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On Broadway

A risky expedition down a familiar avenue

by Jack Neely

It was an interesting place to look at, this cool building with the New Frontier facade. I hadn't expected to see lots of people in a bowling alley at 2 on a Wednesday afternoon. There were whole families, kids throwing balls against the long ankle-high fences that kept the balls out of the gutters, retired couples still finding something to get excited about, young adults sharing pitchers of beer. Finding all this going on, at a time of week when I'm usually in the office, was a revelation. I was grateful to my friends for giving me a ride.

But I politely declined the shoes. The glass door on the south side was bright white, and after resisting the temptation a couple of times, I pushed it open. It was summer, and somehow I wanted to be hot. Also, I'd just read that story about long walks improving mental function, and wanted to try it out.

I enjoyed the heat of the parking lot, and looked across the street at the Kentshyrs, the apartment building that went up here 70 years ago because no one wants to live in a big house where there'd been an unsolved murder. Today statues of blank-eyed women face each other on the lawn.

Like a lot of streets in Knoxville, Broadway tells a story, and I was in the mood to listen. I knew this street well, after all. It used to be called Broad Street, a century ago when it was the widest, busiest, toniest avenue in Knoxville.

It was familiar to me. I crossed Atlantic Avenue, the old milltown street my friend R.B. Morris wrote a song about. I crossed First Creek, the defining principle for this road, and this city. I saw Drumheller's, where we got our refrigerator. I walked by Fulton High, where I took the SAT about 25 years ago. There's St. Mary's, where my son was born and where my grandmother died. There's the grocery that the droll folks at Whittle used to call the Fellini Kroger.

This sun was bright, and there were no shade trees and no shadows. The white concrete and stucco buildings glowed like heatlamps. It was a bright impressionist painting of Morocco.

There were few other walkers. About one block behind me, a guy in shorts trundled along. I varied my pace, stopped occasionally to wipe my face, but he never seemed to get any closer. It's not hard to walk Broadway, except where the interstate exit leaves it. I stood and waited for traffic to go by; when it disappeared, I dashed across as several cars materialized and bore down on me. I made it, but worried about the guy a block back.

After a mile or more I was feeling giddy, and found a poplar tree with a bench underneath. I sat sideways to the street, watching traffic, which seemed to be moving more slowly than it should. I heard some loud rap coming toward me, and had looked around before I realized it was coming from the car stopped near me, a small family minivan. The driver, a large white woman older than me, wore a tank top; there were a couple of kids in back. In the passenger seat sat a boy of 11, smoking a cigarette. I looked at him, curiously. The moment he noticed me, he jerked the cigarette from his mouth with military precision and, as if part of the same practiced maneuver, he shouted one word at me, a command to copulate. He plugged his mouth as efficiently as he'd unplugged it. The light turned green, and his Mom drove languidly away.

I was elated. It was the same kind of thrill I got in Paris when a wild-haired stranger singled me out on a crowded street and began shouting, "Zionist Pig!" And people wonder why I love Knoxville, I thought.

From a car window Broadway seems so simple, a four lane lined with strip malls and fast-food stores. Today it seemed like a different country. Even the signs seemed strange to me. GARLIC LINKS. GET YOUR SHINE ON. PEKING DUCK. DOLLS & REPAIRS. NAILS COME FIRST. LIQUOR CENTER. BODY PIERCING. LUTHERAN SCHOOL. NOTARY $1.50. AROMA THERAPY. Broadway began to seem exotic, like some wharf in the Maldives.

On a grimy building I saw an old sign that said TATTOOS in an oriental script. It's not the only tattoo salon on this stretch; another newer, swankier, trendier-looking place down the sidewalk is called "Saint Tattoos." I looked for clues about why it might be called Saint Tattoo. A modern sculpture out front had a big Maltese cross overlaid with the red outline of a broken heart.

Nearby was the A-1 Wiping Rag Co., which pictures a happy guy in a bright uniform throwing a rag into a metal drum. There's a place called Minnowhead Leather sells leather products under the sign of a large fish.

In half an hour's walking, I'd passed no one coming the other way. But a quarter mile away I saw a figure coming across the shimmering pavement, indistinct as a distant Bedouin in a desert movie. Closer, I was surprised to recognize him as a fellow downtowner, the man with the pipe and the prophet's beard. He walked slowly and deliberately, a camel's pace.

We greeted each other like princes in the desert. He seemed concerned. "It's a bad day for walking," he said, then added: "If you're not used to it." It was clear he suspected I was not.

I could see the oaks of the cemetery and was looking forward to cooling off in the shade, but then the bus arrived. I flagged it and stepped up into the cool compartment, and made a mental note of the fact that the driver accepted U.S. currency.

As my shirt froze to my skin, I looked out at the street through tinted glass. Broadway was already returning to normal. I got off the bus downtown, almost convinced it was just the heat.