REQUIEM FOR 2ND AVENUE NORTH
*ed note: this is a developing story. We’ve done our best to confirm the facts at time of publication…but things change
Early Christmas morning, 2020, and my wife and I have been up all night prepping for an online, Zoom-based Christmas do, that having been the year that COVID-19, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell were in a race to see how much they could destroy. We’d been watching an online stream of Independent Film Channel, which was running a gangster movie marathon for Christmas (as one does). A Bronx Tale had ended, and The Godfather had just begun. To a black screen, I said, “hey, what do you believe in?”, and, one perfectly measured beat later, the dimly-lit undertaker Amerigo Bonasera said, as he always does, “I believe…een America.”
Which is when we heard it.
We, and I suppose all the other Nashvillians who happened to be awake, had no idea what it was. We assumed that it—a low, ominous rumble, just at the edge of being audible—was thunder. It was snowing, after all; is thunder so unusual when it’s snowing? We didn’t think much else about it.
At about 8:00, having not slept, we decided to lay down for a while—our years of adorable moppets discovering what Santa left are long behind us—and we turned on Nashville’s ABC affiliate, hoping to fall asleep to the Disney Christmas Parade (our years of believing on some level that we ourselves are adorable moppets have yet to end.)
The parade didn’t air in Nashville. What aired—all morning—was coverage of what we’d heard, which was definitely not thunder, but an explosion somewhere downtown. At first, we weren’t terribly phased; we assumed a boiler in an old building had blown, or some such. Then we noticed that we had no internet access, and our phones said “emergency calls only”.
The explosion had been around 2nd avenue, according to the news.
The left side of an entire block of that street is taken up by a large brick building owned by AT&T (nee Bellsouth, in a more regulated time.)
My wife and I fell palpably silent, watching the news instead of sleeping.
The pertinent details, the details that will wind up in an encyclopedia some day, you likely already know: an RV had been parked in front of the building. Slightly after 5:00 AM, there were reports of shots fired downtown, and our police were summoned; they found no shooter, no evidence that there had been one at all other than the sounds. What they did find was the RV, from which a sound system was blaring a warning that anyone in the area had 15 minutes to evacuate. The female voice on the recording kept repeating, with the time increments growing lower; the system also began to blare a song, which was later revealed to be “Downtown” by Petula Clark, a detail which will probably be picked apart like the Zapruder film for time immemorial. As the countdown and song continued, six Metro police officers worked to evacuate the area—successfully removing everyone within range—and to get themselves to safety, which, in a total abandonment of logic and a total embrace of heroism, was to them secondary at best.
Then the song ended.
Each officer, interviewed the next day, and most of the citizens who were nearby, gave one consistent detail: orange. The sky, the December pre-dawn sky, was suddenly orange. Each interviewee also said that it was like being in a movie, not any reality they’d ever experienced.
What followed for the city of Nashville—and for counties surrounding us, and for cities and counties in southern Kentucky—was the domination of our Christmas by this explosion. The building owned by AT&T, it seems, was a massive switching hub for middle Tennessee, used not only by The Once And Former Phone Company, but by wireless carriers, data networks, even emergency call networks—911 was suddenly unavailable to thousands.
In short order, we learned who the culprit was, as the FBI found what they would only describe as his “tissue” in what remained of the RV. His name was Anthony Quinn Warner, we learned. A computer expert who had mostly worked as what we usually call The IT Guy, Warner—whose father had also worked in tech, at the AT&T building on 2nd Avenue—had become engrossed with the theory that 5G wireless service is…well, it’s hard to pin down what he thought of 5G, except that it was not a good thing. 5G, as I understand the argument, is a tool of The Gummint, The Deep State, The Elite Who Really Run The World, and (why not?) Ernst Stavro Blofeld, its real function being to…control us, somehow or other. In fact, that’s why the above-mentioned Big Bads engineered this COVID hoax—so we’d all be at home and wouldn’t see the Satanic UN black-hatted day laborers install the sinister new towers! DON’T YOU GET IT, PEOPLE? And the only thing between us and tyranny is this oafish hybrid of Don Quixote and Travis Bickle, who’s willing to blow up the world to save it!
Let me be very clear about Anthony Quinn Warner.
I don’t care what his reasoning was. It concerns me that he swallowed such nonsense, but there’s no argument in favor of his actions I’d care to hear.
Anthony Quinn Warner damaged my hometown.
He can rot in hell.
I know, I know—“at least he gave everyone a warning.”
He has also put hundreds of people who work on that street out of a job for the forseeable future.
