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  • Writer's pictureJoanna P. Basile

East Nashville, With Love

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Yesterday I found myself on the other side of town for the first time since the storm. Although in a safe space, I felt like I didn't quite have my legs yet. On my morning drive towards Yoga with my teacher Jane, I had just witnessed more of the destruction I only saw on the news. I cried. I even shook some. When I arrived I was finally hugged. I realized right then I had suffered some trauma.

It’s been ruthless and restless for most people in East, and I am hearing the same from reports in Germantown and especially North Nashville, the lesser known side of town that is getting little love. There are homes leveled. People still missing. Countless people without power. Churches where my friends baptized their kids were decimated — the same churches at which I went to meetings when I first moved to Nashville. Small businesses demolished. A fear of further gentrification because the local shopkeeper can’t afford to rebuild. Predatory developers. Looting. Our music venue was ripped apart following a show. By the grace of God the only people that were left were employees, one of which heard the train-like sound, and got them all to the basement 60 seconds before the walls were torn off. Brings new meaning to its name, The Basement East. I don’t truly know the details because nobody dares talk about it yet.

Yesterday morning I saw scrap metal tossed like cards and enormous, mangled trees uprooted and shredded to look like paper bags. An entire homeless encampment is gone, the remnants of which are littered through the surviving stock. If I was that scared hearing a tornado roar by in the distance from the safety of a basement, how frightened were those forgotten people underneath the viaduct, a viaduct that couldn’t possibly have protected them from this. I feel for the children in constant terror that can’t sleep at night, who by day have to reluctantly switch schools because their classrooms aren't there anymore.

Wouldn't you know, the day that followed the early morning twister was the most beautiful, glorious day of the year so far. Yet it felt like the world had changed — and there was nothing I could do about it. We are told the best thing to do is to stay out of the affected areas, even if they are just a mile away. There is FEMA grade clean up happening. Exploded transformers, downed electrical wires and gas leaks make it feel apocalyptic. You feel helpless, and it becomes isolating. And I found myself in a shopping mall on the other side of town whispering about “what happened.”

Today it was quicker to head straight down Riverside and go through Shelby Park, towards the Cumberland River, towards the railroad tracks and towards the path of the tornado. I needed to get to Belmont University for an event geared toward ending homelessness. Seemed like a way to cure my innate need to help. A mile in I began to see evidence of the disaster. The tallest, wisest trees, roots in the air, crashed into now condemned homes. Normally intimidating, looming power towers tossed aside like plastic toys. A golf course littered with busted, ravaged branches from magnificent saplings. I hurt for them almost as much as my neighbors. As I drove slowly through the park - windows down so I could feel and hear the silence of these woods - I wondered where the birds go during something like this. All the delicate deer you see at dusk - what happens to them?

I remembered that beauty and ruin can live in the same space. I learned this when my father died just this past July, that grief and joy can co-exist. I’m hoping the sunshine today may have lifted someone’s spirits a little as it did mine. But I also wonder why not one single soul is here. Why am I the only person in this quiet, damaged, beautiful sanctuary which is normally bustling. Why does nobody speak of the damaged park.

On my way back from that annual, early-morning breakfast supporting our street paper The Contributor and it’s vendors, I felt inspired. I dared to go closer to the footprint of the devastation. I exited at Shelby/Nissan and quickly found a drop-off location on Woodland right down the way from the wreckage at a local church where they were taking supplies. I spoke to the volunteers who were distributing hot lunches and toiletries to see what items were needed. I could see a glint of hope behind the exhaustion in their eyes. Weary yet fueled by these acts of service. It’s scientific, how kindness and connection produces happiness and hope.

Only then did I feel ready to check on my church, Holy Name. She is there, sitting quietly near the chaos. Holding her space. Keeping the faith.

I stopped in our local co-op, Turnip Truck, to pick up water to donate, and buy a few items to inject something into the community. This area is where I get acupuncture, come to worship and buy my lemon, poppy seed donut. It's where I meet friends at the corner bar, drink kombucha with other sober folk and connect. I see excellent sounding shows, send packages and buy stamps right here. My ice cream and sushi spots are on this street. And let’s not forget brunch at Marche.

It’s where I live.

I parked up on the hill by the market and stepped out of the car to see a Main Street I didn't recognize. I drive this road at least twice a day, and it's now blocked off and upside-down with unforeseeable ruin. It's bustling not with traffic but with crews climbing to restore power. Long-standing signs are smashed to the ground. Cars obliterated by equally tormented trees. Busted out windows and boarded up buildings. Thrashed metal everywhere. Roofs ripped off and walls torn away. Police presence everywhere. There’s missing pets. Missing people. Broken poles, broken fences and broken hearts.

Me, my home and my car — physically unscathed. And Duke was such a good boy, alerting me to what ended up being a category F-3 tornado before the sirens had. I happened on breaking news that night, watching cyclones forming in Southern Kentucky in real-time thinking “those poor bastards,” and wishing my dad would call from Chicago and say “are you okay, looks like there’s tornadoes by you.”

I'd probably laugh and say, “Daddy, I live in Tennessee, not Kentucky.”

That night we were just supposed to get a thunderstorm.

My dad once called to tell me to be careful surfing during Shark Week. One time I called him during an earthquake from my living room in Los Angeles to ask what I should do. “I don’t know, kid, get under a doorway.”

I know my dad was with Duke and me in the basement. I knew what to bring down. What to listen for. I noted the time. Got play by play on the phone from Mike, who got to put his weather obsession to good use. I text my Mama Bear neighbor to see if they were downstairs too. I can’t say it enough, my Duke was such a good boy.

I heard the hail. And then the eeriest silence followed by a distant roar. I knew right then it wasn’t coming for us.

But I knew it got somebody.

I am truly affected, and not ashamed to say so. We have to talk about this. It’s a path to healing, after being in the path of “severe to devastating” damage according to the Fujita scale. The scale was introduced in 1971 by Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago.

Ironically this event took me back home to Chicago, the city of broad shoulders and tornado drills — a city that turned 183 yesterday. All the times my mother crammed us in the downstairs bathroom in the burbs with kids and pets and a radio. Which one of us is going to risk their lives to go get the bunnies in the back yard? And it finally happened, but this time in a different town in a different time where I questioned whether I should risk my life for a laptop and a passport.

Photo: Alex Poizner

At the end of the day I have never been so grateful for that shitty crypt I’ve coined the Murder Basement, my obedient and loving animal and Mike, who stayed on the phone with me until morning light. And all those people that simply ask if I am okay... thank you.

I no longer feel the need to whisper. I am not going to dismiss my sadness. When you talk of it with your neighbors, you see tears welling up in each other's eyes - and you are now undeniably connected through story-telling and saltwater. Maybe this is one of those times we hear about. Those times when things break to be put back together a little differently. Maybe better.

For the online op-ed by special columnist Joanna Basile in the Tennessean, click below

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