If you had spotted her downtown 35 or 40 years ago, you might have stopped for an autograph--that is, until you realized it wasn't Dolly Parton. She did look passably like that young new country star from Sevierville; she had the broad face, the big blonde hair, the prominent bust that could make unsuspecting men run into a telephone pole.
"Most people thought I was kin to her," recalls Patricia Cash. It's one of the few things she smiles about these days. "Until they talked to me a while, and they knew I was a Yankee." Though she's now spent most of her life in the South, she still has an unSouthern sharpness to her vowels.
She didn't grow up in Knoxville, but got to know a side of the city that most don't. She was well known to the bellhops in the seedy hotels of Walnut Street and Wall Avenue. She was a prostitute, and one of the priciest ones downtown.
Like a lot of people, she arrived in Knoxville accidentally and stayed for reasons that are hard to explain. Likewise, her career was nothing she planned on. It was something that developed not long after she got off the bus.
She now lives in a small house made of cinderblock in South Knoxville, which in layout owes a lot to the old shotgun style. You have to walk through her bedroom, which may once have been someone's front porch, to get to the kitchen and living room. It's a simple, quiet place when her Jack Russell terrier, Jackie's not barking, or when her orange cat, Max, isn't yowling. She chose the place more for the yard than for the house.
She admits she sometimes refers to them by pronouns of the wrong gender. "Jackie's a girl dog. Max is a male cat. When I was a little girl, I thought that cats were girls, and dogs were boys."
Her place is exceptionally neat and clean, especially for the home of a pet owner. It's not much cluttered by mementos of any sort--there's the well-known prayer that starts, "God grant me the serenity..." framed on the wall. Also, there's one large framed color photograph of a woman in Patsy Cline-era style. "That's my mother," Patricia says. "She didn't want to be a mother." While her mother was pregnant, she fell out of a truck her husband was driving; his attempts to pull her back in only dragged her under the truck. He ran over her.
To keep the baby, she took the drug diethylstilbestrol, a.k.a. DES, which was then prescribed for women with problem pregnancies. Patricia thinks her mother wanted to keep her only because her father had suspected another man authored her pregnancy. The only way her mother could prove the baby was her husband's, Patricia says, was to bear the child.
She was born in Pendleton, a small mill town in northeastern Oregon, on Halloween in 1947. "That's where the story starts," she says. "And it gets miserable as it goes."
Her parents worked in a mental institution, and lived there; Patricia believes the institution encouraged resident parents to farm any children out to foster homes. They got to visit Patty and her brother, Eddie, on weekends. Her parents split when she was young, and her mother eventually both moved to California. Some of her foster parents were nice, she says. But some were abusive. Though she speaks frankly about her later career as a prostitute, there are memories from childhood she won't talk about.
Often left alone as a child, she was raped by a friend of her father's when she was 8. "When I was 14, my dad--and I worshiped the ground that man walked on--tried to molest me," she says. "Needless to say, my stepmother, who didn't like me in the first place, didn't want me living with them after that." She spent some time with her mother, though the state of California had denied custody rights to the troubled woman. "She didn't stay home, she went out drinking all the time. And she would be gone for two or three days at a time. The police found out about it. My dad took us to Illinois, and we ended up staying with an aunt or uncle or somebody." Patricia spent her early teens as a perennial visitor, sometimes in Illinois, sometimes in California. Somewhere along the way she met Al, a friendly older eccentric who drove an antique Model T.
She confided in Al that she couldn't stay with her mother, or her father, and her relatives in Illinois didn't like her.
"And he said, 'Well, you've got one other option.' And I said, 'What's that?' And he said, 'Marry me.'"
She was, at the time, 14 years old. She protested that she didn't love him; she hardly even knew him. Al assured her that if, by the time she turned 18, she still didn't love him, she would be free to go.
"So, just after I turned 15, we went to Vegas and got married. Dad lied, and signed a statement that I was 16."
