Dark Days of Winter

The S&W's problem; and a remembrance of Barbara Asbury

Our neighbor, the S&W Grand, the subject of one of the most admirable renovations in memory, has closed, at least temporarily, and that's too bad.

I'd heard a few random complaints about the operation, but I never had a bad meal there, and had just begun to make a habit of the live jazz shows it hosted on Saturday nights. About a month ago, it enabled my most serendipitous evening of 2010. I was working too late in my office one evening recently, when the cleaning crew showed up. They offered to skip it, but my office badly needed the attention.

Rather than hiding in the bathroom, while they were mopping, I went downstairs and out the door, and into the S&W. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer and listened to a young pianist I'd never heard before play heartbreaking versions of two sweet old tunes, Ellington and Gershwin, I think. I got back to my office just as the cleaning people were finishing, and felt more refreshed than after any nap.

They never quite figured out what to do about the lighting; I know some aesthetically sensitive folks who couldn't stand to be in there at night.

And here's a dysfunction we didn't think about, five years ago, when we daydreamed about an eerie return of the days of the dinner-at-the-S&W, movie-at-the-Riviera basis for a Knoxville Saturday night, the paradigm of our collective youth. The reborn S&W and the reborn Riviera are on the same sidewalk. But as it turned out, Regal Riviera's lineups have strongly favored action films and sex comedies aimed at rowdy youth, while the S&W's appeal was much quieter, aimed at the over-40. I doubt there's been much crossover.

From its beginning, the S&W Grand tried to take a step in its namesake's direction by serving fancier versions of humble old American favorites.

Talking to older folks over the years about various downtown projects, I've begun to suspect that deliberate homages can be dangerous. Maybe there's something in us that prefers to leave the past behind, dead but safely unaltered. To restore an institution, sort of as it was originally, but not exactly, sometimes troubles people with long memories.

If some shaman promised to resurrect your grandmother, but spiff her up a little with a well-placed tattoo or piercing, and generally upgrade her—well, would you be altogether happy about it?

It's still one of the most impressive rooms in town, but to give it a business personality, maybe fresh starts are safer.


The sudden death of my old friend Barbara Asbury came as a shock. She was my editor during my first stint of freelancing for a real newspaper, a quarter-century ago, when I was still trying to discern whether there was any credible chance that I could make a living doing anything at all. I was an unemployed legal assistant with a baby at home, and was grateful for her encouragement. She could never offer me a real job—my major had been history, and the News Sentinel, at the time, was hiring only journalism grads—but she gave me some interesting freelance work, which proved to me I could earn money merely by arranging words in a sequence appealing enough to form readable paragraphs. Even if it was just, as I recall, $50 for a feature story, it still seemed to me kind of astonishing that someone would pay me to do this sort of thing.

She was editor of the zone sections, and she governed a mini-newsroom off a corridor kind of back behind the main newsroom, in the Byzantine floorplan of the old News Sentinel building. Only four or five people ever worked back in that windowless chamber, which was about the size of a modest scullery. It became kind of an island of misfit reporters. I came to suspect it was the management's plan to safely segregate the employees they weren't sure what to do with.

We were wholly ignored by the hustle of the daily news business, and after an hour back there, you could easily believe you were working for a small-town weekly, run by Barbara with assistance from an eager young guy named Don Williams, who seemed too idealistic to be a newspaperman. I wasn't sure the News Sentinel's editor in chief even read our section—I never heard from him, or met him—so Barbara was the only one we had to please. She had the demeanor of a teacher who expected me to make an A, but didn't want to tell me that straight out, so early in the semester. Her eyes often had a livelier expression than her face, which was more convincing in its firmness.

Most of the professional journalists I knew at the time were either go-getters eager for a ticket to a bigger town—that's part of the melancholy of life in a mid-market city—or easygoing folks who'd already given up on that, and much else, and who were mainly looking forward to getting home in time to watch some TV. Those two groups agreed on one premise, that Knoxville itself didn't require or deserve much earnest effort. Barbara differed, and considered it urgent to do good work here and now—even if the people who would be reading what we wrote were mere Knoxvillians. She had a strong sense of the importance of telling a good story, and of journalism as something different from an ordinary job or occupation, more like a calling, a duty, or at best a privilege, but one that had to be earned on a weekly basis. I was never real sure anyone read what we wrote, but I thought some of it was pretty good, and Barbara made it seem like that mattered.

I'm ashamed to say I rarely saw Barbara after the News Sentinel left that creaky old building downtown. About a year ago, we started swapping e-mails, planning one day or another to meet for lunch, but something always got in the way. I'll always regret that it never worked out.