You Are Not Your Possessions

Thanatology is a domain of study which seeks to organize and curate experiences surrounding Death. Far from being a dispassionate scholarly pursuit, there is a professional intent to facilitate acceptance of The Inevitable both on the part of the individual and society. A thanatologist will leverage the collective wisdom of cultural “death lore” to help society, and the individual, take a holistic view of death while hopefully relieving the fear of demise which nags even the most rational pragmatist. Medical science has found ways to extend our lives, but are we generally worthy of an extension? Most people, given a biological reprieve, will probably continue as before. Whether death represents the permanent annihilation of consciousness remains unknown as does the prospect of eternal Paradise or Damnation. There is only one way to find out and that is to keep on living.

Our primary educational system does us no favors by omitting essential discussions on things like tax preparation, the basics of contract law, and how to deal with the passage of a loved one. I’m not talking about a wholesale displacement of math or language, just take some time for authentic dialogue with students on more practical issues. But, who am I kidding, many adults refuse to discuss a basic Will out of fear that such an activity will arouse the interest of the Grim Reaper. Of course, the phrase “Last Will and Testament” is intimidating so maybe call it something less threatening might help. Most families know only the name of the local funeral parlor and have only the vaguest of ideas about what to do after that. I was told that early on by a physician, that when it’s someone’s time, it’s their time and it won’t be denied. It seemed like some bullshit a doctor might say to deflect oft-asked, yet unanswerable questions. But with experience, I’ve come to believe exactly that.

Someone foolishly trying to avoid the inevitable

Speaking of The Grim Reaper, I had a high school drafting teacher, Mr. Johnson, whose side gig involved a militant form of Christian theology which held that humanity was in the midst of an unseen, yet literal, spiritual war wherein humans were daily tempted (even assaulted) by evil forces. I had never encountered someone whose religious beliefs were so well-integrated into his daily life that referencing the Whore of Babylon moments after reminding the class of an upcoming test seemed entirely natural to him. Thankfully, he exhibited none of the histrionics offered by the typical evangelical minister seeking to win souls by conjuring images of Hell. I’m not even sure he cared about saving souls. He seemed to function more as an embedded war correspondent, documenting the ongoing action as part of some larger crusade. He was also a Mason which, when combined with the Draftsman angle, gave me the creeps.

As an example, we were talking in class about The Exorcist, a then-recent movie. I had totally abandoned my work and was deep into conversation with Karen Murphy, talking about green vomit and rotating heads. Mr. Johnson, overhearing us, deadpanned, “Demons are real although they generally don’t manifest as portrayed in the movie as that can attract too much attention. The last thing the Devil wants is for you to believe in his existence.” (Clearly, a fan of the Screwtape Letters).

Psalm 89:48 “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave? Selah.

This all became relevant when later that month a basketball star classmate, Kenny, died of an aneurysm while doing jump shots. It was a huge loss so much so that the local news came to cover the story and interview students who were all trying to put it into perspective. We found ourselves in Mr. Johnson’s class talking about it:

Me: It happened so fast. He was shooting baskets, looked up, and died.

Mr. Johnson: Kenny looked up because the Angel of Death appeared. He is 9 feet tall which is about 6 cubits (spoken like a true Draftsman).

Me: (Ignoring the nonchalant Angel of Death reference) No. they said he looked up because he had a brain aneurysm

Mr. Johnson: He looked up because FIRST, he saw the Angel of Death, and THEN had the aneurysm.

Me: Kind of unfair isn’t it? Being 9 feet tall is a huge advantage on a basketball court.

I wasn’t disrespecting Death or any Agents thereof but how could Mr. Johnson NOT have seen the irony of the situation? Of greater concern was why the Reaper NEEDED to be 9 feet tall? Was the journey to one’s final destination subject to a mugging by after-life thugs? The idea of a chaperone also shows up in the form of Charon who, for a payment, will usher the recently departed across the River Styx. (One would think that he could have retired long ago). I’m quite certain I would lose my coin almost immediately and have to barter my way across the water “I’ll clean your boat. Tell ya a story? Women these days !

Is Anyone At Home?