"Al looked like Woody Allen. I am not kidding you. The only difference between him and Woody Allen is that Al was bowlegged." She laughs. "I'm not all that about looks, but he just didn't appeal to me. I really had no interest in him at all. I never wanted any sex. He discovered it was easy to get me drunk and get sex."
She has some fond memories of Al, and smiles when she talks about him. "Al was funny," she says. "He would make me mad, but then he would do something funny to get me over it. He bought me things and stuff--but then he always ended up pawning them."
Around 1965, Al got his draft notice and went off to get his Army physical. It sounds almost as if he was more worried about his buxom young wife, who was still a teenager, than the escalating Vietnam War. "He was so afraid I was gonna cheat on him. He didn't want me to stay at my dad's, so he wanted me to go to Kentucky to stay with his mom." But the two women didn't get along. Al came to Kentucky to bring her, on the Trailways bus, to Augusta, Ga., where his Army base was.
They had a layover in Knoxville, which turned out to be more significant in her life than she could have suspected.
She's a little vague on dates. She remembers it was not very long after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, which she recalls vividly, because she was there, staying in a working-class neighborhood adjacent to Watts, seeing the white men on the roofs of their houses with shotguns--and that the day they arrived in Knoxville, it was hot. Today she thinks maybe it was in spring of 1966.
Sitting on a bench at the old Trailways station on Main Street, Al made a confession to his wife: He was a deserter. "He wasn't going back."
They were, for the time being, stuck in Knoxville. Al had no family connections here, and nobody would be looking for him.
Knoxville in the 1960s was one of the morally weirdest places in America. On the one hand, liquor by the drink was still strictly banned by law. Even a glass of wine with a plate of spaghetti was forbidden. But the old Bijou Theatre, the most historic theater in the region and one of the most prominent, a half-block in front of the courthouse, was an openly pornographic movie house. And prostitutes worked conspicuously in most of the hotel lobbies downtown.
On a cabdriver's suggestion, they got a room at the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue. They soon got a cheap apartment near Western and Henley. Right away, she got a job as a waitress at the Gold Sun, the venerable Greek-owned restaurant on Market Square.
"I was so green and dumb, I didn't know the tips was part of the wages," she laughs. "I thought it was just extra money. So I kept running down the square where the grocery store was, kept going over there and buying ice-cream sandwiches and stuff with it. Till I got my paycheck and realized I was only getting paid 50 cents an hour. My check was $19, and my rent was $16." For a while, they lived frugally. She washed their clothes in the bathtub.
Al wasn't helping much. "I said, 'Al, you've got to do something. We can't live this way.' But he was always down there at the Rainbow Bar. You know where that parking lot was down beyond Market Square? The one where the hookers walked around all the time. It was down across from where our apartment was." That area has changed a lot since then, but she thinks the Rainbow was around where the fire station is today.
"Al was always down there drinking beer," she says. Meanwhile, she discovered she was pregnant, and about the time she had a miscarriage, discovered Al had found a girlfriend. He visited her in the hospital, asking if she wanted a divorce. She responded, no, just equal rights--which seemed to upset Al.
The day after he left, she was working at the Gold Sun. "That's when I seen Joe walk in. And he had on a black silk shirt, black pants, black curly hair, with a curl hung down right in the middle of his forehead. And big hazel green eyes. For me, the first time I saw him, I knew it." She just didn't know all the details.
She went to take his order. "He looked up at me and says, 'Have you got any brains?'" She hadn't heard that one before. "I said, 'I beg your pardon?' He said, 'You know what I mean. Brains and eggs.'" She checked with the cook, and no, the Gold Sun didn't serve brains. "So I gave him a regular breakfast. He came in every day, and he'd leave me a dollar tip." In 1966, a dollar tip for breakfast was pretty extravagant.
Things never improved with Al. She came home one day, and he was gone. She's not sure they were together in Knoxville for more than a month.
