My people are from Austin, Texas. The town in which the Department of Motor Vehicles issues a "Keep Austin Weird" T-shirt with every driver's license.
So when my friend Art explained that a few years ago there was a campaign to make "Our Weird Is Real" the cultural motto of Knoxville, I decided to find the weird and the real. I sat over a plate of kushari at King Tut's, slurped sweet tea out of a flower vase, and wondered about the word weird.
Is this a town where "weird" has transcended into "mundane"? And just what (or who) are the standard bearers for weird in this town? An architect once told me I had a weird kiss. A week later, an advertising executive told me I had a yummy kiss. WTF?
Hearing "Jolene" sung by six manly men in overalls at a pickin' party in Maynardville? Is that weird? Of course not, it's joyful. It's hellagood. Nothing goes better with aluminum cans embedded in a gravel driveway than fish out of the fryer and "Jolene" on a Gibson.
Some would argue Turkey Creek with its prefab shopping extravaganza is weird. But then, the pay as you go Chinese massage parlor out there is fab-u-lous. The interior is divided by a series of sheets hung on wires to which create "private" rooms. Each room has a table. You go in. You strip. A tiny lady treats your back like a ball of pizza dough. Yes, there is the indignity of things creaking as she asks, "Harder? Harder?" When she is done your hair looks like it was in a blender but you feel amazing. Thirty bucks please.
Ordinarily I would say meeting a Zen master in the form of a 35-year-old man is weird. Except this is Knoxville. He was a bear of a man: tall, brown-eyed, and wearing overalls that harmonized with a woolly pickin' party beard. He smelled like a cashmere sweater, salt, and good cologne. Yummy. Could I drive through Cougar-town? I dunno: That would be weird.
We were the only two people in the bar drinking something other than beer. He had apple juice; I had water. His Knoxville drawl bewitched me into doing something weird. For once, I would not gild the lily to sound sexier, richer, or more mysterious. I would fearlessly be me instead of the ramped-up vixen that usually gets free drinks and a litany of vampires.
We talked for an hour. He explained he was working on "boundaries and filters" with people. Who does that? A person who has been through some stuff, that's who. He told me about his baby momma drama. He told me about the license plate in his garage that said "American by birth, Southern by the grace of God."
I watched his mouth getting closer and closer until that beard brushed against me. "That's a fine mouth, miss." Fine was stretched into the two syllabled and colloquial "fi-ine."
God bless the South.
The overalled bear and I talked a few days later in the wee hours of the morning about Amos Lee's album Mission Bell, boundaries, and filters. His favorite cut is "Learned a Lot." I knew we wouldn't have dinner, or drinks, or the yummy things that come after. He was too young and it would have been weird. He put "Miss" in front of my first name when he told me sweet dreams at the end of our conversation. That was enough.
I can still feel that beard on my cheek when Amos Lee and I drive down Papermill Road to work in the mornings. Mr. Lee is correct; I have learned a lot. I have learned wisdom and age have nothing to do with each other. I've learned weird and glorious are one and the same. I've learned the weird part of you, the vulnerable part, is capable of understanding that a moment and a kiss can be more potent than an entire relationship. I've learned that the tragically insecure hide in the ersatz judgment of others. I've learned that Knoxville is full of intellectuals and mystics. So hell yes, our weird is real. It's real good.