Death is more about absence than anything else. If you witness the passage of someone or see them moments right after, you might see them breathing (which can happen in the form of agonal respiration) but it’s just as likely that your brain does some form of corrective interpolation to preserve the familiar, which is to continue seeing that person’s chest move when it really isn’t. Of course, we do that in life, don’t we? Viewing situations with a form of corrective rationalization? Physical phenomena aside, what I have seen is a brief lingering as if the individual is saying goodbye to their own organism – taking one last look around before the departure.

But it doesn’t take long for the absence to manifest and, almost suddenly, no one is at home! To attempt communication would be futile, like knocking on a door of a vacated house expecting the former occupant to answer. But it’s not to be taken personally. There is no judgment or intended slight towards the observer who is incidental to the event which levels the playing field for those who thought they had some angle or insight. Actually, it makes clear that there really is no playing field and that what we know, or think we do, about Death is akin to a boy whistling in the dark as a form of self-comfort. Not that there is anything to be feared.

What Do I Do With All This Stuff?

Going through the possessions of a loved one is a tough task as inevitably you become the caretaker for the memories and emotional attachments of someone else. What do you keep, give away, or toss? (I can’t even make such determinations for my own stuff). It’s for sure that any action would disappoint the departed who had deliberately accumulated things based on the idea that they would continue to be lovingly cherished and never disposed of. The Egyptians went a little overboard with this idea but as they were affluent and had an undeniable flair for self-theater it was no surprise that they directed lots of wealth towards the assembly of some kick-ass tombs. The modern, less flamboyant, equivalent might be having to deal with lots of “brown furniture”, which was all the rage for those living through (or being born in close proximity to) the Great Depression.

I totally get it that “things” can remind us of better times or serve as indicators of ancestral sacrifice – “This chair was built by Uncle Jack during the flu outbreak of 22 using wood from a tree he chopped down while simultaneously fighting off a ravenous wolf pack using his one good hand”. That kind of thing makes sense to at least consider keeping but what about the mid-20th century vase or dusty dinner sets? Rather than treat it all as inventory in an estate, it’s better to view it as familial archaeology which allows one to better interpret the individual over time. I do not know why my Mother kept so many items of little practical use (an infinite supply of Christmas stationery, for example) though do understand that it somehow got her through some rough times. However, it doesn’t mean that it should hold an equal level of significance for me.

Most people will talk about observing the passing of another using hushed tones of reverence under the assumption that each passing is a mystic event, full of meaning and resolution – and usually, it is. However, a Bank’s liquor store regular told me that as his estranged brother was dying, the brother smiled and motioned him to come closer only to hear a hoarsely whispered:

I just wanted you to know that you can go fuck yourself

So much for the profound statements alleged to emanate from those situated on the axis between this realm and what lies beyond. The absence of deathbed confessions or lack of last-minute conveyance of heavenly revelations does not reduce the meaning of the event for either the subject or the observer. It has undeniable power all to itself – at least one of the participants can choose to make something of it. Possessions have a peculiar power to elevate or depress so choose carefully when sorting through them. This is also a reminder that should you find yourself with lots of stuff that someone else would have to eventually sort through then maybe figure out now if you really need to keep it all.

The Zone and Gene Dahlbender

This is Gene Dahlbender – a genius golfer I once knew. We’ll get to him in a moment.

The “Zone” definitely exists. I’m referring to that elusive state of mind wherein an otherwise challenging activity can be effortlessly realized. One hears the term commonly applied to sports though it can relate to any pursuit most often of the creative variety. Dope-fiend poets and creatively parched artists might pursue this condition via chemicals. In a related vein, I’m reliably informed that “Microdosing” in Silicon Valley is a thing wherein corporate employees consume minimally active amounts of hallucinogenics to facilitate innovative thinking by gently disrupting routine mental patterns. This practice, while not appearing in anyone’s official Human Resource Handbook, appears to have informal support albeit in a “go ahead and do it but if you get too high, we’ll definitely fire your ass” kind of way. Frankly, I’m not impressed. If you can’t go full tilt with the experience and accept all that goes with it then you are a coward. Of course, I’ve written about such excursions which, for me, are a rigged game. But hey, every generation is entitled to a stab at enlightenment or just mere synaptic stimulation.

