It took me the better part of four days to get all my 19 years of stuff into 19 boxes. The number is coincidental. I don’t box things by year. And then began the longer process of consolidating it to fit into a much-smaller place, the room which was long my daughter’s bedroom.
Among the things in those 19 boxes are 19 years of curios sent to me by readers, some of them described as loans, at the time of conveyance, some of it gifts. Century-old promotional booklets, bricks from demolished landmarks, rare posters and photographs of interesting people, a Fort Sanders Minie ball or two, souvenir caps and cups and bandanas, a bottle-opener from Dugout Doug’s Record Store, a room key to the legendary old St. James Hotel. Maybe the most unusual thing I have is a bronzed McDonald’s cup that jazz/blues maverick Howard Armstrong used to dip a drink of water from a creek he knew as a boy in Campbell County. I’m afraid some of the conveyors have since died. If you’re still among us and want anything back, let me know. I’m going to keep a lot of it, and I won’t throw any of it away. But soon, a lot of the bulkier stuff is going to the McClung Collection, not because I don’t like it, but because I don’t have room for it here, and can probably find it easier there.
And there are also 19 years of books, books acquired for research, books sent in for review, hundreds and hundreds of them. Of all the detritus of a dead job, books are the easiest to deal with. You can split them up, rearrange them, stack them, display them, tuck them in crevices, shelve them, sell them. I’ve already taken five boxes of books to McKay’s, and made enough for a very posh dinner at Café du Soleil—or to pay the utility bill, which is the more likely alternative this month.
And then there are the 19 years of files, which present the biggest dilemma. There are a couple of boxes of correspondence. If you sent me something paper in the last 19 years, and signed it, I probably saved it. It’s likely I don’t need your letter anymore, but for all I know you may be famous someday, and I want my grandkids to be impressed that I knew you.
In the early days of e-mail, I used to save printed copies of the pertinent e-mails, the ones from mayors and congressmen and authors and friends. How will historians of the future be able to write the narratives of our era if they don’t have access to our e-mails, just like previous generations had access to our letters? I don’t know. Maybe we’re just more ephemeral than previous generations, and maybe we should get used to that fact. We advertise ourselves more frantically than any previous generation ever did, maybe because we know that because we’re not leaving even a paper trail. We’re the most vaporous generation in modern history, soon to be even more utterly forgotten than our forefathers.
Anyway, last week I started to throw all the e-mails away wholesale. But peeking in, I kept finding interesting and surprising ones. I threw away a few, but put most back in the box.
There are files of real letters and post cards. I was still getting four or five a month, some from exotic places. I can’t throw those away, especially the handwritten ones, the ones it looks as if it took someone’s great-grandmother hours to write and carefully correct.
There are contracts for freelance projects, dozens of them. How long am I obliged to keep those? I can picture sweating in the witness box, as a prosecutor grills me. “You mean to tell us you didn’t even keep the contract?”
There are general subject files. In recent years, frustrated with how often I wasn’t able to find odd little stories and details that I remembered running across at one time or other, I devoted a file-cabinet drawer to a general subject file of things I mostly hadn’t written about yet, but expected I would someday. There’s a file about fires, about gunfights, about Italian immigrants, about 19th century baseball. It was just getting to the point of being useful.
And then there’s the bulkiest category, the story files. I didn’t even bother to make files for most of the couple thousand columns and short pieces I wrote for Metro Pulse, but cover stories required that level of organization. When I was hired in 1995 I was told that I was to write a cover feature of 3,000 to 5,000 words, every four to six weeks. Sometimes they were longer. My longest one, a narrative about riding the Amtrak train with Scott Miller and his band in 2004, was 12,000 words. Some books are shorter. But that one didn’t even need a file, just one Moleskine notebook that I carried with me everywhere we went. (Speaking of, I’ve also got about 40 Moleskine notebooks, or their cheaper equivalents, all of them with interesting stuff scrawled in them and used economically, both sides of each page. I love Moleskine notebooks, and have always been thrifty with them.)
Anyway, my rule of thumb was that a story was no cover story until I’d interviewed at least eight people, not counting library work (and all thorough feature stories require library or Internet work). But some called for many more than that, and I saved the notes for all that. Every cover story left a combination of useful and useless pieces of paper, and all these years, I never took the time to differentiate. I just put all the notes back in the current story file, called it done, and moved on to the next one. And over the last 19 years, I wrote about 200 of those cover feature stories.
