Hello! I’m starting a new series in my column. I call it Hyperlocal Introductions. The aim, pretty simply, is to introduce Chattanoogans to each other. I’ll be interviewing people around town, as they let me, people I see frequently when I’m out and about and about whom I’ve always wondered, "Now, what’s that person’s story?" The interviews will be brief and nonintrusive. I’m not trying to lay bare anybody’s deepest, darkest secrets. Think of it this way: If we were all at a party, I’d be the one saying, "Hey, have you met ...?" Thanks, as always, for reading!
Down by the Tennessee Aquarium on a given summer Saturday afternoon, it’s hard to find people who aren’t in motion. Hustling from the aquarium to Mellow Mushroom, strolling to the Riverfront with Dippin’ Dots in hand, racing to Puckett’s to beg the hostess to let their 3-year old use the potty even though they don’t plan to eat there. (Been there, done that. For the record, Puckett’s allowed it. Consequently, even though we didn’t eat there, Puckett’s will forever get the highest marks from me on Yelp, Angie’s List, Better Business Bureau, etc.) It’s all a pleasant blur of color and sound, a regular reminder of the Riverfront’s vivacity.
Which makes the guy at Aquarium Way and Broad Street kind of an anomaly. He sits on a rickety barstool next to Ben & Jerry’s for time out of mind while everybody zips past his perch. When I met him, it was 91 degrees out and he was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved thermal. Not to mention an old wicker cowboy hat, a lei and Mardi Gras beads. He’s turning a rolled-up guitar string over and over in his hands, the busker’s fidget spinner. This is Mr. Joseph Woods.
"No relation," he said.
"No relation? To whom?" I asked.
"Tiger," he said, and laughed his head off.
Ostensibly, Woods sits on the corner and plays guitar. There are two acoustic guitars next to him, one that looks like it plays all right and the other with a cracked headstock. An open guitar case is at his feet. There are coins and bills in there, currency passersby have tossed in, but there are fake dollar bills, too, some the size of Monopoly money and some the size of enormous Hershey’s bars. I’m not sure why all the nonmoney money, but I don’t ask. It’s not polite to ask about finances, for one thing. Besides, I’m more than willing to let it be as one of life’s countless, beautiful, inexplicable oddities.
The first thing Woods tells me about himself is that, although he’s from Chattanooga, he’s been practically all over the entire country playing music. He mentioned LA, Houston and Detroit a few times during our conversation. He said he once almost traveled to Milwaukee to play. At each city, he told me, he played in what he called "talent shows." Given the ways in which we consume music and entertainment now, it’s difficult to imagine people turning up to watch live nonironic talent shows, at least as far as I can conceive of them. Then, he gives me some advice: "Never get married." That is, if you want to be an entertainer. "I have to leave these women alone," he said. "They mess me up."
I asked Woods how long he’s been playing guitar and he told me, "Since before I went to elementary school." I asked him what his favorite kind of music to play is, and he said, "A little bit of everything." I asked him how long he’s been playing at Aquarium Way and Broad Street, but he demurs. I throw the question in a few times during our conversation, but he’s on to me, evidently, because he never said—though he does tell me that he played in the plaza in front of the aquarium for 13 years before relocating to this, his current corner. Across the street from the aquarium. Oh, and I also asked him who his favorite guitar player is. No trepidation this time: "Me," he said.
I don’t doubt Woods is a guitar player, and a good one at that. He said he is, and I have no reason to disbelieve it. But during our conversation, which lasts about half an hour, he never even touched his guitars. Now, that certainly could be attributed to the fact that a meddlesome columnist was bothering him. Perhaps he’s being kind enough to oblige my questions, all the while thinking, "Why won’t he get the hell out of here so I can do my thing?" But early on in our conversation, I gathered that Woods isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he never once hinted, let alone said outright, that he wanted me to buzz off so he could sing and play.
I think that, before guitars and music, Woods is interested in people. He’s certainly staked a claim on the best place in town to watch people move through his city. Every time families hurry past, he’s quick to holler, before they’re out of earshot, "Whoooo! What a big family! Lookin’ good!" The families, caught slightly off guard, smile and wave to Woods and seem genuinely pleased at his compliment. If a particular passing family contains a tween boy, Woods advises the parents to let the boy play football so he can "make a million dollars." And when it comes time for me to hit the road, it’s one of those prolonged, awkward goodbyes, the kind where we both say, "Thanks" and "See you later" several times, we shake hands more than once, and we’re still shouting our goodbyes as I trot across Broad Street toward my car.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.