We hear it all the time: People like Knoxville because, well, it's next to the mountains. And it's got the biggest damn college football stadium in known creation. There are a lot of restaurants here, too.

But there's got to be more to life in Knoxville than that. There are many little details, we suspect, that make life here worth living. They may not be world-renowned--heck, they're probably not all that obvious even to us. They're the kind of subliminal facets of daily living that you only really notice by accident. You'll be driving along, minding your own business, and the thought will suddenly bubble up on its own accord: "Thank heaven for Greek pizza." Or "God bless Margie Ison." Or maybe even "County Commission meetings are a hoot!"

So what are some of the elements here that improve our quality of life? We asked our crack team of writers to wax poetic about the things they like about Knoxville. Our criteria was simple: No mountains, no restaurants, no Vols. (After all, our Best of Knoxville Reader's Poll is chock full of those.) What we wanted were the things that contribute to our sense of Knoxvilleness, whether they be earnest or silly, important or quirky.

Here then are some words of appreciation for things Knoxvillian we sometimes overlook (and if you've got some ideas for other choices, write 'em in--we'd like to print them).

The Legends of Cas Walker

Pity the poor Knoxvillian who never knew Cas Walker. Councilman, mayor, political boss, TV and radio star, launcher of careers and breaker of reputations, tormentor of the silk-stocking crowd, coon hunter, obstructionist, salve-seller, philanthropist, working-class hero, living legend—nobody ever wore as many hats in this town as the Old Coon Hunter.

And let's don't talk past tense. Walker, possibly the only human ever to lick Alzheimer's Disease (he was misdiagnosed and sent off to a nursing home with the supposed ailment a decade or so ago), turned 95 this March and is in residence at his North Knoxville home. He's had some bad spells, but, at 92, was still threatening to come back and run for City Council, reasoning that no more than the present bunch gets done, he'd not have a speck of trouble keeping up with the workload.

Country way before country was cool, nobody had to persuade the canny old grocer of the value of local television, and most everybody over the age of 25 remembers waking up to the sounds of Red Rector and Honey Wilds and David West and Danny Bailey and all the rest twanging out the theme song of the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour every morning at 6 a.m.

Pick up the morning paper when it hits the street. Cas Walker's prices, they just can't be beat. Buy that Blue Band Coffee and you'll want some more. Do your grocery shopping at a Cas Walker's Store.

For decades, there was likely not one literarily-inclined outsider who came to UT who didn't harbor an aspiration to crank out the first Cas Walker biography, and even relative newcomers probably know that his show launched Dolly Parton and that he fired the Everly Brothers because he couldn't stand rock 'n' roll. And lots of people saw the famous photo of him punching out a City Council colleague that wound up in Life magazine. Many saw it hanging on the wall of Guy Lincoln Smith, editor of the real Knoxville Journal and no small legend himself. Years later, in the waning days of the Journal, a paper for which he had a particular fondness perhaps because of his great interest in the Milk Fund, Walker rasped out a rusty old chuckle and admitted that the whole thing was a fake, a set-up.

But not enough folks have had the opportunity to hear about how he kept Digger O'Dell buried in the parking lot of the Chapman Highway store, or about the time he brought Hazel Davidson (Madame of the best little whorehouse in Knoxville) onto the Milk Fund Telethon toting her little poodle Pierre, or the morning when he kicked a woman in the butt live on Channel 10.


—Betty Bean

The Enormous Amount of Greenery

I was never sure exactly what it was I was missing, every time I go out of town, until a few years ago when, returning from a trip up north, I happened to look out of the window of a Delta jet. I looked down at my hometown and saw, mostly, green. From 4,000 feet, Knoxville looks like a city emerging from the jungle, still struggling with the wilderness after more than two centuries of beating it back.

Other cities don't look like that. Suddenly I understood why I'm never completely comfortable anywhere else. Compared to Knoxville, most other places seem dusty, desiccated, empty, soulless. We may not have any more going on here than most places do, but swathed in green, we can always believe there's something here, some hidden possibility we can't make out clearly through the broad, green leaves.

