"In the still hours of the early morning," begins the newspaper column, "Gay Street is as quiet as a country road. It is a silence that hangs like a pall and startles with the slightest sound...Not more than an hour out of the 24 is the street really quiet....The absence of the rattle, the roar of the vehicles, the clatter of streetcar gongs, the shrill whistle and shout of youthful energy....all that goes to make up the deafening sound of Gay Street, appears to have palsied into dead silence."
Well after midnight, 101 years ago, an anonymous reporter for the Knoxville Journal & Tribune wandered out of his Gay Street office and listened.
"At such times one hears sounds on the street which are never suspected at other times," he wrote. "How many people have ever heard the Hope clock tick? In the still hours it may be heard for nearly half a block." The big clock in front of the Hope Brothers Jewelry Store near Clinch was a Knoxville landmark.
"The sound of running water in the sewers under the pavement rises up through manholes. A piece of blown paper startles one for half a block. A gust of wind starts ghostly groans from every sign along its course. A store cat's mew may be heard blocks away." Clocks ringing the hour in a jewelry store sound like "Vulcan's forge."
"One can hear from Gay Street the whistle of an engine resounding among the hills miles away and...the country cocks crowing.
"The strike of the courthouse clock never tells the time to Gay Street except when there is silence....
"The most silent hour is between 2 and 3. The fewest people are then to be seen...
"The hotel porters have silently collapsed in their seats in slumber, while the hotel clerks scribble out the only noise in the buildings. Sleepy hackmen are crouched up into themselves upon their small seats, intent only to keep from falling from their vehicles as they nod and wait.
"Only two saloons [on Gay] keep out the red lights during the silent hours." In open drugstores nightclerks would answer "a call for hot chocolate and crackers at the fountain by newspaper men. Slipping up from Central Avenue...a dope fiend now and then may be seen. Getting their 'perscriptions' filled, they silently slink back to their quarters in the slums.
"Over around the depot, in the all-night stands, railroad men just in or going out meet and talk. In the waiting rooms of the depot a few people try to catch a nap in the racks called seats, designed with the express purpose of making sleep on them as uncomfortable as possible."
A policeman appears, "silent as a spectre."
Like that reporter, I sometimes find myself on Gay Street late at night. Today, there's still a clock outside of Gay Street's jewelry store, which is now Kimball's. It looks a lot like the old Hope clock, but now it's electric, tickless. The clocks inside the jewelry store aren't as noisy as they used to be. At the top of the hour, there's no riot of chiming.
At 3 a.m. nothing's open on Gay Street proper, but it's not quiet. Even on this street where nothing is open, there's an irregular parade of cars. Two police cars, their lights flashing, but no siren. A cab. A loud VW bus. And when they've passed comes the constant shoosh of rubber on asphalt from the highways around downtown. Quiet is as old-fashioned as darkness.
You hear other sounds, too: a squeaky fan at the old Holston Bank Building; a mysterious ticking above the side door of the Miller's Building; the loud buzzing of a couple of defective streetlights. The Remington cowboy's American flag flaps in the cold night breeze.
Closer to Jackson Avenue are parked cars, and young people walk to and from the nightclub called Fiction, just around the corner. Stretching over the sidewalk is a tent over a little concession stand. A middle-aged couple tends it. "We're Christians," the lady says. "We're the Soul Seekers. We're here for the kids at Fiction." They only serve lemonade, cold drinks, no coffee. "You give coffee, you get too many street people," the man says.
Across the viaduct there are no empty parking spaces. In idling cars, young couples argue. A car door is open and someone, with the assistance of two friends, is vomiting. Beneath the viaduct, an eastbound freight train screams past the old passenger depot without slowing.
By a lamp in an uncurtained second-floor window on North Gay, a young woman does paperwork.
In 1901, the trouble was down on Central; tonight, blue lights are flashing down there. On Gay, a police car slows alongside a lone pedestrian, then resumes its speed.
A huge plume of steam rises from the News-Sentinel building. Men talk loudly in the parking lot. "I still get lost here," one says.
The Plaza Tower's locked up, the security guard vacant from her post. A heavyset man in an untucked uniform shirt rounds the corner of Church with a white plastic bucket and a long pair of metal pincers. He's plucking up wisps of paper and cigarette butts left there earlier in the day by nine-to-fivers who've never seen him.
A cabbie—the modern hackman—stops at the Bistro and honks. A middleaged man emerges, and the cab slides away toward Hill. Inside, the restaurant is dark. By a dim light near the cash register, three people behind the bar are laughing.
The same courthouse clock tolls three o'clock. Just three clangs: no cacophony of recorded Big Ben melodies from the churches, as you hear in the day. At night this one honest bell is startlingly loud, as it was in 1901.