Scott West grabs a hot pizza pie overstacked with meats and peppers and slides into one of the swank new booths on the second floor of the Preservation Pub. He’s grinning like some doofus Cheshire Cat, cloaked in a red flannel overshirt he’s been wearing now for at least three days, his short, autumnally blond hair in a limbo somewhere between tousled and spiky.
“’I used to be on drugs; now I’m on medication,’” he says, continuing a conversation he’d begun before the pizza came up. “You heard that a lot in prison. There was always a huge line to the pharmacy. We have all these different code words, dripping with meaning attached to them. Like ‘drug dealer.’ That means someone pushing drugs to children on playgrounds. Mom and dad are paranoid that the pusher on the playground is going to get to their kid, then they pick them up and take them to the doctor and he prescribes Ritalin.”
It’s one of West’s many soapboxes; he has a dozen or more, triggered by downtown issues, by his own legal issues, by his voracious reading, and by his experiences in prison. And he’s prone to digress into any one of them at a moment’s notice, should the subject at hand veer into suitably relevant territory, because West probably has more than a touch of ADD himself, and a spastic but creative intelligence that often seems to work in parallels rather than in series.
West, of course, is the downtown business entrepreneur who, along with wife Bernadette, was convicted of laundering money from his brother Mike’s marijuana trafficking operation in 2006, money which was used to renovate buildings that became sites of West businesses on Market Square. The news of their criminal activity was sudden and shocking, hitting the city like a bolt—the West family had been stalwart members of the downtown business community since 1991—and creating a sharp divide between people who were inclined to weigh the couple’s virtues more heavily than their vices, and those who were less wont to do so.
Now released from a subsequent prison sentence and once again working fulltime for the various family businesses (Earth to Old City, Oodles/Uncorked, Preservation Pub), West is something of a lightning rod for controversy. A recent article in the News Sentinel drew over 120 comments on the paper’s website, well over half of which were vitriolically negative, and a few of which had to be removed. And he is sometimes his own worst enemy; he has a propensity to speak out when he’d be better served by a thoughtful reserve, and a defensive streak made only more prickly by the experiences of the last five years. He is also one of downtown’s linchpin entrepreneurs, a considerable creative force, and a preternaturally likable guy. And he’s not going anywhere soon. So how to reconcile a downtown once again shaken up by this complicated ex-con?
West spent the majority of his prison sentence—he served 56 of 75 months, and is now on probation—in the Montgomery Federal Prison Camp in Alabama.
Wake-up call was 5:30 a.m., he says, followed by chow hall, after which all of the inmates began the day’s work. West’s first job was as a janitor (pay: 12 cents per hour). “We met with a ‘counselor,’,” he chuckles. “The translation of that was, the guy who told you which toilet to scrub.”
He was later promoted to wing orderly, in charge of overseeing cleanup of the large open room in which he lived along with dozens of other inmates. “It was an eight-hour job,” he says, “but it rarely took eight hours.”
He spent his free time productively, he says; he read a lot, receiving dozens of publications from friends and family in the mail. A veteran of local bands in Knoxville, he improved his bass playing by practicing regularly on the prison’s hollow-body acoustic bass. And he finally put his creative writing degree to work, producing a volume of poetry and three books. Ask him what the books are about and you’ll get a voluminous and prototypically Westian response, full of epic digressions: name-checks of Galileo and Harriet Tubman and Little Debbie; self-absorption; “what was your question?’; bureau of prison statistics; moments of grandiosity; healthy doses of bullshit; plenty of good humor and goofy reminiscences; and a good deal of offbeat wisdom.
“I guess they’re like interesting takes on how we think as a society, interesting observations about the nature of how we think,” he says finally of the books. And that’s about the best we’re liable to get by way of coherent explanation.
But most surprising, perhaps, West became a workout warrior, adding 20 pounds of muscle to his perpetually reedy 6’1 frame, and a 405-pound deadlift. “Lots of mackerel for extra protein,” he says. “Cans of mackerel, from the commissary and stolen from the kitchen, were the basis of the prison hustle. So many guys worked out. I called it the ‘two mack economy,’ because it seems like everything you wanted cost you two macks, or two cans of mackerel.”
Prison food on the whole, he says, was “not great, but not bad.” There were always complaints, and a few running jokes among inmates. “Chicken Al Qaeda,” West laughs. “It’s the suicide gut bomber. And then there was Steak Surprise. Surprise: There’s no steak! But compared to jail food, it was great.
