Even if you’re not going to Beale Street Music Fest, there’s still a reason to come Downtown this weekend: The people-watching is fantastic. It’s truly a show that no circus could hope to match. Here’s a guide to what you’ll see and where.
Best places to people-watch:
Beale Street. Most of the action is in the entertainment district between Second and Fourth, but for Music Fest they block off Beale all the way to Riverside. No better place to watch the freak show. Grab a 32 oz. beer – it’s legal to walk around with it on Beale between Second and Fourth, and really, as long as you don’t act a fool you’re probably not going to get stopped if you carry it past Second. If you get hungry, Domino’s usually sets up shop in Handy Park mid-afternoon Saturday and Sunday and sells pizzas. If you want something stronger than beer, I recommend going to Wet Willie’s and ordering a drink called the Call-a-Cab. One of those will knock your socks off. If you have a second Cab, you will end up being part of the freak show yourself, so be careful.
Views from above are always good. If you can get a seat on the second-floor patio at Alfred’s, there’s probably no better people-watching spot. I bet the window seats at Itta Bena, the restaurant on the third floor of BB King’s, are top-notch spots too.
Main Street Mall. Main between Peabody and Exchange is a pedestrian mall, where bikes and trolleys are allowed but cars are not. Particularly between Peabody Place and Union, there are several good patios that are excellent for people-watching – Majestic Grille, Blue Fin, Bar None, Local Gastropub. Window seats at the new frozen yogurt shop, set to open this week, will be good too. Officially, you can’t walk around with drinks as you can in the Beale entertainment district, but again, as long as you’re discrete about it, you probably won’t be stopped.
Who you’ll see:
“Woooooooo!” kids. Kids who have to let the world know how hard they’re partying by screaming “woooooooo!” all day long, as well as running around, screaming, causing fights occasionally. I hate these MFers in general, but from a distance they can be fun to watch, just like animals in a zoo. Best place to watch “wooooooo” kids: Unfortunately they’re everywhere.
Jesus freaks. Every year a group shows up with huge signs and bullhorns. They tell all the revelers that they are sinning when they drink and dance, and they are surely going to hell unless they turn to Jesus, their only hope for salvation. The leader of the group is from Tulsa, and I’ve been there so many years that he actually recognizes me and says hello. I return the hello by toasting him with my Call-a-Cab cup. They hand out little booklets which are comics telling you what an awful sinner you are. Best place to watch the Jesus freaks: Beale Street between Fourth and Riverside, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Look for the big signs.
Hippies. You can’t have a music festival without hippies. You know the deal. Patchouli, dreads, multi-colored knit caps. Probably good connections to make if you want to score some weed for Music Fest. Best place to find hippies: They like to hang out on the grass on the block of Beale between Second and Main, by MLGW.
Scratchy. Scratchy walks around Downtown all day, scratching his beard, checking to make sure it’s still there since he last checked 1 second ago. A Scratchy sighting is considered among Downtowners to be a foreboding of good luck. Scratchy never asks for anything, but if you have leftover food, you can approach him and hand it to him, and he’ll be grateful. Best place to watch Scratchy: The alley next to Bardog, although anywhere in the area bounded by Front, Monroe, Second and Beale is good.
Ghetto rides. The lime green Buick Roadmasters and purple Crown Vics, with 26 inch rims and insignia to inform you that they have 26 inch rims. They’re starting to branch out to other models of cars too: Last year I saw a pimped-out Altima. Really? An Altima? They ride around all day with their stereos thumping. Not sure how they can afford the gas, but they do. Best place to see ghetto rides: Any window seat on Second between Union and Peabody Place.
Elmo. There’s a guy who dresses up like Elmo from Sesame Street and walks around Downtown. No one is quite sure why he does this. He’ll take a picture with you for a dollar. Best place to see Elmo: Main Street Mall. Occasionally he ventures onto Beale Street.
Illegal vendors. Some of them set up shop on corners, selling water without a vendor permit. Others are rolling vendors, carting a cooler up and down the street selling cans of beer for two bucks. Fun to watch because sooner or later, you just know the cops are going to roll up on them. Best place to see illegal vendors: Beale between Second and Riverside for the stationary ones; Main Street Mall for the rolling vendors.
The Zendiks. The Zendiks live on an artists’ farm in West Virginia. They believe society is too much of a distraction, with full-time jobs, social obligations, etc. They prefer to live in a space of their own where they can focus on their art. They travel across the country, selling T-shirts, magazines and books to support themselves. They’ve been known to come to Memphis to hang out during Music Fest weekend, although last year I didn’t see them. Some people consider them a cult, but I’ve talked with a few of them at length and am convinced they’re not. Founder Wulf Zendik’s book A Quest Among the Bewildered is an interesting read if you’re into Beat literature. Best place to see the Zendiks: Beale Street between Second and Third.
Bums. Hey mayne, hey big dog, sir, sir, can I aks you a question? Look here, man, I ain’t no bum or nothin’, but I’m just trying to get about fitty two cent. They’ll often do the tour guide gimmick and offer to show you around, then ask for a tip. (Do not let them lead you anywhere that is not well-lit and crowded.) When rain threatens, they’ll break out the bum-brella gimmick and offer to provide cover with the most raggedy umbrellas on earth. They’ll pick flowers from public beds and try to sell them to you. Best place to see bums: In the immediate vicinity of stores that sell liquor or beer; parking lots, where they pose as attendants.
Stupid drivers. Drivers turning left from the center lane, or sometimes even the right lane. Drivers going the wrong way up one-way Second Street. Best place to see stupid drivers: Window seats at the Flying Saucer.
Iguana. There’s a man who walks around Downtown with an iguana on his shoulder. No idea why. Best place to see the iguana: You never know, could pop up anywhere, but busy streets like Main, Union and Second are your best bets.
Scalpers. The “got tickets, need tickets” guys. Do not buy a Music Fest ticket from a scalper. It is extremely easy for them to print multiple copies of the same ticket, and sell them. When you get to the gate, they’ll scan your ticket, and you may well discover that it’s already been used by someone else. By that time the scalper will be long gone. Best place to see scalpers: Near the entrance to Tom Lee Park.
Strip club employees. People from the Pony and the Gold Club are usually walking around, offering free passes. Sometimes they’ll even have a van and will offer you free transportation to the club. Best place to see strip club employees: Beale between Main and Riverside.
Pigeons. What big-city downtown is not filled with these most annoying birds? If you do any patio dining, it’s a good idea to look up and make sure you’re not under anything that could be used as a roost. Best place to see pigeons: Beale Street, Court Square
That’s a handy guide to the fauna of Downtown Memphis during Music Fest. Did I miss anything? Shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.