Knoxville in the summer is every dream of the idealized South. Balmy, stifling afternoons relent into cool dusk breezes off the Tennessee River, as the sun sets slow over the Smoky Mountains. Knoxville has always been a city that could have been - a major port had the water not been a little too shallow, an Atlanta, a Memphis; the country music capital of the world, had Nashville not been wealthier, more cosmopolitan. It has been known for the better of a century by a single adjective - scruffy - a designation that it embodied, epitomized. Knoxville is a rough town, one that survived the Civil War, a massive fire, the death of Hank Williams, and six national championship football teams (a religion unto itself in the heart of the Bible Belt). In recent years it has been regaled as the most romantic (based on number of romance novels purchased over the Internet), most allergy-ridden and, poignantly, the most average city in America.
But, for me, Knoxville is home, and these early summer nights wading through its thick air are among my last here. Finally thrown from the safety and illusion of a small liberal arts college nestled in the mountains, freshly in the thick of panic over my prime choice of philosophy as a career-less passion, I’m like most people my age - somewhere adrift between stiff whiskey drinks and a growing, grim awareness that I probably won’t have as nice a life as the one my grandparents labored for my parents to live. That’s a dream of a generation lost, a theme rehashed ad nauseam, but markedly tangible among my friends and I in an area known equally for the misfortune of greyed industrialism and minimum-wage, seasonal tourism work.
I write this on the back cover of a collection of James Baldwin essays, as competing strains of an old-time string-band and a Coltrane melody played on a lone sax lilt and mingle for a moment together from neighboring blocks. I met a woman just as spring had begun to glaze out of focus, a woman that after two dates I knew I loved. And I know that in a few minutes she’ll turn the corner, and I’ll glimpse her red-hair through the black iron fence and magnolia blossoms. In that instant, I won’t worry about job markets or student loan debt or the thirty dollars in my checking account. We’ll walk slowly, but purposively, our solemn birthright, if any, as Southerners, fingers and arms and words entwined among the bustling restaurants and businesses of a newly gentrified part of town.
We’ll sit outside coffee shops and watch people emerge from bars that they snuck into while in high school and, a decade later, still drink $2 beers at every Thursday night. We’ll watch an old woman, a debutante, surely, in her heyday, wearing her Sunday mid-week best, stride her poodle through the heart of downtown. We’ll sit by the window of her third story apartment and watch street lights blink on and off yellowing a blue evening. We’ll go out and sit in darkness like they do, doing nothing. I’ll learn from the way she moves in her sleep the strength that it takes to express the longing of being twenty-two years old and to know how a girl’s lips can express discovery, possibility, all the potential you feel that you have, but aren’t ever steady enough to exercise.
The narrative for our generation is transience - uncommitted fits of passion and stints as baristas or whatever bullshit Lena Dunham paraded before us last Sunday evening. Or Greta Gerwig. Or whoever seventy separate think-pieces appoint as our voice this week.
But, Knoxville is a city that defies transience, that boils in continuity. These summer nights and this woman are things I’m holding onto fully, things I’m searing into my memory with everything I am. In two months, I abandon the South that raised me, that taught me everything I know. I leave hills and hollows that were both my cradles and my playgrounds. I leave for the Upper West Side of Manhattan to get a masters in theology, replacing ancient, patient mountains for valleys of concrete and towers of steel. I trade James Agee poems that were stuck in my head as a kid, for sure cliches that I will write about a New York City that I’ve chosen to only know through Woody Allen movies and Big L records. For most of my life I wanted nothing more than to get out of Tennessee, but now, that I’m on the verge of it, I’m beginning to see how very much that the narrative of my twenties isn’t one that is pick-up and go, but one that is deeply rooted; one that isn’t unintelligible, but one that is clear as never before, through sweating out my memories on these familiar city blocks with a girl I just met, but that is more important to me than I could hope to comfortably tell her. The narrative of my twenties is that Knoxville is engrained in me in ways that are undeniable. It is home.
Yet, I’m still scared. And there’s nothing special about that. Or me.
We’re all different, my generation, and we come from different corners, we celebrate different successes and mourn different failures. Countless love stories have risen and met their ends in varying degrees of fragmented glory to bring us to this moment, where we hide behind the artifices that we each construct because we can string together a few pretty words and read forty pages of Foucault once and get by on too little for just long enough.
We’re all scared. But, that fear is liberative.
And I can’t see that we have no real reason to not revel in both.
I know that I’m doing my best.