Seattle vs. Memphis: “subtle” differences, part deux

Having resided in the Mid-South here for a few more months I thought I’d add to my growing list of differences I’ve noticed between here and my hometown. I posted an initial entry in mid-July after only a few weeks of moving here. While those still apply (except thankfully we’ve moved past the miserable, hot, humid weather one), I’d like to discuss a few more things I’ve observed. So without further ado:

Sports culture:

In Seattle there seems to be a strong culture in support of the local teams. For college sports you generally cheer for one of the two large conference, state teams: the University of Washington (UW) or their cross state rival Washington State (WSU). There are a handful of non Washingtonians who choose to root for their alma mater or home state team. But the majority of people are either for Huskies or Cougars (in some cases there are conflicted parents that have had a child attend each and root for both, but outside this scenario this is generally not allowable).

A couple of not-so-brief asides: Growing up a UW fan and then attending school there for both undergrad and my doctoral program it was hard for me to fathom someone not knowing of this amazing institute of higher learning. I realized I might be a bit regionally biased when a few years ago I visited Michigan with my husband for his family reunion and one of his relatives asked me where I had attended college. I told him UW (pronounced U-Dub), to which he responded, “University of Wisconsin?” I gasped. What? Granted, we were at the time much closer to Wisconsin than Washington, but still… the horror of confusing my urban Seattle school with the Cheesehead state. 

So, I was already aware of my regional bias but was reminded again when shortly after arriving in Memphis I was wearing one of my UW T-shirts while shopping in Costco. It was purple with a single gold W on the chest. In Seattle it would be easily recognizable as UW apparel but here in Memphis a gentleman stopped to ask me if I had attended one of the local high schools. I looked at him bewildered, then realized that whatever school he had said started with a “W” and he must have made the erroneous connection from looking at my shirt. “No,” I replied, “it stands for the University of Washington.” I then continued shopping and realized he probably then assumed it was some school in nation’s capitol. Dangit. When we say Washington can we not just all agree it is in reference to the state unless specified otherwise?    

Besides being largely unaware of the undisputed best college in the U.S (not that I’m at all biased), the Memphis area seems split over what college team or teams to route for. There is, of course, the University of Memphis, which garners a fair share of support. But so does the University of Tennessee, as well as Arkansas, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, sometimes even some of the Texas or Florida schools. Granted, my assessment of college allegiances is largely based on my observation of team flags, banners, and bumper stickers… but still, there does not seem to be nearly as much consensus here as in Seattle.

Professional team-wise, Memphis only owns one, an NBA franchise in the Grizzlies (which they stole from Seattle’s northern neighbor Vancouver, I’m pretty sure there are not any grizzly bears in Tennessee). While there seems to be a fair amount of support for them, it’s not nearly the level that I’ve observed in Seattle for the Sounders and much less the Seahawks. 

Sadly, there does not appear to be any equivalent to Blue Friday here – no 12th Man level of unified fandom across the city. I’m not sure if I really miss Blue Friday in its support for the Seahawks or more just that it’s a day of the week when I don’t have to think about what to wear in the morning (although I do have six Seahawks shirts – which didn’t seem excessive until I started counting – so I guess there was still some decision involved). I feel that many Seattleites may secretly share this sentiment. Do you really care that much for the team or is it just an excuse to wear a comfy jersey and preserve casual Friday at work? Hey, I’m okay with either motive…

I incorrectly assumed that Memphis would mainly support the Tennessee Titans for football but that does not seem to be the case. If people do support an NFL team here, it seems that similar to college, allegiances are mixed. There seems to be a high level of support for the Cowboys and Steelers, as well as the Saints, in addition to the more local Titans (again, my assessment mainly based on observations of fan decorations). 

The most dedicated team decoration I’ve noticed so far has to be this house with a giant inflatable Cowboy’s helmet on their front lawn. As I was admiring their level of unabashed fandom I noticed a couple large spotlights on the ground aimed up at the helmet. I imagine that once illuminated there is also a hidden speaker that blasts celestial voices singing “awe” as their beloved team helmet lights up the neighborhood (I can neither confirm nor deny this conjecture as I have not ventured past this house at night… but it seems reasonable).

Artist’s rendering of actual “Cowboy house”

Differences in Scale:

Speaking of crazy large, not-so-subtle, decorations… I think it’s just more common here in the Mid-South. The fact that most homes here actually have yards and space to decorate naturally plays a role. But I think some of it is cultural as well. I noticed a much higher percentage of homes were decorated for Halloween compared to where I lived in the outlying areas of Seattle. I passed several homes with fake webs, giant spiders, ghosts, tombstones, skeletons, pumpkins, and other seasonal decorations. One home had not one, but two, inflatable Halloween arches creating a festive pathway for visitors, along with a dozen or so other equally conspicuous decorations.

