Cheap Meals and Hard Characters at Holbert’s

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Holbert’s Cash Grocery was one of those neighborhood spots that were common before supermarkets and fast-food behemoths drove them out of business. You could get a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a can of beans without having to drive to the business district.

There was Nelson’s, which was only a block east of Fair Garden School, close enough to get a Grapette after the final bell, or, if you lived in Park City, Pinkston’s on Olive Street, easy walking distance from Park Junior High School. Many also served hot dogs, hamburgers, or, sometimes, fried bologna sandwiches.

A hot dog could be had for a dime, a bologna sandwich or hamburger for a quarter. A couple of chili dogs, a bag of chips and a cold drink—what else was needed for a meal that was long on taste if short on nutrition?

At Holbert’s, I would take whatever empty soft-drink bottles I could round up and turn them in for 2 cents each. If I had enough empties, I had the price of a cold Grapette.

But the bottles had to be damage-free. The man who ran Holbert’s would sometimes refuse to accept a soft-drink bottle, pointing out a small chip that he said made it worthless. Once when I was in his store, he caught a kid trying to cheat him out of a penny gumball. I don’t remember the details—it might have been a penny-sized slug. He told the perp that if he ever saw him in his store again, he would call the police.

His attitude was understandable given his clientele. His store sat on top of the ridge that defined Burlington’s southern boundary, at the corner of Fern Street and Skyline Drive.

The south side of the ridge was peppered with small, run-down houses, some of which had never gotten beyond tar-paper siding. I sometimes delivered the afternoon paper on that side of the ridge, helping out one of my neighbors who had the route. Scruffy dogs could make the job chancy. Collection days often meant payment in pennies—if there was payment at all.

It was the neighborhood of a couple of boys I first met at Holbert’s: Foxx and Crowder. I didn’t know them from Fair Garden; they apparently had decided to forgo formal schooling.

I never knew where Crowder called home, but Foxx lived a few doors beyond Holbert’s. And he joined us when we decided to dig a hideout into the side of a hill in the woods between our house and Holbert’s. There we could escape younger siblings and the neighborhood’s nosy old ladies.

A meeting at the hideout featured a lot of big talk, and Foxx would sometimes demonstrate how to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember any of us taking up his dare on the cigarettes, but I do remember that he confessed that his old man was in prison for selling marijuana.

Of course he had to explain what marijuana was. He went on to helpfully tell us how his dad would empty half of the tobacco out of a Lucky Strike and replace it with pot. He was caught, Foxx said, with an entire carton of Luckies that he had meticulously loaded.

Once I started high school, the hideout was forgotten and I only saw Foxx occasionally. He and Crowder were boxing fans and I sometimes ran into them at Golden Gloves matches at the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park.

But the last time I heard anything about the pair was several years later, when I was living in Kentucky, working for The Louisville Times newspaper.

I had picked up a copy of The Knoxville Journal and discovered a story that featured Foxx and Crowder and the East Knoxville area where we had lived.

There had been a middle-of-the-night gathering in a wooded section alongside the Holston River behind the country club golf course. I knew the spot—I had camped there when I was in the Boy Scouts.

There was a bonfire and a lot of alcohol. Crowder had either jumped or was thrown into the river. He didn’t surface—his body was found the next day.

I called a Burlington acquaintance for details. “There were quite a few of them partying,” he told me. “And they’d been going since the middle of the afternoon. It was well after midnight when he went in.”

“I’ve heard,” he added, “that they think Foxx may have shoved him in, either just horsing around or on purpose.”

Given the alcohol, the time of the night, the reputations—and rap sheets—of those present, the authorities eventually ended their investigation and Crowder’s death was ruled an accident.

By then, the site of Holbert’s, which had closed decades earlier, was a trash-strewn lot.

Contributing Writer

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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