Lost in Nashville

Savannah Morning News

May 1, 2016


Maps were good in their day. Yes, they were hard to fold back once we opened them up. Yes, the print seemed to be larger back then. Yes, there were fewer highways to navigate. Still, they had a beauty. They were tactile. The markings on them spoke of earlier trips, earlier times. They were particular and specific. They left room for choices. Somehow we got where we needed to go. They had heft, not unlike a landline. I watch a 4-year-old pick up the receiver of an ancient pink princess telephone we keep around the house. She’s curious about it. “Dial,” I tell her, “Dial.” There’s another ancient word. Then she goes to the typewriter. A manual. “Type,” I tell her. She jams the keys and that’s okay. The house is a museum. So are those verbs. Maybe we are too.

I couldn’t use a dial phone anymore. It takes too long for the middle thingey with the holes and the numbers to return to its resting spot. I couldn’t use a typewriter, either. What? No cut and paste?

I guess people – we – had more time back then. Somehow we survived. Fewer choices. No texting, no Facebook messaging, no emailing, no answer machines. You dialed a number – there’s that word again – to reach a friend. When no one answered you tried again. Ever try to make a date with someone today? Don’t ask.

Maps are anachronistic. Now we have someone else doing the thinking, the navigating. It’s all figured out for us on our mobile devices. In 50 feet you’ll turn here, turn there. Blah blah blah. Our anger is anachronistic, too. Get over it, a 30-year-old tells me when I bring her in to “upgrade’ my computer so my new “upgraded” phone will work. Really? This is what I have to be doing when I could be outside picking mulberries? They’re only around a few weeks, I tell her, and then they’re gone. She’s not listening. You haven’t upgraded your computer! she barks. I feel like an idiot. When she finishes “upgrading” (she has to take it home with her – it takes that long) and I get it back I see all my memorized moves,  the tracks of my well-worn muscle memory, are changed. Now, instead of “send” I push “delete.” We’ve replaced words with cute little symbols that make no sense to me. The calendar on my phone doesn’t work. I think I’ll have to go back to a paper version. But I can’t. I’m too dependent on having my calendar with me all the time.

I’m stubborn. Somehow I manage to get to Nashville with my folded map. I’m visiting an old friend. Fortified by seven FM Christian radio stations and nine AM Christian stations I spot my usual landmark to her East Nashville house. It’s a large sign painted in white bock letters on a red brick building that reads NASHVILLE TO JESUS. But the words of the 30-year-old ring in my ear. Since I’m early I decide to take a walk on the wild side and use my GPS navigator function to find Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett’s new store. If this first-class writer had the guts to open an independent bookstore when everyone else is lamenting the demise of independent bookstores, then I can find the darn place. Patchett compares her venture to walking over to a roulette table and betting all you have on a single number. All I’m doing is spending an afternoon in Nashville waiting for my friend to get home.

No problem crossing the wiggly Cumberland River. No problem finding Vanderbilt University. No problem asking someone, “Say, am I anywhere near Hillsboro Road?” because by that time my navigational device was not working. Too much interference.

“Sure,” a driver next to me said. “Twenty-first turns into Hillsboro. Just go straight ahead.”


Except it didn’t. It wasn’t. He meant well. But he meant Twenty-first avenue not street.  (Or was it the other way around?) He meant Twenty-first south, not north. (I think). With nearly 100 people moving to Nashville every day and no public transportation to speak of, traffic is crazy and people use outdated landmarks for directions.

Dozens of U-turns later (most of them interrupted by Vanderbilt’s sprawling campus) I find a street named 21st and I turn – avenue or street, it didn’t matter. I was channeling Yogi Berra when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it.” I was on a nice tour of Nashville. I cruise past an impressive statue of W.E.B. Du Bois at the historically black Fisk University. Then the school of dentistry at Meharry Medical College. Then an elementary school with a line of students crossing the street. I’m starting to hit the wall.

That’s when I park the car, walk up to an older gent helping direct traffic and plead my case. “Oh my,” he says, shaking his head, pointing his finger. “You are here and you need to be there, way over there.” He tries to give me directions on the interstate. By then I’ve had it. No! Back roads only, please.  “Wait one minute,” he says, “I’ll take you. I’m going that way myself. Sort of.”

