Final Check-Out

Discovering the meaning of Knoxville in its grocery aisles

After roughly 10 months on the job I am giving up pursuit of the truth about Knoxville in its supermarket aisles. Though I believe the truth is still to be found in these stores—in produce perhaps, or inadvertently buried in a bin on the bargain aisle—the press of more urgent and lucrative business pulls me away. I admit that at times it has seemed to me that this column, like Seinfeld, was about nothing at all. Few places feel more empty of meaning than a grocery store at mid-afternoon with nothing going on.

One of the things I learned in grocery stores, though, is that if nothing is happening in front of your eyes, stuff starts happening in the grey matter behind them. A trick that director Alfred Hitchcock used in his movies was to hold an establishing shot of a building just a little bit longer than usual. As the viewer stares at this house he begins to wonder why he's looking at it, and then he wonders what's going on inside it, and before long he begins to wonder where the bodies are buried in it.

Grocery stores were like that for me. (I would watch the butchers emerge from the back room with the meat and wondered where it came from and why they wouldn't let me watch it being prepared. People in the deli department have nothing to hide, so what was it with these meat cutters?) In the way they seemed to operate off screen, below the radar, on autopilot, the stores seemed to me like mini-Knoxvilles. Nothing was happening, but that was just on the surface, because underneath everything is going on.

That's why Jack Neely's on the money—this town has a secret history, a secret past, and a hidden present full of subconscious fears, desires, resentments, ecstasies. Stare down that empty aisle long enough and the linoleum begins to shimmer strangely and you hear suppressed whispers and invisible footsteps.

In some stores those glimmers of truth manifested themselves clearly enough for me to believe I knew what was going on from the minute I walked in the door. Other places I knew about from experience as a longtime customer.

I was keenly aware from talking to owners and operators of these stores and from my experience with family members in the business that it takes a lot of hard work to make money in groceries, particularly in a small, family-owned store. Those small stores often had the most vivid atmosphere and personality about them, and I did my best to do them justice.

Even the supposedly faceless chain stores spoke to me with distinctive voices, and I know I wasn't the only one who heard them. In a couple of instances people reacted strongly to what I had written, in some cases angrily. It was clear that these stores meant something to these readers—they were not "just grocery stores" at all, but places they felt strongly about, almost as strongly as they felt about their own homes, their own neighborhoods.

I've discussed all this in other columns. I have enjoyed writing about these places that people care about, because it has given me a greater appreciation for my own feelings about Knoxville. I arrived here 25 years ago with no personal connection or history in this place. Now I periodically see someone on the street or visit a location in town that I haven't seen in years, and I remember how my life was going and how I felt at that time and I feel happy or sad or angry at the thought of it.

The place has developed meaning for me, and I think that's what makes a town a community. The sum of all its peoples' memories and experiences of the place, its ghosts and its schools and its grocery stores, creates a spiritual atmosphere that, for better or worse, defines what Knoxville is in our hearts.