What’s it really like to live in the place we pass everyday?
“Called us (expletive) refugees.”
Robert Earl laughed hard and loud. “My God,” he said.
Robert leaned close to that word like he wanted to make sure he had really seen it and read it out loud. “REF—U—GEES. I done heard it all now.”
He was reading a few of the newspaper accounts describing the electrical fire and the subsequent evacuation of the residents of the Patten Towers a few months ago.
“And this mayor, man. What is he talking about?”
I had not seen Robert Earl in over a year. I did a story about the fires and incessant fire calls to the Patten Towers in February of 2010. That’s when I met Robert. He took me inside those old, storied marble walls and showed me his home. It wasn’t nearly as eventful as most people warned me it would be, though I’d brought my switchblade just in case and kept my hand wrapped around it in my pocket for the first few minutes I was in the building.
I followed Robert inside, went up the elevator and into his apartment where he showed me around. He gave me a glass of tea. I sat on his couch and we talked for a while. I looked through the books on his bookshelf and pointed out a few I’d read. We stood by his tenth-story window looking down on Chattanooga and pointed over at Lookout Mountain, talked about the city for a while, and then we went back downstairs.
I thanked the man at the front desk for letting me in, thanked Robert Earl at the Patten Towers front steps and went on to the Pickle Barrel to write my story that cold winter day. That was the extent of my first visit inside the Patten Towers. My knife had proved unnecessary.
Last Sunday afternoon found me sitting on Robert Earl’s couch again. I was at work on yet another story about the notorious Patten Towers—this one in light of the fire that occurred there this past May. According to all the newspaper reports we were reading, the entire city was in an uproar over the plight of the residents of the old hotel after this fire. There had not been a humanitarian disaster of such dire magnitude since Hurricane Katrina, people said. The mayor was in a fit, the Salvation Army was calling for prayers and every finger was pointed at an out-of-town company that had purchased the Patten Towers barely a year before: PK Management.
To local activists and city leaders the name PK Management acquired the dark, evil undertones held by such other life- and soul-crushing companies as Monsanto or Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. This PK Management was simply without decency and had no regard for human life, so we were told. Robert and I had both read the stories and as he browsed through them again, Robert shook his head.
“Why are you trying to attach my name to all of this? I don’t live at the Patten Towers, anyway. I just stay here,” he said.
I responded, “Because everybody else talks about the Patten Towers and about the people that stay here. None of them talk to the people here. There’s nothing for me to say that everybody else hasn’t already said. I already wrote a Patten Towers story. You write this one.”
He told me he wasn’t going to do it. He’d tell me what he knew and what he had to say and I could do what I wanted to. I said all right, but stop when I tell you to so I can keep up typing. And start with that fire in May.
Robert Earl’s Patten Towers
I had just got home. I sat down and put my keys down, thinking about trying to cook something to eat. Turned the TV on. I sat down here for a minute, tired. The lights dimmed and came back on and I thought it was just a storm or something. But it kept doing it, then all of a sudden it got just like a disco in here and I was worried about my TV—I got a new flat screen. I was trying to turn it off, but I couldn’t.
Then the smoke alarms went off and stuff started getting real weird. All of a sudden the alarms stopped and all the lights went off. It got real quiet and it was pitch black. It was about ten-thirty at night. I looked out the window and all the other lights downtown were on and I said, “Uh-oh.” Then people started pounding on doors and yelling, “Evacuate! Evacuate!”
I have two flashlights I keep in a cabinet. I got them and went out the door. I went down the hall and looked down the stairwell. People was holding on to the rails, and it was pitch black dark and people was terrified, just holding on for dear life on those rails and going one step at a time, just terrified. It was like looking down in the pit of Hell.
I shone my flashlights down there and they all looked up—man, they were glad to see me. It was just black and all these people trying to find their way out. Some of them can’t even walk down stairs and were holding on to somebody else. When we got outside, I knew it was serious when about four fire trucks showed up. I was asking everybody what happened and nobody knew. People were saying there was a fire but I never saw it.
They had CARTA buses out there waiting. Somebody already had an evacuation plan with CARTA—the buses were already there. They had the plan with Brainerd Recreation Center, too, but we never knew about any of that. I went up to some guy that worked with CARTA—a Czech guy or something like that. He wasn’t the bus driver, just some guy in a CARTA shirt who was in charge. I asked him where we were going and he just got real smart with me.
I said, “I got a right to know where I’m going. I ain’t getting on a bus if I don’t know where it’s going.” That man from CARTA started getting real rude with me then. I can’t remember exactly what he said, something about it didn’t matter where I was going. And I said, “The hell it don’t. I need to know where I’m going.”
Then this cop sitting in his car out there jumped out and got rude with me, too. Like I wasn’t the one who just got burned out of his house with nothing but the clothes I had on. That cop told me “If you say anything else to that man or anybody else, you’ll go to jail.” I was just trying to ask the dude where the bus was going. Man, these cops in Chattanooga in need to learn the Constitution.
