The Heart of Fort Sanders

A farewell to a friend, and some summer-reading recommendations

During the years I lived in Fort Sanders so successfully disguised to myself as a student, and then an underemployed graduate, he was the most personable guy in that neighborhood of introverts and misanthropes and poseurs. Sameer Jubran died last week, at the age of 75. He ran Sam's on 15th, which, when I first knew him, was a creaky, cluttered little convenience store, one New Yorkers might call a bodega. His wife Renee ran a tiny cafe called the Falafel Hut; eating there was kind of like being a guest in someone's homey, aromatic apartment.

The two businesses would change radically as the result of an Act of God, but that's the way I first knew them.

I lived nearby on Clinch, in a strange old apartment. I was living in my head in those days, applying for jobs I didn't want, and writing a lot of stuff that, looking back, wasn't really poetry. The anonymity of student-ghetto life, exchanging money for beer or baloney without words, suited me. But Sameer wouldn't have that. When I walked into his old place, I knew I'd have to snap out of it and engage with a human being, and one who was outgoing, smart, and quick. If you thought you could just walk into Sameer's place to exchange a dollar bill for a quart of milk and a newspaper, you had another thing coming. "Hey, what do you think of this new paper, ‘USA Today'?" he'd say. "Do you like that new Coke?" "Do you think they're ever gonna do anything with the World's Fair site?" You couldn't stumble into Sameer's place hungover and wordless. You had to be ready to talk.

Only fellow introverts may understand this, but on more than one occasion I walked to the front step of his store, only to realize I wasn't mentally ready for a conversation. So I'd walk past, or sometimes around the block, and entering only after bracing myself, and thinking of something to interesting to say. Sameer always wanted to talk about some new magazine he was carrying, or ask about your shoes, and seemed curious to know what you thought about everything. He would have been a great talk-show host, but he seemed to enjoy the job he had, which wasn't really very different.

There were days when, if not for Sameer or his wife Renee, I wouldn't have talked to anybody at all. Maybe they kept me sane, or close enough to pass.

Fort Sanders after college often had the feel of a limbo of lost souls, a trainer-purgatory. The Jubrans made Fort Sanders feel more like a community. They were the aunt and uncle keeping an eye on us.

He was from Ramallah, Palestine, but he was also a U.S. veteran of the Korean War. He had lived in Detroit, but moved here in the '70s, and said the hills of East Tennessee reminded him of home. He spoke sometimes with the effect of an ambassador, certain that, given enough friendly conversation, Americans could come to understand Palestinians.

One hot night in the summer of 1984 brought a violent thunderstorm. I remember driving back from the mountains, and having to stop my Volkswagen Beetle because I couldn't see. When I got home, I saw that whole block, Sameer's store and the Falafel Hut, and the little laundromat, all of it was up in flames. It had been struck by lightning, and it seemed catastrophic. Good things never last long, I thought, sure it was the end. But the Jubrans rebuilt, more grandly than the old place.

I had liked the old noir buildings and their comfortable gloom. But it was hard to maintain any pretense of grumpiness in the new place he and Renee built on the rubble, a larger and brighter edifice. The homey little falafel cafe moved into a cheerful, airy place on the corner, becoming a good-sized restaurant with lots of tables and big windows. Sameer's place became Sam's Party Store and more like a small supermarket. The building they built on what's now James Agee Street is now the closest thing Fort Sanders has to a downtown, and suggests the Jubrans' legacy may last longer than fond memories.

***I always knew Knoxville would finally achieve municipal credibility as an American city when it became a setting for a series of popular murder mysteries. This spring, two very different new mysteries are out with vividly, and for the most part realistically, Knoxvillian settings. I haven't read either of them—I'm saving them for the beach—but I've been hearing people talk.

One is Jefferson Bass's scientifically savvy The Bone Thief, a graverobbers' saga that forms the fifth in the Body Farm series. Old Gray and Highland Cemeteries make appearances, as does Riverview Tower, Turkey Creek, and Pete's Coffee Shop. And, in an odd way, the bookstore Carpe Librum—albeit in an inscription in a gravestone. The setting is a colorful and strictly realistic Knoxville, though the city appears in a sort of time warp—Barbara Pelot is still on City Council, but Baptist Hospital is already torn down.

Knoxville's even more of a character in the other novel, the third installment in Richard Yancey's fun Teddy Ruzak detective series, The Highly Effective Detective Plays the Fool. The Ruzak novels are silly, but are much better written than most silly books, and have moments of depth and insight and especially wit. The faux-noir is all set, pretty thickly, in a slightly off-register Knoxville. In Yancey's Knoxville, random citizens seem cleverer than we're apt to in real life.

In Yancey's books, his hapless detective keeps his headquarters in the Ely Building, the 1903 townhouse on Church Avenue that's served mainly as a retail and office space in the last few decades. In the book, it's a kind of colorfully run-down multi-tenant building. It's not much like the upscale office space that for the last several years was the headquarters of Dogwood Entertainment, and the setting for planning and editing the much-praised Hal Holbrook movie, That Evening Sun. As it happens, Ruzak's beloved Ely Building is now on sale, in fact, for more than $1 million.