He has damaged buildings that have been there since the 1800s—graceful old industrial architecture, not yet replaced by modernist tripe, but still functional and useful to thousands of people every year.
He has damaged part of my hometown, a place I love dearly.
He could have damaged any part of town, but he chose 2nd Avenue.
He chose a part of town that most native Nashvillians—and who knows how many tourists—associate with a staggering volume of happy memories.
That’s what I want to talk about here. Every Nashvillian has his or her own; these are mine, my personal requiem for 2nd Avenue.
Let’s start at a restaurant—I have always believed that the great journeys and pilgrimages start with a meal. We begin at 160 2nd Avenue North; in the 1870s, it was built as a warehouse for a drug wholesaler, but now—and since the 1970s—it’s a restaurant called The Old Spaghetti Factory. Full disclosure, it’s a chain, but not a particularly large one—there are 41 of them scattered throughout the US—and it’s a chain of a somewhat older sensibility, from the era when TGI Friday’s still had antiques on the walls and terrible jokes on the menu. The interior looks like what would happen if Terry Gilliam decorated a restaurant—the chairs and lamps and chandeliers are overstuffed, Victorian, eccentric; the booths are re-purposed bed frames, and one section of the restaurant is an intact trolley car.
Is it corny? Maybe it is. But it’s a type of corny that has always gone over well here. My parents first took me there when I was nine; the old-fashioned/campy of it all won me over immediately. When exchange students from Atlanta stayed with me in the 4th grade, we went there, had each other laughing until we were all doing spit-takes (and mortified my parents). In 1988, a friend took a girl there for a first date, wearing dress shoes he’d borrowed from me. In 1989, I went on a date there myself, with a girl I had pined for since seventh grade. In 1992, my then-future wife and I took a friend of hers there for a birthday. Over a decade later, my now-current wife and I broke bread for the first time with our then-future son-in-law and his then-future wife (our then-and-now daughter). My go-to order at this place, I can quote the copy from the menu: “Spaghetti with browned butter and Mizithra cheese, a la Homer (legend has he lived on this dish while composing The Odyssey.)” When I was a kid, I believed that.
In 1990, I attended the 17th birthday party of a lady I was pursuing at the time, which party was also held at OSF; shortly before that, she and I wandered into 184 2nd Avenue North. That was then the address of Cornerstone Music, a record store (when those were commonplace and not just boutiques). I was able to impress the young lady/gain hipster cred/etc because I happened to know Chek. Chek was an older guy who was already in college; he hosted a radio show on Vanderbilt’s campus station, and he worked at Cornerstone (and allegedly lived there—ooh, hardcore, right?). My purchase that night was a cassingle of an Ice-T song called “You Played Yourself” (I fancied myself a B-boy.) I came back a few months later with a different girl, and, when I asked Chek about one of the posters on the wall (for the now-obscure rap crew 3rd Bass) he simply took it down, rolled it up, and gave it to me. I still have it somewhere. I also still have pieces of something my family acquired at that same address, years earlier, when it housed Murdock Mendelsson, which sold department-store supplies and holiday decorations, like giant artificial Christmas trees. (My story about my family’s tree, you can read here.)
I have nothing from the current occupant of the building—a Hooters restaurant—but I have one funny story: that restaurant is close to a small park where Nashville hosts a summer concert series called Live On The Green. My son and I went once to see Dr. John. I asked my son, a red-blooded young man in his twenties, if he wanted to grab dinner there first; he blushed and said no.
Murdock/Cornerstone/Hooters is at number 184; the Old Spaghetti Factory, at 160. More or less exactly between them is 176 2nd Avenue, or, as a lot of Gen-X Nashvillians fondly remember it, 176 Underground. 176 Underground was called that because, while there was a beautiful old building above it, the place itself was the building’s basement, and as such, literally underground (see what they did there)? It was a dance club, specializing in the sort of music one usually imagines as OOM-tss-OOM-tss-OOM-tss, etc—but there was also Eighties Night. On that night, usually a Tuesday, the songs were all from the Reagan era/our collective childhoods, with considerable reach into the disco era/our even earlier collective childhoods. A big-beat remix of songs from Grease always went over well—it was electrifying!—as did a dance version of the theme from Speed Racer, into which the sounds of various characters from the show gasping and grunting had been re-purposed and rendered dirty. I spent many a night there with my college roommate Tony, my best friend Robin, and her friends who were drop-dead goddess exchange students from France, and loved le disco. I can still hear them singing “evrrrayone was ze Kung Feu Fighting” as I danced in ways that would now destroy my knees.
