I am wearing a bright orange University of Tennessee T-shirt, a red, white, and blue 1982 World’s Fair commemorative visor, cargo shorts, and black socks pulled up to my knees. I’m carrying a very large camera and a white plastic bag that says “Knoxville” on it.
I look like my grandmother at the beach. I look like an idiot, which is perfect because I want to look like a tourist. More than that, I want to look like the Idiot, the Tourist.
It’s kind of a shame that most people, including me, don’t often get to see a lot of the city where they live. From day to day, it’s usually home (for me, an unnamed neighborhood between Fourth and Gill and Parkridge) to work (downtown) and back. And when I go on vacation, I go out of town. There are many parts of this city of which I’m aware but can’t conjure up a mental image. I’d like to rectify that. So today, I’m doing a bus tour of Knoxville, using KAT’s 90 Crosstown. They call it that. I call it “The Circuit.”
At 2 hours and 30 minutes, it’s the longest continuous bus ride in the entire system. And, added benefit, it’s all surface roads, so it will allow me to look at neighborhoods rather than just the walls of the expressways that run past them.
Beginning at the downtown Main Street stop, the Circuit goes up through the east side on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, by Knoxville Center Mall, then across town via Merchants Drive, then back down again by Middlebrook Pike, Western Avenue and Northshore Drive, passing West Town Mall, continuing along Lyons View Drive through Bearden, Fort Sanders, and the UT campus before dropping you right back where you started.
It’s everything Knoxville, except for all of South Knoxville.
As far as citywide tours go, this one’s cheap. That’s important, as I am coming by this honestly. I am broke. Some recent unforeseen events cost me money I hadn’t figured into my budget. I started my day at the pawn shop, then I went to cash in some coins at the supermarket. That finished, my budget for the day—and all the money I have to my name—is $17.
For $4, I purchase a KAT day pass giving me unlimited rides until midnight. Down to $13.
10:50 a.m.: Main Street bus stop
I’m early, but the weather is perfect today: 70 degrees and sunny. The 90A bus arrives in 25 minutes.
I’m early so I can get a feel for the atmosphere here. This, the Main Street stop, is the gauntlet. It’s bus Casablanca—the central transfer point for the entire system.
Accommodations: The trees lining the street provide good shade on a sunny day like today. The little green mini bus houses for which I’m sure there is a technical name are divided into smoking and non-smoking. Not everyone follows the rules, though.
11:05 a.m.: People Watching
The good thing about the Main Street bus stop at this hour is that there aren’t a whole lot of people around, but it’s not empty either.
On the south side of Main, just west of Gay Street, it’s right between the City County building and the Federal Courthouse, in the midst of Knoxville’s political gentry. From time to time, you can even catch a glimpse of an impeccably suited person passing by on his or her way to a lunch meeting.
Many of the other bus people—notably more peccably suited—are staring at my outfit.
I approach a commuter—a man whose perma-scowl serves as both a defense mechanism and a constant cigarette holder. It’s a look that is juxtaposed well against his Garfield baseball cap.
“Can I take your picture?” I say.
I explain my situation, flashing him my best ironic grin. I’m trying to demonstrate that, despite my appearance, I do, in fact, know the score. It probably just makes me look sillier, though.
I ask again.
“Whatever. Go ahead, I guess.”
“What’s your name?”
“Everybody calls me Joe.”
“What’s your last name, Joe?”
The deepening scowl tells me that Everybody Calls Me Joe is running thin on patience. I push just a bit further.
“Okay, then. What bus are you waiting for, Joe?”
“The hospital bus.”
11:15 a.m.: Still Waiting
I’m still waiting.
11:17 a.m.: My Bus Arrives
It’s a green one.
The first thing I do is wrong. I try to swipe my day pass through the swipey thing as I just saw the woman in front of me do. I try this, but nothing happens. I try it again, this time with more brute force and loud breathing than before. The card responds by getting all bent and twisted.
Just as I’m going in for my third try, so embarrassed that I’m gritting my teeth and panting, the driver grabs my hand.
It turns out I’m actually supposed to drop it into the scanny thing. She takes the card and does it for me. I apologize twice, smile meekly at the people in the first couple of rows, and take my seat in the back.
11:20 a.m.-11:45 a.m.: East Knoxville
Going up Hall of Fame Drive, past the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Civic Coliseum on the right, I get a pretty breathtaking view of the back of downtown Knoxville on my left. For a couple of seconds, at least. Then, we take a right on to Summit Hill, edging on Morningside Park, before going left on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for a tour of the city’s historic East Side.
The pattern is roughly this: Industrial, post-industrial, burned out post-industrial, historic residential, rough-around-the-edges but still quite nice looking residential, entertainment, consignment, OK Furniture, Magnolia Avenue.
Tourism note: That last part is walking distance from Chilhowee Park, the Knoxville Zoo, and lots of good, inexpensive restaurants.
11:45 a.m.: Debate
I’m sort of hungry, but I can’t decide whether to get off here, Knoxville Center, or Merchants (which is roughly the halfway point) to get some food. Then I remember that Knoxville Center has a Petro’s. The decision is made for me.