Those are the ones I’m going through today. You’d think they’d be the easiest to discard; after all, I completed each story, had it published in print and online, and it either caught people’s attention or it didn’t. Some of them are available online. Many of them aren’t anymore. Most of them are still legible in library files. You can read through the yellow.
How people would respond to each story was nearly impossible to predict. In 2000, I wrote a story marking the 30th anniversary of the student unrest of the first half of 1970, the Knoxville 22, the UT student strike, Peter Kami, Billy Graham and Nixon. My story uncovered little new information, didn’t say much that hadn’t been said before, but it struck the chords we try to strike with every feature story. I heard from hundreds of people about that one, from all over the country, and kept hearing from them for years and years afterward. The last comment I got about that story, via the Metro Pulse e-mail account, was just a few months ago, from another witness who’d been there.
I’ve written a couple of stories that I thought would make people’s heads explode. One, comparing national and micro-local data, seemed to prove that we vote liberal or conservative not just reflecting race, income, church membership, but–maybe more than any other factor–how close we live to our neighbors. The farther away you live from your neighbor, whether you’re a rich suburbanite or a poor farmer, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The closer you live to your neighbor, whether it’s in the projects or in a downtown condo, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. After some labor, we created color-coded maps of Knox County, one showing population density, one indicating relative voting habits. The high-density areas always vote Democratic in presidential races; the low-density precincts always vote Republican. And the lower the density, the higher the Republican vote. The comparison, I thought, was astonishing, and would catch the attention even of readers who didn’t have time to read the long story.
People take their politics personally, and had visions of my story shifting the paradigms of how people talk about politics. I daydreamed about that story launching a series of conversations on the political TV and radio talk shows, generating dozens of phone calls and e-mail and commentary and invitations to speak. I also expected a little sputtering outrage. It came out in late October, just before the 2008 presidential election.
Instantly I got a message from a local TV producer. And I was asked, once again–to meet a cameraman in a graveyard and tell some spooky ghost stories.
And here’s that file. Maybe it’s still a great story, and I just didn’t tell it right. Should I try again someday? If I do, maybe I’ll need this file. I put it back in the box.
All these damn files still hold sources and contact information that I don’t have access to through my old work computer anymore. Most of them contain documents that might be interesting to somebody’s thesis project someday, or to another story I might write. But looking around, I don’t really have room for them.
Some of them are reminders of an era at Metro Pulse that seems almost like a dream, the era when some reporting jobs were adventures, involving light undercover work and overnight trips. When we started in the ’90s, the cities of Chattanooga and Asheville were both getting national and even international attention for their downtown revivals and unlikely sudden liveliness. I knew both cities superficially, from afternoons spent there on the way somewhere else, but I had never really dwelled in either. But their sudden success seemed remarkable, and maybe relevant to Knoxville. They were both cities once considered decaying industrial cities, both of them previously considered conservative Republican cities, and each of them smaller than Knoxville. They seemed to suggest something about our possibility.
I got hotel rooms in each, and visited as a spy, hanging around in museums and libraries and municipal offices and bars, to see if they had any ideas good enough to steal.
The two made an interesting contrast. I spent about week in Asheville, back in 1995, as your Metro Pulse correspondent. Asheville was much more oriented toward young adults, late nights, and esoteric interests. They had sidewalk sculptures and used sometimes glancing associations with a heritage to make the place interesting. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe. None of those literary immortals liked Asheville very much. The Fitzgeralds, who were never there together, just separately, were particularly miserable. Except for Wolfe, who grew up in Asheville, none of them stayed there very long or did productive work there. Zelda died in a fire in an Asheville insane asylum. But in the 1990s the city used their spectral stories to make a run-down old furniture town seem glamorous, exotic, and really interesting, and they succeeded.
And in Asheville I was particularly amazed at a big pizza place in an old building, entered right on the sidewalk, that had lots of different kinds of beer, and live music and, every single night, happy crowds at big tables. It was called Barley’s, and it was like a fantasy. In 1995 I could only imagine how cool Knoxville would be if it had something like that.