So he does. I get in my car, he gets in his, and I follow him to my destination. No GPS. No Google maps. No navigational ap. A human being. A typewriter. A telephone receiver. I’m home.



























Gardening is magical, says Chloe Smith

Sunday, May 28, 2016

You’ve seen her. I know you have. Somewhere in Ardsley Park. Not on one of those shady streets lined with live oak trees and two-story red brick houses with nary a person in sight. No, most days Chloe Smith stands in front of a modest, blue, one-story clapboard house that used to be covered in vinyl before she braved the naysayers and removed the siding to find wood underneath. This house faces south, all the better to catch the good light, the good sun, because Chloe moved here three years ago from Hollywood, Calif. – via upstate New York, the North Carolina coast, Cincinnati and Chicago – for the interesting architecture and the weather, yes, but mainly for the chance to garden 11 months a year. She was a kitchen-designer in California with art school experience at the Art Institute in Chicago. When she was ready to leave the West coast she sat at her desk and imagined a placed she wanted to be. Then, with Savannah as her answer, she searched online and found her house.

Once here she borrowed upon her experience with spatial relationships and started prepping the front yard.  First thing? Remove an old sprawling mulberry tree and a palm tree that was beginning to crack her porch. The second? Plant a fig tree. In California she’d trade her homemade crackers for a friend’s figs. The third? Seek out a Master Gardener class. She wanted to do things right.

You’ve seen her. I know you have. She stands tall. She stands upright. She’s spare. As you drive by she might be standing still, looking down at her creation, her palette. She might be thinking, turning her head, first this way, then the other. She’s not in a hurry. She could be staring out at the vast gardens of Sissinghurst in England where Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson tended their estate. Except Chloe is contemplating what used to be a slightly sloping front lawn but grass is not her style.

She started with a blank canvas. With a few sketches on paper and a lot of experimenting Chloe has put together a smorgasbord of vegetables, perennials, annuals, all snug in eight divided beds, each seven-by-seven-feet, with precise brick paths Chloe, who is 78, laid out herself. But it’s not so neat that some divine Corsican mint isn’t sneaking through, “the best taste ever,” she says, “especially with crème de menthe. Imagine walking on it and releasing the fragrance.”

She’s got thyme borders, lemon verbena, salvia, dill, okra, broccoli, Chinese cabbage (white and red), a tangerine tree, an arbequina olive tree, violas and lavender (“everyone told me it’s hard to grow but it’s about the soil. It needs a sweet soil which it gets from the lime that leaches from above.”) and bags of coffee grounds to combat fire ants.

The canvas-as-a-garden changes depending on how she feels. This year she planted corn. Not because she thought she’d get a big crop. She won’t. She just wanted to see how it grows. Now it stands taller than she does.

“Did you know every strand of silk in every tassel translates to a kernel of corn?”

Well, no. I didn’t.

It’s bizarre and wonderful, she said.

Then there’s the wheat, a beautiful grass nodding playfully in the May day breeze. She grows it for the wheat berries, which she will grind and then bake her own bread. If the plants do well she’ll give over a whole section to them next year.

“As a young girl I would visit my grandfather in Nebraska and we’d go out to the field where he gave me a few berries and said, ‘Taste this,’” she said. “They were chewy and had the sweetest, most wonderful taste.”

Her grandparents and great-grandparents were homestead farmers from North Carolina.

As a child of four or five in Tulsa, Chloe weeded for an elderly neighbor. The woman wanted to give her hard candy; Chloe wanted cash so she could buy some Roy Roger records and comic books.

Not everything she grows is for herself. When her mail carrier said his wife loves artichokes she cropped a few globes, which are a variety of thistle, and handed them over. Chloe, a good cook, likes to make raw artichoke salad.

Fennel and parsley are for the eastern swallow butterflies, cinnamon basil for the bees. One neighbor gets jalapenos. Another may come home to find a bouquet of zinnias on her porch. A three-year-old who lives nearby likes to come over to pick flowers for her mother. When Chloe overdid collards, she brought the excess to Second Harvest. Though not intended, birds have been snatching the blackberries planted near her house. The “heavenly smelling” potted Mr. Lincoln rose, which sits on her porch, is for her.

“It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “People think what I do is work. But it’s not work. It’s magic.”