As I write this, we’re just shy of Thanksgiving, but several Christmas decorations have already come up. I arrived to work one morning in early November and noticed two giant wreaths hung outside the office building. Our apartment complex already has wreaths and bells adorning the entrance gates. Each day I notice an increase in Christmas decorations around the private homes that I pass. And the other day, while walking to my car, I couldn’t help but pause to admire the entranceway to a first floor neighbor’s home that really exemplifies this local spirit of brazen ornamentation…

I was definitely hoping they didn’t open their front door as I was capturing this photo…

I hardly know what to say. Clearly, it’s not all about the yard, seeing as they don’t have any. Upon closer inspection, the festive snowman even appears to be holding a shotgun – just to reinforce the Southern spirit. Amazing.

The scope and scale of adornments are not limited to seasonal decorations. A lot of things are just downright bigger here in the South. Though the following couple examples are reflective of the area’s different emphasis on certain values compared to Seattle’s, I’m not trying to make a statement for or against anything here. They just stood out to me as things that would seem rather out of place in the Northwest but are more par for the course around here.

The first is a giant American flag in front of a restaurant on my way to work. Yes, there is a much higher density of American flags here. But this one stands out to me because of its disproportional size relative to the parking lot and building it’s in front of. I mean, it’s like one of those colossal flags you see from a mile off the highway in a car dealership lot. But this one is flying directly in front of a Perkin’s restaurant off of a busy stop-and-go road. I support their right to express their patriotism, but I do find the size of the flag in relation to it’s surroundings to be rather comical, which might not be exactly what they’re going for…

Another eye-popping example of, wow, that’s huge, are the three white crosses in front of a local Baptist megachurch. Okay, I’m pretty sure these are large even by Southern standards. On our cross-country trip we passed a few spots with giant roadside crosses but they were all in fairly rural areas. This display stands out because, I believe the property is still in Memphis proper, or if not, it’s a neighboring district. I was telling my Seattle-based friend about these spectacular crosses and told her, perhaps in haste, they must be at least 30-feet tall. I later (for this post) looked up their actual height: the middle cross is 150-feet tall, while the two flanking are 120-feet. I was then simultaneously in awe of how tall they actually are, as well as how horribly off my visual estimate was. Potentially one of my worst estimates ever. Anyway, the giant crosses are visible from I-40, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. And, of course, they are fully illuminated at night. 

Crosses at nearby church

Differences in Prices:

Whereas a lot of things are bigger down here, prices are by-in-large inversely proportional. I’m beginning to stop calculating things by Seattle standards because they almost always prove to be way off. 

One example was a Brazilian steakhouse that we attended for a re-enlistment party for one of Jeff’s colleagues. It was a lovely restaurant downtown and featured a full hot and cold salad buffet with soups, cheese, bread, and sauces, along with a variety of all-you-can-eat meats that they served you at the table. Granted, this was lunch, but I still figured it would cost a pretty penny. We didn’t see the prices coming in (and I falsely assumed his work was going to cover it) so we decided to guess what the total would be for the two of us. Our estimates were within $10 or so of each other but the bill turned out to be about half of what we had guessed. At this point I was just hoping it didn’t turn out to be a Bridesmaids scenario (with delayed food-poisoning and all) but, thankfully, it wasn’t. What a deal!

There have also been a handful of times when a cashier has rung me up for a movie, or food tab, and I would repeat my order, thinking they had missed something. Some of these totals have been affected by generous military discounts but most of them just start out cheaper period. You’d think I’d learn by now, having been here for several months. But some of the prices still seem absurd to me. 

Just the other day at a make-your-own pizza place (I like to call it “Memphis MOD” – because it’s like MOD pizza, but called something else that I haven’t bothered to commit to memory) the gal ringing me up told me the total and I responded, “No, I wanted to buy two pizzas not one” indicating that I was with Jeff (who was behind me and still loading his up with an obscene amount of toppings). To which she replied “No, after the discount, that’s the price of two.” 

This happened a couple times at movie theaters as well: Where I was convinced they were charging me for the price of one ticket instead of two. My mind usually goes through the same progression of thoughts: Are you sure that’s right? I mean, I’m kind of trying to pay you more here but you seem to want to give it to me for much less so… I can only verbally confirm so many times… I guess I’ll go with it. One theater we went to, granted it was a bit of a smaller theater, but still, for a new release, charged us $4 for both our tickets. Again, I verbally confirmed several times, and again was told that was the correct total. Unbelievable.

An example of differences in upfront costs, before any special discounts, would be the recent downtown dining experience we had. A couple weeks ago a coworker informed me that Memphis was having it’s Downtown Dining Week where you could have a 3-course-meal at participating restaurants for a set price. I recalled Seattle having basically the same event but they call it Restaurant Week. We’d participated in the past and it was about $30 for a dinner. Well, here in Memphis, same amount of food and everything, the set price was $20. The disparity sounded about right. 

