Wednesday, January 19, 2005


The guy who first introduced me to Nashville was not really qualified to do so. True, he worked within the legal boundaries of the city, but his office was way down south by the mall and he usually ate his lunches at Hooters. He took me out to dinner a couple of times, once to Shoney's and once to a bar that served batter-fried pickle slices. "That's real southern food there," he declared.

He lived in a small town not far from Murfreesboro and commuted 40 minutes into Nashville every day. Most of the men in his town seemed to have ruddy skin, beer bellies, and sandy-red hair. They shared oddly similar last names, and sometimes the same last names. They favored khaki Dockers and neat little goatees. He was no exception.

I knew the guy through Civil War reenacting. In Minnesota, where I was living at the time, reenacting was a serious academic-type pursuit. We memorized Dickens and the Romantic poets to "get inside the 19th-century mind." We took dancing lessons so we could do the Quadrille and the Waltz Redowa at our annual ball. Our underwear was correct and our clothes were sewn from historic patterns. We hoarded bone-handled silverware. We sent our "soldiers" off to "war" with homemade sewing kits and period-correct oilcloth tarps. Our regiment drilled for hours in the snow so it would know all the maneuvers the regiment in the 1860s knew.

Imagine my rude awakening when several of us traveled south to a reenactment at Chickamauga, Georgia. Suddenly we found out that the vast majority of southern reenactors (which would be the vast majority of reenactors, full stop) were complete yahoos with no sense of history whatsoever. They refused to switch sides if the army proportions were askew (a common and necessary reenacting practice that ensures at least marginal levels of accuracy), declaring that their Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy would "roll over in his grave" if they did so.* They sat in reproduction officers' tents (all of them, even the privates), drinking beer out of plastic coolers and eating pudding cups. The ladies roamed the battlefields in polyester Scarlett O'Hara dresses, filming everything on handheld movie cameras. Once my group had to stage a singalong in order to drown out the sound of a TV at a neighboring campsite. It was frustrating. We brought out our antique whiskey decanter and made the best of it.

So anyway, it turned out that when I moved to the south, I never reenacted again. My exceedingly correct 1860s wardrobe has only seen action once since then, and that was when I loaned a dress to a friend for Halloween. But when I first visited Nashville with this reenactor guy, I didn't know any of that yet. I was full of enthusiasm.

I had a friend who'd just bought a house in up-and-coming East Nashville, a place that inspired deep suspicion in the reenactor. "I guess it's getting better now," he said, in a voice full of foreboding, "but once I went to see a guy play guitar at the Radio Cafe and when I got out there were cops chasing a guy through the alley."

The projects were nearby, it was true. He had a lot of stories about them. "Don't leave your car near there," he said. "They'll come and steal your license plate, or even razor off the renewal sticker. Then you'll get pulled over."

He tried to steer me to other areas of town. There was a nice little neighborhood near a club he went to with a girl this one time, he said. How about there? Or maybe Sylvan Park. That was still kind of affordable, and he thought someone like me would enjoy it.

In the end I ignored everything the reenactor told me. I found a great little 1920s house in East Nashville for $500 a month and moved in. The yard was shady and was speckled with violets. I had hardwood floors and a huge eat-in kitchen. It was centrally located and made me happy.

I discovered a lot of things that year. First of all, I had to admit that the reenactor probably hadn't exaggerated his Radio Cafe story. One time I was walking through the Kroger parking lot and saw a security guard running after a man who had a frozen turkey tucked under his arm. The area was economically depressed. It was like the Reagan '80s at their worst. People would try to sell you things out of the back of their vehicles when you went to the gas station.

There were feral dogs. They were bold. Once I saw one dragging an entire Hefty bag down the alley. There was nobody to call about catching them.

Traffic was appalling in the city. The accident rate was so high that my insurance was almost too much to afford. The water tasted bad and there was no good Italian food.

But I fell in love with East Nashville. The people were friendly. The thrift stores were fantastic. I discovered Prince's Hot Chicken and Cantrell's Barbecue and returned obsessively. I lingered at the international grocery and the taqueria. The weather was beautiful most of the time, and I loved to walk through the neighborhood and look at the historic homes and gardens.

In The Joy of Cooking, the egg-yolk cookies are described as a "sturdy indefensible." There's nothing to recommend them, really, in their own right. But they are the right thing for the right time--something you might even love with all your heart even though you know in your heart that something else is objectively better.

I love Nashville. Especially East Nashville.

* Which, to me, begs the question, "So your Great-Great-Great Granddaddy would be okay with your 250 men being whipped by 10 or 12 Yankees?" But I rarely said that kind of thing, because some of those guys really were yahoos. Rednecks, even.