This is a touching thing, or was so to me. You just try explaining it to New Jersey family, though. There would have been a good deal more understanding and a bunch less staring, had I confessed to a fondness for wearing spike heels and flimsy lingerie. Never mind. Back again, I rejoiced. One doesn’t hear much about actual rejoicing, but I beg you to believe that this is what I did. Another thing I did was begin writing. The third thing I did was leave again, five years later. Either I had grown weary of the confines of home, or I had learned to trust that it wouldn’t be going anywhere, or both.
In any event, I have returned again. Now, I am aware that one homecoming is a poignant thing, often to both homecomer and home. Two, and you’re a bad penny, a phantom ship, a spirit annoyingly resistant to exorcism. Ah, well. The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on. This time, however, no tears. This time, it all seems to run even deeper. And I would like to tell you a bit more about that, and what I have seen since (cough) coming home.
(Note: I ought to say a word about my three years in Connecticut. This is it: I will never forget the bus ride home from work one evening, when a gunshot was fired from the street at someone’s own true love, we passengers all hit the floor like extras in a pre-gubernatorial Arnold film, and the driver yawned, scratched, and properly waited for the light to change before moving on. Nutmeg State, your ass.)
Now, if it isn’t common knowledge that the very best time to return to a known and cared for town is holiday time, we are all very stupid. Most cities spruce up nicely for December, and downtown Knoxville, to my mind, keeps getting better and better at the sprucing. This struck me foremost upon my first evening stroll. It was hard to be mortal and not be a tad wowed by the stately and glorious symmetry of the tree standing sentinel at the Gay Street entrance to Krutch Park. Then, it was a nearly primal comfort to see the many, many lit cones posing as trees atop all the business buildings in town, as they annually do. My favorite, viewed from my eighth floor apartment and located somewhere down the sinister serpentine of Broadway, was the red one perched solo on a hefty office square lit, at dusk, all in green. I could’ve reached out and eaten it up.
Then there was Market Square’s skating rink. I found it to be a fleshy Indy 500, a benign Thunderdome. I stood there one night, steaming coffee in hand, listening to carols booming over loudspeakers, and was nothing short of swept away by the hokey charm of it. A snowfall, and my knees would have buckled. Then we had the horse-drawn sleighs. I don’t drive, so I was able to love them fully. As I did when the boisterous family in one roared a “Merry Christmas” to me. Within seconds of returning the sentiment, I thought: Jesus Christ. This ain’t gunshots aimed at my bus, to be sure.
Christmas, however, passes. What’s left is debris. After the debris is cleaned up, what’s left is the ordinary, daily landscape. On to that, if I may.
Three years later, and downtown Knoxville appears to be slapping condos together like a hyperactive kid with too many Legos. All right. I have no problem with that. I could do without the block-long, mile-high banners draping Gay and promising a level of sophistication and urbanity to make Marlene Dietrich look like Ma Kettle, but that would be carping. It seems that an awful lot of abandoned floor space is being reclaimed, hardwooded, and indirectly lit. This I ascertain from the gaggles of construction guys loitering on the sidewalks for hour upon hour, like grizzled streetwalkers equipped, for some kinky reason, with tape measures. Yet the upscale appliances are being installed, balconies are sprouting from walls, and the sales tours are booking. Downtown Knoxville is turning rapidly and vertically residential, and the ghosts of my first days here must pack up for greener pastures, as more corporeal minorities elsewhere have been so driven out of reclaimed downtowns.
Which makes it all the more inexplicable to me that, with so many residences on the horizon, so little to accommodate the city dweller exists. Still. There is no downtown drug store. There is still no modestly sized, but amply stocked, downtown supermarket. What there still is, is that creepy warehouse of wigs and old cans of tuna fish. Were it not for that lifeboat of a General Store on Gay and the fajita specials at the Brewery, downtown Knoxville might rival South Beach as a supermodel nexus. That is to say, we’d all starve.
I don’t want to starve. So I do what I did three years ago. I either catch the 22, or trudge by foot up Broadway to the Kroger forever identified with that Italian filmmaker who just couldn’t get enough of carnival folk. This stretch of Broadway hasn’t changed. It’s also different. When nothing at all closes down or opens up on any avenue, the mere passing of a few years adds a patina of the surreal to it. Especially when one has never once seen any single living human being enter or exit any of the open-for-business doorways. As for the Fellini Kroger itself—swell news: It’s now possible to get baked goods there bearing names other than Krispy Kreme. O, brave new world, that has such donuts in it!
Which brings me to Mast’s General Store. Do you know, I wandered about for a solid hour within it and could not find one single aisle with frozen foods? Sweaters, yes. A sea of sweaters. Corduroy pants, too, and other items of good quality at decent prices. The thing is, though: I don’t leave my building and walk two blocks because I must have a sweater. I must have apples, and chicken cutlets. And I dare say that the other 99 units in my building—just about all of which are occupied—and the neighboring flats in this exposed brick extravaganza we call the 100 block, would rather bring home the bacon than the cushy turtleneck.
On the less bitchy side, it’s grand to see the Tennessee Theatre restored and open. These days, it boasts the likes of Bill Cosby and Taylor Hicks, one of whom, I believe, was hot stuff on American Idol . I recall panties flying at Dwight Yoakum on that venerable stage back in the ’90s, and I wonder if Mr. Cosby will generate a similarly intimate tribute. This strikes me as doubtful, but possible. Across the street, I admire the East Tennessee Historical Society’s elegant new extension, practically spilling marble onto the Gay sidewalk. I have always thought of the place as Jack Neely’s Cigar Box of Esoteric Odds and Ends; this enlarging and dressing up of it puts me in mind of that fairy tale pumpkin so obligingly morphed into a grand carriage. In a word, it’s kind of magical.
Nor can I properly convey what a comfort it is to see the Flower Pot still on its corner, at Church. Its windows have ever been to me a kind of supernatural calendar, celebrating in displays of crockery and foliage holidays months away. I may be dead by mid-February. But I’ll know, early in January, that there will still be a Valentine’s Day.
But where is Fairbanks Restaurant? I stare and stare at the corner of Market and Clinch, and all I see is a bank. Then I recall that a bank occupied that spot before there was a Fairbanks, too. Then my mind goes to pictures I’ve seen of trees that grow through pillars, and to a freshly eerie power banks may possess, and I get the willies, and I turn around. To see Krutch Park. Yuck. Sorry, but three years have done nothing in the way of ameliorating my dislike of how sterile, how Bowdlerized, a place it is from the gated, sequestered, sometimes spooky, sometimes off-putting, and always intensely personal island it used to be. It once had marred beauty. It now has all the allure of a stopped escalator.
But the single most overwhelming difference I notice in downtown Knoxville is: people. That is to say, there are more of them. It may have been Christmas traffic. It may be the multitudes of construction guys peppering the sidewalks. It may have been the first, augmented by the current latter. My hope is that it is/was indeed both, although I’ll happily settle for one temporary cause.
For, if I am wrong, the current throng is here to stay. I will then feel a little betrayed; where’s the ghost town I fell in love with? Whence all this bustling life, when life and bustle make my left eye twitch? But I suppose I’ll adapt, as I already have to the lack of necessary retailers downtown. For a town loved is virtually identical to a person loved. He or she may forget the drug store, and completely overlook the groceries you insisted upon. Yet real affection shrugs it off, calls a cab from the Kroger, and otherwise stays put.