Life at Summit Towers

Amid the rush of downtown Knoxville’s rejuvenation, its most populated apartment complex is also its most ignored

Life at Summit Towers

Photo by Shawn Poynter

HOBNOBBING: The author, Donna Johnson, sees what kind of mischief she can find visiting friends at Summit Towers, a government-subsidized apartment complex downtown.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

HOBNOBBING: The author, Donna Johnson, sees what kind of mischief she can find visiting friends at Summit Towers, a government-subsidized apartment complex downtown.

Ed. Note: Summit Towers is a government-subsidized apartment building with more than 300 residents, many of whom have mental or physical disabilities, though it is not an assisted-living complex. Residents are responsible for themselves and their apartments. It is owned by Summit Towers II L.P. and managed by Lawler Wood Housing. All names in this story have been changed, except for those in the photo captions.

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There is more to Summit Towers than bed bugs and suicides. There is a vast variety of people here, some of whom have been homeless, some who have terminal illnesses, some who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and many who have been unable to walk for years.

They are among the most interesting and intelligent people I have ever known and I am privileged to live among the Summit Towers population. Since I am friendly to a sickening degree when I am not lying on my bed from depression, and I am also a retired social worker, people talk to me and tell me their stories. These are their stories, and mine.

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Photo with no caption

Photo by Shawn Poynter

Outside a gloomy high rise on Locust Street, three or four blocks from Knoxville’s bustling Market Square, men and women of all ages and sizes sit in wheelchairs or lean against canes. Bright purple, yellow and red flowers make a contrast to the dull building. The scent of magnolia blossoms hovers in the drizzling rain. From a distance, one might think it is a nursing home. It is, in fact, Summit Towers, a subsidized housing facility where one must either be disabled or elderly in order to live here without paying the market value of $807 a month. I became a resident here when I got evicted from my previous apartment for getting paint all over the hardwood floors.

There are a lot of old hippies here, like myself. My favorite one is Jane. When I moved here a couple of years ago, I recognized her at once as a kindred spirit.

“Are you an old hippie, too?” I asked. She flipped her red pigtails and grinned at me. “Honey, I went to Woodstock.”

Duly impressed, I watched as she wiggled her small frame and hollered, “Make love, not war! Make love, not war!” And then, “Hell, no! We won’t go! Hell, no! We won’t go!” We shook hands like old comrades and I knew I had found a home.

There are also a lot of Vietnam vets here at Summit Towers, with red-white-and blue scarves tied around their long, graying ponytails. Though many of them have haunted eyes, they are warm and friendly, perhaps feeling, as I do sometimes at Summit Towers, that we have re-entered the ’60s and are living in an alternate reality from the rest of the world.

I go downstairs to have coffee with my friend Anne. She is 65 years old and has short blonde hair and sad, violet eyes. When I knock, she opens the door wearing a purple tie-dyed dress that hangs to the floor. Her tiny Chihuahua dances around her bare feet with glee. As we sit down for hot coffee and donuts fresh from the oven, Gracie jumps in my lap, then darts back to her mother’s lap, as if she fears her mother will be jealous. Gracie is so tiny she can almost fit in the palm of my hand, and, unlike the many other Chihuahuas here, she will not bite you in the face as soon as you reach out to pet her.

There is a lot of heartache at Summit Towers. Anne’s 40-year-old daughter committed suicide six years ago; she had also had an affair with her mother’s third husband. Like many people at Summit Towers, Anne has a great deal of pain from rheumatoid arthritis, and cannot even walk Gracie as far as the downtown dog park six blocks away. Still, Anne seems to be grateful for everything she has.

“I wasn’t always poor,” she told me when we first met. “I used to have a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house overlooking the lake. Now I live on an income of $600 a month.”

She smiles wistfully.

PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR: Writer Donna Johnson found herself moving into Summit Towers after being evicted from her previous apartment.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR: Writer Donna Johnson found herself moving into Summit Towers after being evicted from her previous apartment.

“Still, I have so much to be thankful for—a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator, and, of course, Gracie.” She strokes Gracie’s ears and Gracie looks up at her adoringly. Food is no small thing for Anne.

