Saturday, October 08, 2005

Heaven Came Down...

… and Starbucks filled my soul
A small town gets big coffee.
February 2005

“Well I was born in a small town, And I live in a small town, Prob’ly die in a small town, Oh, those small communities…” John Mellencamp

For all intents and purposes, I have lived in Smyrna, Tennessee my entire life. I was born and raised here until after I graduated kindergarten. I attended Stones River Baptist Church, where my parents are members to this day.

I graduated from kindergarten. I wore white patent leather shoes that my mother purchased for me that were, by far, the most uncomfortable things I had ever worn on my feet. I wore a white cap and gown as did my other classmates, and my blonde hair was in ringlets. I am quite certain that my mother spent 30 minutes creating curls with bobbie pins and Dippity-Do the night before my big day. We left Smyrna for a few years when the Air Force Base was closed and resided in San Antonio and Burkburnett, Texas.

After my father’s retirement from the Air Force, the Bell family returned to Smyrna, where we lived just down the street from the house we had left a few years earlier. We lived at the end of a dead end street which was a PERFECT place for a family with small children. There was a large back yard where the grass was worn in a baseball diamond path. One of my favorite pastimes was sneaking up into the second floor bathroom and watching my little brother from the window. He mimed many a great historic ballgame in our backyard while he thought no one was watching… complete with crowd cheering noises and incredible leaps of faith while sliding into home base.

Just beyond a tree line in our back yard was the favorite haunt. A thicket of overgrown trees and weeds with bike paths and secret hiding places. Many days and evenings were spent there playing hide and seek, or riding our bikes through rough terrain. We loved to play outside.

Smyrna was a small town where everybody knew everybody else. There was no escaping controversy here. When someone hurt, everyone helped. The one mar on our city’s fine reputation was a once-a-month meeting of the Ku Klux Klan that occurred in the city’s only small dirt racetrack. I can remember every Friday and Saturday night playing in the cul-de-sac with my friends and hearing the car engines roar on race night. On Klan nights, it was eerily different. There was a glow on the horizon, just over the tree tops, and the muted sounds of rage and anger melding into a cacophony of savage hatred replaced the thundering roar of stock car engines. The glow was that of the bonfire that burned each time they met. I would stand and face that glow and pray the Lord’s wrath down on the heads of anyone who would dare throw a bed sheet over their heads and participate in such complete debauchery. I was in elementary school, but I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I understood the Lord answered prayers. Mine were quite fervent.

Our small town remained small through my junior high school years. The end of my sixth grade year fast approaching and the excitement of knowing that I was going to the junior high school the next year overwhelmed me. I would finally be out of the elementary school genre. Even the word “elementary” left a bad taste in my mouth. It was so simple and demeaning. If Sherlock Holmes used that term to let Dr. Watson know what an idiot he was, how was I to feel? Ready to reach for loftier goals, I set my sights on my next level of academia.

At Thurman Francis Junior High School, I was no longer relegated to remaining in one classroom my entire day. I had responsibilities! My books were not conveniently tucked underneath a chair that never changed throughout the year. I had a locker! I would intently watch the clock on the wall of my home room class and wait for the first bell to ring. It was as if I had become a thoroughbred horse in the Kentucky Derby. The bell rang and I was out the door to face the most awe-inspiring experience of new junior high school Life… namely, the seventh grade Murder Hall.

Each grade had its own Murder Hall, and it was appropriately named. Not because a murder had occurred in any of the school’s hallowed hallways, but because it was murder trying to get from point A to point B. The higher the school year, the rougher Murder Hall became. It was a good introduction for young people into the world we now know as adulthood.

I experienced my first taste of social anarchy at Thurman Francis in my ninth grade year. Elvis Presley had died and the world had gone to… you know where… in a hand basket. We were eager young people who were, once again, looking to the future and our journey across the street to Smyrna High School. We would shed our blue and orange colors for purple and gold and we would trade the Ram for the newly beloved Bulldog.

The high school was on a different schedule than the junior high. Its schedule was a semester driven college track schedule: three courses on three days and three different courses the other two days. We were certainly going to be adults at this point. There was no doubt about it. The excitement of the entire freshman class was thick enough to swim through. We did not realize the schedule was only a test for that year. Our fine educators had already determined it was not working and the high school would return to a normal schedule the following year.

I could have cared less about the school schedule. There was a very vocal minority who would not be consigned to being treated as mere children any longer. We were, after all, ninth graders. A political coup was in the making. A staged protest was formed. A sit-in where students would refuse to attend class until the demands of a new school system was met. Smyrna being a small town, everyone knew about this plan. My parents warned me of becoming involved with these “ne’r do-wells” and instructed me to keep far from their wicked ways.

