Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An Innocent Time

Published in Knoxville Bound: A Collection of Literary Works Inspired by Knoxville, Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2004)

I've sojourned three times in Knoxville, twice that I remember. Both times, I felt as I feel about the city I live in now, that I was not really at home, but on loan from some place I belonged more exactly. I could not quite put my finger on the pulse of Knoxville, was not quite sure if the city had a character. Yet it stuck in my memory to a surprising degree.

On New Year's Eve, twenty-four years ago as I write now, my family was driving down from the Johnson City area so my father could begin an eight-month sabbatical at the University of Tennessee. My father and little brother were ahead in the U-Haul, and I was with my mother in our slightly-less-than-new Chevy Nova, where, at the age of seven, it was my job to "help" with my baby sister. She sat between us in the car seat. My mother was proud of the fact that Tennessee had, she said, been the first state to require infant seats.

I don't know how much help I was on the hundred-mile trip, which seemed much longer, but I arrived in Knoxville with one overpowering thought: I have to pee.

It's my first memory of Knoxville, though not the first time I'd been there. When I was a year old, I lived on a double-digit floor of an apartment building on Kingston Pike, where my mother rescued, from the garbage chute, recipe books that told how to stretch casseroles twice as far with frozen vegetables and lots of sour cream. My father had been finishing his master's degree at the time. In 1980 he was back to make a push towards his doctorate.

We left our house in Carter County in the care of people who had assured us that, although they smoked, they would not do so in the house because my mother was allergic, nor would they let their big dogs run all over the house, scratching at the door and spreading fleas. We moved into an apartment on Sutherland Avenue, L-308 to be exact. There we began what was for me the unfamiliar experience of urban living, going up and down stairs, being, if only on the surface, a "city girl."

At Pond Gap Elementary School, where I was briefly in the first grade before being bumped over to the second, I met a little boy who had never been to kindergarten. Tommy's father had taught him everything he needed to know. For example, did I know that the blue whale was the biggest creature in the world, bigger than any dinosaur? Or that diamond was the hardest substance in the world? And had I ever eaten hair? He tried it once. It sure hurt coming out. And did I know that you could keep water in a drinking straw if you held your thumb over the opening and pulled it out of the glass? I demanded proof. As Tommy performed this little marvel I glimpsed the mystery of hydrostatic equilibrium, a physical phenomenon with which I would not grapple again for more than ten years.

The year I learned about diamonds and blue whales was also the year of the Iranian hostage crisis. At the age of seven, I didn't grasp the concept of civilian hostages and was completely at a loss to understand why Iranian "students" had seized them. I thought of college-aged students as grownups. An Iranian student was someone like me, too young to seize hostages. Someone like my friend Elmira, for example.

My next-door neighbour and classmate, whose father was also a doctoral candidate at UT, spoke the Iranian language. Elmira's father was a soft-spoken man who often took both me and his daughter to school together. He had the kindest eyes and the gentlest manner of any father I knew. Because his wife was still in Iran, he and his daughter were everything to each other, and his constant presence in my friend's life intrigued me. Years later, when the American press confronted me again and again with the screaming figure of a stereotypical Muslim (first Iranian, then Arab), I often thought of this kindly man and his concern that we see him as such.

"We're Iranian," his daughter said to us. "But we don't believe in what they're doing."

Regardless, one morning my mother went out to our car to go grocery shopping and found the father and daughter packed to leave. "We're going back to Iran," Elmira said excitedly. "We're going back to see my mother. But my father tells me I can come back to America for the next grade."

Her father, standing beside her, shrugged. He did not look like a man with a choice. We never saw them again.

My brother, who was three at the time, remembers nothing about Elmira except that she taught him to eat grass. There was a large area of grass between two buildings of our apartment complex, which we called the field. To us, the distance between the buildings seemed enormous. Before Elmira left we often played softball there.

My father was the pitcher for the entire neighbourhood. I played, along with Elmira, two second-graders from the other building--one black, one white--a Japanese boy who smiled but never spoke, a British brother and sister, and another brother and sister, Nabil and May, who were Iraqi. My father was only in his early thirties, working incredibly hard to earn the third degree in English, yet chose to spend his evenings with these children, pushing my brother and the younger kids on the swings and playing softball with those old enough to be in school. The Ayatollah raged without our knowledge; Iranian and Iraqi children played softball together, and I never stopped to think that I was a white Christian. We played a good game.

Iraq was America's ally against Iran during the 1980s. But when I was eighteen, my country went to war against Iraq, and I remembered my friends from the apartments in Knoxville, who would have been about the same age. I imagined Nabil shooting somewhere in the desert, killing and dying for the government of the country where he'd been born.