“I’ve been hungry,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “My father worked but my mother spent all the money on embroidery thread, fabric, and such. We were allowed to have one potato each at meal time. Three times a day we had potatoes. I was the oldest, so I got to decide how to prepare the potatoes—mashed, baked, or fried. Now, when my refrigerator is full, I feel safe.”

This morning, Anne saunters around her apartment tidying things up. She is fond of zebra stripes, and there is a zebra mirror she created herself, a zebra rug, and she is wearing dangling zebra earrings. There is a knock at the door and Jane enters, wearing bright pink pedal-pushers, a polka-dotted tank top, and a bright smile. Anne pours steaming coffee into heavy, ceramic mugs, and we light our cigarettes solemnly, as if preparing to go to war. Anne stares out the window.

“Sunday will be the six-year anniversary of my daughter’s death,” she says.

Jane hugs Anne, then sits back down and sips her coffee. She reaches in her purse, pulls out three tiny bottles of whiskey, and pours each of us a shot in our coffee. We click our cups together in an unspoken toast.

“I lost both my babies back in the ’80s,” Jane says. I picture infants in baby carriages being wheeled through Market Square. “Linda was 32 and Faye was 27.”

Anne’s eyes meet Jane’s. I feel honored to be in the presence of these two strong women, who have managed to keep going despite tremendous loss and pain. We drink our coffee in silence, grateful for the whiskey. There are moments when nothing else will do. We puff on cigarettes and look at one another in silent communion.

***

Residents Mark Sweazey.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

Residents Mark Sweazey.

Today is the first day of the month and everyone has gotten their checks; they’ve cashed them, and have been spending money with riotous glee. I run into Jane in the elevator. She is wearing a red halter top and shorts and is carrying a plastic cup full of vodka. She dresses more like a teenager than a 65-year-old woman. She lights a rolled cigarette, though smoking is strictly forbidden in the elevator, then blows smoke rings in the air. We chant together: “Hell, no! We won’t go. Hell, no! We won’t go!” She gets off the elevator and scurries down the hall with her cigarette and vodka.

I go to the sixth floor to get Mallory. She is, at 35 pounds, one of the largest dogs here, but by far the best behaved, sitting in her baby carriage like a queen when I roll her to the elevator and out the door for a leisurely stroll to the downtown dog park. (Baby carriages are required for dogs too large to carry. This requirement was allegedly designed to keep dogs from peeing on the floor before they get outside.) When we go outside the little dogs start yelping and barking furiously. There seems to be a plague of Chihuahuas here; Mallory gets out of her carriage grandly and disdains even to look at the other dogs.

By the front door sits Jasper, a quiet, heavyset man in his late 30s. He is serene and quietly pleasant to everyone. Though he is diabetic and both his legs have been amputated at the knees, I have never heard him complain.

“What good would it do?” he says with a plaintive smile.

Shortly after this, Jasper is taken to the emergency room in an ambulance. Ambulances are a far-too-frequent sight at Summit Towers, arriving at all hours of the night and day to pick people up or bring them home. Often, people never return, for death is a way of life here. Illnesses are serious at Summit Towers.

I pass a ravishingly beautiful woman leaning on her walker. From the anguished look on her face, she is clearly in pain. She has the kind of lupus that eats you up from the inside out. Estelle has a faith in God I envy and admire; despite her illness, she manages to assist in the Second Harvest food bank that comes to Summit Towers every Thursday afternoon. She also manages to wake up every day, put on makeup, and fix her hair so that she looks like a beautiful, dark angel. This is all the more commendable, as some of us drag ourselves out of bed looking like we just woke up in a sewer, mascara running down our faces, lipstick smeared from the night before and grouchy as hell. Estelle always has a beatific smile for us all, as if her pain has somehow sanctified and purified her.

