The road trip from New York State to Nashville commences on the day that Daylight Savings springs forward into existence. That changeover always involves a minor recalibration of my body clock, but the lengthy car ride exacerbates the confusion, a confusion that only increases the next day in Tennessee, as I cross into another time zone and now lose an hour. The internal body clock is stumped.
Losing an hour—the process of subtraction—is an apt metaphor for this trip. Distinctive regional variations have been flattened out. A trip like this, in the past, would have yielded the strong sense of being far from home. These regionalisms do still exist on a small scale, but the drive to Nashville involves lots of visual monotony: an unending, almost numbing series of the same big-box stores and depressing chain eateries.
The other noticeable subtraction is the phasing out of paper newspapers, which are now almost entirely unavailable or, when they are available, are drastically truncated. The loss of local newspapers is damaging on so many levels, although it should be noted that these daily papers, by and large, did not possess a particularly wide ideological and cultural spectrum. But there was something ritualistically comforting about passing through a small town or unfamiliar locale and accessing this transitory glimpse into the workings of a place you’d never heard of. It surprises me how much I miss that.
Finding a physical newspaper and chancing upon its comics section feels like a tiny bit of reassurance in a world gone mad. Hägar the Horrible and Blondie endure. I rediscovered Tiger, the poor man’s Peanuts and a strip I’d completely forgotten about. The eponymous protagonist’s billed cap still covers most of his face; Punkinhead, Tiger’s younger brother, remains perpetually annoying, as does the cloddish Hugo. (And do Tiger and Punkinhead have parents? This bears a closer look at some point.)
The much more important aspect of subtraction is the lethal withering of social welfare. The United States is desperately poor, something immediately discernible all over the country.
One small gas station/convenience store off a highway offers the unappetizing prospect of pizza. A few tables are set up near the front of the store, in proximity to the gas pumps and not far from the cars and trucks barreling down the road.
A young couple sits at one of the tables, finishing off their slices. There is nothing exceptional-looking about them; the man bearded and tattooed, the woman visibly pregnant. By the time I finish the dizzyingly expensive transaction of filling up the gas tank, they have exited the station and—the woman carrying a jug of water—are making their way across a darkened, grassy expanse that separates the gas station from a motel. No further comment is needed.
This country is also violent, which is not exactly a revelation. Ads for guns—”man toys,” as one billboard exuberantly phrased it—can be seen at regular intervals. It’s hard to construe the United States as a sane society.
Consigning the South as a bastion of wing nuts is sloppy and inaccurate. Examples abound, of course: a Let’s Go Brandon decal, a giant Fuck Biden banner hanging limply from a flagpole. A random church sign exhorts passing drivers to pray for the country’s survival. It’s hard to argue with that, although I’m certain my idea of national survival and theirs wouldn’t mesh.
But I’ve seen all this–and more–well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. What is noticeable is the proliferation of anti-abortion billboards in this part of the country. I’ve seen those in New York, but not nearly to this extent. If billboards are an accurate gauge, women’s bodies are an absolute obsession here. With anti-abortion measures becoming ever more draconian, why bother with these cheery, baby-happy billboards at all? Abortion, in much of the country, is no longer an option. Why persuade anyone?
Bristol bills itself, not inaccurately, as the birthplace of country music. It is here, in the 1920s, that the sounds of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family were recorded for posterity. The Tennessee-Virginia line cuts right through the town. One side of State Street is Virginia, one Tennessee. The Tennessee side is festooned with the state’s distinctive three-starred flag. This flag and its peppy three stars can be seen through much of the state. Tennessee has an unusual attachment to its flag that is only comparable to the dull flag of the European Union, which also flies—in a perfunctory way, I’ve always suspected—ubiquitously.
And then there is Nashville. It is the essence of a boomtown. I’d witnessed the rapid gentrification of New York City, and there are certainly similarities. But Nashville sprawls out in a way that simply doesn’t exist in the more settled environs of the east. You can drive and drive and still be within the city limits. Giant cranes and construction are everywhere, making dicey driving situations all the more confusing.
