It’s Scary Behind the Dairy Reckoning with ghosts, reveling in queer futures

By Faron Levesque

Illustrations by Iris Gottlieb

Big Butch Dolly is packed and stacked with boxes of collards and radishes, chard and lettuce, eggs and honey. Driving in the shadows of FedEx cargo jets coming in hot, our farm kitchen van is just a blip in the larger distribution multiverse of Memphis, Tennessee. I’m making my way north on Airways Boulevard, where smells beckon and potholes try to suck us into the sandy underbelly of this old, queer river city.

The saccharine storm fronts billowing from a squat factory under the overpass hit me first. kellogg’s—in big, blood-red, glowing cursive—marks the building where workers produce Froot Loops, Raisin Bran, and Rice Krispies. They work an endless loop of long shifts.

The swampy heat rising up and over the bluffs carries a wallop of garbage. Every day is trash day. The stench comes wafting from the army of trucks, once called wiener barrels for their cylindrical compactors, as they move fast and furious through the sprawl of Memphis. Some of the trucks have the iconic I AM A MAN slogan emblazoned on the sides in commemoration of the historic protest for higher wages and better working conditions spurred by the gruesome deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker in 1968.

The mobilization of Black sanitation workers in the wake of Cole and Walker’s deaths drew the support of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—the largest trade union of public employees in the United States—and of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis when he came to support the striking workers. P.J. Ciampa, a former steelworker from Pittsburgh who served as AFSCME field staff director during the 1968 strike, said: “They are going to have to come up with some bread and some decency, or this city is going to smell awhile.” I first saw the fiery organizer’s words enlarged on a wall panel of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum. Since then, the message has stayed with me: Rot can be revolutionary, too.

I think of the Memphis seal stamped on those city-issued trash cans today. The emblem, designed in 1962, is a soft-cornered square with four symbols: a gear to represent manufacturing, an oak leaf to symbolize the lumber industry, a cotton boll that nods to the city’s position in the worldwide cotton market, and a steamboat to pay homage to the Mississippi River economy. In that seal, I see a story of racial capitalism. Cedric Robinson’s term describes the extraction of economic and social value from non-white labor. The exploitation of forced labor by white enslavers, and later of underpaid labor by subsequent generations, laid the foundation for refining, disposal, shipping, and manufacturing, the industries that still dominate Memphis.

Windows down, moving low and slow, I breathe in the plumy ghosts of smoked meats as they dance above one of Memphis’ most sacred churches: Payne’s Bar-B-Q. Flora Payne and her mother-in-law took control of what would become Payne’s in 1984. The pig chars for hours in a recessed pit, the signature slaw is neon yellow, and that good sauce bubbles on the back stove all day. The hot stuff is in the soap bottle. “Thirty-six years, you know; you can perfect something in thirty-six years…. I pray over this food. Bless it,” she said in an oral history. I say a little prayer, too, for the eternal loves and labors of Ms. Flora Payne, and keep rolling. The cloud of steady-burning hickory and oak coals lingers.

Froot Loops, hot trash, and charred pig: That’s the bouquet that slaps back most days when I head out from our small hilltop farm by the airport, once the territory of the Chickasaw Nation.

Rot can be revolutionary, too.

The perfumes of Memphis are highly subjective. They give texture to the food work I do and to the stories I tell. Tennessee Williams said, “Memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” It’s in the nose, too.

I’m in Midtown now. Nothing is open quite yet. Prep cooks work behind the scenes, chopping veg, making roux and rent. I turn onto Madison Avenue. Grilled onions for days. Restaurants, head shops, and convenience stores appear one after another. Developers have pounced on the once-cheap real estate. Condos are going up everywhere. Graffiti scrawled on the exposed wood planks reads EAT THE RICH; MEMPHIS IS MORE THAN NEW MONEY; and EW.

At 2040 Madison Ave., an industrial milk plant casts a shadow on neighborhood standbys like Kwik Chek (get the muffaletta) and the Blue Monkey (you can smoke in there still!). Idling big rigs puff fumes through tailpipes as workers fill tanks to the brim.

When I pass Turner Dairy, I see the apparition of the warehouse that once stood behind it, a 20,000-square-foot gay megaplex dance drag emporium called Backstreet.

Before COVID brought everyday life to a halt, I stopped at Huey’s in Midtown, a stone’s throw from the dairy, for a burger and a visit with veteran bartender Jordan Theiry.

After exchanging hayyyyyyyyys, we talked about which queer spots were still hanging on in Memphis. We came up with two full-time nightspots: Dru’s Place and The Pumping Station. Each is legendary in its own way. Yet neither commands what Backstreet once did.

Then, with all the pomp and snarl of a proper camp queen, Jordan trilled, “It’s scarrrrryy behind the dairyyyyyy!” We doubled over with guffaws, remembering the power of a place long gone. During Backstreet’s heyday, from 1995–2010, this was queer code speak: a little bit of theater and a little bit of truth; a reclaiming of homophobic hostilities.

There’s nothing like the feeling of walking into a big, ole, bass-pounding gay bar. All us Alices tumbling down the rabbit hole as we entered the club through a long, low-ceilinged corridor. Revelers gathered in a huge dance area called the Coliseum. The waft of sweat, cigs, and booze was atmospheric. We always went directly to the drag zone. The space was intimate, with cabaret tables clustered around the stage.