The fateful day arrived and Murder Hall was full of people making final preparations for the demonstration. I was quickly changing books in my locker and heading towards my class when I rounded the corner to come head on with the demonstration in mid-stream. Viet Nam anti-war activists would have been proud. There were fists pounding the air and chants filling the room. There were arms interlocked and students seated Indian style. I looked to see if Andy Warhol was crouching in the corner painting a portrait of young teenage angst in a small middle-Tennessee town. I looked to see if CBS had sent Walter Cronkite to cover this breaking news story. I turned my head slightly to try and make out the strained vocal chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” But I didn’t experience any of those things. It dawned on me that I was a ninth grader at Thurman Francis Junior High School in Smyrna, Tennessee. A town so small there was only one stop light and one gas station.

In a blaze of fury our Principal was there. His friends called him “Pusher” and he was a “run-a-tight-ship” kind of man. No one DARED cross him. He did not say a word as he went straight for the gang leader. In one lightning swift motion, he stood him to his feet by the collar, pushed him down a set of four stairs, and outside into the hot, cruel world. He closed the doors and chained locked them to keep this ruffian out. He turned on his heels and made his way back to the group, which had begun to disperse, except for a few remaining martyrs to the cause of a high school class schedule who were promptly removed from the building and suspended for the rest of the week.

Residing a small town meant that my parents knew all the details of the attempted coup before I ever got home that afternoon. The next morning there were angry parents (whom I can only assume had been hippies in their earlier years) who were at the doors of the school demanding their children be allowed back to class and threatening lawsuits if they were not. All of this activity, however, still did not prompt a visit by Walter Cronkite.

Smyrna began its transformation during my Senior High School years with the announcement that the Nissan Manufacturing Company would be building a car plant within her borders. I was a junior piccolo player when the “Pride of Smyrna High School Marching Bulldog Band” played at the ground breaking ceremony and had mixed feeling about what this would do to our quiet little town. Suddenly there were many large fleets of black cars jamming our two lane highway and many more Asian people walking around town. We got a Hardee’s… and a Taco Bell. There was a Kroger coming in and a McDonald’s. Where would the madness end?

The Klan melted into non-existence (as far as I know) when the race track was torn down because it was on the property that Nissan would be acquiring. The two lane road quickly turned into four, and an overpass interchanged continued to remodel the landscape that was this small town. Housing developments began rising from the dusty ground and Rutherford County is now the fastest growing county in the state of Tennessee.

It still feels like a small town to me, for the most part. My parents are still members at Stones River Baptist Church, where my mother continues to be the church organist. We have two Kroger grocery stores now, and the new Publix store just opened. There is a Lowe’s hardware store and a bowling alley, not far from the Smyrna Public Recreation Center. A few years ago the fine citizens of Smyrna voted in liquor by the drink, and now we have a Ruby Tuesday’s, a Logan’s Roadhouse and a Chili’s restaurant, to name a few.

But this morning Smyrna officially threw off her little town title with the opening of a Starbucks Coffee Shop. I have passed by this structure in its building stages for about two months now. I have eagerly anticipated seeing electricity wired and furniture trucks in the newly paved parking lot. My parents were stunned by my excitement. I was not a coffee drinker in their minds. They were life-long coffee drinkers. My mother is known for having taught her grandchildren to drink coffee with her while they were still toddlers. My nieces and nephew to this day drink coffee when they stay with my parents for a night or two.

I did not fit that mold. I don’t think I even had a cup of coffee until I was in my 30s and at that point, it was more of a desert drink after a fine meal. My friend Brent Gambrell taught me to drink coffee with an incredibly delectable cheesecake served at a dive bar on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville, and I believe he took me to my first Starbucks Coffee Bar as well.

At Starbucks I learned how a good espresso could turn your night into day. I found that cinnamon and hazelnuts were not just for flavoring pies, but could spice up a steaming black concoction of the finest Columbian coffee around. What my parents would pay a dime for in the 50s I was ready AND willing to pay $3.50 to experience. It was worth it to learn what caramel and white chocolate could do to the taste buds as they waltzed together down your throat on the coldest winter day. I have found myself excitedly lounging in rich purple velvet chairs with a thick book in a warmly lit coffee shop where no one knows your name or cares that you want to be alone. They do not ask what your sign is, nor do they want to dance with you in a rhythmic fashion that would leave you dripping with sweat. I have enjoyed the time while I mentally redecorated my home with Starbucks furniture and have found solace from the stress of the daily madness that can engulf your thoughts by simply downing a Grande Café Mocha.

I have been forced to travel to find this incredible luxury in the past, but no more. Starbucks has come to Smyrna, and our small town has finally been placed on the map of good taste!

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