My secret nickname, Meat Grinder, for the Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, man displaced by the Highway 27 project was partly a tribute to his roughhewn visage but more about his making hamburger out of my life. He had put me through hell, but, with the assistance of a creative mortgage banker, I had won him over. We were standing in the kitchen of his tidy replacement house contemplating the hot water flowing from his faucet into the sink. This was my final visit, a walk-through inspection to ensure his new abode was “decent, safe and sanitary.”
Meat Grinder had the squared-away flattop and menacing straight-talk demeanor of a drill sergeant. Fixing me with beady eyes, a crooked grin creasing his pockmarked face, he drawled,
“You know I kinda like you, so I’m gonna tell you something.”
This was my first assignment as a Tennessee Department of Transportation project manager, a lofty label for what was in reality a relocation agent at the drearily titled Bureau of Highways Right of Way office in Chattanooga. People in the path of the highways were going to move, usually voluntarily, or, if not, by the power of eminent domain. While the appraisers, buyers, and attorneys dealt with all the haggling over the property, the project managers dealt with the logistics of getting everyone moved and absorbed most of the flak from unhappy natives. Thirteen dwellings were scattered within the right of way lines on the Highway 27 plans sitting in our department’s shabby trailer office. Those two-dimensional figures hardly reflected the four-dimensional complications I dealt with on the ground.
Acutely aware of the stereotype of the heartless, mean-spirted government agent, I was a terrified twenty-something with a nagging suspicion that I was in over my head and an eagerness to do right by my families. I had shorn my scruffy beard, trimmed my hair and exchanged my hippie jeans and t-shirt for the regulation dress clothes and tie. I had spent the 6 months before I started this assignment tagging along with experienced property managers and memorizing the maze of policies and procedures governing the program.
So far, I had slogged through the project without being tarred and feathered. I earned the trust of most of the families, though not without a few bumps along the way. On one of my initial visits, a grizzled and gruff farmer with a chaw in his cheek and a pistol in his overalls met me in his driveway. Suppressing the adrenalin urge to flee, I discovered he was more amiable than he looked—neither his tobacco juice nor the gun ended up aimed at me. I received a less friendly call from an irate, out-of-town son alleging that I was taking advantage of his elderly parents. He threatened to come after me. I rattled off some penalties for assaulting a state agent, all of which I had just made up, and never heard from him again. I heard later that he was the one trying to bamboozle his folks.
My biggest misstep happened with Rufus (pseudonym), a retired coal miner ravaged by black lung disease, who lived with his wife in a small, single-story bungalow. Tethered to a portable oxygen tank, Rufus ruled the cluttered living room from his faded easy chair. Short and stocky, gray-haired and gray-stubbled, Rufus’s fierce blue eyes blazed beneath furrowed, bushy eyebrows. His lips and skin were livid, his speech raspy and halting, and his rattling cough often left him short of breath. His care-worn spouse, ashen and worried, tended to hover meekly in the background. According to Meat Grinder, Rufus, back in his younger days, had killed a man in an argument over a poker game.
I logged over thirty visits to the Rufus household. Many of the meetings were to go over the complicated relocation assistance programs. Regardless of my careful explanations and the written instructions I gave to Rufus, the nuances of the assistance program kept getting lost in a muddle of hypoxia and suspicion.
Homeowners could buy back their houses at the salvage value, a number deliberately set low to encourage the more enterprising to purchase the dwellings and move them off the right-of-way to their remaining land or a new lot. At least one family would take advantage of this perk, moving their current house and also building a new abode on their remaining land. But this option wasn’t a good fit for Rufus, and like most of the others, he opted to purchase a replacement home nearby.
Homeowners were eligible for a supplement of up to $15,000 (equivalent to $66,450 in 2022), to make up for any differences between the appraised value of their houses and the cost of moving into the most comparable available dwellings. Rufus put some earnest money down on a modest house sitting in a low grassy field that met the criteria for a supplement payment. When I checked out the dwelling, I discovered that it was in a flood zone, something the realtor had failed to disclose to Rufus. I notified Rufus and telephoned the sourly resistant realtor for a tense discussion about her shady ethics. She ultimately gave him his earnest money back. Not too long afterward, he found a more suitable house that happened to be $1,000 less than the previous one, which reduced his supplement by $1,000.
When I next visited Rufus he was furious, his eyes steely,
“You cheated me out of a $1,000.”
I explained to him that his supplement was reduced by a $1000 because it was not a fixed payment, but based on the cost of his replacement house.
He wasn’t having it.
“You cheated me out of a $1000!”
I should have offered to let him speak with my boss or tried other de-escalation methods. Instead, I stupidly blurted out what was in my head,
“I’m sorry. I’ve tried to explain it to you. If you’re mad at me, you’re just going to have to be mad at me.”
“Get out of my house!” he roared.
So, we return to the kitchen where Meat Grinder, who “kinda” likes me, has “something” to tell.
“Tell me what?” I asked Meat Grinder.
“Don’t go back to Rufus’s house. He says he’s gonna shoot you.”
I took his advice.
**Featured image by Peter Ziegler on Wikimedia and Pixabay