First Friday – Early June in the City

Downtown Knoxville celebrates the first Friday of each month by having stores extend their hours. Music pops up in the usual places such as outside on Market Square and inside bars and restaurants, and in more unusual places such as art shops and stores. The focal points of the event have become, art, music and free food and beverages at various stops. The open container law seems to be more of a suggestion than an absolute rule for the evening.

All taken together, it is a festive event that draws families from the suburbs, students from UT, as well as people from the rest of the city and region, all mingling happily with downtown residents. Often something unexpected or interesting presents itself – usually of the pleasant variety. So far, I don’t think a controversy has arisen about this event (unlike Sundown – see below), other than the fact that another part of town started doing the same thing and feathers were duly ruffled. In the past, the buzz on this night seemed more of a contrast to a typical Friday night. Any Friday night downtown is exciting now, but once a month there is a little something extra.

Last Friday being the first Friday in June, the festivities commenced once again. The first thing I ran into was the race for the “less competitive” runners in the one mile run sponsored by City People. The race is an annual stand alone event, but this year blended into the first annual International Biscuit Festival. More on that later. The race started at Pete’s (Did you eat breakfast there yet? I’m going to keep asking until you do.) and finished on Market Street beside Krutch Park. Great fun. A number of recognizable downtown faces brought up the very end. I’ll not name names in a public forum. You’ll just have to look at the pictures.

The Athletes wait impatiently for the starting gun!

                                                                The children finish.
The Octogenarian finishes.
And who are those people in the back?

After that little bit of unexpected fun, I talked to Daniel (see story below) in the park and stopped by the Holston Building to speak to the good folks at the reception offered by Church Street United Methodist and then crossed Gay Street to have dinner at the French Market which serves delicious crepes Parisian style, complete with batter they import from said city. The lovely couple who own the restaurant lived in Paris and have done their best to recreate the kind of sidewalk cafe they loved there. They pushed me to vary from my standard ham and cheese crepe to try one with egg inside. It was great and they tell me that next time I have to eat one with a poached egg on top – “very traditional.” I’ll probably do just that. They haven’t steered me wrong, yet.

I ate at an outside table, of course, and watched Daniel painting, talking to people and playing his guitar. Gay street isn’t quite as good for people watching as Market Square, but it isn’t bad, especially on a First Friday. As for inside seating, unless it is pouring rain or extremely hot or cold, how could you do anything else but sit outside? I wonder how many outside seats Knoxville has now on a Friday night. If any of you would like to count, I’ll be happy to post the results. You could get the second Urban Blues award ever commissioned! Or not.

After dinner I walked down Gay Street toward the 100 block. That spot has been tortured with very complicated construction project for more than a year. I feel for them and try to visit often. They also have several excellent art galleries and you never know what art you might find. For example, you might just find an amazing showing of a rare print collection by Salvadore Dali! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I try to stay in touch with what’s happening downtown, but somehow I missed an entire Dali Exhibition at the UT Downtown Gallery. Dali was commissioned to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. One of the few sets of prints to remain intact was shown and it was chilling. I’m not an artist and certainly not an art critic, so I can’t do it justice. It was overwhelming in its scope and more than slightly creepy. I’m not sure I’m any more keen on Dali’s version of Dante’s vision of Paradise than I am on their collective presentation of Hell. I’ll have to ponder that on a second visit. Disturbing doesn’t really cover it, but isn’t that a primary function of art?

After leaving the gallery, I walked down Jackson Avenue, which is purported to be next on the make-over list for downtown. I wanted to walk through the Old City to see what was happening and to check in on Aisle Nine, the latest effort to bring groceries to the neighborhood, before ending the evening at Coffee and Chocolate. I’ll write a piece on grocery stores sometime, since that is such a hot topic when downtown is mentioned. For now I’ll say that I’m wanting to see the vegetables. There is a large candy aisle and more beer than I ever imagined seeing in one small place, but I’ll try to hold out a little hope for now, that it will grow into something a little more, well, grocerieish..

So, after chatting with the couple minding the store and being told that vegetables would arrive next week, it was time to leave the Old City and walk back up the hill for coffee, right? Funny how the city seems to have its own plans. Java is the coffee house routinely voted as having the best coffee in town. Maybe I’ll write about coffee sometime soon, but as I walked past it moving toward my usual coffee house, I was solicited to be a judge in the poetry slam that was about to erupt inside. I wasn’t tempted at all to accept that offer, but I could not bring myself to walk away.
After a prolonged wait for a fifth judge to be cajoled from passersby, the contest finally began. Again, I read Metropulse and I keep my ears open, so how do I miss these great events? It turns out there are local slams, regularly held in Knoxville, but this one was regional – the Southern Fried Poetry Slam with teams from all over the southeast. Java was hosting the semi-finals with the finals to be held in the Auditorium Ballroom the following night. The event consists of poets performing solo or as a group with the audience sometimes loudly participating. There is a strict three minute time limit and all the pieces presented that evening were memorized  monologue or dialogue. Since the cadence is generally rapid fire, that’s a lot of memorization.
The largest contingent was from New Orleans and their poems often contained references to post-Katrina life in their city. I met a nice guy from Jacksonville, Florida. I love events that blend races and this event was probably sixty percent black and forty percent white, which was fun. We just don’t get so much of that in this town, as I mentioned in the Sundown blog. After each poet or group of poets presented, the five judges held up score cards rating the poets one to ten. Remember, these are judges that were pulled from the sidewalk. The scores were read from lowest (which always got booed) to highest. The middle three scores counted and were totaled.
These people were serious and intense. One poet lost points for exceeding the time limit and struck himself repeatedly in frustration. Another forgot his lines half way through and exited to supportive hugs while fighting back tears. Anger dominated as the emotion most often selected to drive the poems. The room was jammed with rivals, supporters and the odd curiosity seeker such as myself. As an event I would give it a ten. The poetry itself, I would say ranged from a five to a seven if it was written, but as presented it was very, very good. The coffee was great, too, though I couldn’t give up my (standing room only) spot to get a refill, which was too bad.

Remember you can click the pictures to enlarge them. Not so great. Poets moved, the lighting was poor and I hated to use a flash, so that’s what you get.
But what a great First Friday. By this time, it was near midnight and I walked back through the city toward home.
PS. I’m going to be busy with other things for the next few days, but tune in early next week for your next installment of life in the urban lane.

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