Suspicious minds might ask, “Why did you ever want to go to the United States? What did you find there that you didn’t know already?” I’d have a 17-day long trip to defend. “I wanted to go to the States because of Elvis,” I’d say. My answer would not be deliberate or obtuse. When I was 13, Elvis was my king. His songs gave my life its soundtrack. I’d exaggerate my baritone and practise “Love Me Tender” for my childhood sweetheart. The day we broke up, I played “Always on My Mind”. (She really was.) When I found myself in times of trouble, Elvis came to me, and when I wanted to dance, I’d secretly jive to his “Blue Suede Shoes”. Elvis was also my America. He’d made me dream the Great American Dream.
As a boy, I had always imagined Graceland as a temple of abundance, and even though it turned out to be a palace of excess 20 years later, I wasn’t disappointed. I had touched the piano Elvis played in his living room, and seen the three televisions he watched together. Graceland had even put on display the planes he splurged on and the first Cadillac he bought when he found money and fame. Above the car, you’ll find this Elvis quote on the wall: “There’s nowhere else in the world where you can go from driving a truck to a Cadillac overnight.” The United States, I concurred, was a land of sudden possibility.
Tad Pierson drove us around Memphis in his own ’55 Cadillac, and he, not Elvis, is the sole protagonist of the Memphis story you will find in the issue. According to him, “In America, we don’t have royalty or mythic gods. What we do have is Elvis. He is our Shakespearean hero, and he is also a superhero, wearing a cape on stage, sacrificing his life for our joy.” His fame may not have been kind to Elvis, but it was generous to us. He’d given us a guide to good times. Fun, he implied, was always a matter of now or never.
Even though the United States might be more familiar than exotic, its industry does still extend to its entertainment. It was in Savannah, for instance, that I discovered a latent love for ice cream. Atlanta renewed my passion for Andy Warhol, and New York’s bookstores gave me hope. Books had a future. In the U.S., high and low art were served on the same plate. Thankfully, American portions remain massive.
It would be cynical to dismiss America’s predilection for pleasure as hedonistic. There is much the country must forget. In Washington, D.C., people now look to restaurants more than the White House. Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, but it did not make recreation impossible. New Orleans picked up the pieces, and rediscovered jazz and trumpets. So in the end, it is perhaps only levity that’ll trump.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.