I'm not the only one who ever noticed it, of course. When Disney wanted to film The Jungle Book convincingly without leaving North America, they came to East Tennessee. That was mostly up in the mountains. But I'd bet you could parachute a National Geographic photographer into city-limits Knoxville, and he could spend weeks in the kudzu jungles of South Knoxville, the mimosa-and-pokeweed orchards of Sequoyah, the honeysuckle thickets of East Knoxville—and then return to the office and tell them he'd been sojourning in Sumatra or Madagascar or Belize, and show enough shots of lush, exotic greenery and the consequent bright-colored tree frogs, bare-tailed marsupials, and noise-making insects to fool the editors at the Society—who'd even sign his expense reports from King Tut's.

Before we pat ourselves on the back for making more space for trees and bushes than most cities do, remember that we really don't. We've been doing better just lately, but Knoxville isn't known for its acreage of park land. We've taken its green so much for granted that we haven't established sanctuaries for it except in our unmown backyards.

It may be that our soil is more fertile, being, as it is, at the junction of two rivers that flow hundreds of miles through three states before they merge at our southeastern city limits, then flow through town as one. In Knoxville, a square foot of upturned dirt doesn't stay barren long. You have to dig deep here to find red clay that doesn't contain fertile seeds of something. If something wild and green doesn't burst up from within it, bet that soon enough something green will creep across it and swallow it whole. In fact, it doesn't even have to be fertile dirt to turn green. I remember a summer in Maplehurst when kudzu claimed a parked car — enveloped it in three days.

But deserving the most credit, I think, is our chief meteorological distinction. For an American city, we're neither particularly high nor particularly low, neither especially hot nor especially cool. What does make Knoxville different is an especially great amount of rain. We get more inches of rain each year than most American cities, even more than famously rainy Seattle. Rain makes things green.

It stands to reason that with all this photosynthesis going on, we'd have access to more life-giving oxygen than most earthlings have. The blood cells flowing through Knoxville brains are, theoretically, better nourished than most.

You'd think we'd find some way to use that to our advantage.

—Jack Neely

Silly Test-Marketed Products

Downtown office workers walk along Gay Street on their lunch hours, calmly enjoying the warm sunlight of another blue-sky day. Suddenly, without warning, a lime green monstrosity crawls down the middle of the thoroughfare. An unwitting bank clerk ambles across the street right in its path, unaware of his impending fate as the vehicle lurches closer. Concerned pedestrians turn and stare.

"HEY YOU!" the beast blares from its loudspeakers. "CAN YOU FEEL THE SURGE? DRINK SUUUURGE!"

The clerk momentarily freezes in terror then dodges out of the way, another consumer scared out of his wits by the "Surgemobile" prowling our city streets. Will this brazen marketing tactic make him want to purchase the new, frighteningly caffeinated soda? Don't know about that, but it sure is fun to watch.

You'd think that Knoxvillians would be used to being marketing guinea pigs by now. We have nearly become the skeptical villagers to Coca-Cola's Dr. Frankenstein, exposed to every new experiment escaping from the lab. But, although we may not have bought every new super soda they've foisted upon us, it's been a pleasure just to get a sneak peak at what those zany beverage scientists will think up next.

Not long ago we had the opportunity to consume Josta ("Unleash It"), the brownish liquid that had guarana as an ingredient (an herb that purportedly gives you an energy boost). The crouching panther logo made some sort of connection with South American jungles, giving the drink a would-be exotic flair—as if loin-clothed natives had guided Pepsico executives into the darkest Amazonian jungles so they could dig up guarana roots for our drinking pleasure.

You can probably still find a few stray bottles of Josta on the shelves of your nearest Dairy Mart. Not so lucky was Coke's OK Soda ("A Unique Fruity Soda"), which had an even larger marketing push. With teams of local high school students acting as "marketing advisors," nicely designed packaging from hip cartoonists, and cases of the stuff being sold locally at cut rates, OK looked like a winner. How could we reject it? Well, it tasted awful. Knoxville's soda drinkers turned up their noses to OK, and thus another would-be cola replacement was doomed to the test-market graveyard.

