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VOL. 43 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 15, 2019

A familiar face in an ever-changing corner of the city

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Alvin M. Fitzgerald Sr., 102, and wife Addie Joe, 96, have lived in the same house on Caldwell Avenue, just a few blocks from bustling 12South’s shops and restaurants, for 56 years.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

With the Lone Ranger hi-yo-ing Silver on the TV in the back room of the comfortable home on Caldwell Avenue, Alvin M. Fitzgerald Sr. beckons me past the porch pots filled with fresh, bright artificial flowers and into his home of 56 years.

“I’m 102 and 10 months,” says this gentle soul, a source of comfort and solace for me as the city booms around him … and me.

“I’ll be 103 on the 25th of January if the Lord lets me make it that long,” he adds with soft laugh and bright smile as he motions me to come into the living room – filled with family photos and homey furniture – and to sit next to him on the couch.

“Been a long minute since the last time you came in here,” Alvin says. “Good to see you.”

It had been a great boost when my knock on the front door – for too many minutes greeted by silence – finally raised someone. As I waited, I kept my eyes trained on the sidelight on the left side of the front door.

It was one of the few nice Nashville days, a brief respite between cruel summer and long, cold, lonely winter – and I was in no hurry to get inside as I waited. I was a bit worried though. Had been since I decided to come to this familiar porch.

I knew from years past that if anyone was going to unbolt the extra locks and the wrought-iron security door, the first signal would be someone peeking out through the sheers covering the sidelight.

Not only did I finally see that curtain move slightly, I heard a happy laugh on the other side. The speed with which he unlocked both doors made me smile, as well. Sweet relief.

I had come to Caldwell Avenue seeking the uplift of Alvin’s smile. Things have been rough lately, with my father dying this autumn, followed by daily near-Quixotic struggles to get through all the legal, fiscal and physical remnants of his 96 well-spent years … while still trying to focus on my trade, art, profession, whatever it is. Add to that the dark shadow of the approaching holidays.

Before climbing into the 35-year-old car, I thought about finding a column based on news events. But it seems all that ever happens here in the “It City” is murder – solo or multiple – or people running off the road and to their deaths because they are drunk. And that’s just the juveniles. Or perhaps bachelorettes.

Might write about that stuff soon, but I wanted something cheering. For me. For those of you who spend your time with me here. For the column subject, as well.

I was in search of hope, perhaps a dose of old-time religion with an extra helping of humanity. I knew that if Alvin was still alive – he was 99 the last time I interviewed him for this newspaper – I could find all three.

But the phone call to his house – no one answered – had fed pessimism. I already had figured time may finally have swiped him, because whenever driving down Caldwell in recent months I didn’t see him on the porch.

The porch was where I first met this kind gentleman. Many years and two or three newspapers ago. For a couple of decades, I worked in the now-demolished historic newspaper building at 1100 Broadway. My commute took me on 10th most of the way, before turning left on Caldwell to 12th and continuing the journey.

Long ago, when I was driving through on a warmer day, I’d see an older gentleman sitting on this porch that overlooks a tidy, flower-punctuated yard on Caldwell and I’d wave at him. He’d wave back.

Finally, one midsummer afternoon, I parked the car because I wanted to get to know guy behind the wave. I got a couple columns out of that acquaintance. Other times, though, if I saw him on the porch, I’d just stop and chat, not for a story but simply to talk about his century and this city while my stress vanished.

Alvin has a gentle way of soothing my heart.

Because of the boomtown bustle all around him and the steady stream of Realtors and developers who leave their cards jammed in his doors – he only unlocks for family and friends – I’d asked a few times in recent years if he was going to cash in, get the half-million for his pastoral Waverly neighborhood property.

“I’m not going anywhere. No. No. No. No.,” he told me back when he was 99. “Not at my age. I’m not pulling up and going anywhere but the cemetery.”

The latter was what worried me when I decided to drive to Caldwell the other day. I’ve lost a lot of friends in this part of town. For the first 15 or 20 of my 32 years of driving through this neighborhood, I stopped often to visit with people I saw outside, folks who offered up a wave, a hello or even took me into their houses for very sweet, fresh-squeezed lemonade and white cake. I loved those who let me into their lives while I let them into my own.

