It was a little after 9 PM when we pulled into Knoxville, TN, the culmination of twelve hours of driving, of which, I had driven all twelve. I was singing a ridiculous made up version of “Rocky Top” that was incredibly annoying, even to myself – it had been a long day. Time does funny things when you are on the road: yesterday morning, my parents’ kitchen, goodbyes, and New Jersey felt like days ago. Even the spicy chicken sandwich from Chik-Fil-A seemed long lost, my stomach rumbling unhappily empty hours later. The speed of the road seems to both compress memories and elongate them, and where you’ve been and where you’re going become dots on the ribbon in your road atlas.
It seemed like we ascended for a long time before we finally pulled in front of the Hilton, where we had somehow managed to book a room at a preposterously low rate. The valet and the bellman both looked askance at our comically overloaded car — a modern day gypsy wagon piled high with boxes, bags, and suitcases — and offered us help unloading our multitudinous luggage. They were so nice I was suspicious, but I would come to find out that this is just Knoxvillen.
The plush, overstuffed, king-sized bed in room 620 almost prevented us from exploring Knoxville that evening, but fortunately, my persistent and almost visibly irritated stomach had other ideas. I rose to look out our window. I could see the looming scoreboard of the University of Tennessee, and nearer, the soft lights of downtown Knoxville. Hunger and curiosity are powerful motivators, and eventually we made our way to the lobby and to the concierge’s desk where we were directed to The Downtown Grill and Brewery.
The main drag in Knoxville is Gay Street. It is a collection of bars, restaurants, theaters, galleries, and shops that are incredibly sincere in a 1950’s sort of way. Lamppost lined streets, theater marquees, and pin-neat storefronts form the backdrop of a city that has the sensibilities of a simpler time, yet the modern touches of the 21st century — the grand dame architecture of the 19th and early 20th century blend seamlessly with more recent additions in a town where zoning was clearly not an afterthought. Additionally, it has all the requisite energy of what it is – a college town – and a very nice one at that.
The Downtown Grill and Brewery was an impressive two-story space, a large downstairs dining/barroom ringed with a mezzanine of tables that overlooked the copper brew-kettle in the center of the room. The dark wood bar with a kettle-matching copper top was the perfect vantage point to watch both baseball and people, as well as eat comfortably. Truth be told, I almost always prefer to eat at the bar. A table isolates you from the essence of a restaurant (except in NYC where tables are so close that you typically finish other diners’ sentences), leaving you at the whims of your server and your own powers of observation. The bar, on the other hand, immerses you in the culture of a place, as interaction with the bartender (who is a captive audience) and other overzealous patrons can scarcely be avoided. In plain English, the bar is just more fun, and we were fortunate to find ourselves at two prime corner seats that allowed us 270 º of unobstructed viewing pleasure.
Our bartender was a young, obsequious guy, a recent graduate of UT, who poured a good beer and was the only person I met in Knoxville who even attempted to defend or rationalize the actions of Lane Kiffin. In the scope of Knoxvillen sentiments, he had Gandhi-like compassion for the ex-coach who swept through Tennessee’s football program like the Bubonic plague. Quite frankly, I was a little disappointed the mere mention of Kiffin didn’t inspire more hatred, but the whole town of Knoxville has a laid back vibe that is more common in Gulf Shore towns than among residents of the mid-South, whose passions run high. And that is one of the things I liked so much about Knoxville: the combination of local pride and congeniality. These were truly nice people.
We continued our evening at the Preservation Pub, just off of Market Square, the pedestrian mall that is the contrapuntal center of downtown Knoxville. The Preservation Pub was a nod (in my mind at any rate) to New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, with a college vibe and a liquor license and time-period jazz music/blues/alt. rock. The night we were there, a swinging little combo was playing a little guitar driven trad-jazz. The vibe was decidedly hipster, but not overwhelmingly so, as professorial-types, polo-shirted students, first-daters, older couples, et al, were scattered throughout the tatted, PBR drinking crowd. It reminded me somewhat of my time in the mid-90’s at Cambridge, MA’s Middle East, the eclectic crowd feeding the energy of the musicians back to them. I mused about this over a Shiner Bock and a Fat Tire as the cascading guitar lines fell around us like large raindrops.
Rylan and I have been together a long time now: longer than my first marriage lasted. She picked me up when I had nowhere to go but further down, and is the reason I’m here writing today – I shudder to think where I might otherwise be. Surrounded that night by music, our fingers lazily twined and untwined with no words exchanged, that level of comfort just beyond words that feels so easy and is damned near impossible to get to. Somewhere along the road you figure out certain things about yourself as well as about others. You find out who your friends really are and who’s got your back. I now understand why so many writers take to the road – it has a power to reveal truth and to inspire passion, to bring us together and take us far away from each other. But that night, under the clear Knoxville sky, I had everything I needed, and an open road still ahead…