The Iranian hostage crisis that year cost Jimmy Carter the presidency. I knew that my mother supported Carter and thought his opponent, Ronald Reagan, was a "clown." When Reagan was shot a year later I could not understand why she was upset. I did not yet distinguish between an opponent to be outvoted and an enemy to be shot. (Now where could I have gotten that idea?)


It may seem unlikely that I remember Knoxville as a haven of international cooperation. Diversity is not the watchword of East Tennessee, to those outsiders who can find it on a map at all. The World's Fair, which I duly visited in 1982, did not turn out to herald much progress. Who remembers where any other World's Fair in recent memory has taken place?

But after we returned to our rural home, and aired out the smoke and exterminated the fleas that had been left behind, I would find myself imagining Knoxville as this exotic locale, because it was a city, and a hundred miles away, and I had lived there. I didn't expect to live there again, but in my twenties, after sojourns in Chicago and Oxford, England, I found myself once again near the UT campus, apartment hunting with my brother.

As a three- and four-year-old, my brother had bonded well with the girls of Knoxville. My mother marvels now that children that age would run around all day in the apartment complex without their parents worrying. The past often seems like an innocent time, no matter whose past it is.

I hadn't spent much time in, or even near, Knoxville since moving north at the age of seventeen. The only thing I knew had changed in the interim was that an appeals court located in Knoxville had ruled against Tennessee's sodomy law, ultimately struck down by the state supreme court. I'd read this, of course, from the relative safety of Chicago, where a gay press flourished and gay people even had some protection in law, though not equality. It didn't change my perception that in moving back to East Tennessee I would have to remain discreet about my sexuality.

When I arrived and started meeting my brother's friends, and their friends, and others who were into art and other things in addition to the Vols, I got the impression that Knoxville was crawling with homosexuals, some far more obvious than I was. At least, they were to me. I remember an unbelievable conversation with a gay man who, given the field in which he worked, was understandably paranoid about being "found out" and driven from his job. The thing was, I have seldom met anyone more screamingly queer. He looked like he'd just come from rehearsal with the Village People.

This, I soon discovered, was how Knoxville worked. I lived there for another three years and there were people I saw every day who, to the very end, said things around me and to my face that I couldn't imagine them saying if they'd known I wasn't straight. Being back in the South, I found strangers more likely to strike up a friendly conversation than in a big northern city, but this could go terribly wrong when the stranger started making comments about blacks (usually calling them something different) which suggested they hadn't moved on from the nineteenth century. They looked at my face, saw a colour similar to theirs, and figured I thought the same. People see what they want to see, I guess.

I didn't think I'd be in Knoxville that long but I was involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman in England, and the process of getting permanent residency in the same country proved to be long and drawn-out. Even before September 11, 2001, the United States had a labyrinthine and ridiculously unwelcoming immigration system that, among other things, prevented British people from entering the "visa lottery"--but not people from Northern Ireland, which is part of the same United Kingdom. Not that I could explain this to my friends back home. Usually, once they learned of my unhappy situation, they either suggested that my partner move to the U.S. illegally (and never work or travel again?) or that I give up on the impossible and stop wasting my youth.

I didn't have a lot in common with some of these kids!

So, while we were filling out forms and waiting for a legal solution that, ultimately, took us to Canada, I worked at the circulation desk of the downtown public library. I understand that Knox County is trying to get a new main library and it probably needs one, but I'll bet it won't have such a colourful name as Lawson McGhee. It will be like the Pepsi Center or Conseco Dome. Whatever building it's in, the library will continue to play its rare and vital role in Knoxville as in the rest of American society: providing books and other resources of interest to the marginalized and isolated, holding the forces that would ban and pursue at bay. At least for now.

Knoxville isn't that big a town and I kept bumping into the same folks at musical performances and any arts-related event about town. The highlight of my Christmas season was, ironically, the Hanukkah concert at the Laurel Theatre by the Oak Ridge Klezmer Band. When they burst into "Bei Mir Bis Du Shein" or a hora, the librarians and arts folks would kick up their heels and dance, just as they did when the Irish band Solas came to the Laurel Theatre. Sometimes, I joined a shape-note group, singing a form of the Old Harp based on seven shapes (three more than I was used to), that also met at the Laurel. As much a gift to the community, I suspect, as it was as a church.

Yiddish theatre, Old Harp singing, a wedding in East Knoxville, the Pride festival in World's Fair park. The town may have changed since the days of Iranian-Iraqi softball at the Sutherland Apartments. Then again, as the French (or French Canadians?) would say, Plus ├ža change...

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