Some Odd Memories of the Summer of Our Unlikely Origin

This week Metro Pulse celebrates its 20th anniversary. We celebrate those 20 years sincerely, but we should offer this disclaimer: None of us on staff now were there at the very beginning.

Twenty years ago, exactly, I knew nothing about the project and likely would have advised against it. I was working as an "associate editor," whatever that ever means, at Whittle Communications. That national magazine company was located, by some peculiar circumstance, in downtown Knoxville. That late summer of 1991, we were preoccupied with moving into our grand new headquarters. I probably didn't even notice the disorderly stacks of another smartypants paper for nightclubbing kids.

At Whittle I spent my office hours on the phone, harassing writers, or on the word processor, forcing stories to fit our rigid formats. Everything had to be short, stylish, and persuasively cheerful. Once stapled to become magazines, our shiny, colorful work went into boxes, by the hundreds of thousands, to be shipped across the nation. We were impressed with ourselves, even as we wondered why we didn't hear more often from our estimated 8 million readers. (Reader shyness has never been a worry at Metro Pulse.)

Whittle recruited nationally, and I was often called in to help interview the top-drawer editorial candidates, mostly those applying for jobs more important than mine. It was an odd inversion, that I should interview my potential superiors for a job, but Whittle liked to be different. The bosses were keen on recruiting bright young editors from name-brand magazines in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. Whittle offered them better salaries and benefits than journalists have any right to expect. The final hurdle—the biggest—was selling them on moving to Knoxville. That was, I gathered, the reason Whittle would pay for me to have lunch with a recruit. Of an editorial staff of more than 100, I was one of only three or four editors who was actually a Knoxvillian.

Most of our prospects had never been to Tennessee before. Some had never been to the South. Some, before they made their application to Whittle, had never even heard of Knoxville.

By the time the prospects got to me, some had already suffered one disappointment when they tried to get here on the train. Many who live in northeastern cities assume that all American cities big enough to have TV stations have at least some form of Amtrak connection, if only once a day.

Then and now, selling Knoxville for its low cost of living comes with an asterisk. Living in Knoxville may look cheap, but it generally requires a car—especially then, when there was little downtown housing that would interest professionals, and the last buses ran at 6 p.m. I remember the look on some candidates' faces, across the table at the Bistro, as they came to the melancholy conclusion of obligatory car ownership. One otherwise talented New York editor had never gotten a driver's license. Sometimes they asked me how much it costs to own a car. Because I worked for Whittle, I always lowballed the combined cost of payments, insurance, maintenance, tires, and gasoline. Even then, to people accustomed to paying four figures for rent, it was often shocking. We lost more than one promising recruit for that reason.

Many already had cars, of course, and knew the drill. Still, Knoxville wasn't an easy sell. Its charms weren't always obvious. We'd take them to Harold's, Ella Guru's, the new lunch spot called Tomato Head. But I learned a lot about what my hometown had, and what it lacked, from the recruits. Most were more interested in downtown than Knoxvillians were, for one thing, and the prospect of walking to work. Walking to work? That had never occurred to me.

Some were snotty, of course. No sushi? Seriously? No brewpubs? No downtown cinema? No bus service at night? And Starbucks isn't here yet?

But others approached Knoxville as they'd approach a city in Tuscany, trying to learn its history and open-mindedly squeeze every bit of the experience, just to be able to tell the story of having been here. One New Yorker was much more interested in our country-music heritage than any Knoxvillian I'd known had been.

A newcomer from Florida showed me Old Gray Cemetery; I'd heard of it but had never set foot in the place. I had no idea. I wandered around the Victorian graveyard, bewildered by the names on the marble stones. Mixed among the Brownlows and McClungs were others: Esperandieu, Ricardi, Fouche, Guyaz, Aebli. It seemed a parallel universe. I got in a habit of looking things up.

Perusing newspapers on microfilm, I discovered something startling: Knoxville used to be more like all these big-city recruits wanted it to be. It had comprehensive public transportation, upscale downtown residences, live nightly entertainment, import groceries, craft ales, local produce, music festivals, sidewalks everywhere, ethnic neighborhoods, wine bars, street musicians, train service, interesting stories.

It wasn't a Yankee idea. It was just the way we lived. The irony is that Yankee ideas persuaded us to give it up. We bought Yankee automobiles and Yankee televisions and started shopping at Yankee chain stores and buying mass-produced Yankee beer, and bit by bit, we gave up our city.

Anyway. I had never been in a position to explain or defend my hometown before. It got me interested in the place as I never had been. I started telling stories, and by the time one of those newcomers from up north asked me to pitch in a story for his pet project, Metro Pulse, now and then, I had some to spare.

Of the few of us who had our names in the mastheads of these big glossy national magazines and who saw this little free tabloid blowing around the gutters of Gay Street late that summer of 1991, I think it's safe to say that none of us suspected it might ever have anything to do with a career.