Knoxville: Summer 1979

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

This centennial of the Summer of 1915, celebrated by different audiences around the world through the works of James Agee and Samuel Barber, has been stirring some memories of the same neighborhood in another summer, 36 years ago, when I moved into Fort Sanders, so successfully disguised to myself as a student.

I was halfway through college, and aimless, not altogether sure I’d ever finish college, or in what. For the time being, summer was what mattered. I was working for Manpower, doing the region’s random grunt work. Every morning before breakfast, I’d call in to let them know I was available for work that day. If there were a worker shortage in a factory or a farm, or a wrecked truck that needed to be unloaded, I was their man. Some of the work was fun, some of it pretty awful. The worst job I ever had was working in a giant pipe factory, shoveling sand into buckets and hoisting them up a scaffold. It was 112 degrees in there, but OSHA regulations demanded that I wear a hardhat and safety glasses, neither of which fit. My glasses kept sliding off my sweaty nose and getting caked with sand. And then the man would yell at me again.

It paid the rent. But if I were told I could suddenly be 21 again, I’d appreciate the improvements to my digestion, but part of me would cringe.

Many days there was no such work. I would spend those days walking around Fort Sanders. Nobody I knew had air conditioning. It had been invented, but I don’t remember anyone wishing for it. Air conditioning was like television, something that parents and other old people needed. We felt no urgency to hurry the amenities of the retirement home. We were young, therefore we had open windows, and electric fans. The fact the neighborhood didn’t have air conditioning, and that windows were always open, meant a walk around Fort Sanders was a musical experience. You’d hear folk music and punk rock and bebop jazz and bel canto opera, maybe all in the same block or two. If you didn’t like any of it, you’d walk a few more steps down the sidewalk, tune in something else. You’d also smell things, garbage and flowers and musty Victorian dust and sawn wood and marijuana and the barbecue of every culture in the world.

Mr. Kagley was the old deaf man who ran a beer store on Forest Avenue, where you hand-gestured for a six-pack of Schmidt’s or Blatz, and he’d pull it out of the ice chest. In a vacant lot off 13th Street was an appealing young hippie Buddhist woman who ran the first food truck I’ve ever seen. It was a vegetarian establishment in an old Airstream trailer. It was called Sproutin’ Wings. In the ’70s, everything you ordered at any liberal restaurant had a tangle of bean sprouts on it. I don’t miss sprouts, but they were refreshing in hot weather, and I went there often.

There were the little Arab-run groceries on 13th and 18th, where I learned that a nutritious if not delicious meal could be assembled for less than a quarter. (It was the summer of potted tripe and celery soup.) For a splurge there was Ramsey’s Cafeteria, “named for a pharaoh in Egypt,” or so explained an intuitive artist friend, one of the people you’d encounter if you were walking around Fort Sanders at 3 in the morning.

Fort Sanders was full of eccentrics. Is it still? Some of the people I knew there were students. Many of the others were former students, people who’d dropped out of college, perhaps years ago, but never found a more agreeable place to live. Friends sold blood regularly at the blood bank on 17th. I did that once, to see what it was like. Others were more ambitious, interested in making a career of selling their bodily fluids for profit. They made me feel like a slacker.

And there were older people who remained in Fort Sanders. Evelyn Miller, the elegant pianist, lived on Clinch near 16th, but that was an accident of geography. When you entered her living room with the grand piano, you walked into a parlor in Vienna. She spoke about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s final performance, just down the hill at Alumni Hall, in 1943, as if it were last Thursday. I didn’t know until later that Ms. Miller was locally famous in her own right, the first piano soloist to play with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, back in the 1930s. She’s remembered even today for the Evelyn Miller Young Pianist Series.

There was more crime there, sure. There was more everything. There was more beer, more cats, more music, more cockroaches, more joie de vivre. It always bothered me that the only time the newspaper ever reported on life in Fort Sanders, it was about muggings. Never about not being mugged, which was the much more common pedestrian experience. My girlfriend was mugged on a summer night, but it says something about Fort Sanders that it was broken up by other strangers walking by. A high-density neighborhood where people walk at night is an extraordinarily dumb place to commit a crime.

Do strangers still walk abroad at night? When I lived there, they did. Most of us didn’t have operable cars, and our apartments, lacking TV and air conditioning, encouraged late-night walking.

I still walk in Fort Sanders during the summer. It’s much quieter now, because all the windows are closed. It’s still worth the trouble.

Last week I watched a giant house moving slowly down Clinch Avenue. It was Professor Cooper Schmitt’s house, the one he built, where he lived and died. It had spent the previous 120 years on White Avenue. On wheels, it seemed much larger, like a riverboat. Its front-porch ceiling fan, part of what always made the place seem so appealing, was turning slowly, either from the vibration of the machinery or from long habit, the memory of other summers.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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