I wander up and down the halls seeing what kind of mischief I can get into, passing a woman of about my own age, 60, who is so thin from smoking crack that you could almost wrap one hand around her waist. Having gone through the same thing myself 30 years ago, I grieve for her. Through the grace of God and the help of my family, I managed to escape, and I pray that she will too. From the looks of her, she won’t make it, but addicts are amazingly hardy, and through some sort of divine intervention, she may make it anyway.

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HAPPY TO BE TOGETHER: Many residents at Summit Towers are brought together due to their financial, physical, or mental circumstances, but sometimes find strength in one another. Here are residents Robert Foster and Carrie Briggs.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

HAPPY TO BE TOGETHER: Many residents at Summit Towers are brought together due to their financial, physical, or mental circumstances, but sometimes find strength in one another. Here are residents Robert Foster and Carrie Briggs.

STILL LIFE: Artist Judith Petree displays one of her paintings, which she creates in her apartment at Summit Towers.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

STILL LIFE: Artist Judith Petree displays one of her paintings, which she creates in her apartment at Summit Towers.

After taking my dog, Mallory, to the park, I go back to my apartment to find emergency workers putting my neighbor, Clifford, on a stretcher. I ask him what’s wrong.

“I’m having chest pains,” he says calmly. I suspect he’s trying to get drugs. He takes any kind of drugs he can get—codeine, Percocet, Adderall, alcohol. Like everyone else here, he gets through the day the best way he can.

Clifford once confided in me that, when he was 4 years old, he heard his mother say, “I hate these kids. I never wanted kids in the first place.” Clifford is utterly sweet and knocks on my door at all hours of the night to give me things: a lush pink pansy, a bag of cat food, a pair of shoes that he found on the bench by the elevator. Tonight, before they take him out on the elevator, he says, “I got you a bag of dog food.” When he is gone I see that he has put a plastic rosary on his door, a picture of an angry Jesus, and a sign that reads, “Protect this house! I will!”

I continue on my way, passing another of my favorites, whom I call Lady Lazarus, and her long-haired dachshund, Scooby. Lady Lazarus has had hepatitis C and Mercer disease for years and has been told more than once that she probably doesn’t have more than six months to live. But, like the true warrior she is, she continues to prove them wrong.

On my floor, I step over a man in his 40s who is covered in blood and crawling down the hall on all fours.

“Are you okay?’ I ask inanely.

The walls are covered in blood, the floor is covered in blood, the bench is covered in blood. It looks like a mass murder has occurred. I go around the corner to call 911. A few minutes later the ambulance carts him away. His girlfriend tells me later that when she asked him to go home, he went home and tried to cut his finger off. Then he tried to slit his throat with a razor, at which point she intervened.

On every floor, I pass people carrying drinks, buying pain pills, wishing one another well. By tomorrow some of many of them will be broke. It varies from person to person, addiction to addiction, time to time, whether the hangover is worth it or not.

Later, I go outside to smoke and pass a man in the hall whistling “Deck the Halls” though it is almost June. Summit Towers residents are outside smoking with a vengeance. Almost everyone smokes here, and we smoke like machines, one after the other. It’s almost 2 a.m. A light drizzle begins to fall and the scent of magnolias is glorious.

Upstairs, I have a couple of glasses of red wine and make the mistake of going to visit my husband, who lives on the next floor. Within minutes, we are making wild, untrue accusations and fighting bitterly. After breaking a couple of glasses against the wall, I leave in despair. It is our seventh month of marriage. I remember the day we got married and walked hand in hand from the courthouse, myself decked out in a cream-colored satin dress from the 1950s, my husband wearing a white shirt and a red bow-tie. I wonder now how such blissful happiness could spiral so quickly into jealous rage and enmity and talk of divorce. Surely we could have tried harder, done something different to make our marriage work. But one must carry on, and we certainly will, whether together or apart, as people do.

***

ROLLING OUT THE DOGS: Residents at Summit Towers often use baby strollers to take their pets for a walk because dogs are not allowed to walk through the lobby. Here, Bonnie Black (in red) and Sharon Soller (in purple) head out.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

ROLLING OUT THE DOGS: Residents at Summit Towers often use baby strollers to take their pets for a walk because dogs are not allowed to walk through the lobby. Here, Bonnie Black (in red) and Sharon Soller (in purple) head out.