So, although experimental products may not always taste good going down, there's always that quick thrill: Maybe we'll discover the next big thing. And personally, I still really miss Royal Crown Draft.

—Coury Turczyn

The Video Collection at Lawson McGhee Public Library

Going to the video store these days can be a dispiriting experience. You scour the racks hoping for something to catch your eye, and you're confronted with shelf after shelf of the latest Hollywood star vehicles—47 copies of Liar, Liar, but no trace of that Cuban comedy or low-budget drama you've been reading about.

Fortunately, you live in Knoxville, which boasts a public library video collection of staggering breadth and depth. With about 7,000 titles on the shelves and 600 or so added each year, Lawson McGhee's movie catalog is a treasure trove for hard-core film buffs and dilettantes alike. Arranged alphabetically so you don't have to figure out whether to look for Pulp Fiction under "Comedy," "Drama," "Action," or "Cult," the rows of tapes are fun to scan for their sheer diversity. There's Kevin Smith's sophomoric indie comedy Mallrats, for instance, right next to The Maltese Falcon and just a few titles down from the savage French satire Man Bites Dog. Although there's no shortage of blockbusters—from Star Wars to Forrest Gump—the library specializes in classic and foreign films.

"We want a diverse collection," says Dale Watermulder, the library's audio-visual manager. "The fact that something isn't very popular isn't necessarily a factor."

That's why the collection also includes a good selection of documentaries, in addition to instructional videos (piano lessons, quilting), a lot of children's movies, and a variety of concert films. The rental fee—$1 a night per video—is a bargain, especially since the library considers the weekend (Thursday through Monday) one night.

"I remember somebody was visiting from L.A., and he said, 'The L.A. library doesn't have anything like this,'" Watermulder says. "And John Updike was very impressed with our collection. We had a Gene Kelly movie that he had written about, but he hadn't been able to find many places."


The Tennessee Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer

It's not the only one of its kind in the world, as the myths around town would have you believe. It's not the loudest, nor the biggest. It's not even the only one around that goes up and down on its own little elevator. But still, it's undeniably a local wonder—a "unit orchestra" of such beauty, in both the physical and musical sense, that the Wurlitzer Corporation used its image to promote its products around the world in the 1920s.

Consisting of three separate keyboards, 1,125 individual pipes, and an array of hidden percussion and sound-effects instruments (hence the unit orchestra moniker), the organ at the Tennessee Theater lends mightily to that venue's appeal. It is, in fact, part of the decor—even its console was designed by the theater's architects. It was installed in September of 1928, just prior to the theater's October opening, at a cost of $50,000. And though it was designed to accompany silent movies, it never ever did; the Tennessee opened playing The Fleet's In, a Clara Bow talkie, and never looked back.

Instead, it was then—as it is now—part of a combination bill, played solo as an added entertainment just prior to the dimming of the lights and beginning of the evening's feature presentation. But to those who love its majestic, melodic reverberations, the mighty Wurlitzer of the Tennessee Theater has always been the main event. It's a spectacle for both the eyes and ears, made all the more fascinating by the fact that it's University of Tennessee Chancellor Bill Snyder up there pumping those keys.

Like all good theaters built in the '20s, the Tennessee was created to take your breath away. This it does, with all its Spanish/Moorish visual splendor, transporting you to a beautiful castle in some unspecified far-off land where your voice echoes in the onion domes and alcoves, where you can wile away hours finding new details in its stained glass and gilt ceilings. But once that organ begins its magic ascent from somewhere beneath the stage and you hear the first notes of "Tennessee Waltz," your attention is indubitably rapt.

—Hillari Dowdle

Neyland Drive at Night

On home-game Saturdays, Neyland Drive seems mostly utilitarian—and just barely that. Cars pack its four lanes (in the stretches where it still has four lanes), moving just fast enough to put some flutter in the orange flags mounted on their windows. Pedestrians crowd the shoulders, and police cars blink blue lights from the intersections as red-vested officers tirelessly wave vehicles through one left turn or another.

