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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.