12:05 p.m.: Cade’s Cookout
The food court of Knoxville Center is called Cade’s Cookout. This, I believe, is supposed to be a reference to Cade’s Cove, a place that I’ve never been to in the Smoky Mountains.
It has a large tent-like ceiling, intended to leave the eater with the impression that he is actually camping, except better because there’s a Taco Bell right there! The tent really has more of a circus effect, though.
Frugality Note: One regular Petro, add olives and jalapenos, plus a free water comes to $3.71.
12:15 p.m.: Check it out—Shriners!
I make my way back toward the mall entrance, but I still have some time to kill. The bus doesn’t get here until 12:49, which, I’m betting, means around 12:55.
I have to entertain myself, so I go talk to Gordon Carringer, a Shriner who’s set up at a charity booth in the mallway. He’s been here for the past three days, getting donations for the Shriners Hospital for Children.
“How are you enjoying the mall?” I ask.
Enough small talk.
“I have sort of a strange request for you,” I say. “I’d like to get a picture with you, but—”
“By all means,” he says.
“But, can we switch hats?”
Nope, we can’t switch hats.
12:55 p.m.: The Bus Arrives
I was right.
12:57 p.m.-1:10 p.m.: Field, House, Field, School, Field
This is a relatively boring stretch, so I’m concentrating on what’s going on inside the bus, and I’m able to glean a travel hint. There are four people sitting in the front: Sleeping Woman, Driver, Extra KAT Employee (Male), and Extra KAT Employee (Female).
Sleeping Woman is trying to sleep in the side-facing seats. EKE (F) takes issue with this.
“You’d probably do better sitting in one of the corner seats,” says EKE (F) loudly and forcefully.
Sleeping Woman rocks restlessly but does not respond.
“These side seats are so disgusting. They’re so crusty,” she says, again, quite loud. “I don’t tell anyone to sit in the side seats.”
I am sitting in a side-facing seat, so I move. Sleeping (apparently in filth) Woman does not.
Travel hint: Sit in a forward-facing seat.
1:15 p.m.: Beautiful Fountain City on Broadway!
Why do, like, half the businesses in Fountain City have “Fountain City” in their name?
Picnic opportunity note: Fountain City Park is less than a half-mile walk from the stop at Broadway and Knox Road. It has the best gazebo in town and plenty of human-accustomed ducks to feed.
1:16 p.m.: Pit Stop
There appears to be a situation. We have stopped at a gas station for no reason. Driver change?
The driver comes back with a hot dog. She offers a bite to Sleeping Woman, finishes quickly, then gets back to the helm.
1:35 p.m.: Merchants Drive
There are many, many gas stations around here. Three of the four corners of Merchants and Central Avenue Pike have a gas station. The fourth corner has an auto repair shop.
1:53 p.m.: Western Avenue
The strip malls around here are more interesting than most: Boot shop, tattoo parlor, Chinese restaurant, Chinese restaurant, thrift store, pan-Asian buffet.
2 p.m.: Inertia
Bus drivers miss turns just like everyone else. I understand that. Except this time, she didn’t; she just thinks she did, and then tries to correct herself, half-turning into a parking lot. Then she realizes she doesn’t have to and de-corrects herself back on to the road. The force of inertia would have made this maneuver uncomfortable even in a Honda. In a 10-ton bus, we’re all clutching our seats for life.
2:09 p.m.: West Hills
Things feel a little richer all of a sudden. A very handsome, suave man gets on and tries not to look too disgusted.
2:13 p.m.: West Town Mall Is Awesome
I regret that I wasn’t nimble enough to capture it photographically, but some clever commuter has written “Suck Stop” in the blank space of the mall’s bus stop sign.
Mr. Suave gets off. He’s probably a cellphone salesman.
2:20 p.m.-2:35 p.m.: Rocky Hill to Lyons View to Bearden
House, school, house, house, huge house, even more ostentatious giant house, movie mogul house, all I can see is the giant driveway lined by perfectly symmetrical trees, Bearden Plaza.
2:37 p.m.-2:45 p.m.: Sutherland Avenue to University Avenue
We’re 18 minutes behind schedule. We’re supposed to be downtown by now, but instead we’re passing through an industrial/warehouse part of town. I like the look of this type of neighborhood, but I was born into a generation that never associated industrial districts with actual working. It’s kind of like looking at ruins for us.
2:50 p.m.-3:05 p.m.: Fort Sanders, UT, the Sunsphere and Back Downtown Again
Fort Sanders is gorgeous, the campus is stately, the Sunsphere is funny, and downtown Knoxville feels like home.
We arrive back at Main Street 20 minutes late, but I don’t really mind because I’ve accomplished my task for the day. I’ve been to corners of Knoxville I never knew existed, and, since I didn’t have to drive, I was actually able to look at them rather than just the bumper of the person in front of me. Now, I have nothing to do except enjoy the weather. Plus, I’ve still got $9.29 in my pocket. m