The night after Al left, she went into the Gold Sun as a customer. "I was sitting there, and I had a cup of coffee. I don't even drink coffee, but I didn't know what else to do. I'd never been all by myself before."
Joe came in with two women and another man, and sat at the first booth against the wall. Both of the women were heavy-set, one of them very large.
"And there was a mirror behind the counter, and I could see Joe looking through that mirror at me." Joe's friends left him sitting there alone. Patricia began to cry and left the restaurant quickly. "I went walking down to Market, and he started hollering, 'Hey, girl, it's dangerous to be out here walking by yourself.' And we talked for a while, and I told him what had happened. And we went down to the Rainbow. I wasn't of age to drink, but I always looked older than I was. Having boobs like Dolly Parton didn't hurt."
They went to the Dunbar Hotel, up above the Three Feathers, the well-known beer joint at Gay and Jackson. "We went into a room, and I was kinda nervous and scared, and I said, 'You know, I don't even know your name.' He said, 'It's Joe Ellis.' And I remember thinking, my God, even his name is sexy." There was a jukebox in the room, and I put a nickel in it and played this old song by Jerry Wallace, 'In the Misty Moonlight.'"
"We danced and everything, and he looked at me and said, 'How hard would it be to get you to spend the night with me?'"
They carried on like that for several weeks, sometimes staying in the hotel room, sometimes in her apartment. At length, he began confessing a few things to Patricia. One was that he had just gotten out of prison for check fraud; he'd made away with a quarter of a million dollars, much of it by stealing checks out of mailboxes. One of his principal victims, he told her, was millionaire grocer Cas Walker.
But another confession was more troubling to Patricia. "He looked at me, he says, 'I've got something to tell you.' And I thought, 'Here it comes. He's going to use me, and go.' He said, 'I'm living with another woman.' And I said, 'You are?' He said, 'Yeah. And she's a prostitute.'
"At the time I didn't know the big heavyset woman at the Gold Sun was the woman he was living with." Her name was Edna, and she was much in demand.
This news was upsetting to Patricia, who'd fallen hard for Joe Ellis. "I said, 'You don't care about me.' And he said, 'Yeah, I care. But I'm not giving up a 50-dollar-a-day whore for a 10-cent-a-day waitress.'"
"And he said, 'I want you to start hustling.' I said, 'I'm not going to do that.' And he said, 'Well, that's the way it is.' And he walked out." And I was drunk, and I was crying. I couldn't eat. Couldn't sleep."
From the office phone at her apartment, she called her mother in California. "Al's left me stranded in Tennessee," she said, and asked for money for a bus ticket back. "Call your father," her mother answered. Her father declined. She called her mother back. "Well, that's life," her mother said, and hung up.
"She was always very cruel to me," says Patricia. "And I loved her. I'm just like that, I guess. It doesn't matter how bad anybody treats me, or how they hurt me. If I love them, I don't stop."
Curious, she went to the old Tulane Hotel, on Walnut between Clinch and Union. It was one of several old hotels that were then known for prostitution. She watched the bellhop, who would signal to prostitutes waiting in a room hidden behind the front desk, point at one and say, "Hey, come on, you're up."
To catch them when they could talk, Patricia rode up the elevator with one prostitute after another, and asked, "How come you do this?" Answers varied. "One of them would say, 'A woman can't make any money on her own in Tennessee.' And she was right. There was no kind of wage for women who didn't have a good education."
Some of them had serious boyfriends. "If he loves you, how does he love you knowing you're going to bed with other men?'" she asked one. "And she said, 'The love between a woman and her man is different than the love between two strangers.'"
And then there was Edna, Joe's girlfriend. "Edna was big and fat. She was over 250 pounds. But she had a personality about her, and she could talk. And I said, 'Why do you do this. Why do you do it for Joe? And she said, 'Because I'm lonely, and in order to have somebody, I have to support him.'" She added that most of her money went back to her ex-husband, who was raising their five children.