Bonnie Black

Photo by Shawn Poynter

Bonnie Black

Sharon Soller

Photo by Shawn Poynter

Sharon Soller

It is the Sunday before Memorial Day. I hear a resident holler from outside my open window, “Happy Memorial Day, world.” A couple of floors beneath me, a woman is singing along to Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” A few doors down, another woman is laughing uproariously. Clearly she has not, like me, spent her entire paycheck long before the end of the month.

Suddenly my fire alarm goes off. “Beep, beep, beep.” I have once again forgotten that I put a pot of water on to boil for a cup of tea. The pan is a crusted mess. On and on beeps the fire alarm, but no one ever comes to check on me, so I wonder what the point is. Finally, I stand on a wooden chair with a broom handle and poke the annoying, seemingly useless object until it stops beeping, and I sit down to cry. Am I having an episode of bipolar depression or the onset of dementia? It’s hard to say which one is more frightening.

Lighting a candle and a cigarette I stand in near darkness, staring out the window. I think about growing older. At age 61, I’m already having vision problems, dental problems, and alarming lapses of memory. Will I eventually lose the use of my legs, lose my sight, my hearing? How long will I be able to walk my beloved dog and constant companion, Mallory, to the park? How soon before I am contained in one room of a nursing home, having my activities dictated by someone else? It is a relief when lightning streaks across the sky. A rustling wind turns the leaves over like tiny umbrellas. Rain comes down in torrents and hurls itself against my windows. Finally, I can fall asleep, a frightened Mallory in my arms. Once again, we save each other. I pray for grace.

***

It is the third of the month and I am wringing my hands waiting for my retirement check to be deposited. I have already spent my disability check of $700. It took about an hour: make-up, hair color, and many outfits from my favorite thrift store, the Community Chest on Scott Street. Everything costs a dollar there. Out of cigarettes, I am smoking cheap tobacco out of a pipe half-chewed up by my dog. When Billy, a resident on the 11th floor, sees what I am smoking, he hands me a cigarette. Billy is full of goodness, helping anyone he sees in need. Sometimes people give him a dollar when he helps them move furniture or walks their dog. Often he gets nothing.

“You’re always helping people,” I tell him today, and he beams.

“When I help people it makes me feel so good I can’t hardly stand myself,” he says with a broad smile. “Anyway, that’s what we’re supposed to do. It says so in the Bible.”

I take his hand in mine. “Billy,” I say. “I’m writing a newspaper article and I’d like to put you in it. Would that be okay with you? Of course, I won’t use your real name.”

Billy grins. “It don’t matter to me. I can’t read anyway.”

I found out later that Billy only has a first-grade education, having developed a serious illness when he was 7. Billy is the middle child of eight children, and grew up in the projects off Western Avenue.

There are several residents at Summit Towers who are illiterate. It is considered a condition so disabling that one can receive disability benefits from that alone. I couldn’t agree with this more, and cannot imagine what life would be like without being able to read.

“I’ll read it to you,” I tell him, vowing to take him to the literacy program in East Knoxville.

Wandering down the halls I run into people in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks, women and men wearing grossly unmatched clothes, shoes too big, shuffling along as best they can.

In the elevator I find Isabel, a beautiful girl in her mid-30s with olive skin and chestnut hair down to her shoulders. She has not been able to walk since she was 9 years old, when she was hit by a truck. She seems content with her life, however, riding around in an ancient, beat-up old wheelchair.

“Isabel, wouldn’t Medicare pay for you to get a new wheelchair?” I ask.

She looks up at me solemnly. “They would, but I don’t want one. After a while your wheelchair becomes an extension of you, like another limb. You get attached to it.”

When talking about how she came to be disabled, she says candidly. “It was my fault. I should have looked both ways.”

***

PEACE OUT: Many residents at Summit Towers came of age in the 1960s, and often describe themselves as “old hippies.” Donna Johnson and Todd Hall offer a parting thought.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

PEACE OUT: Many residents at Summit Towers came of age in the 1960s, and often describe themselves as “old hippies.” Donna Johnson and Todd Hall offer a parting thought.