I spent a week working on another MP story in Chattanooga in 1997. Chattanooga was much more family oriented, its anchors vacation attractions funded by major philanthropy. Everybody knew about the new aquarium, but they also had an impressive art museum, decades old but getting new attention. They kept their old baseball team near downtown, with major improvements behind it, just as we were losing ours. Chattanooga had an amazing network of dozens of miles greenways, actually used by the citizens hourly. (That was back when Knoxville had just one greenway, a couple of miles long, and when I rode my bike on it, as I did almost daily, I rarely saw anybody else. Things have changed dramatically in that regard, and I’ve been happy to report on it. I didn’t think it possible that 17 years later we’d have outdoor amenities that might rival or in some cases surpass Chattanooga’s.)
And Chattanooga’s brewpub was then much more popular than ours. It all seemed to be working into their vigorous experiments with innovative urban design. While Knoxville’s leadership seemed woebegone about the necessary death of downtown cinemas, Chattanooga was proving a modern multiplex could work very well, and we touted it. Chattanooga was not as lively after dark as Asheville was, but was proving that free live music in a public space would be successful in bringing people out once a week. (We hadn’t tried that yet.) Just then their most surprising development was that closing a mile-long bridge to automobile traffic, and opening it to pedestrian traffic, became a magnet in itself, a challenge to walkers, and somehow energized the forgotten northern shore of the river. But what amazed me was how they were coupling much of it with fiscally conservative Republican philosophy. Getting people to concentrate downtown saves public money. It all seemed relevant to Knoxville. And over the next few years, if we didn’t steal the ideas of Asheville and Chattanooga, we learned from them.
Roving as a lone stranger in a strange town was almost as much fun as doing the same thing in Europe when I was 22, when I unexpectedly first started thinking about my hometown as an interesting place. But I didn’t have to travel even as far as Chattanooga to find interesting surprises.
A lot of my feature assignments, about South Knoxville–where people told me straight-facedly that they hadn’t been “to Knoxville” in years–or East Knoxville, or Fountain City, or Maryville, or Pigeon Forge, or Concord, or Seven Islands, seemed to prove to me, anyway, that they are all distinct and exotic places, if you look at them just beyond our familiar assumptions. And no one knows what’s on the bottom of our own river, but there are lots of stories and theories, and I got some learned people to speculate about that in 1999. It was one of my favorite subjects.
Even familiar, mundane, Kingston Pike has interesting stuff beyond the signage, and an extraordinarily interesting history. They all have surprising histories, and remnants of those histories. These Metro Pulse assignments were ways for an impecunious traveler to see a representative part of the world without the bother of an airplane flight or a motel room.
But the weirdest cover story I ever wrote for Metro Pulse was when I talked publisher Joe Sullivan into sponsoring me to drive to Iowa, purely for the purpose of letting me describe the second-biggest Knoxville in the world. Knoxville, Iowa, almost 800 miles away, proved to be the most exotic adventure of all, a small, old-fashioned town with an old-fashioned courthouse and a one-screen movie theater and tree-shaded streets that happened to be the home–right downtown–of an international sprint-car-racing mecca called the Knoxville Raceway. Attending the races, which were held almost every night for weeks in the summertime, was a Knoxville tradition, kind of like a cleaner, more orderly version of the Tennessee Valley Fair.
Iowa’s Knoxvillians were polite but not necessarily impressed that I was from Knoxville, Tennessee, a city several times the size of theirs. None of them cared much about SEC football. They’d never heard of Neyland Stadium, and when I described it to them, they seemed puzzled. Surely their Knoxville Raceway was a bigger deal. And, truth be told, it probably entertained more people per year than Neyland does. And, as it turned out, the Raceway had more of a reputation in Australia. Some Iowans had heard we’d once had a world’s fair. But as far as they were concerned, their Knoxville was the main Knoxville in the whole world. The pride of this small town in the Iowa countryside awed me.
What surprised me most was how people there pronounced the word, “Knoxville.” At home, people tended to include a nasal whine with it. I grew up hearing, “That’s Knoxville for you”; “Well, what do you expect, in Knoxville.” Bringing up the word was often a way to show you were better than your environs, that you’d been other places, that you deserved something else.
But in Iowa, the same word had a fresh ring to it, and a little bit of an exclamation point. I’d never in my life heard the word “Knoxville” pronounced with such pride as I did in this much-smaller town in Iowa. They said “Knoxville” like some people say “America.”
I don’t know why, but somehow it gave me hope. At least we weren’t doomed by our name.
That trip, in particular, seems like a dream now. Did I really do that? This file, and nothing else in my house, proves I did. I put it back in the box.
See, I’m really not making much progress.