The Heart of Lincoln Park

The only thing small at Shorty's is Shorty

Lincoln Park is a residential neighborhood of North Knoxville between Broadway and Central, on the sunny side of Sharp's Ridge. It was developed around 1898, as a trolley suburb, marketed as a beautiful but affordable place away from the noise and smoke of the city. It's been part of the city of Knoxville since 1917.

It was named for Lincoln, maybe, but more directly for the park and neighborhood of the same name in North Chicago. After the World's Fair of 1893, Chicago represented an American ideal. Chicago's Lincoln Park was one of its symbols, a stylish neighborhood with an expansive and beautiful park. It was, like ours, a couple of miles north of downtown. In naming a new neighborhood in Knoxville, it couldn't hurt to evoke that elegant image.

Knoxville's Lincoln Park attracted people, especially factory workers, many of them Americans, many of them German immigrants. Today Lincoln Park is a combination of all sorts of folks, working-class people, unemployed people, retired couples, a smattering of sensible downtown professionals. There are a few fine Victorian houses here, none of them ostentatious, and many more modest pre-war family homes.

Through the middle of Lincoln Park runs a street called Chicamauga, spelled with no K, unlike the battlefield—but you wonder if, in the South, a street named for a Confederate victory was meant to take the edge off of a neighborhood named for Lincoln.

At 726 Chicamauga, midway between Broadway and Central, there's a two-story brick building labeled Shorty's.

It's a general store of a sort you usually find only way out in the country. Shorty sells cleansers, toys, medicine, shoes, candy. She also has several neat tables, because Shorty's is also a restaurant. A sign says, "If you think your hot, try a hot pepper. 20 cents each."

Shorty has a few specialties. She serves catfish every Friday night, she says, "for people that have special religions." Lots of customers like her homemade soups, vegetable and cream of potato. After only six months here, she's also known for her sweet cornbread—her secret, she confesses, is mayonnaise and apple sauce—which she serves with pinto beans.

Her baloney sandwiches are two half-inch thick slabs of beef baloney with onion, tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise, between slices of white bread. Before you're done, there's not much left of the white bread. You may need a fork to finish it. "The only thing small about Shorty's is Shorty," says Shorty.

An old black industrial ceiling fan stirs the air.

Shorty is Doris Shifflett, an energetic and unusual lady in her early 40s. "I'm 4-foot-10-and-a-half," she says. "But my mom was shorter." She grew up in Woodbridge, Va., near Washington. She was never called Shorty until she was full grown; before that, she was Punky. "I didn't take no stuff," she explains. "I was little, so I had to be mean."

She's not mean now, but she's still tough. She has a high voice with a little rasp in it that she uses when she means business.

She came to Knoxville just to visit her dad, who was then dating a girl down here; she decided she liked it, and wanted to move here because it was "nice." Her dad, who ran a trash service in the Washington area, didn't understand.

"'What do you mean, it's nice,' he asked me. 'They don't have no money down here.' I said, 'But Dad, they're rich in other things.'"

That was almost 20 years ago. It might seem surprising that she stayed; Shorty's years in Knoxville have been a trial.

A skinny man with long hair and a trucker's cap walks in the door smoking a cigarette. "You can't smoke in here," Shorty hollers at him, then she adds apologetically: "I've only got one lung. I'm sorry." He puts out his cigarette and comes back in for a Coke.

"I've only got one lung, but I've got two good arms and two good legs, and they're still working." She says she began having breathing problems after she moved to Knoxville, when she was moonlighting in a smoky UT-area bar. She got worse and soon found she could no longer work in grills.

She was working a lot in those days, with fast food jobs and moonlighting as a bartender. She was working 80 hours a week, but as her lungs got worse, she could work only one hour a day.

She went to the hospital; they told her she just had a bad cold. "Nobody cared, except for how much money I had to pay them. And I didn't have any, because I couldn't work." She wasn't diagnosed until she was finally referred to allergist Dr. Bob Overholt. He discovered that one of her lungs had stopped working. Dr. Bob is her favorite Knoxvillian. She has a portrait of him on her front wall. He thinks she's slowly getting better. Someday, he told her, "You'll be almost the Shorty that you were before."

Her dad died of emphysema. Shorty doesn't sell cigarettes, or beer, either. Shorty's liberal about many issues but she says, "I think cigarettes and beer is devil's work." "That's one man I don't ever want to meet."

A tough-looking customer in a muscle shirt orders four hot dogs. Shorty's worried he'll hurt himself. "You need to be real careful," Shorty says. "The chili's real hot, okay?"

Folks have told Shorty that her two-story brick building, previously the Chicamauga Market, is well over a century old. All you can prove for sure is that it's been a grocery for over 75 years—since 1924, at least, when Grady and Doris Spalding ran a store here. Several of its proprietors have lived in the apartment upstairs. Shorty has heard that at some time in the past, the place was called "Shorty's" for someone else. "Doesn't that seem strange," she says.

"Some people look at the outside, think it looks bad," Shorty says. "They're judging the place by its outward appearance." She likes the building, and its looks.

Shorty lives in Lincoln Park, and feels a sense of mission here.

"I want everybody, especially kids, to come in and study if they need to. I say, 'You can even read to Shorty," she says. "She likes to listen.'" She has a world map tacked to a wall, she says, to help educate neighborhood children. She's on a first-name basis with about 30 of them.

"When I see children share, I always give extra. They know that Shorty believes in that."

"My kids say it's like a mall. You can buy shoes, shirts, anything." She keeps all her medicine in a glass case, she says, "to make it safe for them."

She likes to encourage kids to eat cheese, because it's nutritious. She has it priced by the slice, 25 cents, your choice of yellow or white. Kids ask her, "Can I just buy one slice of cheese? I'm just a little bit hungry." She serves only beef hot dogs. "Pork's not good, not when you're growing," she says.

She's proud of some of her kids. By her cash register is a teenager's ball-point drawing of a dinosaur on notebook paper. She's worried about others; her eyes glisten as she talks about some of them, especially some of the girls she thinks are headed for trouble. "One thing we girls have, until we want to part with it, is the pride of being a lady."

After 3 o'clock, a quiet teenage girl comes in and lays a history textbook on the table. She orders a Sprite. "You gonna stay a while and talk to Shorty?" says Shorty.

"Not everybody's blessed to have a child," she says. "Shorty wasn't blessed."

Shorty's interest in education belies the fact that she can't read. She was once diagnosed as dyslexic, but she's not sure. "You have to try to do what you can," she says. She's been cooking since she was a kid, but once had to quit a job because she couldn't read recipes. She's a quick learner, though. "I'll remember the color, or something about the bottle—it's the words on the sides that I'm not too sure of."

She was once self conscious about it, but no longer. "Now I don't feel funny about it. But half the people who come in here can't read," she says. "You have to trust your friends. I don't have many, but I have very good friends." Her best friend is her business partner, Anna, who has a full-time job for a fast-food chain.

"I always had good people to help me," she says. "The health inspector reads everything to me to tell me what not to do." She did pretty fair at the last inspection: a 100. A perfect score is rare in the restaurant business.

"I'm always simple," she says. "I'm just extra clean, that's the only thing weird about me." There's no discernible speck of dust on the canned vegetables or the toys on the shelves.

Shorty's open until 11 or so, but she makes exceptions. A while back, she shielded a girl who ran in her store because a man was chasing her. "You just don't stop at a certain time, not when a neighbor needs something," she says.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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