Today is Friday morning, and there is a hushed, almost reverent feeling in the hallways, as though one were in a cathedral or in a forest full of evergreen trees, with pine needles, and soft, wet ground underneath. Having spent the night before in riotous partying, people lie in bed, spent. Having managed for once to keep myself somewhat in check, I enjoy the silence.

It is not the first time I have experienced a feeling of transcendence and reverence at Summit Towers. While many of the people are poor and uneducated here, and more often than not in physical and emotional pain, there is a sense of brotherhood here, and a great deal of love. Despite our various illnesses and afflictions, one need never be lonely. No matter what hour of the day or night, however hungover we might be, or whatever diagnoses we have received that day, and though many people never go outside the premises of Summit Towers except to go to church or the doctor, we are a kind of family.

This morning there is a peacock strutting around the yard, green feathers glistening in the sun. He lives somewhere around the Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law next door and often comes here to scratch at the breadcrumbs people throw out. When Mallory sees the peacock, with his feathers ruffling in the breeze, she stops dead in her tracks. Apparently, the bird is fearless, for he comes right over to us; in an instant, Mallory and the peacock are nose to nose, eyes locked. I pull Mallory away, and the peacock struts on, regal in his obliviousness.

Wearing green linen pants with pink and lavender dragonflies on them, I am feeling pretty regal myself. Like the peacock, I strut, almost tripping over the foot of a man in a wheelchair. He glares at me.

“Sorry,” I say.

“All these grannies around here!” he screams.

I am deflated.

It is also “First Friday” today, so later I am on my way to Market Square to see the art and drink a few too many glasses of wine. When I head toward the door, I pass a blind man being led by his elderly mother. They have been to a church supper. His red patent-leather shoes are enormous and awesome to behold. When I compliment him on them he smiles broadly, and I remember anew how much there is to be grateful for.

Lady Lazarus is sitting in the hall chatting with another resident. She passes me a cigarette before I go out the door and gives me a warm smile. Outside people are smoking and laughing, in and out of wheelchairs. Someone points to the sky and I see a rainbow with all its tender, soft colors. I have a feeling of tremendous gratitude. Just as I leave the grounds of Summit Towers, a fellow resident and comrade yells, “Where you going, girlie?”

“I’m going to Market Square for First Friday,” I answer.

“Where’s Market Square?” he asks, as I travel on through the night.

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 9

JohnSevier writes:

EXCELLENT WRITING!

SteampunkCarnivale writes:

I think MetroPulse has a new writer on their hands... This is beautifully sad and moving.

Betty_Bean writes:

Beautiful, fierce story.

utmargarita writes:

Great writing and great photographs, too!

elliedore writes:

With the natural empathy of a saint, and the humility and openness of a fellow-traveler, Donna Johnson introduces us to life on the rough side. We view these lives in three-dimension, and what the world of convention and television ads might see a bunch of losers, through her eyes we see what they really are - deep and courageous charcters. They are, in some respects, freed by their hard luck and losses. They are able to see what is important to see - changes in the weather, loving gestures, gratitude for daily bread. If they are fortified by alcohol and tobacco, so be it. the writer herself admits to the same crutches. She describes herself as "friendly to a sickening degree." Not so. She reveals herself a smart, perceptive, loving human being with an uncanny and lovely writing style.

Minnie3690 writes:

Very well written and touching story!

hornetcat writes:

I cannot recall ever being so moved, so touched by reading anything on newsprint....probably never. Donna's writing and Shawn's photo's are a magical combination....This is exactly what Metro Pulse should be! We want more! We want more!

Judytwiga writes:

Donna, you have created a work that keeps the reader engaged from one sentence to the next. Your clear, unsentimental telling of life in Summit Towers does what writing should do: connects unrelated people to feel a common emotion while learning.

AnneB writes:

I knew the author many years ago. At that time, she was just as sweet, caring, and friendly as she is shown to be in this article. Keep painting Donna. (I still have the painting you gave me hanging in my house).

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