cover_story_2 (2006-51)

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Marley was dead. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. He was in the driveway, his hind leg stiffening in the cold air. The mutt had ripped into my garbage one too many times, and came upon something that disagreed with him. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

I would not miss Marley much, personally, blameless as I might be for his demise. Still, I felt obliged to buy Marley’s owner a present, in the cheerful hope that she would be distracted from acquiring another dog.

So forth I went into the hustle and bustle of a suburban Christmas. There’s something to enjoy about jostling the other revelers, bumping into them as they go their way and I go mine. In many such encounters, the one I jostled would respond with a merry “honk” of a car horn.

I would honk back, and, though they could not hear me through the windshield of my car, shout “Merry Christmas.” Sometimes I could tell that they were shouting at me, too. I was confident that they were wishing me the same.

And thus I found myself once again on old Kingston Pike. In these 30 years since I began Christmas-shopping for myself along its broad macadam and convenient parking-lots, the quaint old shopping lane was much the same as when I was a lad, its only improvements measured in the number of automobiles in joyful colors, and in asphalt acreage on which to secure them. Still, it is not enough, as it was not then. To drive into a parking lot, and after a merry go-round, to find no spaces on which to place an automobile. Ah, Christmas. Just as it was when I was a lad.

There is something ineffable about the season in the suburbs. The parking lots full, the traffic lights winking a festive red and green, the shoppers rushing home with their treasures. At least, I assume they were shoppers. Through the windshields and the weather, as I jostle them, I can never see them clearly. They may have been physicians rushing to the golf course, or perhaps teenagers rushing to bash mailboxes. I prefer to think they’re shoppers. 

And it occurred to me. They don’t have a song. If they were riding in a sleigh, they’d have several songs. Or if they were walking, either on a busy sidewalk or in a winter wonderland, they’d have a song then, too.

Consider: There are several hundred Christmas songs we hear every season. At least 100 of them are so familiar that American Sikhs can sing them by heart. Most Christmas songs were introduced in the last century, the era of the automobile. But how many of them celebrate the automobile-accessible Christmas—the real Christmas most Americans knew from childhood? What is the percentage of people who sing of the joy of riding in a one-horse open sleigh who are speaking from experience?

Moreover, has the word mall ever appeared in a beloved Christmas carol? How about interstate ? Or any make of automobile?

Take the song, “White Christmas.” It was written in 1940, a splendid year for cars—but Irving Berlin thoughtlessly didn’t mention a single one of them. Not the Ford DeLuxe Coupe, not even the Buick Super. In his song, children didn’t listen to hear cars in the snow. They held out for sleighbells.

Similarly, the song “Christmas Time In the City” must mean a great deal to our civilization, because it’s probably recorded more than any other song written in 1951. “Christmas Time In the City” is especially popular among country musicians. In recent years, it’s been recorded by Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, and others. The lyric mentions a dozen sights and sounds of urban life, among them “city streetlights, even stoplights.” Electric traffic signals would seem to imply the presence of automobiles, which made them necessary. After all, horses were never as likely to run into each other at intersections as cars driven by people.

However, there are no actual cars in the song. It sounds as if the stoplights are mentioned mainly for the festive glow they impart to the scene. The protagonists appear to be pedestrians, walking along “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks.”

Waiting at the light at an especially busy intersection, I looked hopefully toward the sidewalks. Actually, there are no sidewalks.

“Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile / And on every street corner you hear / Silver bells….”

In West Knoxville, people are passing, sure enough: sometimes on the shoulder. They’re in a hurry. People standing at a corner are likely to be making some political statement, but with your windows rolled up you won’t hear them. If you do hear silver bells on every street corner out there, you may want to mention it to your neurologist.

At length I came to understand a provocative fact. We celebrate the purely urban Christmas, as known in the busy Manhattan of Miracle on 34th Street and the dense London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol .

We also exalt the purely rural Christmas, with Bing and Fred at the remote Connecticut farmhouse they converted into a Holiday Inn, a few dozen Currier and Ives prints, and the famous “party at the home of Farmer Gray” in “Sleigh Ride.” It thrives here, in Dollywood’s “Christmas In the Smokies.”