They became unlikely close friends. "I said to Edna, 'Hey, would you teach me to be a whore?' She said, 'No, I don't want to teach nobody that. If something happens, I don't want to be the one who brought them into it.'"
She begins speaking expansively. "I got drunk. That's what he wants, that's what I'll do!" And there was a couple of soldiers at the Rainbow Room. And I picked them up, and took them to the apartment, and I--dated both of them." Dated is the word she uses to describe her work. "It was the first time. And they gave me $50 apiece. I didn't even know what the rate was at the time. So I walked down to the Southland Hotel, where he was living with Edna, and I told the guy at the desk, I said, 'You know Joe Ellis?' I was about halfway three sheets to the wind, and I said, 'Tell him to come down here, I want to talk to him.' He got on the phone, said, 'Joe, better come down here. This could be the beginning of a problem.' Joe came down and said, 'What do you want? We have nothing to talk about.' And I took the $100 and I slapped it in his hand. And I said, 'That's what you want, that's what you got.' And I turned around and staggered out the front door."
"Then I went down to the Tulane, and I thought, 'I want to try this again, that wasn't so bad.' And I started flirting with this guy, and this woman comes up and taps me on the shoulder again, and she says, 'uh-uh.' I said, 'Go away, I'm talking.' She taps me on the shoulder again, and she says, 'uh-uh.' And I said, 'What's wrong with you?' She said, 'That's my old man.' And I said, 'Well--' and at that time, she hit me between the eyes. She got me in the telephone booth, the old wooden telephone booth, and she hit me with a fist on one side, and with the folding door on the other side. She whooped my butt all over that lobby. And I went home.
"Joe came the next morning, and he'd heard what happened. He looked at my face, and that was all. He said, 'I'm gonna get her for doing that to you.' And I said, 'It wasn't her fault.'"
Joe took Patricia to the Gold Sun, then went across the street to get Edna. "She said, 'Good God, girl, I'd better teach you how to be a whore before you get killed.'" She picked up a date that night, on that parking lot. She worked at the Parkway Hotel on Chapman Highway. And I just went with her on a date."
She remembers Edna's reaction the first time Patricia took her clothes off. "I always wore clothes that held it in a little tighter. Nobody realized how big I was. When I let 'em loose, and Wooh! All over the room. When I did, Edna said, 'My God!'"
"Everybody thought I was kin to Dolly Parton. And at the time, I didn't really know who Dolly Parton was. I never really liked country music then, but then I started hearing some of it that I really liked."
"Then Edna and Joe took me to Nashville. We stayed at the James Hotel, right across the street from the bus station. She told the bellboy that I was just learning, and that she was teaching me the business. She would teach me, you know, how to examine them, how to use a sponge, how to work even though you've had your period. Things like that. To examine them without letting them know that's what you were doing, because it usually made them mad if they thought that you thought they had a disease."
"Me and her were together, going to dates together. And we'd walk in and give Joe the money. I still don't know why. We just did. It was just like it was the way it was. He was just our old man. Me and her started talking, and she said, 'I know you love Joe.' And I said, 'Yeah, I do. But as long as he's with you, I won't touch him.' She said, I appreciate that. I said, 'But if he ever leaves you, I'm gonna be the first one with my tennis shoes on.'"
"Then one night she wanted to show me how to give a blow job. And she was going to do it on Joe. And I grabbed my purse and I went out the door and down into the lounge, and I ordered a Miller."
Joe came down, and asked what was the matter. "You want to stay with Edna, stay with Edna," Patricia said. "Don't ask me to watch her make love to you."
They sometimes worked circuits: Clarksville, Nashville, Birmingham, parts of Mississippi. Sometimes she'd serve five, six, seven eight customers a night. "As many as can come in. It just depends."
She had some trouble with inhibitions at first but learned a trick of the trade. "As long as I was drinking, I was OK," she says.
