half a life, part 3

I was stood in the Whole Foods Market off Hillsboro Pike when all of a sudden the bottom fell out.

I know what I said about Baptist Vegas and White Girl Instagram Valhalla, but you can’t know how horrifying it really is without seeing it. I was not averse to a quick dip into the Sucker District twenty-five years ago; I saw “Always…Patsy Cline” at the Roman and we went to Polly Esther’s one night after drinking at the Oak Room for a teammate’s birthday and it was perfectly respectable to drop by Robert’s Western World on a night when BR5-49 was playing. But Broadway between 5th and 2nd…there’s no nice way to put this: Bourbon Street or the Vegas Strip for people who never want to see anyone darker than a paper bag. My hosts made no bones about admitting “we do not get the best sort of tourists.” And that set the hook for a serious bout of existential despair that caught me two days later.

The Whole Foods, as best I can tell, sits almost right on top of where Davis-Kidd used to be. It was Nashville’s biggest and best independent bookstore, back when books were something you picked up and bought physically, and a bookstore was a place to explore and find things. It was a regular haunt, the main draw of Green Hills apart from the mall. Green Hills in general was definitely posh – not like Belle Meade posh, but meaningfully affluent – but what I found myself in was the epicenter of an ecosystem designed to service families of problematic white moderates with three-row SUVs and tucked-in gingham button-ups. The kind of person I was wholly intended to grow up and become, if my mother had her way: a well-to-do professional at something she could brag about, living only a morning’s driving distance away rather than flying distance, with a Godly sort of wife and two or three grandkids who took a good Christmas card picture. The exact sort of life that had been permanently derailed twenty-five years ago to the day, 10 May 1997, when I drove back home from my campus apartment for the very last time.

And it felt like a glimpse into an unpleasant reality: life on a tiny purple island amid a blood-red sea. Nashville is absolutely in Tennessee, and it is the chosen resort of the entire Confederacy, Southern or otherwise. My host lives in a very scenic neighborhood of old historically-protected houses, with retirees and songwriters and the like, and he allows that some of the neighbors have views that can charitably be described as “iffy.” And I just don’t have it in me to put up with that any longer, for reasons I will elucidate later. But the prospect of a world where you are permanently besieged by and at the mercy of the most reprehensible segment of America…that is a world I cannot, will not reside in. And if I’m going to have to live in California until I die, bring it on. Of which.

I did go to the baseball game, as planned. There were parking lot beers with the tailgate crew beforehand, there were people I hadn’t seen in person in years, there was a baseball stadium that was basically two sets of aluminum bleachers and a dirt field the last time I was there, and there was a grueling play-from-behind game that saw Vandy give up 3 runs in the 9th to fall behind 7-3…and then rally in the ninth with the tying run scored with two out, on a steal of home by Enrique Bradfield Jr that was the most electrifying thing I’ve ever seen live on a baseball diamond. The first lead they had all night was on the last play of the game, when Spencer Jones connected for his sixth hit of the night to send Bradfield home from 3rd after he’d singled, stolen second and taken third on the overthrow. It was magical.

And it felt like a bit of a valedictory. As if it were a sendoff. Like graduation day from eleven years of fandom that went to a different level when I was added to the masthead of the blog, a fandom that through no fault of its own now takes more off the table than it brings, thanks to so many factors – the cesspool of social media, the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the SEC, the changing nature of college sports. If NIL “collectives” have legalized the bagman, and Vanderbilt is going to be forced to go payroll-for-payroll with Alabama and Texas and Florida and Georgia and Tennessee and Oklahoma, then I may as well be an early adopter and shift my fandom to a sports league with a little more economic parity until the Commodores do the same.

And honestly, how many more trips down South do I have left? How many more times will I be in Nashville? Two? Maybe three? I feel ashamed of the fact that since leaving DC and making four trips back in a year, I have since returned to the DMV a total of five times in 17 years, sometimes five years apart, with no immediate plans for another trip anytime soon. And far more than Vanderbilt, that’s the place where I was made and remade and became the person I still am today.

The young man who drove off half a life ago, never to return as a student? The one whose personal life and career were headed into the abyss, but who at least lived in a world of reasonable sanity and a promising future, where the 21st century meant hope and not dread? The one who could credibly say that the best days of his life were still ahead of him?

He’s been gone for a long, long time. He’s never coming back.

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