The World’s Fair started 35 years ago this Monday.
Today, the pundits who declare media as we know it is coming to an end, observe, as their most damning evidence, that “Kids today just don’t read the papers anymore.”
Of course they don’t. They didn’t read the papers before the Internet, either. In early 1982, I was a fresh college graduate living alone in an apartment on the east end of Fort Sanders. I roamed my neighborhood afoot and often walked downtown across the Clinch Avenue Viaduct. Maybe there was less to do downtown in those days. But the things you could do downtown then, like buy personal computers or camera equipment or cheap tennis shoes—or get a manuscript or a tax return postmarked just before midnight, as I did often—are things you can’t do downtown now.
The viaduct passed over the old rail yards, Second Creek, and the ruins of factories. I rarely encountered other pedestrians there, but looking down, I sometimes saw an elderly scavenger with a burlap bag, looking for lumps of coal spilled from the coal cars. Often, in that valley, it was just her and me.
On my solo trips back and forth, I began noticing some new construction hubbub below. It sometimes went on well into the night, like a secret military operation. I couldn’t make much sense of it. But I couldn’t help noticing, just south of the bridge, a steel anomaly. It began to take the shape of a tower of I-beams. It seemed higher each time I walked by.
Trying not to stare, I watched it with some interest, as you might watch owls building a nest.
It went up and up, and when it looked higher than most buildings get, it started to flare out at the top. Eventually its arching girders formed a globe.
That’s cool, I decided. I told my Fort Sanders neighbors about it. They didn’t know what it was, either. We lived a couple of blocks away from the thing, but couldn’t guess what was sprouting down in the valley.
Like me, my neighbors and I didn’t read the papers. We didn’t watch the news, either, because none of us had TVs. Television, like air conditioning, was for sad, boring old people. We were young and living our lives.
We didn’t think of ourselves as ignorant. In the reading room of the old Hoskins Library they had the latest Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, and big-city newspapers hanging from split bamboo sticks.
In a used-book shop at the top of a fire escape on Cumberland, I picked up paperbacks by Raymond Carver and Paul Theroux and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every book I heard about suggested an urgency. Life is short. And I was a Citizen of the World.
Who was mayor? I would have changed the subject to something interesting. A 10-minute walk down on Cumberland Avenue revealed new mixtures of music popping up in the bars. Punk rock and neo-rockabilly and reggae and live bebop jazz. That was life. Everything else seemed slow-witted.
I was rarely tempted by the local papers, with their tedium about school board, City Council, murderous spouses, the Tennessee Vols. All those redundant details were for obsessive old folks who, for reasons that were none of my business, couldn’t see value in an old John Coltrane record with a half-gallon of Gallo burgundy, or reading Rimbaud out loud at the moon.
So I was pretty surprised, on my walks, as I watched those steel girders bloom into a lofty globe, suggesting no clue about its purpose. It’s art, I declared, over a 75-cent pint bottle of Stroh’s at Dan and Gracie’s, the little bar in an old cottage on 19th Street, the neighborhood’s best place to consider all theories. It’s our Eiffel Tower, I explained. Second Creek was our Seine. And of course Fort Sanders is its Left Bank.
My companions perhaps let me get away with too much, but I elaborated with beery confidence. It was this steel structure that suggested an attempt to exalt the concept of Sphere, perhaps suggesting a symbolic communication with the creatures of other spheres. It was analogous to Wallace Stevens’ anecdotal jar, imposing order on slovenly wilderness.
It was our Sphere of Influence.
Then, without consulting with me, the builders covered it with gold-lamé glass. Suddenly this amazing austere creation looked somehow smaller, and sillier, a sticky lemon-orange lollipop.
My chums made fun of my previous theory. Just you wait, I said. After the bomb, the glass will be blown out. (The bomb was a recurring theme in our conversations.) It will look cool again.
I came to understand the globe tower had something to do with a world’s fair that would soon be opening a block and a half down the street from my boardwalk.
It happened to coincide with a personal urgency. My plan to become foreign correspondent for UPI didn’t pan out. Nobody was hiring writers, I was running out of money, and figured I might be stuck in Knoxville for at least a few more months. I got a job working for the 1982 World’s Fair, in crowd control. Most of the other guys who solved problems in red polyester shirts were from other parts of the country. They developed sacred rites of the Sunsphere, or the Almighty Pod, as my colleagues called it, making elaborately cryptic gestures toward the golden globe daily.
Getting up there involved a long wait and a $10 ticket, and therefore wasn’t for people like us. Toward the end of the fair, though, a couple of us stowed away on a service elevator, wedged in between some garbage cans, and stepped out long enough to behold the view.
Maybe it’s okay that kids don’t read newspapers. They don’t think they need to, and for that rare moment, maybe they don’t. Let them enjoy their freedom from news. The rest of their lives, they’ll be grownups.
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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