I’ll limit my consideration of costs here to food and events. As someone planning to return to Seattle it’s too depressing to discuss the even larger disparities that exist in the housing market…   

Accessing Downtown:

Another significant difference between here and Seattle is the ease of getting in/out of downtown. In Seattle I lived a little over 20-miles outside of the city in a suburb whereas here I’m about 15-miles outside of downtown. So I guess, I’m technically a bit closer to the city here, but this is clearly not the deciding factor in making it so much easier to visit downtown Memphis than Seattle.

In Seattle, I’m used to planning my excursions to the city around traffic, trying to miss the rush of the early morning and late afternoon work crowds. And even then, chances are you’re going to slow down 5-10 miles near downtown (usually at Northgate if you’re going South on I-5) regardless of the time of the day. In my recent visit back to Seattle I went downtown on a Friday afternoon and the last 6-miles took about 50-minutes. It’s always a bit disheartening when I calculate that I could cover the same distance faster on foot.

Here in Memphis, I’ve yet to encounter such gridlock. I’d more consider it increased density of cars versus traffic per se. A few months into living here, we were in fact leaving downtown Memphis between 4-5pm and at first I was confused why we merging so slowly onto the highway. After craning my neck searching for an accident ahead or flashing lights it suddenly occurred to me, oh, this is rush hour. I even sighed, in surprise and exclaimed to Jeff, “I think this is just traffic.” To which he laughed at, then agreed with me. It was the first time I had genuinely been slowed because of the amount of vehicles on the road versus delayed due to road work or an accident. It took probably about 10-15 minutes longer to get home than normal. Kind of a cute little traffic jam by Seattle standards.

This is what I think of when I hear “traffic”

Not only is traffic much less getting into and out of the city, driving around downtown is not the white-knuckle affair that it is in Seattle. I generally don’t mind driving in downtown Memphis. The roads aren’t densely packed with impatient vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. There aren’t steep hills and an abundance of one-way streets and dead ends that you have to navigate. If you miss a turn it won’t take you ten-minutes to circle the block and rectify your error. When we went to the Grizzlies game recently, we were able to park downtown on a Saturday night for several hours, just a block away from the FedEx Forum for only $10. It was fantastic.

We did have a couple of unfortunate experiences with parking here, not because of pricing or location but due to other factors. The first, was a gated lot that we parked in soon after moving here, and found that our ticket did not scan for re-entry. The lot was not attended and no one answered the phone line we were to call for problems. So we stood outside the lot, staring longingly at our car, unfortunately locked behind bars, for awhile before figuring out a creative way in. The second, was going to a specific lot for a concert. The parking lot’s website said it was automated for card-only, but upon arrival we were greeted by an attendant who notified us it was cash-only for events. And yes, it was a certified attendant, not someone scamming us for our money. Thankfully ATMs are prevalent. So, parking may be cheaper and more abundant, but I remain skeptical of gated lots and city run websites.

In Closing

Well, that’s it for the main categories I was planning to discuss. I am continuing to learn and observe more unique customs or ways of doing things from my neighbor here in the South. A few recent discoveries include: referring to all sodas as “coke” then specifying what type of “coke” you’d like, the existence of sinus cocktail shots, and the fact that it’s not nearly as uncommon as I thought to eat squirrel meat. I’ve also noticed that fall changes occur much later here, as it is the end of November and the trees are finally displaying their full palette of rusty colors.

I want to end by noting that my intent in observing and pointing out some of these differences is to celebrate our diversity and by no means to make things more divisive. I write from a Seattle bias, because it’s what I am more familiar with, but I hope you can take some of my comments in jest. The title “Seattle vs. Memphis” is not meant to be a grudge match or a pro-con list in which one side is viewed as superior and a winner is ultimately declared. 

Though some of my observations may play into existing stereotypes, I never intend to place broad labels on people or places or divide entities into “us” or “them”. To settle for such labels or stereotypes would be embracing the least sophisticated take on who we are as human beings. I believe we are all beautiful and complex: whether we have a giant inflatable Cowboy helmet on our front lawn or we spend 2-hours everyday commuting into a big city for work. I think that anywhere you live, if you truly get to know your neighbor, that what bonds us together as human beings is stronger than any of these cultural, economical, circumstantial differences.  

That said, I hope you enjoyed this post and my observations of some of these superficial differences. My next entry will probably be a summary of some local running races that we’ve participated in: ranging from a 5k in July, up to a full-marathon which we plan to complete this upcoming Saturday. I hope everyone had a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend! And stay tuned for how well, or more realistically how tragically unpleasant (since we aren’t really trained for a full), our marathon goes… 


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