The city is split down the middle. You can stand on State Street with one foot in Virginia and one foot in Tennessee and look up at the giant glowing sign that reads modestly, “Bristol: A Good Place to Live.” From 1910 to 1921, the sign read, “PUSH!- That’s Bristol,” a much more fitting and eccentric slogan for the odd and charming city.
On an average day, Clayton, a bearded man in fatigues sits checking his iPad while sitting on a bench downtown. He scans the block giving knowing nods to his friends in passing. He has chosen to live a life jumping trains and living in tents using a solar plug-in to charge his one electronic device. Around the corner, burgers are flipped at the Burger Bar where Hank Williams may or may not have eaten his last meal. (I have always imagined not, which makes the food more appetizing.) A man walks his giant pot bellied pig, passing a beautiful older woman wearing a fox fur coat while a group of girls giggle and run across the street.
It is a city that marks the passing of the year with parades and festivals. Displays for the 4th of July are erected out of soda boxes at the grocery store, people march in groups for the Christmas parade and hundreds of children hunt for Easter eggs in the park.
Like any good Southern town, the place becomes more complex the longer you stay. You learn that those who might be considered “loiterers” hang out on the Virginia side of the street so they only have a five minute walk back after a quick trip to jail, as opposed to a 40 minute drive on the Tennessee side. You find the local routes to the Speedway on the crazy race weeks, thus avoiding the temporary invasion force of 150,000 extra Bristol residents. You find out who makes moonshine in their basement and that you can enter Steele Creek Park via Rooster Front to be closer to the waterfall.
For good and bad, everyone eventually knows everyone. Most private business is semi-public. Everyone knows why a certain company downtown ran out of money and whose rich daddy is paying for it to keep running so his listless prodigal son stays busy and out of trouble. On the other hand, when tragedy strikes, the community rallies. Casseroles are delivered and ears are bent—or if the situation is too grave for words, arms intertwine.
I lived in Bristol for four years and I will miss it. On the small highways leaving the city, you will often see pairs of shoes thrown over the electric lines. Around here, that means you have moved on and the shoes are left behind as an offering. Being flat footed and having trouble finding comfortable shoes, I metaphorically left a pair. I will be forever grateful to this weird city where most people are passionate about something and always said yes to getting a portrait made.
Originally published in The American Guide. 2013.