Say What You Will – But Those Krishnas Know How To Mediate

Back to the Zone – I’m talking about a spontaneous release from limitations that happens independently of intention. I know it exists because I experienced it with some regularity in the Summer of 1974 while shooting hoops behind Springdale Christian Church. (As a matter of trivia and memory of the time, I was wearing out Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal” album). Most of my friends had moved out of the area by then leaving me with little else to do except to solitarily perfect my basketball game – basically a one-man game of Horse. My experience with the Zone began after seeing an infomercial for Silva Mind Control a proprietary meditation system seemingly based in part on Transcendental Meditation – itself a proprietary system. However, the former alleged to unlock powers of clairvoyance, which I think was just an advertising nod to the popularity of Extra Sensory Perception at the time. The Amazing Kreskin had a TV show then which discussed such things although Kreskin made it clear that he was a Mentalist which meant his “paranormal” demonstrations were the result of endless hours of practice combined with a solid knowledge of human reactive behavior. It’s like when a magician says, “pick a card, any card” he or she is actually “forcing” a specific card into your hands in a way that you don’t realize. The same concept is employed in mentalism wherein a series of statements might lead another to think in a certain way, or of a certain number or name.

Why can’t you just smoke a bunch of weed like everyone else ?

Since I had no money or inclination to purchase either program, I spent time at the Stewart Lakewood Library reading up on the general topic of meditation. Wanting something more practical, I leveraged my area Krishna connections which yielded basic instruction. When I told a friend about my Summer project he replied, “why can’t you just smoke a bunch of weed like everyone else ?” I don’t know if you’ve ever meditated or thought about it but I’ll let you in on a really big secret. Are you ready? Here it is. The mere act of trying to meditate is in fact meditation. Set a timer, a cooking timer will do if you don’t have a smartphone. Direct your thoughts to an object (e.g. your breath or some consistent sound). When distracted by your thoughts, make a gentle effort to return them to the object of focus. Keep doing this until the timer goes off. That’s it. I used to meditate to the rumbling sound of an air conditioner. That said, I am not a Swami. Nor can I levitate, lie comfortably on a bed of nails, charm cobras, maintain an erection for 4 hours (at least naturally) or perform any of the things customarily associated with mountain-dwelling holy men or Sting.

Let The Ball Return Home!

None of this means that pursuing meditation leads to basketball genius although maybe it did for me that Summer. But maybe it was just a simple matter of me being able to get out of my own way. I started shooting baskets and decided to do a hook shot. A strange thing happened. Milliseconds before I physically initiated action, an image popped into my mind – there was a flexible tether, (like a bungee cord), attached to the basket with the other end being attached to the ball. I received an intuition that all I had to do was raise the ball and “allow it’ to “return home.” Instance swish. It worked. And it worked again and several times after that, Not 100% but like 98%. And it wasn’t just the hook shots. It happened when shooting on the run while doing oblique cross flips, or tossing the ball over my head without looking at the basket. I did get a witness though.

A guy named David had moved into the Perkerson Baptist Church parsonage located three houses up from mine. Spotting me on his walk home, he sauntered up to see me in the basketball trance and was amazed, as was I, that my shots were all going in. He even challenged the process by attempting to block me but to no avail. “Jesus Christ”, he said. “How are you doing that ?”. “I have no idea but I don’t think Jesus has anything to do with it“, I replied. “Meditation I guess.” He didn’t believe me. Can’t blame him. How do you explain something like that? If you are looking for this part of the story to continue, it won’t. Not because I’m holding out or are trying to sell you my “secret method”, just that this short period in 1974 was pretty much the only manifestation of the “Zone” that I have experienced, at least to that degree. Why it was associated with basketball, a sport I played only casually, and not some more personally meaningful area of life, I have no idea.

Who the Hell is Gene Dahlbender ?

