Burlington's Spontaneous Trading Post

Part of a series: Scene & Heard: All Around Town

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience—whether you personally know about them or not. In this first edition of an ongoing series, we're visiting different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know.

As online social networking permeates the culture, and archived blogs and tweets and YouTube clips come dangerously close to replacing actual interpersonal experience, let us celebrate anything that brings people together in real contact and conversation. If there is aromatic food on a grill and a truck full of sweet corn and maybe a pyramid of yard-grown tomatoes to share, all the better. A reliable place during the long Knoxville summer to find such a gathering is a spread of gravel and broken pavement at the intersection of Asheville Highway—right where it leaves Magnolia Avenue—and Shelby Street. Weather permitting, almost any day but Sunday will find a spontaneous blossoming of free-standing canopies over tables heaped with all manner of edibles and used or discounted goods ranging from clothing to power tools to home entertainment electronics and more.

Some of what's offered at the Burlington flea market could be called past its prime. But the nature of modern packaging, all reflective and bright, makes it seem festive. The sellers know each other and socialize enthusiastically. If you overlook the fact that there is an entire table dedicated to the analog television technology that our government just retired, this could be a Tuscan street fair.

Today, Joe Lilly, in from Tazewell, appears to be occupying the most real estate. He has built an allée of twin tables some 50 feet long. His allowance may have something to do with seniority; he's been selling here since 1997. His tools, clothes, and dry goods are in open air. Perishables are under canopy. Lilly says that today's variety is due to some flux in supply.

"I used to have a reputation for groceries," he says. "For a while I specialized in dog food. Now there's a little bit of everything. You make your money when you can make your money. It's not just the price; I have to think about what I can sell it for."

Lilly says he buys from the same distributors who stock major department stores. He gestures to a pair of black cuffed capris hanging overhead. "These are what you'd get at Kmart," he says. Six dollars is probably a good deal. In the shade of the capris and other women's fashions are some factory-wrapped sugar cookies decorated in a St. Patrick's Day theme.

Now don't get the wrong idea. Everyone is welcome to sell or buy at the Burlington flea market. But reporters with cameras cause some unease. This reporter was asked politely but plainly to stop taking photos and stop taking notes. A woman who is clearly in charge and never stops smiling, though she politely refuses to give her name or be photographed, explains why.

"Some of these people draw disability," she says. "If it looks like they're making money here, they might lose that income."

No one wants that to happen.

Standing near Joe Lilly's ad-hoc trading post, the market matron gives a pointing tour. She gestures to the gravel side of the lot that fronts on McCalla Avenue.

"Up there's where all the hot stuff goes," she says. "That's a problem. We don't like it and we're working on stopping it."

The most conspicuous vendor in that area at the moment is selling burgers and hot dogs off a charcoal grill. So the notion of problematic hot stuff takes a couple of seconds to register. More problematic and not at all obvious on this gorgeous, sunny midday are the people who, she says, traffic in homemade liquor and sexual favors. The management stays on message: "That's a problem. We don't like it and we're working on stopping it."

The Burlington flea market may be too representative of the economy in general. People in dire straits are selling their stuff. People in worse straits are selling other people's stuff. The most desperate of our neighbors appear to be selling themselves.

Arguably the best thing the Burlington flea market has going for it is actually a block away, but in plain view and a zero-minute walk: Tammy and Mike's fried green tomato wagon. All objectivity aside, the eponymous specialty of the house is very good. But their fish is exceptional. The two menu items seem to share the same crunchy, savory cornmeal-based breading.

Customer Frank Horton has a chili dog (the abundant homemade beef chili draws the need for the dog into question) while co-proprietor Mike Wilson makes his change and bags ups several fish dinners.

"I'm from Friendsville," says Horton. "Do you know where Friendsville is? That's how good this fish is."

A true gentleman, Horton gives half of his chili dog to his companion, Bert Lanauze, before they debark for Blount County.

"Anybody can cook fish," says Wilson. "It's what you put on it."

Of course, Wilson pretends not to hear the question when asked what's on Tammy McBath's fish.

"Everybody talks about soul food," says Wilson. "The thing is, all these restaurants out here are cooking stuff that comes off the same truck. We're cooking groceries we bought ourselves. Everything in here is homemade."

Over the annoying reporter's head Wilson shouts to a customer, "What'd you get?"

A petite young lady holding a pocket-sized infant whispers, "Wings."

One must ask, even with a mouthful of fried fish, "How are the wings?"

Again she whispers, "The best."

Mike and Tammy's kitchen trailer has been a fixture in the pointy end of the AMVETS thrift shop parking lot for three years. Wilson says they were open all week for a spell, but that they actually sell more now that they're only open on Fridays and Saturdays.

"People know when you've got a good thing," says Wilson. "And if they know they can't get it all the time, they get it when they can get it."

Wilson says that beginning in September, they'll be open Thursdays, too. August will be catch-as-catch-can, since they'll be taking their mobile kitchen to community homecomings in Lonsdale and Alcoa. Even if you're not from Lonsdale or Alcoa, this might be the time to fake it.