Monday, August 26, 2013

I Hang My Hat in Tennessee

It’s been just over two weeks since we moved into our new place in our new city, Cookeville, Tennessee.

I know, right? Tennessee.

It feels a little strange to be living in a “red state,” after living in one of the bluest states of all, New York (though upstate folks may have more in common with the average Tennessean than the average New Yorker!). Living in Tennessee, I am technically no longer married. I cannot give my job benefits to my partner. Tennessee has a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and prohibiting the recognition of gay marriages from other states. When the amendment passed seven years ago in 2006, approximately 86% of Tennesseans disapproved of gay marriage. The most up-to-date polls put the number now at 64%, which is still higher than the South in general, which is at 54% disapproval.

It’s also legal in the state of Tennessee to evict someone for being gay, or to fire them for being gay. While I don’t think that those last two points will be issues while we live here, it bothers me to no end to think about how our beautiful vows to one another are legally irrelevant in my new state. I also have to try not to think about the fact that both of our current Tennessee senators and 5 out of 7 congresspersons are Republicans (including the representative of the 6th district, which Cookeville belongs to).

I’m trying not to focus on these particular realities too much, however, since the politics of a state are not the end-all, be-all. So far, I’ve discovered quite a few perks to life in Tennessee. First of all, there is no income tax.

Wow. I didn’t even know there were states where there wasn’t any! That’s a perk, even if the sales tax is pretty high in order to make up for it, at 7% minimum in the state and higher in some parts, like Nashville, where the sales tax is 9.25% (that’s higher than New York!).

Registering a car is also similarly, laughably cheap: $38 to register a car for the first time in the state, tags & everything. Nice! Maryland is four times that. Of course, our rent is also incredibly low. We pay half of what we paid on Long Island, but we have our own house with a gigantic backyard. We are also close enough to school to walk or bike if we want to. In fact, Cookeville is small enough that you can drive just about anywhere in five minutes—unless you get stuck behind a school bus, of course.

So, things are cheaper here. People are also much friendlier. That’s not to say that people in Maryland or New York aren’t friendly! What I mean to say is that people around here are polite, very polite. Everyone says “ma’am” and “sir”—everyone. It’s kind of nice. “Yes, ma’am.” “No, ma’am.” I could get used to that. Most people are also pretty chatty. I still have my NY driver license (changing that tomorrow!), and when I have to show it to use my credit card (yep, that’s happened quite a few times here), people’s reactions are pretty much uniform:

New York! Well, you’re in for a culture shock!...But I think you’re going to like it here. Cookeville is a great place to live.”

I think it’s a pretty good sign when the locals are trying to sell you on the place where they live.

Our first week here was surreal. The house seemed foreign and strange, the grass needed to be mowed, we had no furniture, and the cat was going crazy with fleas. The stuff that we managed to bring with us was scattered all over the house, and we ate pizza dinners on camp chairs we had brought with us—our only chairs. We slept on an air mattress and killed roaches constantly for the first three days. It was not fun. I knew the roaches would eventually die from the exterminator juice and our real mattress would arrive soon, but it seemed hard to remember that in those first 3 or 4 days.

Our third day the cat caught a lizard in her mouth. It squirmed until she bit its tail off and let it go. Then it was scampering like mad up and over all our junk that was scattered around the living room. Its tail lay on the ground, still moving in a little S shape. That incident did nothing to shake how surreal it felt to be in a new place with virtually no belongings.

Finally we began to acquire some stuff. Some housewares and second-hand furniture. We gave Walmart a good chunk of our savings (there is no Target in Cookeville, something I still can’t get over!). We went to so many stores so many times that I went to bed dead tired every day feeling that I never wanted to go a store again. But we had to. We had jettisoned almost all our stuff in the Big Move from New York to Maryland, from Maryland to Tennessee. Some of our stuff is still in Maryland, and some of it is in Colorado, where we sent stuff we thought we would need when we moved there. That’s how late we got the news about Tennessee.

After 4-5 days the house was more habitable. The roaches stopped showing up so frequently and the house was tidied up. We got the internet going and were connected to the world. We got some pots and pans and cooked in our own home again. To celebrate our first week in Tennessee, we drove for a day trip to Nashville. There we checked out Broadway with all its tourist shops, honky tonks, restaurants and river views. We ate delicious food at Merchant’s for lunch and checked out some vintage cars at the art museum, the Frist Center. We hiked up the hill to see the Ryman Auditorium and the Tennessee state house, only to return to Broadway and get some margaritas at Margaritaville—of course. We drove over to Opryland for dinner in Opry Mills at the Aquarium Restaurant and strolled around the mall. I noted with joy that Opry Mills has all my favorite brands (yes, that sounds incredibly consumeristic but clothes shopping in Cookeville consists of Sears, JCPenney, Old Navy and TJ Maxx).

A day in Nashville made me wish a little bit that my job was in Nashville. Nashville had a great vibe—artsy, musical, a little divey…definitely a city. And certainly some of the faculty live in Nashville and commute to Cookeville, just like at my old job where people lived in NYC and commuted to the university. But commuting has never interested me…and really, for a smaller city, Cookeville is pretty nice.

Cookeville has a tiny little downtown with some boutiques, antique stores, restaurants and pubs. The restaurants I have been to so far have had great food and extensive drink selections. There are several funky coffee shops with wifi that are not Starbucks (though there is a Starbucks in town too) as well as at least two local bookstores. The area by the highway has most of the recognizable restaurant names, including multiple  fast food joints, diners, and places like Chili’s that we all recognize and reach for in times of need. It is also big enough to have its own public library, theater, orchestra, multiplex movie theater, and Shakespeare in the Park. And maybe I exaggerated a little bit about the shopping—there is quite a bit here.

On top of all that, there is the university right in the middle of town. Everywhere you go, you see discounts for students and faculty members. There are posters that say “Purple Pride” all over town, and there are signs all around the edges of campus reminding drivers of upcoming football and soccer games. The presence of a university also helps insure greater diversity and open-mindedness in general. We’ve even seen several cars with HRC stickers around town.

All in all, I’m feeling much better now than I did two weeks ago. Cookeville is seeming more like home. Our house is comfy and pleasant and we’ve even hosted some people from work. We’ve been out and about to campus meetings and orientations. Things are moving forward and looking up. Of course, I don’t start teaching until tomorrow, so who knows what my perspective will be like in 24 hours! But that’s a whole different blog post…

Historic Downtown Cookeville at twilight.


PS In case you were wondering about the title of the post, it comes from a song by George Strait, “All my ex's live in Texas”:

“All my ex's live in Texas
And Texas is the place I'd dearly love to be
But all my ex's live in Texas
And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee”

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