But it led to one of her darkest times with Joe. "I was in the back of the Tulane, and we played tong, or whatever, while the men would gamble, throw dice on the bed in the next room. One of the bellboys said, 'Hey, Pat, do you ever drink J&B Scotch?' I said no. He said 'Here, take a taste. He put it in a glass. About the time I started to take a sip, Joe walked in. He said, 'What did I tell you about drinking?' I said, 'I was just going to taste it, see what it tastes like.' And he turned around and walked out. He came back with a pint of Jack Daniels. There was a table in the middle of the room. You know those old water glasses they had in hotels. He poured it full and said, 'Sit down.' I sat down, and he said, 'Now, drink it.' I said, 'Joe, I can't drink that. Put some Coke in it or something and I'll drink it, but I can't drink that.' And he said, 'Turn it up and drink it like a man.' I said, 'Joe, I'm not a man.' And he said, 'Drink it.' So I started sipping it, started drinking it. And he said, 'And then, when you're drunk, I'm gonna whoop your ass for getting drunk. He made me drink the whole pint. There was a nurse there that was with one of the gamblers, and I heard her hollering at him, she said, 'Joe, you could stop her heart doing that.' He said I was gonna learn every time he was gonna beat me up; I had to learn a lesson. 'She's gonna have to learn her lessons.' And everybody said--I mean, after a couple of big sips out of that glass, I don't remember the rest of it--but they said that I begged them not to let him take me upstairs, because he was gonna beat me up. And they said Joe wasn't gonna do that. But he did."
She's not sure how long she was upstairs with Joe at the Tulane. But when she came downstairs later that night, the gamblers were still there.
"My mouth was even with the end of my nose. You couldn't hardly see my nose, with my cheeks and my eyes swollen up around it. I was about three or four different shades of blue. Blue and purple and everything else. They were all still there, gambling and drinking. And Joe said, 'You guys think I was wrong for doing that, don't you.'" There was a general concurrence that even the boys at the Tulane did think it was wrong.
Her friend Arliss was in the room, and spoke up for her, and, surprisingly, her right to drink. "She can come in here sober, and she'll walk a date every time," he said. To walk a date was to lose the guy's interest before finishing the job.
"But when she comes in here drunk," Arliss said, "she can talk a man out of his shoestrings."
After that, Joe apparently respected liquor as a way to make more money out of Patricia.
"From that day forward, when I took a bath, getting ready to go out to the hotel, Joe would hand me a drink."
One of the things Patricia learned from Edna and the others was which cops to be wary of. One prominent Knoxville police captain was particularly notorious for arresting prostitutes and demanding a bribe of $50--or, in the alternative, a sexual favor--before letting them go.
"I know what we did was wrong, but he was worse," she says. "People trusted him." Of all the people who wronged her, that police detective seems to her beneath contempt. The man she names resigned from the Knoxville Police Department in the mid-'70s, facing charges of abusing his office for "private ends." He left the state, and has since died.
She was never arrested for prostitution, but when she went to jail for public drunkenness, the disreputable cop demanded his $50. She refused to pay, and served her sentence. Her friends told her she was crazy.
Once, on their way to a small party at the Holiday Inn just across the Henley Street Bridge, she recognized him and another policeman in a car behind her. At the motel, Joe sent her across the street to the Smoky Mountain Market to get some hot dogs and full houses, the tamale-and-chili local specialty of the time. Seeing the police arriving, she and a friend went down another way, and crossed the street. When they saw the cops on the balcony, they waved at them.
She later discovered that they had a bus ticket with her name on it. Her parents in California had relented and filled out a missing-person report on her. When police told them she was in Knoxville, hanging around with some shady characters, her parents sent the police the ticket home.
Patricia remembers some parts of the life fondly. She brightens up when she visits the actual locations she once knew well. In East Knoxville's Five Points, there's a nondescript alley behind a plain building. She says it was whorehouse known as Rose's.