But what does any of this have to do with Gene Dahlbender? You could (and should) Google him and he’ll show up. He was a golf wunderkind born in 1923 whose acquaintance I made in 1977 when he wound up working in some capacity at the GMAC – General Motors dealership. It was a good gig for him as there were plenty of people who knew of his celebrity. His accomplishments were legend and his enduring skills, even then, silenced the most prolific Stewart Avenue bullshitter, “Gene Dahlbender ? That guy is really good”. Very high praise considering that golf tends to provoke a lot of competitive behavior and strong envy. This was one of the first situations wherein no one on The Avenue said anything negative about his golfing ability – his personality maybe but not his skill. Here is a summary of “Geno’s” accomplishments from the Georgia State Golf Association web site:

Dahlbender’s tournament record includes the following: medalist in the Southern Amateur twice, winner of the 1948 Southern Amateur, six-time qualifier for the U.S. Open, and eight-time qualifier for the U.S. Amateur. He also competed in the 1949 Masters. He won the Sunnehanna Amateur twice and the Atlanta City Open seven times. In addition, he won the Southeastern Amateur twice and won the Georgia Amateur in 1962

Not only was he a great competitive golfer he was also capable of trick shots particularly in response to those spontaneous betting situations that will inevitably emerge on the course, “Hey Gene, bet you can’t make that shot with a blindfold on.” Yes… he could. He never discussed golf with me or anyone and if someone brought up the topic he usually reacted with disinterest and silence, waiting for the subject to change. Not having Internet access in 1977-78, I couldn’t really dig up much about Gene except that which others would share which was plenty. I do know that he went to the ophthalmologist for which my Mother worked – an old Atlanta money doctor who was beyond thrilled to have Gene as a patient. According to my Mother, Gene was polite with the barrage of questions about his career along with the inevitable, “Hey Gene, could we play a round or two some time ?”

I was told that Gene gently and deftly steered the conversation to me (your humble author) and how he admired my potential – not in golf but in education. Wow, so Gene shut down the doctor and simultaneously gave me a plug. It became clear to that he was beyond fatigued with being asked about why he never turned pro – a legit question for someone of his considerable talents. I suspected that Gene might have had a form of insecurity that blocked him in some way. Later on, I was told he developed a fondness for the bottle, which is something I could see but the same could be said for most of the people circulating on Stewart Avenue.

Could Have Been A Contender

I had mostly forgotten about Gene until about 7 months ago (pre-COVID). I was waiting for my turn in a crowded barbershop while overhearing a golf conversation between two old-timers. One of them mentioned Gene’s name. (When someone says “Dahlbender” it’s gonna stick out). I listened to them praise the guy up and down and ponder his situation. “Too bad he never turned pro, he had that bad tournament”. So, a defeat stopped all that genius although I don’t believe it was a single episode. More likely, something in his general thinking undermined his best work. The other old-timer added, “yea, and once he started drinking, well, that was it“. Perhaps that was true but only to an extent. If you met the guy you could see that he had more than a few gears in his thinking, quietly shifting (at least from the outside) between them. Yea, maybe the booze helped lubricate that process but there was more nuance to him than could be seen by casual interaction especially if it was gonna be JUST about golf.  Maybe he wanted to be known for more than something that came easy for him?

Geno in 1940 at the age of 16 and being hailed as “The next Bobby Jones”. This picture was being sold on Ebay

I’m pretty sure that Gene never meditated. Having met some prodigiously talented people, (I’m not one of them), it’s been my observation that merely having a high level of natural ability is not enough. It usually requires ongoing development and refinement to perform in the big time. But if one is not so inclined, then he or she will likely remain at a baseline which is still probably much higher than that of anyone else. But it surely must leave a level of dissatisfaction. For those of us average ability, it can be frustrating to see someone so talented not rise to the top. In my case, Gene was very nice to me and expressed great interest in my future intentions and encouraged education. He did it in a way that seemed genuine. By the time I first met him most of his life was behind him but he remained a hell of a nice guy. From time to time, I still toy with the idea of conjuring the Zone for use in my life. I still meditate but it’s not led to that kind of breakthrough. Why I connect the two, Gene and the Zone, I don’t entirely know though it could be that for a brief time, and in a private, different way, I experienced the effortless mastery that he did. It would be cool to do so again.

