Fort IGA

18th Street IGA • 307 18th St., Fort Sanders

If you want to see the 18th Street IGA (and you do) get there fast. All across Fort Sanders, alien spawn have implanted themselves in the district's beautiful, decaying Victorian homes. They are growing, replicating, extending their horrible exoskeletons around neighboring houses, sucking the life out of entire blocks of the district and mutating into blank, three-story, plastic-sided apartment buildings. They even mimic Victorian style—with gables and brick foundations and faux shingles on their walls—but in bland, lifeless uniformity.

Soon these monstrosities and their accompanying parking garages will devour the entire neighborhood, including the 18th Street IGA, leaving nothing of old Fort Sanders but the sidewalks and historical markers. The grocery store, housed in the ground floor of a sagging two-story brick building on 18th Street between Laurel and Highland, probably survives because it is tucked out of sight behind Fort Sanders Medical Center. Eighteenth stops at Clinch, leaving no direct access to the store from the Cumberland strip.

The store is at 307 18th Street—307½ is a stairway leading to the building's upper story, possibly a rental. In the yard next door is a pit bull that's the spitting image of Petey the Pup from Spanky and Our Gang. The store and surrounding buildings very well could have been lifted out of an Our Gang short; now the neighborhood is all about rentals to college students and whoever else is passing through.

In the early spring there are hand-scrawled "For Rent, Fall 2008" signs in every other yard. One slightly be-shambled house nearby proclaims itself the "Palace of UT." Another displays a big skull-and-crossbones over the front door. "No Trespassing" signs abound, even on Fort Sanders' incongruously named Fellowship Center (the center provides temporary shelter for out-of-town patients undergoing treatment at the hospital).

Fort Sanders may very well be as dangerous as recent press indicates. Maybe there are a lot of transients and panhandlers here; there are a lot of street people in San Francisco, too. This neighborhood is young and alive and feels that way, and the tiny 18th Street IGA caters well to it.

The antique signage and mildew-blackened awning over the front door obviously date from the days when this was a respectable middle-class neighborhood, but the ads for Neuro Fuel and SoBe on the storefront grating are aimed at today's clientele. The store carries everything a young renter needs to survive, including beer, ale, malt liquor, beer, lager, and beer. One slick ad hanging above the aisles proclaims Yuengling Comes to Knoxville; another, professionally printed with 18th Street IGA right on the banner, sells Keystone Light.

In this store, Chef Boyardee is a vegetable. The meat department is a cooler with bologna. The IGA sells a wide variety of Hamburger Helpers, but not much hamburger.

Toilet paper and cat food are big. There's a freezer full of Ben & Jerry's, lots of chips and pretzels, standing coolers full of soft drinks and not-so-soft energy drinks. There are tiny collections of cereal, toothpaste, breads, detergent; maybe not all seven, but enough of the basic food groups to stay alive. The cashier sits in front of a wall of cigarettes next to a newsstand full of porno magazines, watching Arabic-language news on the TV. Yes, you can buy lottery tickets at the 18th Street IGA.

Beyond the Yuengling and Keystone Light, the store's selection of beers is actually quite impressive. I walked out with a bottle of English Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, a Tusker Lager from Kenya (great elephant on the label), and a Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. At the miniscule mini-deli at the front, you can get a take-out barbecue sandwich and a Coke for $3.39.

Otherwise, the prices stink ($4.39 for four rolls of Cottonelle), but they're playing to a captive audience. The store's patrons are on foot with not much money.

Want to know how it feels? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown? Go to the 18th Street IGA.