Looking at it, she says, "It was pretty well hidden, as far as the law is concerned. Nobody knew where this one was." Inside, she said, it was "decorated like an old New Orleans cathouse. Gold fixtures, and the furniture, and everything. Have you ever seen the movie, Walk on the Wild Side, with Barbara Stanwyck? It was like that." Though it's hard to believe, part of its New Orleans charm was that it had a hidden courtyard with flower gardens and a barbecue pit.
Though located in middle of a neighborhood that was predominantly black, it was an all-white place with an all-white clientele. "In the '60s, there wasn't any house that allowed black men," she says. "Joe told me he would break my neck if I ever dated a black man."
"I always got the weird ones. There was one guy we called Pretty Shoes," a man who wore high heels on dates with prostitutes. "He liked you to wear high heels, and step on him. I was always afraid I'd hurt him. Once he got mad at me, because my shoes were prettier than his. They were open-soled plastic shoes, like glass, with sequins."
Another, she says, was always convinced she was pregnant by him, and gave her extra money to buy things for the baby.
Another, who was known to rob vending machines, preferred to pay in quarters. He once gave her 320 of them for an $80 tab.
Down the road, she points out a modern brick house, shaded by trees. From the road it looks like a comfortable family home. "That was Edna's," she says. "It was the biggest cathouse in town."
"When we lived at the Southland, I had to turn dates there. When I worked at the Tulane, I turned there, and when I came home, I had to turn them when I came home. I never got to live in a house like I always wanted. Never really got to live in an apartment. It was always hotels." She and Joe lived in the back of the old L&N Hotel for a while. "I begged him to put the money in the bank. I begged him to let us get a house, a real house. We had an apartment in the L&N Hotel, in the back, and the woman who owned it had an apartment in back; she moved up and stayed in the room by the desk and rented us her apartment.
"And Joe was gambling away the money faster than I could make it. I kept him in the money and clothes and everything, but he would lose it faster. The only time I ever really had money that I could stand to buy something for myself was on the circuit.
And I would come home, and Joe would have lost my refrigerator in a gambling debt. He lost my Chihuahua dog in a crap game. She found out that Joe would wager anything, even her.
She often spent late evenings at Floyd Fox's bootlegging operation off Chapman Highway. When liquor by the drink was still illegal in Knoxville, you could get anything you wanted at Floyd's, and play pinball machine and the jukebox while you were drinking it. It often stayed open all night. (Like many other places Patricia knew, it figures in Cormac McCarthy's well-known novel, Suttree, which is on one level a portrait of mid-century Knoxville's underworld so rich and dark that most readers assume its details are fictional.)
At Floyd's one night, she encountered a gambler named Mull. His walk-up joint by the Bijou was among the most notorious gambling dens downtown in the '60s. Mull's had dice, and pool tables and card games. "All the gamblers went there," she says.
Mull asked Patricia where Joe was. She didn't know. They were, at the time, split up, and Patricia was living with another woman near Central and Fifth. Accompanied by his ever-present bodyguard, Mull offered her a ride home. "By the time I looked around to see where we were going, we had pulled into his place. I said, 'What are we doing here?' He said, 'I forgot something I have to get before I go up to the club.' I came in there, and when I got in, he slapped me so hard my head spun. And I said, 'What's the matter with you?' And he took me to the bedroom, and he said, 'You're gonna give me a blow job.' And he took me and pushed me down on my knees and he had a hold of my hair, and said, 'Now, get on with it.' And I did--I bit him!" After 40 years, she still laughs. "He beat me in the head until I let him go. After that, he could not do anything."
He insisted she go into the next room and have sex with his bodyguard. She objected and started to cry. Mull relented. "We'll just sit in here for a while. Let him think we're doing something."
He did drive her home. "The car didn't even stop. And he opened up the back door and pushed me out. And he said, 'Go tell Joe Ellis that I collected on my bet. And I came to find out Joe lost me in a stupid crap game. Mull thought I was reneging on a bet I was supposed to fill, and I didn't know nothing about it.
