Neal became the project's resident celebrity two years ago when, by chance, she and her family moved into apartment No. 328, the two-bedroom flat where Elvis Presley lived with his parents from 1948 to 1953. Neal—who shares the apartment with her son LaQuan, 14, daughter Laquetta, 18, and Laquetta's 1-year-old daughter Tyranisha—was thrilled when the King's fans began showing up at her door. One man paid her $30 for a piece of ragged radiator insulation. Another fan appeared wearing sideburns and a long blue cape. "I wondered if Elvis had come back," says Neal, laughing. "He was the spitting image. I said, 'Hi, Elvis, how do you do?' "
Soon, though, Neal's sideline as an impromptu tour guide will come to an end. In March the Memphis Housing Authority is planning to tear down the deteriorating 57-year-old building, claiming it would be too costly to refurbish. So far this hasn't generated a large outcry among Elvis fans, but Neal, who is uncertain where she will be moving next, would like to see the apartment preserved as a shrine. Some rock historians share her view. Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train to Memphis, a detailed account of Presley's dazzling rise to superstar-dom, says the years that Elvis spent in Lauderdale Court were "a significant time in his musical development." The project's importance to Elvis, he adds, was that "it nurtured hope and, given its commitment to upward mobility, allowed him to dream of a better life."
Like the Neals, the Presley family was also struggling to make ends meet when it moved into the then-all-white Lauderdale Court in 1948 from Tupelo, Miss., where Elvis, who would have turned 61 on Jan. 8, was born. Elvis's father, Vernon, got a job stacking cans at a paint company nearby and paid $35 a month for the austere apartment. (Remarkably the rent is still only $49.) Elvis was a shy teenager who used to sit for hours on the front steps and stare dreamily into space. To give him something to do, his mother, Gladys, bought him a guitar—a $12.95 Gene Autry Harmony six-stringer—and talked a neighbor's older teenage son, Jesse Lee Denson, into teaching him how to play. "Elvis knocked on our door and said, 'Mama bought me a guitar!' " recalls Denson's brother Jimmy. "From then on, my brother taught him every day." Eventually, Elvis, who practiced in the laundry room directly below Neal's kitchen, joined Jesse's group, the Golden Boys All-Guitar Band of the Lauderdale Court. "By the time he left the Court," says Jesse, now 63 and living in Houston, "he was ready. He grew up a little bigger and a little more confident."
The rest of the story—from his quick ascent to his decline and death in 1978 after years of drug abuse—doesn't need retelling. Especially to Neal, who sympathizes with the fallen idol because, she says, "I've had sort of a tragic life too." Born in Memphis in 1950, Neal grew up in Dyersburg, Tenn., joined the Army and briefly worked in a Vietnam hospital after graduating from high school. In 1974 she moved to Newark, N.J., again worked in a hospital (in the family-planning unit) and met the man who would father her two children. Shortly after LaQuan was born, the father left Neal, and she returned to Memphis, where she has been living on welfare since 1983. Someday she hopes to go back to school and become a medical technologist. But first she needs to find a new place to live.
Not long ago, Neal took her first trip to Graceland, which is only 15 miles from her apartment. She was overwhelmed by the grandeur of Elvis's mansion, and when she came to his grave in the estate's memorial garden, she paused and cried quietly. It moved her to see how far the aimless teenager who once lived in her apartment had traveled. "Graceland is an impressive stop on the way from Lauderdale Court," she says. "It shows where one can come from. Elvis was a 'projects person,' and what he did proves project people can expand their lives into something else. My constant prayer is to get out and make a better life for myself. Just like Elvis did."
JANE SANDERSON in Memphis
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