Most of them didn’t live long enough to cash in when this strip – a proud, mostly black, middle-class neighborhood – began to turn again, after developers used tall-skinnies, apartments and condos to lure mostly white professionals. Many of the houses that remain standing have been gutted and redone to please uptown souls.

None of my old friends here had been as old as Alvin, so I more than half-expected my visit the other day to end with me cursing mortality.

Then the former Franklin-area farmer – after he moved his family to the city 70 years ago or so, he worked jobs in downtown Nashville to pay off his home – opened the doors and, sparked glee on both sides of the doorframe.

“I mostly piddle around here, doing nothing,” he says, when he sits next to me on the sofa. “We watch TV a lot, and we go out to eat at places like Shoney’s and the Golden Corral.

“My favorite thing to eat is to eat,” he explains, though his slight frame shows no such evidence.

“We go out sometimes, but the children have to get us. I gave up driving two years ago,” he says, describing the day he was sideswiped while driving down 10th Avenue South, near the Bradford intersection in the Sunnyside neighborhood.

He insists he was driving a Rambler, though it’s unlikely since that car brand is long-deceased. Didn’t matter, though. Whatever the brand, “it was a 1994. Got totaled.”

“It kind of shook me up,” he acknowledges. The other driver wasn’t insured and “I didn’t feel hurt anywhere, is what I told the police.”

“The children said: ‘That was it.’ And me being 100 at the time, I wasn’t going to get no new car. So, I quit driving.

“They (the kids) come and get us and drive us where we’re going. Going to the grocery tomorrow, so it’ll be a busy day. Glad you came today.”

“Me too,” I tell myself, as I ask him about his wife, who is in the other room watching – I can tell by the familiar theme song – an old “Perry Mason” episode, perhaps “The Case of the Vagabond Vixen” or “The Case of the Long-Legged Models.”

I hear the voice of Raymond Burr as the nearly invincible lawyer who – with the help of office assistant (I think they called them “secretaries” back then) Della Street and slick-coiffed private dick Paul Drake – found the one witness just in time to prove his clients not guilty and frustrate D.A. Hamilton Burger week-after-week.

“Addie Joe is only 96,” says the almost-103-year-old man of good cheer, nodding his head toward the back of the house, where the TV plays. “We been 77 years married.”

I tease him that it seems like this is one life partnership that likely will continue right until the end – which I hope is years away, of course, mainly so I can visit some more.

“I would say so,” he says. “You see that at 77 years, it’s too long to go any other kinda way.”

I hear Addie Joe on the telephone, telling someone that “this writer who comes by is here now.”

“Addie Joe came from a family of eight children. I came from a family of eight children. And we have eight kids, all still alive, all ages, all retired,” Alvin notes.

“Our youngest child, a boy, retired from the Police Department,” Alvin adds. “I think that was about two years ago. He works security part-time, three days (a week) for ADT.”

Alvin’s eyes smile brightly when he’s talking about his wife and offspring. “We have three boys and five girls. And a good 25 grandchildren. Least that many greats.”

Raised on his granddad’s and his father’s farms in Franklin, Alvin continued to farm for extra money on weekends even after he came to Nashville and got city jobs.

“I worked 20 years at Phillips & Quarles (Hardware) back when it was at Second and Broad Street. The Hard Rock is there now.

“I started as a stock boy and ended up as shipping clerk. When I got off at Phillips & Quarles, I’d go down to the Harvey’s store at 9 o’clock and work until 1 in the morning, cleaning up.”

When he was at home, he’d go out to his garage and repair lawnmowers. He later left the hardware company to work for a decade as head of housekeeping for the Gray-Dudley stove foundry on Clifton Avenue. His years of retirement outnumber the years in the lives of most of his new neighbors.

While he enjoyed working downtown, he avoids that part of Nashville now. Course he can’t drive, but even as a passenger, traffic has gotten unbearable.

“It’s terrible,” Alvin says. “Gettin’ worse all the time, gettin’ where you can’t go nowhere. There are so many ‘cities’ here now. Down there, The Gulch, is a city. And 12South is a city.” He lists other formerly quiet crossroads that have been overrun by “the future.”

I can’t ignore reality, however. It wasn’t all perfect back in the years when a bakery, drum store, jeweler and gas station or two made up the commerce of this area.

