Finding the faces behind closed doors at the
notorious 5th Ave. Motel
by Joe Tarr
Light can blind you. Even as it fades. Driving down Broadway Avenue at dusk, your eye catches the 5th Ave. Motel and won't let go. The faint yet majestic glow of the city shines through the roof's large metal letterswhich spell out a metaphysical address as much as a literal one. It is breathtaking, the grandeur of urban decay set against the approaching night sky. Your sight shifts to the sidewalk, to old men with beards in tattered clothes, to young men and women smoking cigarettes, sipping from a crumpled paper bag. One of them waves to you, but you do not know him.
To passing motorists, it may be a warning of what could be, of where you could end up if you're not careful, if you drink too much or mess with crack or squander your money or surrender to despair. Maybe that description sounds pat.
Perhaps this once glorious, now worn sign simply sits above a world you either belong to or gawk at as you drive by in your car.
This stretch of road is Knoxville's version of Skid Row. The mission just up the street and the Salvation Army next doormodern facilities dedicated to the hopelessdon't convey the decades of drunken desolation this crossroads symbolizes, not like the 5th Ave. does. This building scares and entertains people, fills them with contempt and curiosity.
What would it be like to live here? Is it really so dangerous, so depraved? I've been gawking at this place ever since I moved to Knoxville a year ago, and was curious to know what it is really like.
So I moved in.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON, MOVING IN.
A haze of cigarette smoke floats through the apartment complex's office, as a slight 64-year-old red-haired woman punches away at a calculator. An industrial strength venetian blind shades the lone window, giving the room the dull yellow tint of an afternoon nap. Dorothy Sherwoodor Dot, or Mama Dot, as she's knownhas been running this place for 11 years.
Sitting in the desk next to her chair, it's sometimes difficult to hear every word her soft voice enunciates. But hang around long enough, and you'll hear her raise it several notches in order to chase away vagrants or get tough with a tenant delinquent on rent.
Dot is genuinely proud of the 5th Ave., and she's eager to dispel some misconceptions about it. It is not a crack house or a whorehouse. Most of the people who loiter out front and on the corner are selling drugs or sex, but they do not live here. It is these people that cause the trouble and violence, she says. There are many good people with honest jobs living here.
"One problem we do have here is drinking. They get so bored," she says. "If they don't work and they don't get out, all they got is these four walls closing in on them, and they start to drink."
But she adds, "I was married to a drunk for 27 years. I can handle a drunk. I can't handle these new drugs."
My room costs $60 a week, and as she hands me the key, Dot offers this advice: "Don't open your door at night. I'm not going to lie to people about where they live. We've had muggings in the hallway, people have been stabbed here. We've had a couple people stabbed with screwdrivers. They'll knock on your door at night, but don't let them in."
IN MY ROOM
Room 210 measures 10 feet by 10 feet, with a small private bathroom on the side. Apartments range in size from the $57.50-a-week sleep only up to the $75-a-week one-and-a-half-bedroom, though the majority are of the 10-by-10 variety. Says one woman, "Everybody has their own little cubicle. We call 'em houses."
The walls of 210 are a sort of dirty yellowish green, splattered with specks of dust and dirt. It stinks of cigarette smoke and dust. The floors are covered with linoleum, a pattern of rectangles and squares. A peep hole in the middle of the brown steel door allows you to check out visitors; a solid deadbolt will keep them out.
Included with the room are a twin mattress and spring on a metal frame (no sheets or blankets), a wooden dresser, a Formica covered table with two wooden upright chairs, a musty lounge chair, an oven and range, a refrigerator, and a pillow. There are two overhead fluorescent lights (one in the bathroom, one in the main room), a closet and several cupboards.
Previous tenants have left these items behind: a stick of butter on a plate in the fridge, a hammer with one tooth missing, a 1/3 cup measurer, yellow rubber gloves, two spatulas, a bowl, a toothbrush, half empty box of Ajax laundry detergent with scoop, an open box of mouse poison, a scouring pad, a used disposable razor, anti-fungal foot powder, and a butter knife. Behind the bed is a sock, a rag, and a pair of women's underwear.