But come back the next evening, when the Vol faithful and visitors alike have long since departed, and the parkway takes on an entirely different persona. At night, Neyland Drive is Knoxville's most evocative highway, an open curve of asphalt that chases the river under four bridges from east to west and back.

Drive it from the west and you pass the darkened agriculture campus first. Depending on the hour, you may still see fishermen near the sewage plant, angling for a late dinner. But it's around the bend and under the railroad bridge where the view really opens up. The obnoxiously bright electronic billboard on the side of Thompson-Boling Arena mars the atmosphere slightly, but it can't distract much from the nocturnal grandeur of the wide Tennessee River and the Henley Street Bridge.

The ripples on the black water's surface look different at night, more angular, more menacing and mysterious. Barges slough through the dark like lost whales, their dots of red and white light the only hints of the massive bodies beneath. High above, the bridge's lights (white most of the year, orange during football season, green and red at Christmas) sparkle like a forlorn landing strip. The bridge itself is an arcing monolith, striding across the water in graceful half-loops of concrete and steel. And beyond the bridge, the downtown bank buildings rise up as half-lit silhouettes, their lights shining with a vitality and purpose they never match in the daytime. Knoxville never looks more like a city than after dark.

It's all mostly an illusion, of course—the river is muddy and polluted, the bridge is just a link between the manhole minefield of Broadway and the four-lane hazards of Chapman Highway, the downtown is almost completely deserted after dusk. But on Neyland Drive at night, you can imagine otherwise for a few minutes, and Knoxville seems just a little more interesting.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

The Laurel Theater

In its 99 years, the old church at the corner of Laurel Avenue and 16th Street has seen its share of joyful noise. But it's doubtful the building, with its vaulted ceiling and polished hardwood floors, has ever seen more—or as many different kinds of—celebration than in its current incarnation as the Laurel Theatre.

It's inadequate to say the Laurel is owned and operated by the nonprofit Jubilee Community Arts. The theater is a physical embodiment of the group's mission, a space that makes Jubilee's aspirations—to preserve and propagate the traditional arts of the Southern Appalachians—possible.

"It's very unusual for an arts group to own their building," says Karen Dotson, Jubilee's programs coordinator and a member of the group for 25 years. "It's a very unique space, because it's so good for acoustic music."

The Laurel is maybe best known for the variety of performers it brings to Knoxville, from folk singer Iris DeMent to The Bill Frissell Quartet, and deservedly so. It's hard to think of a better, more intimate venue in town. With room for just 200 people, the Laurel is a music-lover's dream. Highlights from the shows are broadcast weekly on WUOT's Live at Laurel program, which Jubilee produces.

Beyond the big-ticket shows, though, which provide some of the theater's income (the rest comes from a grab-bag of public and private sources, including the Knoxville Arts Council, the NEA, and several foundations), the Laurel is a center for local arts groups of all extractions. Three traditional English dance troupes practice and perform there, along with local contra and Scandinavian folk dancers. The Knoxville Writer's Guild uses the building for regular meetings, as do the Knoxville Old Harp Singers. A local church group rents the space out for Sunday services. The theater's eclecticism is a vivid reminder that Knoxville, despite appearances, boasts a thriving diversity of people and traditions.

Brent Cantrell, Jubilee's new executive director, hopes to broaden the Laurel's community involvement even more, reaching out to the Knoxville area's newer Asian, Middle Eastern, and other cultural groups. He'd also like to mount an exhibit celebrating the region's rich musical heritage.

"I think it brings the whole sense of community arts," the professional folklorist says. "I firmly believe arts cannot exist without a community. They can only exist in a cultural milieu...When an old-time band or a Cajun band is playing for a dance with a bunch of friends around, that's something that doesn't exist anywhere else."