The Mayor Of Stewart Avenue

Each year, the title of “Mayor of Stewart Avenue” was given to a successful area businessman who exhibited likeability and, more importantly, a willingness to share that year’s bounty by hosting a number of alcohol-fueled bashes designed to distract everyone from the undeniable economic decline plaguing the area.  In preceding decades, I’m sure the honor was reserved only for those of the highest moral rank, those captains of Southwest Atlanta industry whose wholesome character guaranteed success, well-behaved children, and a Norman Rockwell home life. For sure, mid 20th century enterprise was prosperous though by the 70s, businesses offering things like boat motors and fishing accessories were not a priority for Stewart Avenue residents. The economy had leveled off into auto pilot which, for a while, was fine but the fiscal dip started cutting into the bottom line. Many stores moved or closed while sleazy car dealers, Liquor Stores (a hit in any economy), No-Tell Motels, and privately owned markets (such as Brothers Three) remained. By the end of the decade there weren’t many candidates for the mayor title though it was a decent excuse to have a party.

The last “Mayor of Stewart Avenue” I recall with any clarity was a guy named Ken K. (his relatives might still be around so I’ll take the anonymous approach) who seemed to be doing quite well financially. He was fond of a drink which he might enjoy spontaneously throughout the day as can only the person with enough money and authority to avoid a rigid work schedule. This didn’t mean that he didn’t work just that he did so when it suited him. Like many in the area, he carried a gun and, when drunk, might discharge it more so to punctuate whatever was going on rather than out of self defense.

I know he certainly did it one night in Bros 3. He stumbled in the front door as he raised a 22 and popped of some shots with the bullets going into the ceiling. We were on him quickly from behind and wrestled the gun from his hand after which he staggered outside to his Cadillac where he wrangled the door open and fell into the front seat with his legs hanging out. Someone later pushed his legs in and shut the door, not out of the customary concern for a brother human, but just to get his ass out of the way. (Whoever did it probably rifled his wallet). When I returned the next morning, he was sitting in the store dealing with a hangover. He had no memory of the firearms display or, more likely, just didn’t want to cop to it since that would involve the assumption of responsibility. Besides, he already had a drink in his shaky hand to take off the edge.

People used to say this albeit unironically

Carrying a gun was not as odd as you might think given the time and place. This was long before credit card use (or possession) was ubiquitous, when gambling debts were always settled with cash (most still are) thus, being rolled was a distinct possibility. Additionally, being known around the Avenue as someone not afraid to bust a few caps could discourage a would-be robber. It could also work against you in that a thief might conclude that it’s easier to first shoot and then take the money. There were instances of that also. A cocky repo guy named Rick, known to “pack heat”, as we used to say, overplayed his hand one night and was himself gunned down by someone who feared being shot first. It flipped me out because just two days before he had helped me execute a candy bar stealing rat who had taken up residence at Brothers Three. I had found the sugar eating rodent behind some Styrofoam coolers. The rat hissed and Rick, who was standing nearby, handed me a 5-iron from a pawned bag of clubs while urging me to “fuck that rat up, boy !“. I took aim at the rodent, who had moved onto his haunches, and swung the club in a perfect arc, culminating in solid contact with his neck which snapped him into the next dimension. 

A Gin and Tonic – I made tons of these at Brother’s Three mostly for other people.

Anyway, back to Ken K. His general manner of speech inferred intoxication.  He slurred his words, grunted, and didn’t walk straight even when totally sober. Many in the area would drink daily and one of my regular duties was to mix drinks at 4:45 sharp for Roughhouse and whomever might be joining him. My orders were direct – make the drinks simple and strong – usually Tanqueray and Tonic or Vodka and OJ. This was the backdrop against which I learned to function. These guys worked pretty hard at the so called “straight job” in addition to whatever side “action” they had (usually gambling). It was hard enough for me to get to work after school and back home in time to finish homework but the Avenue education I received opened my eyes to intriguing possibilities – legal, illegal, and in between. Many of these men would keep drinking well into the evening and sometimes even into the next morning – yet would take exception to the idea of having a drink before the appointed “cock tail hour”.  Others had no such compunction. Most people, especially business owners, need to be sober at least for some portion of the day though if your supplier or partner is like you then it’s just as easy to do deals over lunch time (and sometimes breakfast) drinks. You can do this if you are the boss.