In reality, though, most of us won’t visit any farmhouses this Christmas. And though there are probably more downtown shoppers this year that there have been since the last Jack Benny Christmas Special, it’s safe to say the majority of Knoxvillians this season won’t carry a shopping bag down a real urban sidewalk past a Salvation Army Santa this year, or encounter a ragamuffin who’s available to fetch us a goose. (As one skeptic of downtown’s retail revival said on a conservative talk show recently, “It don’t have real shopping there until it’s got a Wal-Mart.”)

In any eventuality, all iconic Christmas references to transportation clearly need to be updated. In your living room right now, there’s a good chance that on your tree or on your mantel, there’s some ornament or model suggesting a form of transportation you perhaps haven’t found any use for recently: a sleigh, a train, a horsedrawn buggy, a camel.

One classic, “Home For the Holidays,” might seem to suggest an exception to the transportation anachronism of Christmas standards, when the singer remarks, “Gee, the traffic is terrific.”

But one fact in the lyric can confuse modern travelers. The singer reports meeting a stranger—specifically, “a man who lives in Tennessee”—and furthermore, talking to him long enough to ascertain that the man was bound for Pennsylvania, anticipating “some homemade pumpkin pie.”

On a successful holiday trip, the modern traveler does not expect to meet strangers. If you meet strangers on the interstate, you’re probably showing them your insurance card and waiting for the police to arrive. But the singer seems perfectly relaxed. Would even Perry Como be so relaxed he could chat about pumpkin pie while waiting for the cops?

A little historical research may turn up the fact that when the song was first recorded, in 1954, there was a passenger-rail link between Tennessee and Pennsylvania, and that the “traffic” in the lyric is likely traffic at the train station.

We live a safer, more comfortable, modern Christmas today, insulated from both the cold and suspiciously cheerful strangers from Tennessee.

Shivering is outdated. If Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, it’s a sure sign of a problem with your HVAC system; check with your mechanic.

Walking is outdated, too. And it tends to burn calories, which is contrary to the whole festive trajectory of Christmas. Real Christmas is all about cars, and big parking lots. Most of us will easily spend more time driving from store to store than we’ll spend unwrapping gifts, singing carols, or even drinking. In fact, the Christmas season is the only time of year that some West Knoxville parking lots are completely full; some parking lots were built just for the anticipated Christmas crowd. Is there something unpoetic about getting the last space in a strip-mall lot?

For better or worse, if we ever have a bad night like Ebenezer Scrooge did, and a Ghost of Christmas Past takes us flying over the hometown Christmas of our childhood, West Knoxville will look a lot like Pete Michaels’ daily rush-hour traffic report. Will that image touch our withered old hearts enough to mend our ways?

Never mind whether our souls are salvageable at this point. West Knoxville as it is is the reality of Christmas Present, for better or worse, and deserves a Christmas carol. Not only is it East Tennessee’s center of yuletide commerce, but it has symbolic associations with the American Christmas. Bing Crosby’s first wife, singer Dixie Lee, grew up in eastern Roane County, an area doubtless regarded by some now as Greater West Knoxville. And our own Kenny Chesney, who I’m sure has some experience with West Town, is one of those country musicians who has put “Christmas Time In the City” on CD.

It’s past time that we should have a chance to hear a song about “Drivin’ In a Winter Wonderland.”

On Parkside Drive, it’s such a thrill

We’ll see strings of light,

Later on, after K-Mart

It’s a draft. But we can agree it’s time for West Knoxville to take its rightful place in Christmas’s rich iconography.

Suburban Knoxville does occasionally achieve fame in other regards. In one of his more recent bestsellers, the well-known travel author and humorist Bill Bryson referred to an unspecified commercial strip in Knoxville as a “ceaseless pageant of commercial hideousness.” Is it too much to hope that someday he’ll return to proclaim it as a “ceaseless Christmas pageant of commercial hideousness”?

It’s the time of year to be optimistic.

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