There are two windows, both overlooking Broadway just below 5th Avenue. The biggest is large enough to sit on the window sill and watch the sidewalk and the cars below. I spend a great deal of time here, staring down on the sidewalk and street. The view includes the used car lot on Broadway, and the federal halfway house across the street. In the distance, I can see the Green magnet elementary school, JFG Coffee's "The Best Part of the Meal" sign, trucks rolling by on Interstate 40.
Most amusing are the people. A great deal of mutual gaping goes on at this notorious crossroads. Motorists can be divided into two main types: those who stare straight ahead as if there was nothing at all around them, and those who are captivated by their surroundings. This latter group can be broken into two categories: those who are amused and those who are appalled.
One afternoon when I happen to be minding my own business drinking a beer and reading, I glance out my window to see a beautiful Asian woman turned around in her car seat staring up at me. She has long black hair and a cute face. As I stare back, she turns to her friend and points up at me, staring again. Across a restaurant or a bar or even across some other street, a look that intense would mean something different, it could mean what I want it to mean. Here, the Asian woman's eyes radiate only a clinical curiosity. She wants to take a good close look at me, but would not ever hold me or rub a hand through my hair or touch my lipsand wouldn't even imagine it, not for a second. Then the light changes, and she drives away. Good-bye beautiful Asian woman.
SATURDAY, 1:30 P.M.
A man staggers up the sidewalk along Broadway, clutching a 40 ounce bottle of Old Milwaukee, a few last swigs sloshing around the bottom. He moves as though he's wading through a flooded stream, fighting to reach the bank. Each leg lifts slowly, deliberately, but the feet fall far from their target. He pivots into the street, teeters as if about to fall, but pushes his legs back over the curb onto the sidewalk. Nearing the side of the 5th Avebut not quite there yethe bends over to the brick flower beds for support, and reels himself to the brick bench built into the wall.
After a few seconds' rest, he stands again and leans over the dirt beside him. Watching from my second-floor apartment above, I expect him to vomit, but that is not what he has in mind. Unzipping his fly, he urinates on the sidewalk. The splattering stream soaks the left leg of his jeans.
After a minute, the man pushes his penis back into his jeans and zips up. Sitting again, he tilts his head back against the building and sighs. (Scenes like this are not out of the ordinary. One resident describes seeing prostitutes pull down their skirts to pee and even defecate on the sidewalk.)
About 15 minutes later, I see Pissing Man wheeling an old legless man with a bushy gray beard down Broadway. Still unable to master the task of walking, pissing man abruptly veers the wheelchairto the horror of its passengerover the curb, almost flipping it. "Goddammit," the man in the wheelchair screams. Pissing Man wrestles gravity for control of the chair. They continue south on Broadway, heading into traffic.
"If I saw that on a Monday, that would be it," says a friend, when I relate the incident to him. "On a Friday, I could handle it. I'd say, 'You're starting a little early, buddy, but more power to you. I'm right behind you.' But on a Monday, I don't think I could take it. I'd drive to the store and get a six pack and go home. I mean, is this all there is?"
A WEEKDAY AFTERNOON
Sondra can't walk, because everyone is staring at her. Her mother dangles a soda a few feet away for encouragement, but Sondra can't seem to move her tiny feet. She looks down at the ground, then up again, looks for something to grab onto. Her almost-3-year-old brother, Stew, stands a foot away, a bit jealous of the attention.
Sondra will be a year old in just days, and has already got the hang of this walking thingas long as you don't stare at her.
Aside from the school cafeteria-like floor tile, the Wards' one-and-a-half bedroom apartment on the inside looks as though it could be anywhere, in any apartment building. A large entertainment center lines one wall of the living room, across from a nice, comfortable blue couch. Against another wall sits a 55-gallon tropical fish aquarium, a lightly humming motor pumping air bubbles into it. The dining table in the kitchen is immaculate. The couple is quick to put away uneaten food and clean their dishesso as not to encourage the roaches. The family has black cat, named Ditto, and a recent arrivala puppy, tentatively named Sarge.
"Look around you. It's kind of small, but there's nice paint on the wall, we wax the floor, we have nice furnishings," says 43-year-old Norm Ward. "If you surround yourself with pleasantries, it's not that bad."
