It was something of a miracle when I landed a one-bedroom in Fourth and Gill for only $450 a month. Due to painting murals on the wall of my apartment during a manic episode, I was being evicted from Summit Towers, a subsidized high-rise in downtown Knoxville. And with a history of seriously bad credit carving a long path behind me, it wasn’t looking good. Despite much searching, I had been unable to find another apartment and time was running out. With only two days left before they hauled out my meager belongings to the street, I was beginning to panic. Was I going to end up at the Mission?
Just when I thought there was no hope, help arrived through the intervention of my brother, who drove all the way from Middle Tennessee and paid three month’s rent as a deposit and I was in, no questions asked.
After living in a place where management was like the Gestapo, I had moved to a place where management is minimal at best, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Not only that, I had moved to a neighborhood of such exquisite beauty and care, that I felt I had been transported to paradise. The neighborhood of Fourth and Gill is not only beautiful, it is also a place where people really do strive to do the next right thing.
This afternoon, I walk a reluctant Mallory, my dog and constant companion, in the gently falling rain, which seems to blend all the colors of spring, as though someone had thrown every color imaginable onto a canvas and gently combined them into a new shade of beauty.
Block after block are beautiful old houses: a pale pink one here that covers half a block, where a ceiling fan turns gently on the covered porch and one or two people sit reading. Next to that might be a pale yellow house with wild roses of the palest pink climbing a trellis, a gazebo in the back yard. Brilliant yellow yarrow are planted in the yard alongside bright red geraniums.
The lemony fragrance of magnolias hovers in the air. One can get drunk with the richness of it. The smell of freshly mowed grass reminds one that summer is almost here. Here there is a miniature garden with strawberries growing; across the street there’s another garden with fat cabbages, wild dill, rosemary and thyme; and in still another yard, a whole garden of lavender.
Suddenly, a torrential rain begins to fall, cleansing the Earth and drenching me and a very unhappy Mallory, who refuses to budge, until finally I have to pick up the whole, soggy, 45 pounds of her and carry her down the street.
Unable to carry her any further, I put her down and say, “Your turn. Now you carry me. Okay?” She growls at me, throws her head in the air and howls, as if to tell the entire neighborhood: “My mom is nuts. She thinks I can carry her.” After that she lies down in the mud wallows, legs kicking in the air in joyful abandon. I would very much like to join her but I’m not that brave.
Rounding the corner towards home, I pass the Birdhouse, a large yellow house on the corner of 4th and Gill, a community center primarily for local residents, but all are welcome. On Monday nights they have a pot-luck dinner, and whomever is inclined can bring a dish or just simply come and eat. On another night they show an episode of Twin Peaks, and on other nights they have poetry readings and/or live music. Across the way from the Birdhouse is another community center for African American children of all ages. They have drumming circles and the girls perform beautiful dances. There is always something going on.
It is the season for babies, with young couples pushing carriages, with perhaps a toddler or two following along behind. There are many dogs in the neighborhood. On one corner is a beautiful, brown and golden Doberman, who terrified me at first, until I realized that, like all of us, he just wants love. I start to pet him until Mallory becomes jealous and growls menacingly at the Doberman, who backs up, confused. He is only a very large puppy who just wants to play.
“Don’t be such a dummy, Mallory,” I tell her. “He could swallow you whole.” After which I reach down and hug her to let her know she is the only one for me, because she is. Walking on down Gill are three of my favorites, two medium-size brown dogs and a large black dog with a face so solemn and round that I feel he might begin speaking to me. From inside the house, I hear puppies yelping and I congratulate the large, male dog, who cocks his head quizzically. They bark and bark at us but Mallory walks on, head high, disdaining even to bark back at them.
Rounding the corner I see my friend, Magdalena, sitting on her porch at the house next door to mine. She is wearing something that looks like a child’s playsuit, black and white striped socks that come to her knees, and combat boots. She has green eyes full of mystery and a laugh you can hear from three blocks away, but behind her gypsy eyes is the sadness and wisdom of many lifetimes. Wearing brightly covered scarves over her dreadlocks, drawing cat-like lines around her eyes, she is beautiful and magnetic.
Our block is the bohemian sector of the neighborhood, and everyone is drawn to Magdalena’s porch, which is littered with cigarette butts. Not only is Magdalena beautiful, she is as talented as anyone I have ever met and wise beyond her 27 years. There is rarely a time when at least six or seven people are not gathered on Magdalena’s porch. I often join them, and though I could be the grandmother of most of them, they seem to accept me as one of them.
A young couple holding hands arrives carrying an open fifth of vodka. “I just got off my DUI today,” she says. “They gave me a reckless driving instead and then they dismissed that.” Though I am very fond of this girl—she bubbles over with joy and goodwill like a freshly popped bottle of champagne—I don’t congratulate her for I fear for her life.
Her young boyfriend, who is a bartender at a Turkey Creek bar, says, “The cops stopped me after I had had a few the other night. And I had an open bottle of vodka in the car.” He lights a cigarette and the couple walks towards their car, bottle in hand. “I was lucky. They let me go.”
The girl gets behind the wheel. “You shouldn’t let her drive,” I tell the young man.
“I’m fine,” she calls back.
“I won’t let her get too drunk,” he says.
I have another young friend who is spending 45 days in jail for her DUI.
A staggeringly handsome black man in an immaculate white suit joins the group. I have known Andre for years and know him to be one of the truest, kindest people I have ever encountered. He unfailingly puts others before himself. Andre is setting off on a bicycle for Los Angeles, to raise money for lupus. Preservation Pub has just had a benefit for his expenses.
He has brought beer for everyone and we click our bottles in a toast for Andre’s safe trip. He hands me one of his cards, which has a picture of a bicycle on the front and says in large black letters: “KARMA RIDE.”
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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