176 was a dimly-lit disco; 166 2nd Avenue was another dimly-lit place—Laser Quest, a laser-tag venue. My youngest son had his 13th and 16th birthday parties there, and my wife, when she was a youth minister, took her charges there. I’m proud to be able to say that I never played the recalcitrant old man—every time I went, I played. I’m considerably less proud of how I played; let’s say that my participation bolstered the self-esteem of my competitors. My son was less than proud of the honorific bestowed upon birthday boys and girls at Laser Quest—the staff would place the guest of honor on a table and festoon them with a device that involved a leaf blower and a roll of toilet paper.
Maybe you’re getting the impression that 2nd Avenue is all group venues, fun places, tourist traps; that has been more or less true for about 25 years now. There is a branch of Coyote Ugly (where the waitresses drink shots from each other’s cleavage), a branch of Dick’s Last Resort (where the waitstaff insult the customers), and something called The Wildhorse Saloon, owned by the same out-of-towners who bought (and subsequently closed) Opryland. It’s a honky-tonk for tourists from Michigan and Iowa. Of a Saturday night, the street will be clogged with pedal taverns and bachelorette parties, which are for some reason a thing in Nashville—gaggles of young white girls in matching T-shirts and pink cowboy hats, all yelling, “WHOOOOO ah’m so druuuuuuunk!” and so forth.
It wasn’t always like that. While OSF had been there since the Seventies, there was a long period of time when most of 2nd Avenue wasn’t a family/tourist zone. That said, it still had an appeal, an outsider, genuinely bohemian charm. Several of the buildings (the specific addresses lost to memory) housed junk shops and used book stores. Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1991, my dad and I hit several of them. For under five dollars, I bought a collection of maps from old National Geographic magazines, which then decorated my dorm room.
Another business on the street that lasted several years was called Decades. They did one thing: they sold old advertising. The owners would go through old magazines, cut out the ads, bag them in cellophane, and sort them by subject. It should never have worked, but this was pre-internet, before what the comedian Patton Oswalt calls ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever); as such, the ads were actual finds, treasures. As a junior in college and a journalism student, I wrote one of my first feature articles about the place.
One of the buildings further down on 2nd Avenue hosted, for over a decade, three separate businesses on three separate levels. Street level, there was The Saucy Dog, which sold gourmet hot dogs before anyone else did; on the third floor, accessible via a big, beautiful hardwood staircase was a used bookstore. In the center, though, was the main event, a restaurant called Windows On The Cumberland. Named for its huge picture windows on the 1st Avenue side, which faced the Cumberland River, the food was (to me, anyway) exotic and hip—I remember having black-bean soup and a drink imported from Ireland called white lemonade. There was a small stage, and bands played from time to time, but what mattered was the first Thursday of every month. That was when Windows hosted an open-mic poetry night, which I participated in countless times, and yielded my first publication, in a cut-and-paste newsletter for regulars called Put Down the Mic and Go Home. Fewer than 50 people saw it, and if a copy exists anywhere, I’ll eat my hat, but when I got my copy in the mail, I felt I had truly arrived. Also, the open-mic nights gave Nashville one of its most beloved cult figures, a man known as The Bat Poet.
Also on 2nd Avenue for years was a jazz-themed restaurant and nightclub called Mere Bulles (literally “Mother Bubbles” in French.) My parents and I would Sunday brunch there, and then head next door to something called Rare, Foreign and More. Rare, Foreign and More was a bookstore, specializing in books that were, well, rare. Or foreign. Or (wait for it) more. It was still extant and open for business in July of 1988, when a sophomore in high school was taking an acting class at the big theatre downtown. His class was scheduled to go to a separate locale for a workshop on video auditions. He called a female friend he’d made in the class and offered to drive her to it—ah, but where to meet up? The female friend’s mother worked downtown; she’d ride in with mom, and meet the young man at Rare, Foreign and More. Which happened. They lingered, they looked at books together, they made each other laugh; they never did find the video workshop, but spent the day together anyway, rapidly becoming enamored of each other. They’d both go on to other people, but they kept coming back together. They, by which I really mean we (my wife and I) have now been married 25 years, with 3 kids and 9 grandkids—and the zero moment for it all happened on 2nd Avenue in Nashville.
Those are my stories—the ones I remembered to tell—and there are probably half a million people, if not more, who have their own litany of memories that took place there. The avenue’s future is uncertain; the owners of Old Spaghetti have sworn to rebuild, which will take about a year. The rest is unknown, except that this Mecca of sentiment now looks like London after the blitz, because one twisted soul believed he was striking a blow against the evil lizard people or some other nonsense. What he has succeeded in doing is breaking a lot of hearts.