The Wards' live in the bottom floor apartments of the main building. Accessible from the back, these apartments are occupied mainly by families. There are a dozen children now living at the 5th Ave. On the afternoons and weekends, you can find them out back on the concrete parking lot, riding their Big Wheels or throwing balls, while their parents shoot the breeze.
A construction worker all his life, Ward is temporarily unemployed (though he's found work since we talked). He and his wife, Dawn, had problems at the last place they lived, so they moved in here about three months ago.
Ward is a veteran of the 5th Ave.he's lived here on and off since he was 14 and moved in with his mom. That was back in '69. The building hasn't changed any, but the atmosphere sure has, he says.
The history of the 5th Ave. is murky. A stone plaque in the side of the building puts its construction at 1913. Ward and Sherwood both say it was originally offices for lawyers and doctors. It's unclear when it mutated into a motel, and then apartments.
A couple living a few doors down from the Wards moved in in March 1975, when their old apartment building burned. Married 44 years, Wilma and Frank Reed are both 76 years old.
"It was nice when we first moved in. Of course, it had a name," Wilma says, as her black dog Lucky sits by her side. The wall beside her is covered with pictures of their five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, along with an Elvis clock. Their furniture is old, dusty.
"The place needs painting, but I'm not able to do it now," she says. The couple is quiet, and don't volunteer much information.
"Lately, it's kind of gotten rough," Wilma says. "[But] I've not been bothered so far."
The dealers and prostitutes began hanging out front about '89. "The policemen run them off, and they come right back," Wilma says.
One afternoon, walking around the parking lot, Ward points to an abandoned brown brick building out back. The windows are shattered out of it, and Ward can't remember what the building was ever used for. It is there, he says, where drug dealers direct their customers to go to make the actual sales.
"I'll bet you a dollar to a donut you cannot find five people in this building that even uses those drugs. Now, I won't say that about the services of the females. A lot of single guys live up there," he says.
Although he wishes they went elsewhere, Ward says he holds no animosity toward the dealers and prostitutes. "They are people trying to make their own niche in the world but they're going about it wrong. They're not taking anything from anybody who doesn't want to give it to them."
"It's like why people play the lottery. They're looking for the fast ticket out of it."
The more I get to know Ward, the more odd I seem to him. He asks me when I come and go, and I lie to him. I'm ashamed to tell him that I have another apartment, in a nicer neighborhood, and that I'm only staying here part time (for what would end up being four weeks)because sometimes the 5th Ave. is too much for me. He knows I'm writing an article about the building and asks about my job. "Do they pay you there?" he asks, and I think the real question is, "Why are you living here?"
"What apartment do you live in?" Ward asks.
"Oh, you live up there on the third floor where all them alcoholics live. I don't envy you at all."
Elmo is stone drunk, but he wants to change a light bulb. He wants to change it for me and a photographer so that we might have a bit more light to see his 10-by-10 foot box of a room so that we can take pictures.
He gathers his small TV up in his arms and I pull the wooden chair out from underneath, positioning it just below the overhead light. After many cans of Natural Ice beer, Elmo has an unavoidable sway, causing him to bump into people and knock things over. But he will not let me change the bulb. I am his guest. So, he steps on the chair, and stretches his arms to the ceiling.
I am certain he will come crashing down at any minute, but he almost seems more steady up there, standing on his tiptoes, a fresh light bulb in his mouth. The bulb gets changed, and soon Elmo is on the ground again, swaying, drunk.
The apartment is clean, the bed made. He makes us juice from frozen concentrate, squeezing a lemon into the jug for a little extra zing, sucking on the rinds in-between.
Forty years old, he has the beefy frame of someone who has worked construction his whole life. His face, covered with stubble, seems mischievous. When I first met him, he was wandering around the building bumming cigarettes, a playful revenge on everyone who keeps hitting him up for smokes.
"So you want to know about the 5th Ave?" he says. "A lot of people say it's bad down here, but really, it's OK."
He works day labor jobs, though he has the experience to do just about any kind of construction or machine work. "You do all right. Unless you'reand I ain't saying nothing bad about itunless you're a rockhead and smoke $40 a day."
"I do all right. I make a little money. I'm sure you guys are a lot happier than I am. I don't make a lot of money. Not like I used to make. Thing is, I don't have a lady here so it's kinda hard to judge. In past years, I always had a lady. I don't feel I could take care of a lady right now. Would you want to bring a lady here?"
