Spring Cleaning

An homage to an almost-historic landmark, and an unwelcome epilogue

Cumberland Avenue will miss the Tap Room. It is allegedly the oldest bar on the Strip—they claim to be slightly older even than the original articulation of the Longbranch, the Tap Room's noisier neighbor.

It's a landmark, even if, for personal reasons, I need to resist thinking of the Tap Room as historic. I remember its opening; I was already beer-legal at the time and a little concerned of what this new place would do to business at my bar, the Last Lap. I was never a regular, but went there several times, a quarter-century ago, when I was working on a feature for a long-forgotten magazine about the Knoxville Rugby Club. The Tap Room was the closest beer joint to Fulton Bottoms Field, and the rugby players would go there after a scrimmage. I understand it's still considered the rugby bar, even though its ceiling is covered with autographs of football heroes, like Tim Irwin, the heroic offensive tackle for the Vols almost 30 years ago.

The building's older than it looks, built in the 1920s, originally a tent store; if you have someone show you behind the bar, you can see high stamped-tin ceilings still visible in one part of the place. Above the false ceiling over the pool table is old-fashioned Murrow-era perforated soundproofing. That dates from the late '50s and '60s, when it was the studio of radio station WKGN, the cool rock station when I was a kid.

The Tap Room has a devoted following, a self-styled "homeroom" of regulars who have met there on Fridays longer than some of them can remember. When I went in there the other day, the regulars didn't recognize me from the last time I was there, in the early '80s. Perhaps because I was wearing socks, I was immediately mistaken for the people who have bought the place and are going to redevelop the place as a trendier bar/restaurant, who I gather are not popular there. I was quick to protest my innocence.

I understand they got together this past weekend and gave the place a proper sendoff.

Knoxville seems to slap down old bars before they can gain true historic-landmark status, but I hope the new establishment proves itself worthy of the legacy.

LAST WEEK, I SUGGESTED THAT URBAN INTERSTATES aren't necessarily an asset to a downtown. A few months ago, I wrote a longer piece remarking on how we've gotten blasé about the daily risk of automobile driving, the most dangerous thing most of us ever do, and that even major accidents with injury and fatality don't always make the news. Last Friday morning I saw an unexpected, and unwelcome, illustration of both phenomena. I wish I hadn't.

I was on my way to New Orleans on Interstate 59, to see my son graduate from college. As I mentioned, I avoid interstates in Knoxville, but use them to drive long distances, and sometimes find myself passing through other cities. We hit downtown Birmingham right at the morning rush. Traffic was moving swiftly on the big, broad, modern, multilane highway, but it was the kind of situation that I've never found a way to get comfortable about: multiple lanes of traffic, about 50 or 60 cars visible from mine, on all sides, all going different places, some merging, some trying to get to an exit lane to go to work in downtown Birmingham, some, like me, just passing through, not intending to stop until the next state over. I was thinking about my column on I-40 widening in downtown Knoxville. I'm always amazed that people can get so used to this, and think it's normal and safe, driving along in multiple lanes at 60 m.p.h., each of us trusting incalculable unknowns, like the driving skills and psychological makeup of each stranger behind each wheel.

Then someone, apparently frustrated with the pace of traffic, broke loose and drove down the emergency lane faster, maybe 80 m.p.h. Son of a bitch, I muttered to my sleeping wife. Then, seconds later, I heard a sickening pop up ahead, and saw a weird lateral ricochet of glass and metal, a large object sliding weirdly contrary to the flow of traffic, and the whole pack squealed to a stop. Our cars stopped inches from each other. Maybe four car-lengths ahead, turned around backwards on the highway, was the car I'd just seen speeding down the emergency lane, or maybe half of it. Its front, the engine compartment and front wheels, were missing, just gone. No one was visible through the windshield. Two police units were on the scene almost immediately, and pointing as if someone were down in the car.

Other cars were askew, and a truck appeared to have some damage. People behind their wheels, taking cell-phone pictures. One woman was crying in her car. I was curious, but when the people ahead of me moved along, around the main part of the wreck, I followed, driving through broken glass and shiny pieces of car.

I assumed it would be front-page news in the Birmingham paper the next day. I checked some websites. Nothing. Curious about what had happened, what had caused it, whether anyone was badly hurt, I called the Birmingham Police Department. They transferred me to the North Precinct, which attends to wrecks on I-59. No one there remembered it.

I needed to be more specific, the woman in police communications for the North Precinct said. She wouldn't even be able to even look it up unless I gave her the numbers on the squad cars, which would allow her to ask the cops if they happened to remember it. "We have wrecks here all day, every day," she said.

That's what I mean.