"I don't steal from the johns, I don't rip 'em off, and I don't promise to do something I can't do. But I don't fulfill no bets. I said to Joe, 'If you want to make a bet, you bend over and fill it.'"
"I'd never loved anyone before Joe," she says. "That was the closest I could get to somebody loving me."
Much of her life with Joe sounds pretty grim, but he sometimes tried to make up with a gift. She loved to window shop at the old jewelry store on Wall Avenue. "Once Joe bought me a black onyx ring, and in the middle of the black onyx was a half-moon, with a little diamond in it."
When we come downtown, the front of the jewelry store, one of the few vacant storefronts left downtown, is one of the places she wants to see.
And there were some light moments. There were a few places she could go downtown to entertain herself. One bar, run by a gay retired prostitute named Rose, was called the Hideaway.
Her favorite place downtown was the Huddle. The bar on the eastern end of Cumberland Avenue was frequented by gays and other prostitutes; when she was there, she was off duty, and when she went there with Joe, he didn't get jealous and violent. "Joe used to take me there because the men there didn't want women. So it was safe to drink there. Without thinking, you know, 'Are you looking at him?' and 'Is he looking at you?'
"There were gay men, gay girls. Sometimes it would kind of trip you out when they would come in in drag and they'd use the women's bathroom." The Huddle's proprietor, whose name was Sandy, was a tolerant woman, but politely instructed the transvestites to use the men's bathroom.
After Joe had done another stint in jail in Atlanta, and Patricia had spent some time back in California--her marriage to another man there was brief--they went for a reunion date at the Huddle.
"Jackie Walker came in and he was dressed in drag," Patricia says. Jackie Walker was at the time one of the stars of the Vols football squad, an All-American linebacker who broke records during his time at UT. "It almost blew Joe's mind. Joe said, 'I can't believe it!'" He talked about how he followed Walker's career from prison. Patricia didn't follow football closely, but had seen his trophy on display in the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre.
"And then some of the players came in the door, and they were trying to prove that Jackie was gay, because then, if you were gay, you didn't have a career.
"Well, he started slithering underneath the table, we were at a round table, and he starts sliding underneath the table. So Jackie's right there under the table between me and Joe, to hide. The fact that he was black helped. He was hard to see under there, as dark as the bar was. And Joe looked at me and says, 'I can't believe it. I bet on him when I was in prison, and we would watch the games. And I would watch him run. And now I'm sitting here in a gay bar with him on the floor under my table. I just don't believe it!'"
Sometimes things were so bleak there are periods that are blacked out. "I have no memory at all of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated" in June, 1968. "And I know it had to be all over the newspapers and the TV and everything. I was talking to this woman who said, 'You didn't know Bobby Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you, on another planet?' I said I must have been under a rock, or maybe it was during one of my blackout times.
After a separation, she and Joe finally got married in 1972, and moved to Virginia. But things never settled down as she would have liked. She quit prostitution, but Joe kept finding reason to beat her. She had another miscarriage, which she blames on one of Joe's beatings.
Over the years, she worked several legitimate jobs, as a nurse's aide, as a driver of 18-wheelers. In the early '80s, separated from Joe, she seemed to be settling back near her family in California. But she kept thinking about Joe.
"My mother says it was because I was born on Halloween. I get these premonitions. Something told me that Joe was gonna die. I even ordered the paper from here to California, looking at the obituaries to see if he was in there. And my half-sister says, 'Why are you going back to Knoxville?' I said, 'I'm going back to Joe Ellis's funeral. Because I know he's gonna die. I got here on the third of October, 1984, and Joe died on the third of November.
"When I got back, I got a room on a corner of Central, right across from Star Sales. I went down to Michael's," the Happy Holler nightclub on Central run by one of the old madams. "I asked everybody if they knew where Joe Ellis was. They said he hadn't been coming around there too much--and he'd gotten so low, he was stealing people's drinks off the bar.