The mayoral election ceremony event was just a formality as that year’s recipient was usually selected well in advance during various drinking sessions held throughout the year. In previous decades, I bet there was a rigid protocol in place for nominations and voting, followed by a family-friendly award ceremony where high quality, catered food was the main event. The general banter would revolve around christian ethics and economic betterment with large checks being written to charities. Many of these businesses were good for sponsorship of Little League teams over at Perkerson Park which at the time was a really big thing  (a topic I discuss here). This was the era of Civic clubs such as the Lions, Civitan, Shriners, Elk, and Moose Lodge whose membership included Stewart Avenue business owners. They surely liked to drink but held up the veneer of social respectability at least until much later in the evening when clumsy sexual propositions would be made to waitresses and even the wives (and sometimes daughters) of fraternal brothers. Such activity, emanating from amateurs and the inexperienced, is never effective.

The 70s version of the Mayor’s ceremony, however, would dispense with any social pretense and might well involve women of the night (as a stated intent) and numerous bottles of liquor being hastily consumed straight out of the case. (Wives and daughters would most definitely NOT be in attendance). Dice games would breakout and public nudity would occur. In terms of the setting, it could be a bar but might just as easily wind up in a place like Kaiser’s Trim Shop where the work area would be converted to a party space – although no one bothered to move customer cars out of the way – the backseats of which might be used for a quickie. I know all of this to be true because it would be my job to run the liquor down to the shop in preparation for the event.

None of the Mayors I encountered would have been invited to articulate their personal ethics and entrepreneurial philosophies at a Church or to a classroom of business students. However, it would be too easy to dismiss them as layabouts or hedonists (well uniquely so) because many did in fact build businesses from scratch and managed to purchase homes, cars, and finance college education for their children.  Even In the face of economic decline, these types were agile and pivoted into other lines of work. They might also tap gambling winnings to pay college tuition or at least a child support payment. Anything to keep the hustle going.

Another thing I noticed about these men was their general lack of self-pity, not that they didn’t complain now and then, but it was usually just a happy hour comment, “the goddamn bank wants to foreclose on the shop”, that would soon be forgotten in the interest of finding a way around the problem even if it meant just accepting it. So, no – they wouldn’t be writing the next “Habits of Successful Business Dudes” but they could probably give a mean Ted Talk on innovative thinking in times of crisis. The title might be, “A  Business Guide For The Functional Alcoholic – How To Have A Good Time, All The Time”. Had any of these Mayors been around during the crash of 29, (some were, though as children), they certainly wouldn’t have jumped out the window. Nor would they have missed using acute national economic ruin as an excuse to have a drink. À votre santé

 

Dipper Dan Ice Cream Shop

You can gauge the financial viability of an area by the number of non-essential businesses it offers. By non-essential, I’m referring to cafes, bakeries, curio shops, and ice cream parlors none of which address required needs in the way that pharmacies and grocery stores might. An abundance of non-essential businesses means there is plenty of money in the area for recreational activities that, in tighter economic times, might not be possible. While I mention an ice cream shop in the title, it is more as a reference to a bygone era of considerable prosperity in the Stewart Avenue corridor rather than as a nostalgic pointer to a favorite childhood experience. I wasn’t that big of an ice cream fan but I loved the social opportunities it provided. Dipper Dan was part of a chain and the one at Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center was located between the The Huddle House and The Barber Shop were most of the employees could have just as easily been moonlighting at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island such was their penchant for buzz cuts. There were a few guys who could actually style hair beyond the boot camp look though if the customer was young, they 1) didn’t give a damn what you wanted and 2) enjoyed mowing down fledgling long haired punks as a means to restore order to a society driven mad by hippies and their backers.

Conway’s Nose Hair

The owner, Smitty, was a nice guy and I had a crush on his daughter who, like me, went to Perkerson elementary. So, if I could, I would try to line up a cut with him but usually wound up with one of those surly “barbers” who smelled of last night’s booze and whose shaky hand work would inevitably result in a laceration or two. These guys never acknowledged their mistakes, let along apologized for them, choosing rather to silently break out the Styptic Pen to arrest the bleeding as if nothing had ever happened. To their credit, they were fast. Get in the chair, get buzzed, and get gone. One of my most vivid memories was a guy with Conway Twitty style hair sitting in the chair while getting a manicure. I had never seen a man getting his nails done although the bigger issue was that he had enough hair emanating from his nose to form the basis of a curly mustache. One of the barbers got around to trimming that away (I thought he would need hedge clippers) and I immediately filed that image under the category of “things to never let happen to myself if I can possibly help it“.