Green Acres Flea Market

GREEN ACRES...is the place to be, especially on a Saturday morning 'round 9 a.m. Although the smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes can be a bit much to bear at that hour, you can head on inside the "Air-Conditioned in the Summer, Heated in the Winter" building and pour over all sorts of collectibles, in varying states of wear and tear. Looking for old Atari games? All manners of sports cards? Comic books and old magazines? Glassware? Ashtrays? Posters? Sheet music? The missing figure needed to complete your Star Wars collection? A Mork from Ork doll—or lunchbox? It's probably here, tucked away among all sorts of knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and so much clutter. Yes, clutter; you'll most likely have to dig through some frogs before you find your prince, but that's part of the adventure. And, when you're ready, you can make your way outside—where the real fun is. Even if you're not in a buying mood, this is a people-watching and oddity-ogling paradise. Where else can you see card tables weighted down with Third World cough syrups ("Now with quinine!") next to caged chickens next to buckets of every kind of nail and screw you can imagine next to leopard-print car seat covers? Chances are you'll find something you "need." Green Acres is an irregular time capsule, spanning a host of decades and cultures; it's your second chance at pop-culture oddities you missed out on—or just plain miss; and it's a must-visit stop on any Knoxville thrifting excursion.

—Shelly Ridenour

Carlene Malone's Relentless Watchdogging

A few years ago, political insider Bill Baxter was predicting the outcome of the race to choose the successor to the late Councilman Milton Roberts. Baxter mentioned a well-connected son of Fountain City who had the right stuff and was a cinch to win.

But what about Carlene Malone, he was asked.

"Not a chance," he snapped, pointing out that Malone was a transplanted Yankee whose penchant for the fine points of zoning regulations had gotten on the nerves of just about everybody who counted. A vein stood out on his head as he pronounced Malone's political career DOA.

This year, Councilwoman Malone (dubbed "Too Tall" because she towered over the mayor and all her Council colleagues save one when she lined up for that first group portrait) faces her third election, unbowed by being on the short end of more 8-1 votes and unseconded motions than anyone would care to count.

Working from her kitchen table command center, Malone has become the "go-to" person for underdogs from Vestal householders in danger of being uprooted for a Southside waterfront project to the Citizens for Haley Heritage Square, in danger of having the fruits of their labor wrested away by the city.

Live in 4th and Gill and worried about Bill Meyer Stadium? Call Malone.

Concerned about the wetland standing in the way of the Parkside Drive extension? Call Malone.

Ticked because the city didn't do a final inspection on your new home, even though it's required by law? Call Malone.

She began her Council career by having the undiluted gall to read the minutes of the previous meeting before approving them. The old bulls harrumphed.

It only got worse. She was for term limits and against the 202 Fund (the $40,000 allotted to each member of Council annually for "discretionary spending"—read "political slush fund"). She pointed out over and over again that the city beer board hadn't revoked a permit in 10, then 11, then 12 years. She hauled the powerful Ingram Group into the dock and boxed their ears. She challenged the mayor's math on projected waterfront project revenues. She hired a lawyer and challenged legal interpretations. She hired a parliamentarian to challenge Mayor Victor Ashe's procedural rulings.

She discouraged a burgeoning Malone For Mayor movement.

And she's also Cas Walker's favorite city official.


The JFG Coffee Sign

It stands like the lonely sentinel of some long lost Vegas outpost, sparkling with a golden halo of blinking lights. But as you drive closer, southbound on the Gay Street bridge, you see that this is no swanky casino nestled in those green hills. Instead, it's a remnant of a bygone era when billboard-sized neon signs were not only advertisements but declarations of success. Built around 1953, the sign was one of a half-dozen in the region (there's also one atop the company's current building in the Old City). JFG's Special Coffee is "The Best Part of the Meal," promises the electrically-charged neon gas, and in the face of such spectacle you have to agree—especially if the scent of their freshly roasted coffee beans is still wafting through the air. But what the sign is really saying is: KNOXVILLE IS THE HOME OF JFG COFFEE. And with that little shot of visual pride, you drive onward, perhaps thankful that somebody is willing to spend that much money and effort to make such a fine pronouncement.