“I had a lot of epiphanies about human nature while I was in prison. I pretty much came to the conclusion that you better be positive about your experiences in life because people are drawn to you or pushed away based on the energy you give off. So I’ve decided to see it as a positive. I did my four and a half years. I didn’t have those years taken away. I wrote books. I played music. I was productive.”
The first meal Scott West wanted upon being released from prison wasn’t steak or lobster or some exquisite Italian pasta, but rather… an avocado sandwich. “I really like avocado,” he explains. “And I didn’t have that in prison.”
In the main, he’s taken his release in stride, he says. “I make the most of whatever situation I’m in. I don’t have a horrible memory of prison. I had a productive time. That wasn’t hell and this isn’t going to be heaven. But yes, it’s good to get out and I don’t want to go back.”
After a couple of months in a local halfway house and some time under house arrest he is now a free man again—save for meeting the conditions of his probation—and doing promotional, retail, and booking work for the West enterprises. He says he’s back to 65-hour work weeks, and the ante may be upped soon, as the Preservation Pub continues its expansion with a planned roof deck in the coming month. What’s more, he adds, “There’s a very strong likelihood we’ll visit nearby cities and look for real estate,” with an eye toward opening new establishments, perhaps new locations of the existing businesses.
As far as downtown is concerned, local developer David Dewhirst sees West’s return as a bonus. “He and Bernadette were active in the renaissance of downtown back when the number of people with the energy and desire to make something of it were few and far between,” he says. “They were a big piece of changing downtown’s persona from non-entity to energetic and interesting. You can talk about visitors and consumers, but what downtown needs most right now is entrepreneurs and developers.”
Of course, some may wonder whether West is prone to repeating any of his previous mistakes. On that point, he is clear, though hardly a broken soul, nor full of that certain contrition borne of humiliation and harsh punishments.
“If I could go back in time, I would not have laundered the money,” he says. “But I can’t go back in time. I can also say with certainty that we would have done what we did on Market Square had there not been one penny of illicit money borrowed from my brother. It might have taken a year, or two years longer. But we would have done the same thing.
“Why did I do it? The most obvious reason is I’m impatient. I wanted to get to big places in a hurry. I’ve never cared about money. I drove a 1972 Volkswagen, a Fred Flintstone Volks, where you could literally stick your feet out on the highway ’cause there was a hole in all the floorboards. Now we’ve upgraded to a ’65 El Camino. We’ve lived in the same tiny house in Fort Sanders with basically no debt for years. What I cared about was doing something, creating something.
“There’s another part, too. My brother wanted to get out of that business and I thought I could help him get out.”
And so it goes that West is not only a convicted felon, but one not broken in spirit enough to suit many observers, as evidenced by the aforementioned News Sentinel article. Some sample online comments: “Disgusting. Why is this even an article except to promote a criminal.” “This is the (sic) article about a sociopathic personality…” “…arrogant to the core, unrepentant, losing very little, and serving very little time.”
West says that such things don’t bother him. “I don’t want to spend any time worrying about the person who thinks if you don’t seem beaten down enough, they want to beat you down some more,” he says. “They want to put you on the wheel and pour hot lead in your ear or something, because they want to make sure you suffer. That’s just a miserable perspective on life. I just don’t want to think about that kind of thing, because I served my time and paid my debt to society.”
But that isn’t quite true; those things do bother him, sometimes a great deal. And it shows in some of his public behavior—in his propensity, for instance, to remind people, in certain combative arenas, in significant detail of his family’s downtown entrepreneurial accomplishments. He does so almost like Donald Trump, his recitations marked with a similar righteous intensity of purpose.
Recently, he sent one such explication in the form of a “downtown resume,” as a letter to Metro Pulse readers and a general e-mail to various downtowners to “address all the wild rumors swirling around.” The exhaustive chronicling of the West family’s accomplishments includes such grand details as “becoming community leaders,” and “being heralded as the poster couple of downtown revitalization by the News Sentinel.” It is a largely accurate but hardly modest accounting.
But unlike Trump, West’s motivations seem to have less to do with ravening ego and the psychic hog-wallow of hearing himself talk, and far more to do with his poorly secreted, yet dearly held defense mechanisms: a live-wire, raw-nerve sensitivity to the very notion that so many people might view him as an “arrogant,” “unrepentant,” “criminal.”
Having known the Wests for about a decade now, Dewhirst says he was angry when he first learned of their misdeeds back in ’06. “They brought that stuff on themselves, and they deserved every bit of the punishment they received,” he says. “But the time to be angry was five years ago. They paid their penalty. Let’s get two productive members of society back where we need them and get everybody pulling the sled forward.”