Our Woman In Tennessee

Alison Gates



Rome, Tennessee


I relocated last month from Seattle to Johnson City, Tennessee to work out a one-year adjunct faculty contract with East Tennessee State University where I am here to teach Fibers (weaving, etc.) and a foundations course in 3D design.

Everything in the South seems to move much more slowly than up North, except perhaps the traffic, and I have to admit that I am in complete culture shock. For instance, when I arrived in town I noticed these yard signs that said "ETSU PRIDE," and thought that the campus gay and lesbian organization must have sponsored a gay-pride day. No. I am very naive for a West Coast Artist. These signs are a part of an effort on the part of the president to get the community to warm up a bit to the college. Frankly, they hate us. I was finger-printed when I wrote a check at the grocery store and at the variety store yesterday the checker requested my SSN, date of birth, home and work phone and the name of my employer before she would take my 22 dollar check (which was imprinted with my name and address, and my WA state drivers license and she had seen my ID, and could have compared the numbers - fuck.)

I am suspect because of the way I talk, because when I do mention my employer it's the UNIVERSITY and if pressed I have to admit that I teach in the art department (some folks will drop it when I say I teach weaving, since that is a native artform, but most won't.) I learned quite quickly never to say I was an art professor at the college while house-hunting. Instead, I first would say I taught. Then I would admit to being at ETSU. Then, finally, I would say I taught weaving - since that is a native craft here, it's okay. In the end, I wound up in a pretty funky duplex -- dirt cheap -- owned by a professor in the chemistry dept. who'd done grad work in Berkeley in the 60's. He was not suspicious of my less-than-Baptist belief system. His daughter lives in the other half of my duplex with her cat, Tunafish, who is known for stopping in Poor Richard's Pub, directly behind us across an alley, and getting drunk. The cat, that is, not my neighbor. My neighbor, for her part, will not let the cat in if he smells too much like cigarette smoke.

We have both a 24-hour Wal-Mart and a 24-hour Super Kmart and today I discovered that there are actual drag queens living and working in Johnson City. They tend to shop in the fabric section of the Wal-Mart in the wee hours of the morning, and one of my students works there cutting fabric for the drag queens and insomniacs through the night. Most of the rest of my students are moms already -- girls have babies here, that is for sure. I have two expectant mothers in my weaving studio so I guess we will have to have a baby shower. I have forbidden them to make booties, unless they are willing to crochet over 10 dozen and make an installation piece. Neither seems too inclined.

Well, you may ask, Where the hell IS Johnson City, Tennessee? It's basically in Appalachia. I am at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains not far from the North Carolina state line and the southern edge of Virginia. You know, where the movies about bootleggers always take place. It's a very culturally rich area, but pretty economically depressed. About a half an hour from here is Erwin, TN where they once hung a circus elephant for murder -- I am not kidding. This is just some of the culture I am talking about.

By the end of a teaching day with my students, I start to drawl a little bit. "Y'all" is a very efficient way to deal with addressing large mixed groups of college students. One day I walked to the student union with one of my students to get a bite to eat. After we'd paid, my student pointed out that I'd "been hon'd" What? The checker had called me "Hon." I was afraid, for a minute, that I had been insulted, like when someone down here says, "bless your lil heart." But it just turned out that I was apparently younger than the woman at the cash-register.

Anyway, as I learn my way around, hiding my true identity as a West Coast Artist (by this I mean: never talking unless necessary) I find myself thinking of Rome, Italy. Many similarities exist: For instance, not talking unless I have to, because of my funny accent. Also, the dryer in my apartment is really just a "drier" -- it doesn't get things dry, just drier. So the place is hung with drying laundry from time to time, as was our Roman apartment. And the furnishings in my apartment are not quite antique, though quite old, and definitely as lacking in true comfort as the furnishings in Rome. My neighborhood is fairly quiet until about 11:30 or midnight when my neighbors (not the cat-owner) emerge from their house drunk to smoke cigarettes and sing together loudly -- this also happened in Rome, though they were barflies instead of fraternity boys, but they made nearly the same noises. Things happen slowly here, and require numerous phone calls.

Everything is also very much older here than in Seattle, though, of course, not nearly as old as in Rome. And finally, the water has calcium and mineral deposits which scum the top of your tea, as in Rome. The big differences are, of course, you can shop here on Sunday (though Blue Laws prevent the purchase of alcohol) and the coffee is terrible. Of course, the ice cream is lacking as well -- Ben and Jerry are not making any money off the citizens of Johnson City. And the mountains here look a lot like hills to me. We'll see what happens in the winter if snow comes. They told me the whole place goes berserk if it snows an inch. Hmmmm, sounds similar to another place I've lived...

To those of you who made it to my farewell party, thanks for coming. I guess we were loud, however the good news is that when the police arrived to issue a citation, there were only a woman in a beaded evening gown smoking and a gentleman in a bolo tie sleeping quietly in the other chair on our porch. The men in blue left as quietly as they had come.

To those of you who helped me move, thanks a lot. Mark, I hope you found your truck and did not get a ticket for being in the zoned parking. I was going to take your vest to the cleaners but could not locate a handy one-hour "martinizer." What in the heck is Martinizing anyway? Anyone?

I will sign off now and hope to hear from some of you soon. Please send coffee.

Love, Alison (aligates@hotmail.com) - no longer am I a semiprecious stone like I was when I was agates@u.washington.edu, now I am just Gates, and since I am in hell, I can be the Gates of Hell - the one true gates. How very Dante-esque.