This ain’t the only time something like that happened. This lady was at the Motel 6 where they put us after a while. She was staying at the motel and she started getting sick. I wasn’t staying there then. I was staying at my girlfriend’s house when all of that was going on, but I’d go over there every now and then and check on some of my friends. This lady getting sick had COPD and she was standing there and couldn’t breathe. She was turning purple and gasping for breath and holding her chest. An ambulance showed up and the ambulance driver just acted like he didn’t give a damn.
“Everybody knows ya’ll Patten Towers people call the ambulance just to get a free ride to the hospital.”
I mean, this woman was standing there purple and looking like she was about to suffocate and that’s what the ambulance driver said to her. That’s the way Chattanooga treats the people at the Patten Towers—it’s always “ya’ll.” “I know how all ‘ya’ll’ are.” And it’s just because we live in the Patten Towers.
I was in here one time and this guy was in here causing trouble. I don’t even know how he got in here, but he was just out of control and starting trouble. I was getting ready to bust his head but my girlfriend was in here and kept telling me, “Be nice. Be nice.” I said all right and I called the cops. And listen to this. You know that cop showed up with a cup of coffee in his hand? Man, it pisses me off every time I think about it. I told him what had been going on and he just got real smart. “Don’t call me,” that’s what he said, real smartass, and turned around and left. Now what are you supposed to do? I was doing the right thing and this cop shows up here with a cup of coffee saying, “Don’t call me.”
That’s the way Chattanooga is, man. And the city’s acting like they ain’t got nothing to do with what happened with that fire. Pointing their fingers at PK Management all the way out in California. PK only had this place for a year when the fire happened. Chattanooga’s acting like they forgot this building’s been right here on the corner of Eleventh Street a hundred and something years. How many times have the fire trucks been here, because the ventilation systems over the damn stoves don’t work? You burn a piece of bread and there’s fire trucks at the front door.
It used to happen nearly every day—two or three times a day. How much does that cost the city every time that happens? And nobody’s inspected this place? The mayor’s saying this and that and everybody’s pointing their finger at a bunch of people out in California. Nobody checked to see if this place was ready to burn down the ninety-nine years before PK bought it? All those fire trucks every day.
And most everybody who lives here is from Chattanooga—Chattanooga can’t look out for its own people? Forget about the building—what about the people who live here? This building has probably never been up to code and has been full of people for a hundred years, man. Come on, where’s the common sense? Down here in Chattanooga they just don’t give a damn.
Just like that CARTA man and that ambulance driver at the Motel 6—it’s always “ya’ll” this and “ya’ll” that. We’re just like anybody else. Most everybody who lives in the Patten Towers is decent, law-abiding, rent-paying people. PK is here to try and make this a better place. They had no idea they were walking into all this crazy Chattanooga shit. Chattanooga is a dark place, man. You got a city here but the ones who want to run it try to keep a fence around the parts they want to take care of and the only ones they want to let through the gate are the people just like them. The rest of it is—“ya’ll” stay over there, or “ya’ll” need to get on the bus, or “ya’ll” come out here and inspect this building. The Patten Towers was probably one of the worst buildings in the world PK Management could have bought. I guarantee you they’re regretting it now.
I mean, they’d only had this place a year and they were in the process of updating everything when the fire happened. It just happened that way. They painted the stairwells, fixed the air conditioning. A few years ago the air used to go out and it would be out two or three days and you couldn’t even be in here. I was about to go to Lowe’s and buy a window unit air conditioner. They got that straightened out now, though. These people here are great.
They’re trying to put a lot of support groups together, too—men’s groups, women’s groups, diabetes support groups, AIDS groups, all kinds of stuff like that. They’re even talking about having a resident doctor staying here. And there’s that vegetable truck that comes by once a week.
Byron, the new maintenance man, does everything he can. He goes out of his way to make sure everything works right. But he’s running around trying to keep a hundred-year-old ship afloat. He does everything he possibly can to keep it clean and keep up with what he’s got to work with. There’s a hotline that anybody can call from their room and they’ll have somebody here just like that. Byron will be down here, even if it’s in the middle of the night.
That mayor we have now—I saw on the Internet where he had time to go take a picture with a puppy on National Puppy Day or something like that. And he was the one talking about needing sprinklers in the building. The mayor said we need sprinklers and was raising hell with PK Management. That man’s office is right here outside the front door. The Patten Towers is neighbors with the Mayor of Chattanooga. Now you’re telling me he has time to go take a picture with a dog but it took this old building catching on fire and all these people being out on the street for him to figure out that the Patten Towers needs sprinklers? What’s (expletive) up is this place has always had sprinklers. They just never worked.
It’s about like that cop. It’s always somebody else’s responsibility. “Don’t call me.”