Nashville pulses with vibrancy. There is the not-insubstantial presence of Vanderbilt University. The city’s architecture is a mélange, featuring stately homes that would not be out of place in New England, or abodes right out of San Francisco. Retro signage abounds, along with scattered blocks of small-scale industrial concerns that—along with trains—run throughout the city: Fodder for hundreds of songs and stories.
Nashville is, of course, Music City—music that ranges, these days, to every genre. There is a cosmopolitan, international aspect to the city—including its cuisine– that belies many misconceptions.
Yet Nashville has another, unfortunate appellation besides Music City: NashVegas. For reasons unbeknown to me, the city has branded itself as a party hardy, perpetual spring break. It is also the prime locus for bachelorette parties. Who knew bachelorette parties were such a thing?
The gaudy Broadway area is the epicenter for a grubby hedonism that involves outsized bars and neon, loud bands, drinking. The iconic, seven-decades old Ernest Tubb Record Shop—it of the famous midnite jamboree— looks outdated and puny. It is, in fact, slated for closure.
Nashville has a breezy, un-uptight attitude when it comes to traffic regulations. A trip there last year served as an introduction to large conveyances known by many names: pedal taverns, party wagons. The basic schema is a cumbersome vehicle, on the order of a double-decker bus, packed to the gills with inebriated celebrants and snaking its way through the city streets. The mixture of partygoers, alcohol, and traffic seemed not to faze municipal authorities.
Only up to a point, though. On this trip, the mobile bacchanalia did not seem much in evidence; too much even for Nashville’s anything-goes ethos. The city does impose some strictures: A few years ago, as the New York Timesreported, municipal authorities put the kibosh on inflatable penises, a popular touch among the bachelorette crowd.
If the party wagons have been dispatched to the margins, Segways are still alive and well. They can be seen everywhere, the unhelmeted enthusiasts cruising down the sidewalks and crosswalks, zipping in and out of traffic. What could possibly go wrong with that combination?
A conversation with a community activist reveals, not surprisingly, NashVegas’s ugly side. Residents of modest means have been pushed out to make way for new construction, swanker housing, canny investment opportunities. It is a nationwide phenomenon.
Poor, but livable Nashville neighborhoods are now the site of drive-by shootings. The homeless are ubiquitous: at traffic lights, intersections, parks, sidewalks.
A recent Brookings Institution study found that one of Nashville’s zip codes has the nation’s highest rate of incarceration among people born in the 1980s. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this study, but there is certainly nosubtraction when it comes to the carceral state. I remember a pre-Covid trip that took me through Texas and, at some point, signs warning against picking up hitchhikers because of the possibility they could be escaping inmates.
The Hermitage is one of those grand, century-old city hotels. One of its claims to distinction is—of all things—an iconic, preserved restroom that dates to 1939. The whole concept of an iconic bathroom seemed a little ridiculous, but curiosity got the better of me. I can now report that 1.) restrooms can indeed be iconic, and 2.) the Hermitage’s restroom fits those criteria. The Hermitage restroom boasts the imprimatur of official recognition: Cintas, a corporation that specializes in commercial restroom management, has inducted the Hermitage bathroom into its restroom hall of fame.
This restroom is a gleaming art deco time capsule, done up in blue and black and featuring a terrazzo floor. A large shoeshine stand dominates one end of the room, although I wonder if this is poetic license. It’s hard to imagine that the standard practice, back in the day, was to have a shoeshine stand in the middle in the restroom, near the stalls and urinals. It seems a shoeshine stand would be right outside the restroom. But what do I know?
Proceeding from the time capsule up the stairs to the Heritage’s capacious, stately interior, it’s easy to reconstruct the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan hotel from decades ago: to lose oneself in a nostalgic reverie for a bygone, tactile past of clanging telephones, thick daily newspapers, envelopes and stamps, paging announcements.
That resonant past, of course, was undergirded by the most shameful inequality and debased ideas of racial superiority and inferiority—and certainly not just in the South. And then there were the notions of a woman’s proper, subordinate status. All of this was enforced by an armed, violent society unafraid to use its fists and guns at the slightest provocation.