December 1, 2005

Still Undecided

Knoxville is not a big city. Certainly not by the standards that I'm used to. There aren't nearly as many opportunities here as there were back in California. Losing a job here is a good deal more costly than losing a job in a bigger city with more places to go. Half of the leads for jobs I've heard about are firms that I've litigated against. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing for my potential employer to have seen me in an adversarial context -- as long as everyone is professional about it. But since lawsuits take so long to resolve, it is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of the litigation I'm involved in will not be done for many months yet, in some cases years, and that creates ethical barriers that need to be addressed with respect to employment. I'd be well-suited to work at a big employment law firm; problem is, they're hiring pretty much to help them litigate one of the cases that I'm working on as plaintiff's counsel. With other lawyers out there looking for work, they can afford to pass me by.

Knoxville can be a pretty unforgiving city. With so small a population, one's reputation circulates quickly; it's easy to be defined by the moments when one looks bad and difficult to be defined by the moments when one looks good. Knoxvillians, and Tennesseans in general, are not very subtle, so far as I have noted -- sometimes they are guarded and hold their cards close to the vest, but it's not hard to read them. It's not hard for me to see that some people have a not-so-good opinion of the place where I've been working and associate me with the bad rather than the good. You've got to get your start somewhere, I realize, but it's unfortunate that the focus is on the critical and the negative rather than on recognition and collegiality.

Knoxville is a conservative city. I don't mean that in the Republican-Democrat sense of the word, although it seems to list to the right on that spectrum, too. No, I mean that it seems to focus on the static rather than the dynamic; it seems to resist change and look to the past rather than the future. European cities celebrate their history but are unquestionably forward-looking; American cities are not as adept at blending the two. Los Angeles was a city about the future; its government and its people didn't give a damn about the city's history and those who took time to learn about it were thought of as somewhat odd. In Knoxville, looking for change is what is thought of as odd. Property developers can do their work here, but they need to make sure that the buildings still look like they always did. Current artists are not celebrated for their work, but James Agee is a hero and the city is laced with historical monuments celebrating the Civil War battle at Fort Sanders -- a minor engagement which was nothing but a distraction to the more major conflict several days later at Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. Add to that a veneer of dismissive superiority to those who seek socio-economic mobility, and you get the distasteful side of conservatism in full play. Down in Maryville, the locals all seem to give directions to places in town based on the proximity of one's destination to the two big funeral homes. The courthouse, restaurants, the college or even the high school -- these things are not as important as the funeral homes. One's entire life is lived in preparation for its inevitable climax: one's own death and funeral. Huck Finn, who got to eavesdrop on his own funeral, must be a true folk hero. Morbid.

Knoxville is in many ways a very superficial city. Appearance matters a great deal. Los Angelenos were superficial in their own way, too; they cared a great deal about how attractive people were. Knoxvillians care about whether you are "native" enough, they care about whether you are rich enough, they care about whether you have blue enough blood. One lawyer I have networked with advised me that there's about a dozen families who pretty much control everything in this area. I do see signs of oligopoly at work in the economy. Who you know is much more important than what you are capable of doing. The superficial appearance of religiosity matters a lot here too, in a way that it never did in Los Angeles. Actually being religious or ethical has nothing to do with it -- you have to go to church and be active in your church, but practicing what you preach is superfluous to the real reason that the churches exist, which of course is social conformity. The popular and powerful churches do not seem to be particularly concerned with their parishioners' moral behavior, aside from outwardly-obvious displays of promiscuity. So while you need not be as attractive as a Los Angeleno needs to be, you do need to be perceived as already rich and religious before you will be liked by the people who call the shots. And, don't ever forget that no matter how much like them you are, no matter how rich you are or how often you go to church or how much like them you talk, you're only ever going to get in to the outer circle of the club. The inner circle is reserved for natives and you're not getting in.

Knoxville is a city to which I still feel like I am an outsider, even after living here close to a year and a half. There are many things here that I like very much. Real estate is affordable, as are most other things. The scenery is very nice and six months out of the year, the weather is magnificent. It's relatively easy to get from here to most of the eastern United States. Maybe if I were a drone somewhere without needing to pay too much attention to how things work, none of the cliquishness of the elites would bother me. But that's not the case; lawyers are among the elites here (as in most places) and so I have to work with and around them. That's not to say that I haven't made some good friends here; I have, and regardless of what happens I want to keep those friends.

So maybe I'm down about Knoxville right now because I'm really feeling sorry for myself about my current uncertain situation. Whining won't do me any good. But that thing is, I still haven't decided if this is a place I want to be in permanently or not yet. I feel like I should have decided that some time ago, and recent events have forced me to realize that no, the jury is still out. I don't yet feel like I belong here. I could get to feeling that way, but uncertainty about employment necessarily precludes that feeling.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bro, all this focus on external factors smells suspiciously liberal. Can't you just, like, create your own reality or something?

Remember, dude: "If Colin Powell can beat the odds, so can everyone else."

Just call up some of your frat brothers and ask if their dads have any openings. Oh, that's right, you weren't *in* a fraternity. What were you thinking?