Ginger and I are officially in The Week of Transition between Marshfield and Durham, so we snuck away for a couple of days together in a town where neither of us had ever been: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Yesterday, we spent a good bit of time at the amazing Tennessee Aquarium and found a pretty good burger and a great shake at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Today, as we often do on vacations, we chased different muses. Her favorite form of relaxation involves wraps and massages; mine has more to do with bookstores, street food, and aimlessly wandering around town. Tonight, we will find each other for dinner and have a chance to swap stories and relax together.
We are staying on the outskirts of the rejuvenated downtown area. The city has a free electric shuttle that runs well and frequently, which I have made good use of – particularly today. I just got settled in at a great coffee shop this morning when I got a phone call that required of me to deal with transition issues, so I rode downtown and back to the hotel twice with the same shuttle driver who gave me a little history lesson on each trip (did you know Coca-Cola was invented in Chattanooga, not Atlanta?).
I also learned about the social makeup of the city from the people who got on and off the shuttle as I rode. The publicity for the shuttle makes it sound as if it is primarily a method of transit for tourists; in reality, it provides a free and safe way for street people to get around. Most of them, it appears, keep a fairly consistent schedule. My driver knew all of their names and made unscheduled stops when she came to the places where those folks needed to get off the bus. Since I was the new guy, they were happy to tell stories, give directions, and provide reviews for most any institution or activity in the downtown area. I had conversations about grandmothers who dipped snuff and how things weren’t like they used to be. One guy swapped Thanksgiving recipes with the bus driver. A woman got on wearing a Winnie the Pooh hoodie, so we talked about Pooh for a couple of blocks.
My favorite interaction was between two women who were new to town. One was a large woman with boxed blond hair that was passed its prime. She was wearing bejeweled sunglasses and had a silver post puncturing her bottom lip. Her companion, Wendy, was slight and mostly silent. She had mousy brown hair that fell on both sides of her face. She sat timidly, clinging to her shopping bag. They got on the shuttle with me on my second trip downtown.
“I cain’t (that’s how she said it) believe this bus is free,” she repeated three or four times.
“You’re not from here?” asked the bus driver.
“Well, I am now. But I’m from Memphis and then I lived the last seven years in Nashville.” She spoke with the authority of a traveler who was well acquainted with life on the street. “Ain’t nothin’ free in those places.”
She then began to ask about a bar and grill she had seen the night before. We all started saying names of places as we moved down Broad Street, only to find out the bar she was looking for was on Market, one street over. My hunch is she wasn’t up to walking over there. She changed her focus. She and Wendy were going to the Convention Center to look for work.
“With my background,” she said, again with confidence, “I can get a job at the Convention Center.” Then she asked the most wonderful question: “Wendy, you got a background?”
“Yes,” said Wendy, without giving anything away.
My first stop, after a killer chili dog at Chazzy Dogs, a street vendor near the aquarium, was the Hunter Museum of American Art. The woman who gave me my ticket had a sort of Jessica Tandy sensibility about her and gave me a wonderfully lilting explanation of the collection that left me welcomed and hopeful as I made my way among the paintings and sculpture. I recognized a few names, saw a couple of Hopper watercolors that did my heart good, and found a thoughtful exhibit on museum architecture that also included information on Chattanooga’s background: downtown was not always like it is now, to say the least.
I walked across the Walnut Street Bridge (now only for pedestrians) to the North Shore neighborhood of shops and restaurants, mostly because I was in search of a new pair of sneakers. I’d worn out the ones I was wearing. The woman at The World Next Door, a fair trade shop, pointed me to Fast Break Athletics, where I received service like I had never had in a shoe store. The man who waited on me was the owner and told me the story of the shop as he fitted my feet with new shoes. My hot dog was history, so I walked (comfortably) a couple of blocks down to the Mud Pie Coffee House, which appears to be going through a transition of its own. What drew me in was the menu in the window that announced “new Cuban dishes.” The place was under new ownership, who were Cuban, so they were adding a bit of their background to the storied little haunt. If everything tastes as good as the “Cuban Tamale” I had, they are going to do well.
I kept walking in no particular direction after lunch and saw a barbershop. Normally, I would see no need, since my head is shaved, but I packed my beard trimmer in a box I have yet to find, so I went in to inquire as to the possibility of getting my mustache and beard shaped up. A southern version of Lorelai Gilmore was happy to help and made me look a little more presentable for the grand price of three dollars. New shoes, a sharp beard, a full stomach – what else could I need but a good cup of coffee and wifi? That was to be found two blocks up at Stone Cup Roasters, a funky little dive overlooking the Tennessee River; they are hosting this post, even as I write.
Cities that don’t know me have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. (I wrote a poem about them some time back.) I’ve slid into town as a traveler on the way to Somewhere Else, using this place as a way station and respite in my journey. I’ve walked up hills and down streets and in stores, wondering at times what it might have been like if this were going to be home, if this were going to be the place where I let myself belong, all the while knowing I am only passing through.
The sun is setting now, outlining the Walnut Street Bridge as its giant lighted snowflakes begin to twinkle. In the background I can see the aquarium and some of the other buildings on the southern shore of the river. My bus driver has finished her day. Some of the people I rode with are probably bedding down on the back porch of the library where a number of homeless people sleep, as last night’s driver pointed out. The chances of any of us ever seeing each other again are slim. Tomorrow night, we will drive into Durham intending to do more than pass through; we are going to make a home there. The prospect is as daunting as it is promising. A good bit of our lives gets lived out like the shuttle bus, full of incidental contact and anecdotes, each of us getting on and off without much regard for our fellow travelers. Home starts to happen when we sit down together and ask, “You got a background?” and then listen and wait to what needs to be said beyond, “Yes.”