A Place to Be

Downtown, and the integration of the old

I grew up seeing Sunday-afternoon travelogues at the Civic Auditorium. We'd go and sit as some adventurer, sometimes wearing a pith helmet on stage, would tell us of his float down the Zambezi, and show slides or even films. For a couple of hours, in the dark, I'd be lost in some exotic other place. You'd see the teeming village, and the old man with his long pipe and the old woman with her loom, and lots of young people working with them, talking with them. When we left the auditorium by the exits, I'd blink in the sunlight, surprised I still lived in America. Compared to the villages we'd just seen, Knoxville seemed modern, neat, safe, and coldly silent.

On post urban-renewal Mulvaney Street there was always less life than there was in the most remote Amazon village in the films. I'd walk out on the well-mown Civic Auditorium lawn and I'd wonder, where are the people? Is Knoxville a city? Is it even a village? I'd go home and wish I was anywhere else in the world.

They don't show travelogues at the Civic Auditorium anymore. Even on PBS they're few and far between. Nowdays, I do most of my armchair traveling through the network news. The travelogues at 6:30 tend to be very short, and limited to cities that, for one reason or another, we're bombing.

Whenever America bombs a city like Kabul or Kandahar, Baghdad or Belgrade, reporters take their camera crews into the streets, and I watch with interest, just as I did as a kid in the Civic Auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, despite the war, you see old men drinking coffee on a sunny morning, smoking a pipe, playing some backgammon or checkers, with young men, often standing, because in these backward countries young men offer their chairs to old men. But they're there together, in the same frame, 80-year-old men and young adults and teenage boys.

They're scenes you don't see much in America.

I watch the news and sometimes feel envious. Not for their dictators or for their GNP. Not for the flying shrapnel. But there are a couple of ways that these second- and third-rate cities have it all over Knoxville. One is that they have a lively street life. Another is that they have a place for their old people. Regardless of the repressiveness of the current regimes, the lives of their old people seem, in some ways at least, better. They're part of daily life in a way they're not in America.

Maybe, I've thought, those two things—street life and happy old folks—have a lot to do with each other.

Many first-world nations have us beat in that regard. About 20 years ago I spent several weeks in Europe, backpacking around, mostly by myself. I saw lots of astonishing things: wonders of art and architecture in great ancient cities. But I think what most astonished me was something simpler: an old man in a bar.

At the end of a day of pilgrimages to historic shrines, I was sitting alone in a pub in downtown Dublin, resting my feet and enjoying a pint of stout. An old man sat down next to me and started talking. He was an interesting old man who had seen a great deal in his seven or eight decades. He hated the English, was suspicious of the Scots, but was willing to give Americans the benefit of the doubt. We ended up talking for a couple of hours that night, about the IRA, old movies, Irish poets, the royal family, World War II, the Irish preference for drab clothing, and why American beer is no good. I learned a great deal from him.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before in Knoxville. At 22, I knew plenty of old folks here, of course, in my family, at church, as employers who paid me a dollar an hour for cutting their grass. But it occurred to me that I hardly ever encountered them—or anyone at all who was more than, say, five years older than me—except in predictable, and usually brief, structured situations. I'd never encountered them as peers. In America, an old man had never sat down with me and just started chatting. That night in Dublin, I felt, for the first time in my life, like an adult.

Maybe it was my own fault for missing that experience in my home town. The beer joints I knew then were mainly in the UT area, and reeked of almost-legal youth. But it seems to me that American culture is careful to prevent accidental encounters between age groups. In Knoxville many, perhaps most older people live their lives in separation, well out of the mainstream, often in suburban isolation. Retirement homes tend to the physical needs of the elderly and keep some of them amused. But at the same time, retirement homes segregate old people from society more thoroughly than America ever did with any race.

I'm sure some like it that way. Some need the care they can get only in a nursing home. Some might well prefer the view of a green cow pasture to any sort of civic life. But many others end up in retirement homes for no reason other than the fact that they can no longer drive a car.

In cities with solid downtowns, cities that have downtown residences, stores, cafes, and pubs, cars and retirement homes aren't as necessary. And maybe it's just my imagination, but the elderly people who live in those cities look a whole lot happier.

Downtown may need old people as much as old people need downtown. Even when they're forgetful, they remember more than the rest of us do, and reporters and students could profit from the handy supply of memories. I'm grateful to the few older folks I get to chat with in downtown diners and bars; they're a handy source of material, and they make old age seem less spooky than they would if they kept to themselves.

But old people are also important to urban life for another reason that makes them perhaps more important than young people just because they keep things going. Elderly people aren't slaves to the clock; they can hang out.

In downtowns where lots of elderly people live, coffee shops don't necessarily have a lull after 9 a.m. Old folks don't have to go to work; they can order another cup of coffee, maybe decaf, this time, and finish the crossword or play a game of poker. Restaurants don't close at 2, because old folks can eat a late lunch, or a midafternoon slice of pie, or an early supper. Where you've got old folks, drugstores and groceries have a steady flow of customers all day. Cities with elderly people are open all day; they strike casual visitors, tourists and businessmen, as much more lively than strictly-business downtowns.

Older people in an urban environment also keep things safer. No one's going to snatch a purse or break into a car if there are half a dozen old guys playing checkers at a cafe table, watching everything that happens on the street. They may not be armed guards, but they're witnesses.

But as it is, all most of our old folks witness is each other. Just because there's no other place to go.

Maybe the future of Market Square lies not so much in massive tourist traffic or conventioneers—but in giving Knoxvillians of all ages a place to be. Sometimes I wonder why downtown has become so important to me; I'm beginning to suspect I'm clearing a place for myself.

I haven't figured out whether reporters ever get to retire, but I'll be retirement age in about 25 years. I'd like to think that somewhere in my hometown there will be a chair where I can sit in the sunshine and drink coffee and smoke a pipe and watch the real world go by. Greet old friends and make new ones, play some chess, nod at pretty girls and hoot at politicians and speculate about kids these days.

Market Square seems built for that, and I think that's one reason its fate is more important to me than many other urban issues. For the time being, it's my retirement plan.

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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