk Salad Annie." At midnight everyone sings "Happy Birthday" to Elvis -- "wherever you may be," someone calls out midverse.
Then, during "American Trilogy" -- a medley of "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "All My Trials" -- everyone gathers in a lopsided circle that wraps around the room and sways side to side, arms raised and hands linked, as though at a revival. As a chubby teenager with two-tone hair takes my hand, it occurs to me then that I have never been in a room with a more unlikely mix of people.
Swaying beside me is an elderly couple in pink satin TCB jackets; a red-faced, mutton-chopped semi-impersonator in a spangled jumpsuit; two men in their 30s from Scotland in matching red Versace shirts and gold chain belts who are obviously a couple; a heavyset middle-aged woman wearing an Elvis cap who unfurls a Confederate flag during the "Dixie" section; and two young Japanese women in little, chic black dresses who are singing along.
An Asian man in a leather vest with tattoos covering his forearms and a mullet is suddenly standing in the center of the circle, lip-syncing to "Battle Hymn." He throws his head back and croons into his thumb, the other arm thrown up and back, Neil Diamond-style. No one seems to object. In fact, acceptance and love are on everyone's face tonight in the Marriott ballroom, and fans embrace and hold each other on the dance floor.
Just as suddenly, the somber mood of "American Trilogy" melds into the power chords of "I Can Help," a nonhit I recognize from a mid-'70s album. The room breaks into a group dance, the complexity of which I'm scarcely prepared for. By the time I catch up with the claps and turns, I begin to make out the lyrics:
"If you've got a problem, I don't care what it is/ If you need a hand, I can assure you of this/ I can help .../ I've got two strong arms, I can help .../ If your child needs a daddy, I can help."
Everyone is whirling around the room, and the DJ plays the song again.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
At the Heartbreak Hotel's Jungle Room lounge, an earnest-looking young man with a jet-black cowlick is belting out "How Great Thou Art" over the prerecorded music.
After a day of sightseeing, David and Julia Steadman are sipping piña coladas. On their first visit to the U.S., they've come to Graceland from Birmingham, England, a trip they were planning for David's 60th birthday. "But after David's heart attack, I thought, We have to go now," Julia says.
Though they booked their tickets before Sept. 11, they still came. "Terrorism didn't stop us," they tell me.
I ask the Steadmans whether they are having a good time. "It's a dream," David says. "Ever since I heard my first Elvis record as a teenager, I've dreamed of coming here. Look, I'm a working bloke. But when I walked into Graceland, I wept." He looks at Julia. "And I'm proud of it."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
At 2 a.m., there are no pedestrians or cars on Elvis Presley Boulevard, and it is cold. Hovering above a dreary strip of gas stations, Chinese restaurants and check-cashing storefronts, the lit-up Graceland looks like a UFO that's landed on a hill. Its winding driveway is lined with blue lights, and the life-size Nativity scene on the front lawn is neon green. I stand for a while outside the wrought-iron gates, which look like notes on a staff. In a booth on the other side, a squat woman in a windbreaker watches a bank of monitors.
The brick wall that runs along the sidewalk is covered with graffiti. Periodically, the graffiti is blasted off with pressurized water, but it's quickly replaced. In the dark, I try to read the messages, but manage to make out only one. Written in purple marker, it says: "It's been 25 years, but our tears are still falling."