I moved to Chattanooga in 1996. I had left Orlando, having lost my wife, my house, my job, and pretty much everything else as a result of my divorce. I was fairly miserable, and, as a result, I didn’t like Chattanooga very much. I had a very hard time meeting people, so, once I abandoned trying to meet people in the local bars, I spent most of my free time online. The pace of Chattanooga drove me crazy. I hadn’t adjusted to the slower pace of Orlando compared to Los Angeles–I had only lived in Florida a little over a year–and Chattanooga was much more relaxed than Orlando. In both Los Angeles and Orlando I knew a dozen ways to get from Point A to Point B that all took roughly the same time, but in Chattanooga, very often there’s one good choice and two or three “emergency” alternates. In short, Chattanooga drove me crazy.
It took me a couple of months, but I found a job, and with that job came co-workers, and those co-workers became friends. I started to learn that there really were things to do in Chattanooga besides the tourist attractions, since, having just left Orlando, the last thing I wanted to do was anything resembling something touristy. Yeah, I still made semi-frequent road trips to Atlanta whenever I needed to get my “city” cravings satisfied, but Chattanooga was growing on me.
A Necessary Diversion
During one of my trips from my parents’ house in Wisconsin to my college apartment in Los Angeles, we had more than our fair share of car trouble. We had a flat tire driving through Des Moines, Iowa, on a Saturday afternoon, but got it replaced in a timely manner. We were not so lucky that night, when we got two flat tires fifteen miles outside of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. Let me restate that: we were stranded at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, fifteen miles outside of a town of about a thousand people. This was in the late 1980’s, so we didn’t have a cellphone, and even if we had, I’m assuming we’d have been out of range. We changed one of the tires, then we started discussing how to proceed: Do we wait here, or does one of us start walking toward Pine Bluffs? At that moment, a truck driver stopped to offer assistance. Short version: He drove my uncle to Pine Bluffs with our bad tires, waited with him while the truck stop (miraculously!) changed the tires, then drove him back and stayed behind us so we could use his headlights to change the last tire. He wouldn’t accept any reward, but was happy to have our thanks, and we got back underway by 4 a.m.
The People of Chattanooga
I discovered that the people here were almost always nice and helpful, something I really valued. Last week, I made a mistake and ran out of gas about fifty feet from the gas station. As I hopped out to start pushing, two young men ran to my car, told me, “Get in and steer!”, and pushed me to the station. Almost before I could yell, “Thanks!”, they were gone. In other places I’ve lived, people would have honked at me as I was trying to cross traffic, but here, everyone patiently waited while we moved across.
I’m not relating that story because it’s rare; I’m relating it because it’s not. People in Chattanooga go out of their way to help strangers all the time. Because of my Wyoming incident, for years I’ve made a habit of helping stranded motorists, asking only that they “pay it forward” as my reward, but in Chattanooga that almost seems insulting, because it is safe to assume that they’d do it anyway. I have had times in other places when I needed help and couldn’t get it, so knowing that the Chattanooga “safety net” is here is a wonderful feeling. I’ve read that Chattanooga has one of the highest per capita charitable giving and volunteerism rates; based on my personal experience, I can’t imagine it being any other way.
Of course, Chattanooga isn’t perfect. As I’ve said before, I’m not entirely pleased with the public schools–not that that’s a problem unique to Chattanooga–and there are problems with gangs, allegations of corruption, and it does seem to me that, while unemployment is lower than in many places, underemployment is still a problem here. I have noticed a disturbing trend here in relationships, where people seem to start new relationships before breaking off the old ones, but this could just be an anomaly among people I know. (In any case, it seems to bother me more than others, so maybe it’s none of my business.) Unlike other places, people here seem to be working very hard to try to make things better, whether by attracting large companies like Volkswagen, Amazon, and Wacker, organizing diverse groups to attempt a recall of Mayor Littlefield, or by organizing or participating in one of Chattanooga’s seemingly endless supply of successful charity fundraisers. Frankly, if more places were like Chattanooga, the world would have many fewer problems.
So, Topher, You’re Not From Here?
Nope. I realize that some people might have a problem voting for someone not from Tennessee to represent them in Congress. They’d rather have someone who has grown up here, gone through Chattanooga schools, has their whole family here, and knows the community inside and out. I can understand and appreciate that view, so I’ll leave you with a simple question:
Is it better to be a Chattanoogan by birth, or a Chattanoogan by choice?