The blue, tan and pink-trimmed booths hearken to the 1950s, when The Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis was renovated after a fire. It’s a cool place because of the history – a Greek immigrant opened the restaurant in 1919, and it’s undergone many renovations over the generations.
There’s a booth by the back door that Elvis favorited – he could slip in and out unobtrusively. A plaque marks the spot. There are black-and-white photos spanning generations.
What caught my eye were the marks on the serving counter.
In front of each stool was a rub mark along the edge of the counter. For generations, people have walked in off the street, sat on a stool, rested their forearms on the counter, and unknowingly rubbed off a little of its laminate.
Every person left a bit of their DNA behind and took a bit of the counter with them. Each one contributed to the mark.
In our society, we try to keep things nice-looking and new. When a counter gets a bit worn, we replace it. Not the counter at The Arcade, though.
It’s a reminder of how our lives intersect.
I looked at the worn spots and wondered: Who made these marks? Who sat here?
How many children sat on these stools with their parents and shared their first meal at a restaurant, a moment they’ll remember and retell for the rest of their lives?
Or maybe on that stool sat a black person who’d been turned away from lunch counters their entire life, now proudly ordering a cup of coffee that had the sweet taste of equality?
Perhaps the white person sitting next to that proud black person was unhappy over all of this and huffily moved to a different spot or different restaurant.
Maybe those marks in the counter were fashioned by someone on their way home from the hospital after receiving devasting news about a relative. Or maybe by a new parent still feeling that Adrenalin rush on their way home from visiting their son or daughter in the maternity ward.
Maybe all the above.
The marks were worn into the counter by someone who just got a job, and someone who just lost a job. Someone who recently got married, and someone who recently got divorced.
A newcomer to the city feeling homesick as they thought about a similar diner in their old neighborhood. A visitor like me taking it all in with fresh eyes.
So many lives intersected at those places on the counter top.
Rubbing off on each other
I was reminded of that when we paid our check and headed out the door. A few blocks to the west is the Mississippi River, a wide expanse that has deposited many visitors to the restaurant’s doorstep over the century.
Beal Street is only a few blocks away, a place where different musical styles intersected and overlapped and gave birth to many more. So is Sun Studio, where musical pioneers – including Elvis – cut their first record.
The Lorraine Motel is blocks away, too, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 50 years ago on the balcony outside room 306. So is the church where he gave his final speech on the night before he death, speaking so powerfully about how we need to keep moving toward the promised land.
So much history, so many lives, all intersecting and rubbing against one another – and rubbing off on each other, too.
We tend to forget that last part, how we all influence and are influenced by so many others. How we’re never in our own space alone – we share the places of those who have come before us.
The reminder is right in front of us on the counter.