God, guns and the Time Warp Tea Room: Famous visitor discovers Knoxville

Betty BeanFeature

Bob Bozic rounded the corner at the Time Warp Tea Room and spotted a fat paperback lying face down on a table.

Who, he wondered, was reading Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady?”

He didn’t have to look far for an answer. It was Sarah McKee, who recently finished her degree in English literature at the University of Tennessee and tends the bar at the alcohol-free Happy Holler landmark. She reads every chance she gets when business gets slow, and was caught by surprise when this big guy with a clean-shaven dome walked up and wanted to talk about books.

“He asked me a specific question about the plot, and wanted to know if I’d gotten there yet. I haven’t run into many people that randomly well-read, outside of being in school for literature,” she said.

“I was impressed that he mentioned George Eliot. Most people haven’t read her, and think she’s a man because of the name. He mentioned the main character, Dorothea, before he mentioned the title or author.”

Later, she Googled up Bozic’s New Yorker profile and was astounded. “He’s basically living a novel himself.”

Pretty much. Another story labels him a legendary bartender as well as a “heavyweight boxer, bank robber, gunrunner and opera buff.”

The New York Times described him thusly: “Mr. Bozic cultivated a following as a rude barman who reads several books a week, keeps season tickets to the opera and tells stories of an improbably novelistic life: He fought Larry Holmes at Madison Square Garden; he tried to rob a bank to pay overdue rent; he married Barack Obama’s former girlfriend.”

Knoxville attorney Billy Stokes, who has had a pretty interesting life himself, had read all that too, which is why he decided to go look Bozic up when he and his wife, Bay, were in New York about eight years ago. They found him at Fanelli’s, the SoHo bar where he poured drinks, told stories and kept the peace for 25 years. It didn’t take long for the East Tennessee Republican and the Serbian/Canadian/New Yorker to strike up a friendship.

“Billy came into the bar, told me where he was from and I assumed he was a Republican,” said Bozic, who is not a Republican. “I wanted to know his viewpoint.”

Bob took an immediate liking to Billy, a veteran who worked his way through law school as a cop. A former chair of the Knox County GOP, he’s feeling somewhat estranged by the direction of his party.

“He’s not one to stay with the herd,” Bozic said. “What impressed me most was Billy has kept his principles. He wasn’t willing to strike a Faustian bargain.”

He is also impressed by Stokes’s great respect for his late father, who was a World War II veteran.

“My family, World War II affected us gravely.”

The feeling was obviously mutual. Bozic took the Stokeses on a tour of his neighborhood, and they have stayed in touch ever since, sharing stories and books and making plans for future meetings.

Last week, Bozic brought his friend Pavle Blosavic to Knoxville to visit Billy and Bay.

Blosavic is the Serbian attorney who helped Bozic reclaim the Belgrade mansion that Marshal Tito seized from the Bozic family in 1946 after Bozic’s father, a brilliant engineer who invented an air brake system for locomotive engines (and went to school with Albert Einstein), fled the country. Over the years, the Bozic mansion was used as a government building and for a time served as the Canadian embassy. Blosavic helped Bozic cut through yards of red tape to get the mansion back, including proving that his father had not collaborated with the Nazis.

This was Blosavic’s first visit to the USA, and Bozic’s first time in the South. Bozic wanted his friend to see that there’s more to this country than New York City.

During their week in Knoxville, they toured Museum of Appalachia and chatted with museum founder John Rice Irwin, had lunch at Wright’s Cafeteria with politico Richard Bean and paid a visit to Petros to visit the penitentiary/turned tourist attraction (it was closed). Billy and Bob spent a day in Sharps Chapel, and one night, a bunch of Billy’s politically-minded friends came over for dinner and conversation.

Bozic said the dinner party was an eye-opener. He liked and was impressed by the guests, whom he found to be friendly, open, engaging and knowledgeable.

“My education has always been learning about people, and there is a core of well-educated people here who are very capable of defending their positions.”

More problematic were some conversations he had in Sharps Chapel, where the Stokeses have a summer home. Bozic said he could see himself spending his retirement at Norris Lake, but he’s still mulling over some of what he heard there, and he’s having some trouble reconciling a place where guns are omnipresent and people say grace at a dinner party.

“I’m somewhat taken back by the irony,” he said.

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