In all the downtown old-building hubbub of recent months, former News Sentinel cartoonist and illustrator Dan Proctor noticed some graphic art that I didn’t, a “ghost sign” on the side of the 1870s pharmaceutical building being redone as Tailor Lofts. When they took down the old fire escape along Union Avenue, it revealed a large old Bull Durham advertisement. It’s now been painted over.
The removal of that fire escape was the end of an era. As a kid I was always fascinated with fire escapes, and remember learning how to lower the bottom flight. I was sure that if life were fair, I’d get to flee down a fire escape at least once. Alas. Fire escapes are almost all gone now, and fire stairs just aren’t the same.
I’ve learned that the last and maybe final articulation of Ott’s Barbecue has closed. The unusual vinegar-based barbecue stand was a Dixie-Lee Junction landmark for more than four decades, beginning in 1961. I stopped at that place almost every time I saw it, and more than once wrote about it in this space. It was a distinctively local sort of place, both in the atmosphere of the old building, which was like a roadside cafe in a movie about Bonnie and Clyde, and the unusual flavor of their barbecue sandwiches. It closed, reopened on the same site as a more modern, conventional-looking fast-food place, then closed again.
Then it reopened again, this time in one of those backside office-park strips in Bearden, as I noted in this space about two years ago. Near the popular Casual Pint, it was run by a different family, but one that honored Ott’s original 1961 tradition with an identical or very similar recipe. I couldn’t tell the difference, and appreciated the interesting selection of barbecue sauces with multiple layers of heat and flavor.
But nobody in my family’s big on pork barbecue, and my doctor has offered subtle hints that I should stop liking it quite as much as I do. I dropped in at the new Ott’s a couple of times, when I thought about it and remembered it was way back there, but I hoped other people would keep it in business, and that Bearden would become famous for its Dead End-Buddy’s-Ott’s Barbecue Triangle, three very different approaches to that regional way of life.
Alas, it’s not to be. A paper sign taped to the door has said “Closed” for several weeks now. The place still has all the furniture in it, and a chalkboard sign, inside, barely legible because it’s sitting sideways in a booth, says “Thanks for your support, will reopen under new ownership.” But considering a bigger, more prominent sign advertises that the place is for lease, I’m not counting on seeing Ott’s again there, or elsewhere, in this life.
A few weeks ago, I dropped in on my friend Gideon Fryer, who had been living alone in Fort Sanders. Some people think of it as a scary neighborhood, but Gid lived there for 18 years without ever locking his door. His friends knew they could just walk in. But going on 93, Gid finally left the place last month for what may be a safer and more sensible assisted-living situation. Everybody outgrows Fort Sanders sometime.
When I visited with him, you may recall, he told me a story that sounded so mystical I looked at him sideways, for the first time ever. In the past, Gid has always pretty matter-of-fact about things, no yarn-spinner or leg-puller. But he insisted it was true. He was taken aback, in a Bearden parking lot last year, when a stranger appeared out of nowhere and offered to make him a sturdy bamboo cane, custom-cut to order, for no other cost than a promise to do a kindness to another stranger.
It sounded like something in Tolkien. But after I wrote about the story, that mysterious benefactor called me on the phone. It was Mr. Chuck Lee, the former Parker Bros. Hardware executive, and he doesn’t have pointy ears or hairy feet. He’s just a retired human who’s been through a lot in recent years, and who likes to make canes for strangers. He’s made several hundred of them, and distributed them to grateful new owners. The practice has earned him some attention in the local media.
By the way, it’s his wife, Linda Lee, an accomplished amateur artist, who put together the eye-catching Bearden history exhibit at the Food City at Bearden Center. It’s in the grocery’s Cafe corner, and it’s kind of an expanded version of the exhibit she used to maintain at the old Parker Bros. store. Hanging on the wall are interesting images of old Bearden and the people who lived there, the Lonas/Loneses, the Lyonses, the Dowells, photos of the old Sutherland Avenue airport, Linda’s own painting of the main historical building at Lakeshore, and a long-ago resident’s folk-art weavings of historical scenes. This section of the Pike still seems elementally different from other commercial strips, and Linda’s exhibit gives us some clues about why it does. It’s a community that’s a lot older than these parking lots.
In my recent column about the long-shot prospect of reuniting Old Kingston Pike and Homberg Drive, perhaps with a greenway that would have to cross the Norfolk Southern tracks, I rather recklessly mentioned that the leadership of the giant 22-state railway, which has its headquarters in Norfolk, more than 500 miles from here, had probably never even seen that relatively quiet stretch of track.
I heard from reader John Peterson, who says Norfolk Southern’s chairman and CEO is one Charles “Wick” Mourman, who used to work in Knoxville, got his start in railroading here, and is a frequent visitor. It’s safe to say he has indeed seen that stretch of track.
It’s not like me to doubt that any big-shot had a Knoxville connection. Whether Mr. Mourman might be intrigued with the possibilities of reconnecting Old Kingston Pike and its salutary effects on Homberg Place may be another question.