Elmo seems so happy to have someone paying attention to him, to listen. He is preoccupied with waiting on us, constantly offering us juice, beer, cigarettes, coffee, Moon Pies. But he is not naive about the relationship. On a later visit, he says, "So you guys are slummin' again."
When he explains why he moved into the 5th Ave. in February, he says, "It's a sad story." The story begins many years ago. There was a beautiful wife, whom he put through college. "She got too good for me." And a mother, who threw him out because she didn't want him to watch her die. And a lot of booze.
"I've been trying to stay sober. Well, until today, I did. I can't blame anybody else, but a lot of people here drink. It just seems to go along with this place."
ANOTHER SATURDAY AFTERNOON
"GODDAMMIT. Why don't you people all kill each other off before I drop the bomb on you sons-of-a-bitches." The shriek interrupts yet another beautiful sunny day. The law had just been hereand leftafter a complaint that one resident and his drunken friends were getting too rowdy. Now there is a new commotion. The source: a head, bald on top, with long stringy hair, sticking out of a top floor apartment window, which overlooks the alley in-between the two 5th Ave. buildings.
"Did you hear me? I said shut the fuck up. I'm trying to sleep," the Screaming Man screams.
Gathering underneath his window, residents stare up him. They appear either amused or annoyed by his display, but no one says anything. Except Johnny. Johnny wants to kick his ass.
The middle-aged Johnny is drunk, and he yells back at Screaming Man, "Come on down here you motherfucker, I'll kick your ass." Demonstrating that he is earnest, Johnny peels off his short-sleeve shirt and tosses it on a nearby railing.
Screaming Man bobs back into the window, returns seconds later, and flings an empty beer can in Johnny's direction. Clink, it goes, colliding with the concrete.
"I'm trying to sleep. You want me to shove a knife right down your throat. It won't take too much," screams Screaming Man, with even more venom.
Finally, Johnny yells, "I'm coming up there to kick your ass." He disappears into the building.
"Johnny's gonna get his butt kicked," says a boy who looks about 12. Shouts from inside echo into the alley, but after a few minutes it trails off and people go about their business.
"He always does this," says a man named Rocco, a recently unemployed chef and truck driver getting ready to move back to California, where a job waits.
"Does he ever fight anybody?" I ask.
"Who, him? Hell, no."
After things quiet down, a woman demands to know what the photographer taking pictures of the scene is doing. "It's for Metro Pulse," he says.
This troubles her. "People hear about things like this and the next thing you know, the place gets shut down," she says. "I was homeless for three days. This place is better than being out on the streets."
GOOD IN EVERYBODY
Years ago, before Dot had ever stepped foot in the 5th Ave., she lived nearby. Many of her nine children had paper routes around the neighborhood in the '70s and '80s. The only place she would never let them go was the 5th Ave.
"This place had such a bad reputation that I was scared to let my children come in here. People said it was a whore house, the people who lived here were bad."
She started cleaning rooms (and living) here 14 years ago, when her husband's niece managed the place. There had been a fire in the smaller building, and they needed an extra cleaning hand. The place went through a series of managers, including one long-time prostitute who briefly used rooms as a cathouse.
In 1987, the owner offered Dot the job.
She's seen all kinds come through here. Lawyers and school teachers, bottoming out from substance abuse problems.
"I've met people from all walks of life. If you get to know 'em, there's good in everybody. You may have to look real deep, but it's there," she says.
Dot once thought drunks were just bums, but now talks about how alcoholism is a disease, how these people need help. She tries to keep them in check best she can, but disturbances are inevitable. Her attempts to keep orderby calling the cops or throwing out problem tenantshave ticked off many.
A few weeks ago, the police stopped by her apartment. "Are you Dorothy Sherwood?" they asked. "Dorothy, you're supposed to be on your way to the Gay Street Bridge to jump off."
"I said, 'You're going to have to give me a couple of days to get there because I don't walk real fast.'"
It was a prank by someone angry with her, she says, still laughing about it weeks later. Occasionally, people will come into the office and cuss her out.
"Despite all my moaning and fussing and whining and bitching, I wouldn't change it for anything in the world," Dot says. "It may not seem like it's worth it but it is. Everybody's got a heart and a souleven an old drunk."
