Paper company Kimberly-Clark was one of downtown’s largest office employers, and the single largest private one, and they left downtown this summer. They say they prefer a place in the outer suburbs with their own parking lot. Maybe they’ll be happy there.
If so, they’re different from me. It’s something I haven’t figured out. While downtown has been reviving as a residential neighborhood, as a shopping district, and as an after-hours entertainment mecca, it’s been hemorrhaging offices. Several law firms have moved to the suburbs, citing parking concerns—and by parking concerns, they’re not referring to a lack of parking downtown, but a lack of free parking right by the door, which is what customers say they want. Of course, if you can park free, near a front door, in any city in the world, and you’re not Kojak, you’d better check your GPS. You’re not in a real downtown.
Back in the ’80s, I took a desk job at an office park in West Knoxville as the editor of a marketing weekly. I had a baby to take care of, and bills to pay, and couldn’t afford to be idealistic. It was the best-paying job I could find.
My workspace was a modern, quiet, comfortable place to make phone calls and type. It was a brand-new building, air-conditioned, with clean bathrooms and a little kitchen and coffee maker for our convenience. My co-workers were affable sorts. Hardly suburban stereotypes, they were all just odd enough to be interesting. The hours weren’t long. And we all had free parking, right outside the front door. There was a convenience store a short drive away, and a couple of fast-food chains not too much farther.
It was clean, modern, and safe as fresh skim milk. It seemed nice enough for a week or so. Soon I was pretty miserable. At lunchtime I found myself wandering through the weeds by the main road, or taking Russian novels down to the gully behind, pretending I was anywhere else.
See, I was spoiled, and useless for suburban work. I had worked downtown.
It was back in the days when everybody says downtown was “dead.” But even in the 1980s, dead downtown was a hell of a lot livelier than any office park. When I worked downtown, after hitting a deadline, or finishing an interview, I’d take a walk. There was always a friendly face at the deli, a bag of pistachios at the snack shop, and, when circumstances warranted, a cold beer at a bar. I’d poke around in Watson’s Department Store, just for the surprise factor. There was the library, with its daily array of new books I’d never seen before, and magazines and other-city newspapers, refreshed daily. I’d loiter in the biographical section, looking up people who interested me.
Always, every day on the sidewalks, were human beings I’d never seen before. And there were also people I knew but hadn’t seen in years and didn’t expect to see today.
Suburban employers should scan resumes for people who’ve worked downtown, and eliminate them. They’re harder to please.
After six months, I quit the office-park job, as editor of a nationally published weekly, in favor of a peon-level position, editorial assistant, at the very bottom of the staff, for another publication that was more or less just a monthly poster with ads. A lower-level job, at a publication less serious in intent. That job was downtown, though, and that fact made all the difference.
I thought about it some. For me, I figured, the advantage of working downtown was the equivalent of about $10,000 in salary. Today, it might be a good deal more.
I suppose there are other ways to distract ourselves, these days. Office workers can relax and kill time on eBay, or Facebook, or looking at porn, no matter where they are. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t do any of that. When I need a break, I amble down to Just Ripe, for a scone, and then pop in next door to see the new books at Union Ave. Or I go down to Coolato for a gelato, or a bowl of soup. I drop in at the Blue Plate Special, to see who’s playing today. Every year, thanks to the Blue Plate, I see probably 50 bands I’ve never heard of, and some of them are pretty surprising. And after all these years, I still loiter in the library. I read all the time, but somehow the number of books and magazines I’ve never read keeps growing.
When I have time, and the weather’s cooperative, I take a long walk. How many office workers in the world can take a 15-minute break and use it to walk all the way across a famous American river and back? It takes 10 minutes to get to the art museum, which is free. It’s maybe a 20-minute walk to UT, to hear a lecture or to visit McClung Museum and its variety of provocative exhibits.
It takes a lunch hour to walk around Fourth and Gill, maybe Knoxville’s most interesting neighborhood to look at from the street, or to explore Old Gray Cemetery, which still yields surprises even to people who’ve given three-hour tours of the place.
And you see such interesting people. You just never know. Cynthia Markert, the oil-on-plywood artist. Steve Dupree, the actor/author/barkeep. Beauvais Lyons, the tenured hoaxter. Cruz Contreras, with stories about his recent shows at the Opry. Gid Fryer, still the irreverent provocateur at 92. Just a few of the folks I run into, not meaning to, but never minding, on lunch break or just after work.
In my experience, there is nothing to compare with a job downtown, no way to compensate for it, once it’s gone. I know there are other sorts of people who don’t feel the same way. For some, perhaps free and handy parking is the main thing in life. And maybe employers don’t like the crazy fresh ideas a good walk downtown can give you.