Washington has monuments to heroes of history, buildings named for officials of renown. Euroupe has shrines for saints, dead for centuries. And in Memphis they've got an Elvis Presley souvenir mall.
Across Elvis Presley Boulevard, across from Graceland Mansion, sits Graceland Center -- a parking lot crowded with souvenir vendors selling officially sanctioned memorabilia, immortalizing The King only three years after his death on Aug. 16, 1977.
At the traffic light stands a plumpish, friendly looking fellow in a yellow slicker. "They've got his limousine over there -- the white one," he offers as I pass. "You can take some pictures if you like." He gestures at the third shop down; a white Cadillac of no particular distinction is parked in front. As I move on, I hear his voice behind me, talking to the next passerby: "Say, you can get your souvenirs a little cheaper at that shop there. An they got his limousine out front if you'd like to take some pictures."
I follow his suggestion and find the dim narrow entryway of that shop like a pharaonic tomb of mixed and mangled memories. Crowds stop to study the old publicity photos, five rows deep, lining the wall. They depict all the aspects of his career -- the Ed Sullivan appearances which brought notoriety, military pictures from his Special Services days, Elvis with starlets, Elvis with wife, Elvis in his later days, bulging and puffy.
Through double glass doors is a still darker room with scarlet walls. There, on an easel, sits the Official Elvis Portrait in gilt frame, spotlit from some hidden source. It is the Elvis of memory, the young smiling face with tousled hair, but wearing the sequined jumpsuit of his Las Vegas days. The public address system plays "I Did It My Way" at bold volume. And the madder-tinged sanctum beyond promises the stuff of dreams.Wondrous things.
Propriety, however, dictates that one visit the tomb before viewing the relics. Meditation Garden, the final resting place of The King, lies on the grounds of Elvis's home, Graceland Mansion, an almost modest stone Colonial, two-story structure set back from the street up a long asphalt drive. The house itself is closed to the public, but beyond the house, past the swimming pool, the faithful follow the path which leads to a circular fountain, on the far side of which are the graves of Elvis and his mother. Even now, they come in droves to pay their final respects to their fallen idol.
Gazing soulfully at his grave is a short man in an open-necked shirt and knee-length leather coat. His thick black hair and muttonchop sideburns are combed in the mannor of The King and his defiant slouched posture and slight sneer reinforce this image. He stands out in the crowd reading the long epitaph inscribed in bronze. He follows as they pause in veneration before a nine-foot marble of Christ. They contemplate the eternal flame to his memory. They toss coins in the fountain. And then they cross the street.
The souvenir shop's innermost and largest room is a storehouse of trinkets, baubles and kitsch. For a few dollars, we worshipers can choose from a wide assortment of commemorative items, merchandise to stir the memory and rekindle the candle snuffed out all too soon. For a pittance I could replace my ordinary trash can with either of two Elvis models: The King, with guitar, in full wiggle, or The King up close, all sneer and sex appeal. I could fill my wallet with bogus dollar bills with an Elvis face on the front -- in fact, with any of several Elvis faces -- The Young Turk, The Sexy Star of "Blue Hawaii," The Las Vegas Performer.
I could eat from an Elvis plate, drink from an Elvis mug and secure documents with an Elvis paperweight. I could keep warm in an Elvis hat and look real sporty in an Elvis T-shirt and jacket. There is Elvis jewelry to be bought and Elvis tote bags to tote it in.
My tree next Christmas could be decorated with Elvis ornaments, just as my walls could be enlivened with reproductions of the Official Elvis Portrait in crown-shaped, simulated barnwood frames. If need be, I could hold my pants up with Elvis suspenders or secure them with an Elvis beltbuckle.
It seems that the limits to mankind's imagination and ingenuity are infinite. So is its need to honor and cherish its heroes, to make mortals immortal.
But I did leave Memphis with my memories. My "Memories of Elvis" Frisbee.