Dot wants to fix up the 5th Ave., improve its reputation. There are plans for a new roof, a fresh coat of paint. She dreams of a playground for the children.
"I'm proud of this place. I'm proud of all the people that have been through here. If I left, I'd worry about every one of them."
NOT HER REAL NAME
When you see Sarah (not her real name) for the first time, you know she's seen some ugly things in her life and I wonder whether she came to the 5th Ave. to get away from them or find some more. When she walks into Elmo's room looking for beer one night, she is edgy and nervous, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. In her late 30s or early 40s, her dirty blonde hair is long in the back, with simple bangs cut over her browmore practical than stylish.
Elmo prods her into telling us her story. She begins by saying, "I'm right buzzed so you're just going to have to get it the way it comes out."
I can't make ends of what does come out. It has something to do with trying to check herself into a detox unit, a cabby that has the same name as her, a bunch of doctors and nurses obsessed that the cabby has the same name as her, and a leg broken in four different places. She talks in a hurried but even voice, as though the telling is a necessity she wants to get through as quickly as possible. She talks about being shoved down the steps and stabbed here. At one point, she mentions that she's on a suicide watch and nonchalantly points out the deep gash through her wrist. She sucks on her last Milwaukee's Best and waits for more beer.
Her take on the 5th Ave. is more coherent. "It's a crack house. I don't do it myself, but it is a crack house. I've been here for three years and I've seen 'em carry out eight bodies.
"One guy they dragged out was one of the funniest damn things I've ever seen. They were carrying him down the stairs. He was a tall man and he didn't fit real good in the bag," she says. "Well, they drop the man and he's going thump, thump, thump down the stairs. His head rolls out of the bag. Of course, he'd been dead for three days."
At this, Elmo wraps his arm around her, and laughs. "Quit it, Sarah. You're gonna give 'em nightmares. Quit it."
I've gone downtown tonight, and I am drinking away all the money I have on meto get my nerve up for the late-night walk home, and to help me fall asleep when I get there.
(Lots of people have told me how dangerous this place can be at night, particularly after 11 p.m., and it may well be. But during my stay, no one ever threatens me. A man named Tom, who is inseparable from his German shepherd, says there is a stabbing or a shooting a week. "You're pretty easy-going though, you should be all right." If I get in trouble out there, just start yellingpeople will come, he says. "We try to look out for each other.")
Leaving the bar, I wonder which underpass is safest: Gay Street or Broadway? Tonight, I pick Gay Street. There are dealers lining the road. "Hey," one shouts, but I ignore him. "What you need Jimmie Gee?" another asks in a genuinely friendly voice. "Nothing. I'm going home. Leave me alone," I bark back, trying to sound tough.
I stumble up into my room, and lay in front of the window. You can see the Regas restaurant sign and the TVA towersmere blocks away. Their lights are pretty. The dealers and street people roam the four corners of Broadway and 5th, restlessly waiting for business, or avoiding the law. I can't see call girls from my window, since they hang out mainly on 5th Ave. Ward told me that the apartments along the front of that street get a free show, when pedestrians solicit their services and have no where to take them. They cross the street to a fenced in car lot and use the inside of either a junk Mercedes or VW Rabbit for their bed.
I pull the wool blanket up to my chin, and listen to the traffic. Drift. Did you know that bedbugs don't live in mattresses? They live behind wallpaper and in the crevices of walls and in the hours before dawn, they emerge, feast on slumbering victims. I feel itchy, but I can't say for sure whether they're out there, waiting, hungry. I picture lice and crabs. How many roaches you think live in this building? Ten thousand? A million? Who am I talking to? Beer makes me so maudlin.
Cool air blows through the window.
I remember my second night here, how a knock on the door woke me. I'd been asleep for hours, and didn't know what time it was. I laid still in my bed afraid to answer. The knock came again. Who was it: a door-to-door drug dealer? A woman willing to cuddle with me for a few dollars? Would they break the door down or pick the lock? Again, a knock.
Minutes passed. Minutes of waiting, listening and wondering, minutes like tonight.
I gaze at the dark sky, at a crescent moon lying on its ass, and I wonder who it might have been at my door that night and what it was exactly that brought them here.