Walking near the Civic Coliseum the other day, I met a man from 1960. He wore a very cool suit and a narrow-brimmed Sinatra hat. He couldn’t explain himself. But he seemed vaguely aware that he took a wrong step on the Church Avenue viaduct and fell 50 years into the future. “It was like The Twilight Zone,” he said, then stopped himself as if to translate. “Do you know The Twilight Zone?” I assured him I did. We remember some things from 1960, I explained, and The Twilight Zone is one of them.
“Whaddya know,” he said. His eyes bugged out like Morey Amsterdam’s. “There’s a highway under the viaduct now! What happened to all the people who used to live in the shacks along the creek down there?”
“It’s a good question,” I said.
“So much I want to know,” he said. “Like how long are people living now?”
“Oh, 70, 75 years,” I said. “80 or 85 if they’re lucky.”
“No, I mean in 2010,” he said. “On average. Have we passed 150 yet?”
“Regretfully, no,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Didn’t the cure for cancer help?” he said. I remembered how in the 1960s it was always just around the corner.
“That didn’t work out,” I said.
“I bet trains are faster than ever,” he said.
“Maybe they are,” I said. “Not here. We don’t even have passenger trains anymore.”
He seemed startled, but then said, “Of course not. Who needs ’em, when you’ve got jet packs and hovercraft and personal helicopters.”
I thought maybe I should let the subject of transportation drop. It was easier to get around in 1960, when Knoxville had two passenger-train lines, two competing bus lines, and several airlines, and getting on an airplane at McGhee Tyson was as simple as walking through the chain-link gate and up the steps to the fuselage door. I thought of something upbeat.
“We did get to the moon,” I said.
“I knew we would. What’s it like?”
“The moon? Beats me. Only 12 guys ever went there, and it was all more than 30 years ago. I hear it’s pretty dusty.”
I invited him for a walk around town. “Your cars look like shoes,” he remarked. I had the impression he was trying to be polite, but sensed that his comment hadn’t had the intended effect.
“I mean classy shoes. Patent-leather ladies’ shoes. They look real nice.”
When we got to Gay Street, he said, “Whaddya know. Everybody’s on walkie-talkies! Neat-o!”
“They’re actually called cell phones,” I said.
“You call walkie-talkies cell phones? Why?”
“Um,” I said. I once knew, but admitted I had forgotten. I showed him the Sunsphere. “Whaddya know,” he said. “This reminds me of what we thought the world would look like in 1965.”
We had a couple of PBRs in the Sunsphere bar, which does look pretty New Frontier. “I would have guessed Pabst would be out of fashion by now,” he said.
“It was,” I said. “But it came back. No one can explain why.”
From there we could see the University of Tennessee. “Hey,” he said. “How many more national championships have the Vols won?”
“One more,” I said. “Back in the ’90s.”
“Oh,” he said.
We walked around some more. On Market Street, he had a start. “What happened to the modern new Home Federal Building?” he said. “The one with the big shiny orange panels.”
“That’s it,” I said of the faux-Georgian brick facade. “It’s just not modern anymore. In 2010, everything’s old-fashioned.” He took in Market Square, and got the idea. I wasn’t sure he liked it.
We stopped off at the S&W. I figured he could decompress there. He seemed to relax some. The beef stroganoff appealed to him, but he was startled by the prices. All he had in his pocket was $2.85. He pulled it out to count it. Most of it was in silver change, Mercury dimes, silver quarters, and half-dollars. I suggested he give it to me, and I’d cover his lunch. “Thanks, pal,” he said. “I owe you one.”
We walked into our newspaper office—most of which, it hadn’t occurred to me, didn’t look that different from an office in 1960. But looking toward my desk, he said, “Hey, they let you watch TV?”
“That’s a computer,” I said.
He spoke to it in a commanding tone. “What is the capital of Ontario?”
I remembered. On TV shows in the ’60s, secret agents and spacemen had computers. Computers knew everything, and you could just ask them.
“It doesn’t work that way,” I said patiently. “See this keyboard? You type stuff into it.”
“Type?” he said. “Like a girl?” I thought I detected a shiver.
“See, you can look stuff up. People surf the Internet.” I showed him an old Dean Martin video. “It can keep you occupied for hours.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. “The Leisure Crisis. We’ve got scientists who wonder how people will fill up their free hours. It’s 2010, so you have to work, what—16 hours a week? They always figure we’ll be writing symphonies, curing diseases, or something. Maybe you do all that, too.”
I didn’t have to say anything. He could tell it was another ’60s prediction that was a little too optimistic.
A little frantic, I showed him Facebook.” We’re in touch with each other constantly. See, people on Facebook can send each other funny videos. Like this one about funny, funny cats. We can show each other our favorite stuff, and who our friends are.”
“What do the grown-ups do?”
“Well,” I said, with a little cough. “Actually, some of these people are grown-ups. Actually.”
I couldn’t help but notice that his 21st century awe seemed to be wearing off.
“Good luck,” he said, a little too seriously, as if he meant it. “I’m going back to 1960.” I last saw him walking down Church Avenue toward the Coliseum, whistling “Volare.” I hope he made it.