There’s a song by Mojo Nixon called “Elvis is Everywhere.” “Elvis is in your jeans,” Nixon sings. “He’s in your cheeseburgers. Elvis is in Nutty Buddies.”
Elvis is in Orlando, Fla., at the EconoLodge on Highway 417. My husband and I went to Disney World for Christmas, and one night, exhausted from the Disney crush, we went to see Jack Smink, an Elvis impersonator advertised all over the city, but Jack Smink wasn’t playing that night.
Wandering around the hotel, searching for the restrooms, we found Jack Smink rehearsing in his lounge — a small conference room where you might find yourself trapped by a pinky-ring-flashing multi-level marketer. Jack Smink was good. He was the real deal. I once had my picture taken in Vegas with a guy dressed like Elvis outside Binnion’s Horseshoe. The guy in Vegas was not an Elvis like Jack Smink. He was doing a job like someone else might dress in a clown suit to sell pizza.
My husband and I were leaving Florida the next day and were disappointed that we would miss Jack Smink’s show. Then our GPS software mapped a route from Florida to Kansas that would take us through Memphis. Going to Memphis and not visiting Graceland is like being in Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. We were giddy. This was better than Disney.
My mom divides her generation into two kinds of people: Elvis fans and Beatles fans. My mom loved the Beatles. My dad loved Elvis. When I say my dad loved Elvis, I mean that he listened to his music. He didn’t want to be Elvis. You have to make that distinction with Elvis fans. You don’t see average people living their lives dressed as Paul McCartney or John Lennon.
In seventh grade, I had my first encounter with the other kind of Elvis fan. My best friend’s mother’s roommate, Carmie, wanted to be Elvis. Carmie was often mistaken for a man. The slicked-back hair didn’t help. Elvis was Carmie’s life; she knew everything there was to know about him. She wore Elvis T-shirts, decorated with Elvis memorabilia and wore gold Elvis sunglasses, but it wasn’t a hobby or a fad like collecting Beanie Babies. Elvis was a practice.
I’m too young to remember the real Elvis. My first memory of him was the day he died. I don’t know why that day has stuck with me. My father was in our living room, shaking his head at the television. I asked what was wrong. “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll died,” he said. We were going to a picnic at my aunt’s house, and I remember being sad. I remember going to find my cousins behind the aboveground pool so I could tell them.
For me, Elvis has always been a caricature, a roadside attraction, an icon like Ronald McDonald. Seven years ago, when my husband and I moved to Wichita, we stopped at the Elvis Is Alive Museum and 50s Café off I-70 in Wright City, Mo. Our tour guide showed us a plaster replica of Elvis’ tombstone and played a recording that was supposed to be Elvis talking with some friends at his own wake. Outside, she showed us around a powder-blue Chevy Bel Air, and said, “Elvis never rode in this car, but he rode in one like it.” It was great fun. I was expecting more of the same from Graceland.
I would be lying if I said Graceland is not gaudy. The Jungle Room and the TCB (Taking Care of Business) Room are silly; imagine if George Clinton designed a line of furniture for Sears. But I am being honest when I say there is real beauty there, too, a humbleness I can’t explain. It is in the photographs of Elvis’ mother and father on the TV, in the smallish dining room table, in the red swing set in the backyard.
Graceland is a mansion, but it’s not cavernous. The ceilings are too low. Hallways are scarce; each room leads straight into the next. The basement rec room feels like every other basement rec room I’ve been in. I could not imagine the legend that inspired a thousand Jack Sminks, the star to whom Carmie had devoted her life, fitting in this house. The rooms are too small.
Visitors to Graceland are quiet and respectful. I imagine people touring the White House behave the same way. The tacky gift shops and museums and photo opportunities are across the street. The mansion has been preserved. It’s the only place left where someone like me can glimpse the real Elvis: the man who rode around his front lawn on a grassmobile, the civics-minded benefactor who cherished an award from the Jaycees more than gold records, the dad who played cards with his daughter backstage before the show.
That was the Elvis my dad loved, the one he mourned that day when he told me the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had died. I love that Elvis too.
I would’ve been an Elvis fan.