Bad habits can lead you into excellent places where you meet extraordinary people. It's a bad thing to smoke cigarettes, but it's a disaster if you are a smoker and run out of cigarettes at night downtown when you don't have a car and the buses have stopped running. Unless you want to walk all the way to the Summit Hill Weigel's, you're pretty much going to have to pay $8 or $9 for a pack of cigarettes.
But as a consequence of being down and out—of cigarettes, that is—I made the discovery of Aisle Nine, a small grocery store in the Old City. One evening in September when the first chill of autumn was beginning to fill the air, I sat sipping my deadly espresso from Old City Java only to realize I had only two cigarettes and $5 left to my name. It was a serious dilemma.
If I had had the $8 or $9 to buy a pack at Preservation Pub, I wouldn't have hesitated—any self-respecting smoker would do the same—but I simply didn't have the money. And there was I, all revved up like the fireworks on the Fourth of July, with plenty of energy and coffee and only enough cigarettes to last 10 minutes.
It was then that I spied the small grocery store across the street, a cigar store on one side of it, an empty building looking dark and forlorn on the other side. White balls of light, like stage lights, framed the window. I eagerly walked across the street, half expecting to see a sign on the door that read "For Madmen Only" with a magic show going on inside. I opened the door with some trepidation. There was a table with three or four chairs around it, on which a vintage lamp sat, shedding its warm light around the room. There was also a chess set. The room had high ceilings and black and white photographs on the walls. On top of the gold and white vintage couch, a young man lay with his feet propped up, reading Bukowski. He barely looked up when I walked in.
Sauntering down the aisles—surely not nine but only four or five—I saw that some of the shelves were empty, so I wondered whether they were moving in or out. Possibly, the store existed only in my imagination, or perhaps I had entered some sort of time warp. It was much like entering a ghost town in the Old West where everyone has already left. I imagined tumbleweed floating in the dusty air, the remembrance of voices past still lingering. But it was not the Old West, nor was it a ghost town, but a tiny grocery store in Knoxville's Old City, which had the sense of being in someone's home. The overwhelming feeling I had inside the store was that of timelessness. For a moment, I had even forgotten my addiction.
Since no one was at the back behind the cash register, nor anyone at all besides the young man lying on the couch, I wondered for an instant if it was someone's living room made to look like a store. Or perhaps the set for a movie.
Finally, I called out. "Does anyone work here?"
The young man unrolled himself from the couch reluctantly. "I do," he said, walking leisurely towards me.
"You could've fooled me," I said, under my breath. A few minutes later, the manager, Randall, came in. After discussing my recent story in the Pulse, I asked him, "Have you ever seen my paintings of women under the name Asa McEwan? They're pretty bad but I've sold quite a few."
"We love bad paintings," Randall replied without hesitation, and within a few minutes I had a show for First Friday at Aisle Nine.
Although I had no intention of going back to the store the next day, I felt an irresistible pull after I walked Mallory in the downtown dog park, as though benevolent beings were dragging me in. A young man with blonde curly hair sat on the couch this time, staring at the wall in a Zen-like way.
"Oh, I forgot I have my dog with me," I said, backtracking out the door.
"No problem," said the guy, and I remembered a song I once heard that just said "No problem," over and over to a monotonous beat for about 20 minutes. "You can bring your dog in."
"Cool," I said, feeling like anything but cool. The young man named Andy continued to smile at me and stare in such a laid-back way that I wondered if something was wrong with him. Then I wondered if something was wrong with me. My state of constant movement seemed suddenly to be abnormal.
I cleared my throat and wanted to run away. "Do you smoke a lot of pot?" I asked.
He continued to look through me but didn't answer.
"Do you meditate a lot?" I asked.
"When I need to," he answered. "I ride my bike a lot."
Finally, not knowing what else to do, I bought a beer and left the store, but not before Andy called after me: "Thanks for the love."
My show was not a success. Only two people came, and the only people who showed interest in my paintings were the people who worked at Aisle Nine and their friends. But I continued to go in. And I still go in. Aisle Nine is what I call a good addiction. They may not have the largest variety of items in the store, but what they do offer is excellent. I've met a few people there, a few dogs, and a girl who told me she owned a hedgehog.
Conversations begin and end leisurely at Aisle Nine. It's charming and easygoing, and while you might not achieve a state of samadhi while you're in there, you will definitely be more laid-back by the time you leave. And it doesn't cost you a dime.