Maybe 30 years ago, I wrote a column for the great, old Nashville Banner about an old-fashioned middle-of-12th gunfight, a sort of OK Corral deal that I headlined “12th Avenue Shootout” (written to the tune of Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” which Boss fans know occurred “when Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half …”)

Nowadays a different breed of scooter joins the cars in manufacturing almost impenetrable congestion downtown, along Lower Broad, where Alvin worked at Phillips & Quarles all those years ago.

“I wanted to go down there to see where I worked,” he says. “And they got all these juke joints down there. And they got all that shooting and carrying on down there, too. It’s terrible.”

While the traffic roils him, what bothers him most is that shooting. Guns in general.

“Used to be you might have a shotgun to go rabbit-hunting, but now you see everybody toting those guns, killing each other.

“I used to take a walk, before Old Arthur (arthritis),” he says. But, he allows, even if there was no pain from Arthur, he still wouldn’t go for walks, not even in this nice millennial settlement.

“It’s dangerous out there. All these people got these guns. Shooting people who are in their yard or on their porch,” he adds. “See it every day on the news. It’s sad. Sad. Sad. Sad.

“And it’s gettin’ worse all the time. Shoot, back in the ’40s and ’50s, you minded your own business. Parents taught their children. Now the children are teaching their parents, are the bosses of their parents. I never had no problems where I had to go down to the jail and get my kids.

“All those guns. Killings. It’s going to get worse. Keep getting worse, right up until The End.”

No, he doesn’t know when The End – end times, doomsday, eschaton (which comes AFTER Armageddon), etc. – is coming, but he says the punks in the streets shooting their brothers and neighbors are a sure sign it’s on its way.

“Nobody knows how long but for The Lord,” he says. “But it can’t be too awful long, because it can’t stay this way.”

Oh, he’s not in any hurry. There’s a lot more TV to watch and perhaps great-great grandchildren to try and count. And he sure does love the vegetable plates cooked up by Addie Joe, whose afternoon toils send rich aromas from the back of the house.

“I’m going to keep on living until Jesus calls me home,” Alvin says. “As long as I can stay here, I will, but then I’m going to His house when He calls.

“I made my preparations 60 years ago. I’ve been going to Mt. Sinai Baptist Church since 1959. First it was on 12th, then it burned down in 1962, and we moved to 14th and Tremont. I’ve been a deacon for 57 years,” Alvin continues.

There’s no holier-than thou in his voice when he describes his devotion to his church and his God.

But he does offer a bit of Bible passage to explain, perhaps, why he’s still here, radiating good, a beacon of hope and peace in confused and violent times.

“I think the Scriptures go by that,” he says. “Obedient child’s days shall be long on earth. Disobedient child’s days will be short.’

“That sums it up pretty good.”

Perry Mason is about over in the next room. It’s only afternoon, but Alvin’s been up for 12 hours. He smiles when I tell him I’ll leave so he can get some rest.

“I’m up every day by 5. I’ve cooked and eaten my breakfast by 6. I fix sausage and eggs, bacon and eggs.’’

That will be the morning routine in this house at least until Alvin welcomes the “come on home” call from the Big Boss. He’ll move out of this house only when his spirit does.

“We moved here from North Nashville in 1953. Been here 56 years. I’ve been offered a tremendous, tremendous price for my house.

“It’s not that they want my house. They want the land, so they can put four of them tall-skinnies, or I just call them ‘skinnies’ here. Across the street, they got four houses in one lot like mine. Each one of them has a garage and the house is on top.

“You could shake hands through the window with the guy in the next house. I couldn’t live like that.”

Then he adds that the neighborhood has turned back to “pretty much like it was when we moved here.”

“It was all white. There were only two other black families.”

It wasn’t long before those white people began moving out. “You know, of course, why they did that,” he says, without a trace of bitterness when discussing the era of white flight.

It was a different time. And besides that, he notes, the neighbors here now, as Caucasian as they are “are real nice people.”

Even more reason why he won’t be leaving this home or neighborhood, even while condos and skinnies devour part of the skyline he can see on warm days, when he still does get out on that front porch, decorated by the bright, fresh artificial flowers.

“Ain’t no point in pulling up now, man,” says Alvin, who has turned my dark afternoon into joy and warmth.

“My house is nice. I been very comfortable here.”

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