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The Imaginary Ham Sandwich

And, down the street, an imaginary musical convention

by Jack Neely

I had several columns started, but two hadn't grown endings yet, and I couldn't get the smarty-pants tone out of a third. Another presented itself at the last minute, when I heard that after years of planning, the new music mural was finally going up on a wall on Jackson Avenue, on the side of Sullivan Street Antiques, over the new Barley's patio. Terrin Kanoa, of Keep Knoxville Beautiful, and volunteers at Laurel High School got together to plan a mural honoring musicians of Knoxville's past.

It's a worthy thing, portraying all these musicians, most of whom never met each other and had little in common except for their intimate connections to this peculiar city, together now in one mural bigger than the Last Supper. Only here will suave bandleader Maynard Baird commune with blues chanteuse Ida Cox (who did most of her latter-day performing in the choir of the old Patton Street Church of God, just around the corner), country king Roy Acuff, opera diva Grace Moore, bluesmen Brownie and Stick McGhee, and rock 'n' roll harmonists the Everly Brothers.

They made a painting of that imaginary conclave, then threw it up on the stucco canvas with projectors at night, and sketched it in. Now they're actually painting. It may take a couple of weeks.

The artist in charge is Walt Fieldsa, who studied with the late Joseph Delaney, the artist who grew up on old East Vine nearly a century ago, on the hill you can see from here. Delaney was once famous for his New York street scenes similar in style to Fieldsa's mural.

Fieldsa, who wears a salt-and-cumin beard and a railroad engineer's cap, never looks happier than when he's covered with at least a dozen hues of paint. As his assistants work, Fieldsa talks about his colors as if they have minds of their own, as if they're talented and slightly unpredictable children and he's proud of them whatever they do. They combine in unexpected ways, he said, like the music.

I could try to write a column about Fieldsa, or any of his 50-odd subjects on this mural, but I know when I'm licked. This picture threatens to be worth much more than the thousand words they allow me for this column. Just wait a couple of weeks and go have a look at it.

So here I was, the day after deadline, still needing a story. I've got a backlog of ideas, hundreds scribbled on yellow paper and business cards and cocktail napkins, two manila folders overloaded with them. Saturday morning at about 10, I had a long, hard look at those folders. And then I said, heck, as long as I'm downtown, I'll just go to Harold's.

Harold's Kosher Deli is a vortex that destroys time. I'll think I'll get a lot done in the office on a Saturday morning, and there I am sitting at the counter at Harold's again, eating an onion bagel with lox and cream cheese or scrambled eggs and pastrami, and drinking more coffee than I have any practical use for. And then, before I know it, people will start talking to me.

You're likely to meet nearly anyone at Harold's. It was a light crowd for a Saturday, but still it included the former coach of the Lady Vols rowing team, the singer/songwriter for the rock 'n' roll band Geisha, a Union Avenue landlord, a paralegal famous for her hats, and a maverick architecture professor who lives across the street.

Unlike most Saturday mornings, as Harold refills coffee cups, he has some time to talk, which is a treat. Nobody learns so much about town by staying in one place as Harold does. Here he's met the famous and the infamous, from Knoxville and all over the world. And today he had a pretty good story.

Yesterday, he says, he had a customer who was unusual even by his standards. It was about 9 o'clock, just after the breakfast rush. A disheveled man came in and told Sandy, the waitress, he'd been in the day before. He said he'd ordered a sandwich and insisted it be without mayonnaise. But, he said, when he got the sandwich, it had mayonnaise on it anyway, and the mayonnaise made him sick. Sandy went and got Harold, who was concerned. Complaints are rare. Harold Shersky and his wife Addie have been selling sandwiches at this place since early in the Truman administration; you can't last that long by dumb luck. When the man complained, he had Harold's full attention.

"'Tell me what kind of sandwich is was, and I'll make it up to you,' Harold said.

"It was on whole wheat, and it had mayonnaise on it," the man said. "I can show it to you," he claimed.

"But what kind of sandwich was it?" Harold asked, just so he could make him another without mayonnaise.

"It was a ham sandwich," the man answered.

Not all of Harold's sandwiches are kosher by orthodox standards; if you want beef with cheese together, he'll serve it to you, and no hard feelings. But Harold has never had any ham or any other portion of a dead pig inside his restaurant.

"You've got the wrong place, buddy," Harold said. The man left, swearing he'd come back with the remains of the sandwich that made him sick. Harold didn't seem too worried about that likelihood.

"If he was hungry and needed a sandwich, I would have given it to him," Harold says. "I'd do it because I've been there myself. I know what it's like." He does it all the time. Harold is so big-hearted his friends are amazed he stays in business.

He laughs and shakes his head. "But when somebody tries to scam me..." He says people have tried nearly everything on him in his 52 years in business, but that ham-sandwich ploy is in a special category of its own.

As noon rolls around, I still haven't written my column. I've spent another perfectly good morning at Harold's.

May 11, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 19
© 2000 Metro Pulse