"Then I asked this cabdriver, you know where Joe Ellis lives? And he said, 'Yeah, I do.' I said, 'Can you take me there?' And he took me over on I think it was Massachusetts Avenue. You know, where all the streets are named for the states." Joe didn't have a proper address, but lived in a small house behind another. There was an extension cord leading to the house from the house at the street. "So he could get his lights, and so he could play his radio. Joe always sat by his radio and listened to his country and western stars."
She walked into the place, which was completely dark, and smelled like sewage. "I don't know why, but every time I marry somebody, when I leave, they turn into slobs! Joe's hair growed out, it was white, he wore a bandana around his head, didn't have any teeth in his mouth.
"He looked at me and said, 'Girl, is that a gun in your purse?' I said, 'No, Joe, I don't have a gun.' He said, 'After what I done to you, the way I treated you, I figured you were going to kill me.' I said, 'No, Joe. I came here to tell you I want to live in Knoxville. And I'm going to live here without you. I'll be your friend, I'll do anything I can to help you. But I won't live with you."
"And he says, 'You live in Knoxville, you live with me, or you don't live.'"
"I said, 'Joe, I'm not that young girl anymore. And I'm not afraid of you. Because there's nothing you can do to me that you haven't already done.'"
He asked that she bring him some cigarettes and a jug of wine, and she happily complied.
She got work at Cathy's Restaurant, across from Michael's, and also at the thrift store nearby. In November, someone came to the door and said, "Are you Pat Ellis? Johnny Payne had been trying to find you, because Joe's dead."
She heard he'd been playing the George Jones classic, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
Some were angry at her; if she hadn't come back to Knoxville, they said, Joe wouldn't have died. But of the people she used to know here, few lived to be very old.
At 59, Patricia Cash is not yet an old woman, by most standards--but almost all of the people she knew in the Knoxville demimonde of the late '60s are dead; some killed themselves, some were murder victims, some just drank themselves to death. Even the Vol star Jackie Walker died prematurely, in Atlanta.
Today, most of the buildings that comprised downtown Knoxville in the 1960s are still standing. It makes it all the more remarkable that all the old apartment buildings and hotels, some of them plausibly historic buildings that she knew--the Park, the St. James, the Southland, the Tulane, the L&N Hotel, the Monday apartments that were her first Knoxville home, the places where she and her colleagues lived and worked--have been torn down. "I think that's the reason," she says.
By now, this West Coast girl has spent most of her adult life here, and means to stay. "I liked the town," she says. "When I came here, it just became everything I knew."
She retired from prostitution shortly after her marriage to Joe Ellis in 1972. She's now a churchgoing Baptist.
Patricia Cash says she's been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder as well as multiple-personality syndrome; by another name, she thinks, she worked in Nashville, and by another, married a man in Chattanooga. She has survived three bouts of breast cancer. She turns 60 next Halloween; she says a doctor has given her hope she may last as much as five more years. She's in pain much of the time.
Today, she's living on disability checks; she says the monthly amount, $666, seems appropriate, given all she's been through. She has a washing machine and is wondering if there's a way to take in laundry to make a few extra dollars.
She wrote a free-verse poem that she has typeset and mounted on her wall. It's called "Never Innocent." That's what she wants her life story to be called. She has far too many vivid stories to fit into a magazine article. She's been working on it for a few years, and is convinced it can be a bestseller. She's hoping to find a young writer with the time to help her finish it.
She's happy to tell her story. "I'm hoping that it will do some good," she says. "Everybody who knows me knows. I've never lied about it, never been dishonest about it."
She has lots of regrets but also found some unexpected strengths in her accidental collision with the complicated city. "I could talk a man out of anything I wanted. I found out I was good at that. I found out, this time, I'm in control."
She sometimes talks about men as if they're helpless idiots, especially when confronted with an attractive woman. "If you swing it at him a couple of times, a woman can seduce a man."
"Oddly enough, it was about the happiest part of my life," she says of the few years that she was the prostitute who looked like Dolly Parton. "That says something, doesn't it?"