Multiple bars scattered throughout the expanse offered Jell-o shots, cheap beers, and set-ups. It was a bring-your-own-liquor situation—a total Memphis thing and a holdover from the days when laws limited the sale of hard liquor in pockets of the South. It’s when you tell the bartender, “This is my bottle of booze and I’m grateful for being able to bring it in. I’ll be buying cups of ice filled with Coke and tipping you, so don’t even worry.”

LGBTQ+ folx working and playing in queer spaces are well-versed in the challenges of staying open, staying alive.

The Memphis Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit (OCU) temporarily shuttered Backstreet in 2009, signaling 
that end times for the gay mecca were near. In an early morning raid, undercover agents cited illicit sex acts in dark side rooms, underage drinking, drug sales, and gambling as the proof in their pudding.

State-sanctioned police violence against queer folx and the places they make is an entrenched practice. LGBTQ+ folx working and playing in queer spaces are well-versed in the challenges of staying open, staying alive. The Stonewall Inn and Compton Cafeteria are the two famous examples from a list that is stunning in its length and geographical breadth. At Dru’s Place, a large mural is decorated with the names of over 110 long-gone gay bars of Memphis written out in colorful chalk.

I’m from here. But when I was eighteen, I moved away to begin college. I sought something I thought I would never be able to find in a landscape of neoconservative ascension. I saw bigots all over the damn place, clinging to Lost Cause mythologies and seemingly bottomless plantation coffers.

My people were a ragtag family of Mississippi Hill Country barrel racers and sharecroppers, Acadian barbers, and Georgia goat farmers. They chose different routes to get educated. “Whatsamatta U” is my dad’s self-proclaimed alma mater. From peacocks to ployes to stories of migration and experiences of deep country poverty, they gave me all the riches of the poor, I would later realize.

It would take years of queer exile, living in cities small and large (Northampton, Massachusetts; San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin) for me to be able to understand the place Memphis holds in the Queer South, to have the clarity of vision to see the abundance of queer life here, its limits and possibilities.

Backstreet was fraught. Safe spaces are always subjective. Built environments are never free and clear of the hierarchies of race, class, gender, and ability. Writer Nico Lang recently referred to diverse sites of queer pleasure and revelry as “imperfect possibility models.” That sounds right.

Even as a first-generation college graduate, the vast privileges of whiteness lent me access and mobility. But I learned my best lessons studying a hidden curriculum in alternative academies like Backstreet. I gained more through comrades and chosen kin, excess and lust, revolutionary imagination and queer revolt, and the sacred work of storytelling and holding space for memory.

When I think about Backstreet, when I mourn the erasure of queer spaces in the South, I’m grasping for a usable past. Where do the landscapes of queer liberation and revolt begin and end? Always within the history of struggle.

The violence is still very real. As of March 2021, the murder of Trans people was up 266% on a yearly basis, and widespread anti-LGBTQ legislation was gaining momentum in Mississippi and Tennessee. The need for safe spaces remains.

“It is one thing to be welcomed,” explained Robinson, “it is another thing to be seen. And still another to be rigorously cared for and fed.”

Backstreet grew out of imperfect visions of accessible, queer social spaces. It wasn’t a utopia, nor was it sustainable. It was felled, digested, and decomposed by the city. But again, rot can be revolutionary, too. Compost makes for fertile soil. New worlds emerge from ruins.

What can community care look like now? As condos, pipelines, and Covid come for the most vulnerable communities in this city—shifting landscapes, razing neighborhoods, taking lives—what will remain? How will we remember? What worlds will we build on these living ruins? And, perhaps most importantly, how will strategies of collective, direct action offer people-powered care and relief? Writer and scholar Zandria Robinson has lyrically captured the essence of radical hospitality, the politics of these possibilities. “It is one thing to be welcomed,” explained Robinson, “it is another thing to be seen. And still another to be rigorously cared for and fed.” I carry these words with me on the guest-check pad that I keep in the front pocket of my overalls.

By seizing the means of food and health, disinherited and dispossessed folx are reckoning with this city’s ghosts and reveling in its queer futures. Within the intimate currents of people and place, struggle and soil, appetites and desire, pleasure and pain here in Memphis, I see a politics of care that’s all about mutual aid, harm reduction, and political education. In this space, I’ll be excited to introduce Gravy readers—all y’all—to some of the fine people growing food and showing our city’s soil some tenderness, provisioning free food programs and ministries, assembling survival kits and homes for unhoused Black and Brown Trans communities, and cooking up queer joy and love in our beloved river city.

Big Butch Dolly struggles to top the hill after our long day of deliveries. I pull into the farm. The chickens are quiet, but FedEx still roars overhead. As I wash the totes we use to move our precious cargo, the hose water sprays back on my warm cheeks and arms. I lose myself in the process, then an urgency takes over. I clutch my guest check pad with wet hands. I’ve seen so many gorgeous people, heard so many things, and breathed this city in deep. I get a little frenzied as I try to write it all down. Hot trash, charred pig, Froot Loops. Keywords to trigger my memory. I’m so scared of forgetting.

Faron Levesque is a historian, writer, and host based in Memphis, their hometown. You can find more of their work in the forthcoming collection Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Modern Origins of Food (MIT Press), from which parts of this essay were adapted.