Meeting Girls At The Mall

Oh, but this was supposed to be about the Ice Cream shop. There were multiple area locations of Dipper Dan with one opening up at the brand new Greenbriar Mall whose introduction dealt a serious blow to Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center. Greenbriar was an air conditioned, in door Mall with a number of attractive stores and restaurants of significantly larger size and variety than anything else in the region. It also gave a comfortable backdrop for that “teen thing” to happen where you could meet up with your friends and maybe check out the girls from the other schools – if you couldn’t find any from your own. While it was generally frowned upon to seek inter-school companionship, lots of flirtation happened, which might lead to some dirty looks, or even a fight, coming from guys for stealing THIER women ! Kind of an odd accusation since if that were actually true then why were THIER women giving us phone numbers in the first place ? Of course, there is that type of girl who will flirt just to see if she has something that anyone might be interested in yet has no intention of moving beyond that. Part of your job is to try to figure it all out. (Good luck with that).

Ice Cream Kisses

Dipper Dan had this blend called “Rainbow” which was a swirly combo of different flavors. Sort of like Lucky Charms Cereal in ice cream form. It was very sweet but not as sweet as the Bubblegum flavor, infamous for inducing vomiting in the little kids who were attracted to the orange fright wig color. I’m pretty sure they had a mop dedicated exclusively for vomit collection and, of course, no one wanted to be on clean up duty. It was pretty much a job assigned to the new employees most of whom were teenagers. Another frequent problem was the kids who dropped their cones even before their parents had paid for them !  Anyway, Dipper Dan was a place to get a cone and if you could get a girl to share a milkshake with you then you knew you were onto something. Two straws, one shake, sitting across from one another – staring into each other’s eyes ? It was almost like a kiss. There was no actual contact being made (maybe your respective knees under the table) but no one could really complain since it was pretty wholesome and very Norman Rockwell.

Chili Three Ways

There were still plenty of non-mall, standalone malt and shake shops in the area such as Dairy Queen and Zestos. There were some drive in places like Steak and Shake which offered something called “Chili Three Ways” sometimes known as “Three Way Chili”. One night my Mother and Father took me there and for some reason I made the observation that “Chili Three Ways” sounded like an illicit sexual act or something that one might see in a Times Square Peep show (like I would have known). My Mother didn’t react well to this, thinking maybe that I was an emerging pervert with a food fetish. Truth be told, I don’t know what made me say that except maybe I had been listening to George Carlin’s “Class Clown” record which provoked some subversive thinking. My Father reacted by spraying coke out of his nose as my Mother hit him for laughing. It took a while, but he stopped to say, “Son, That’s not a thing to say, especially in mixed company”. I acted contrite but on the ride home he kept making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror almost breaking out in laughter again. He couldn’t come out and say “good one” (until we were alone).

I don’t recall exactly when Dipper Dan closed but once the White Flight took hold and families bolted from the area, lots of those “non-essential” businesses shut down. Even the various hair places and dry cleaners closed because there wasn’t enough discretionary income floating around the area for those businesses to pay rent. The only sure things were the car lots, liquor stores (people drink in good or bad economies) and grocery stores. Sure, there were the NoTell Motels, some pizza joints and bars but once the families left so did the family businesses. Now, all this said. I notice that a new bakery has opened up on Sylvan Rd which looks to have three (!) cafes: Blendz Cafe, Rosie’s Coffee Cafe, and Bakery Bourgoyne (technically located on Evans Drive). This is astonishing to me and also lifts my mood considerably because if these kinds of establishments can flourish then perhaps a resurgence will occur ?

Beware The Nudist Colony

Part of the joy of being in a band is playing live (see the dill pickle appreciation story) in front of diverse types of people, some of whom might represent a stepping stone to a new level of existence in the music business (if only incrementally). That shouldn’t necessarily be the primary motivation for performance but it certainly doesn’t hurt when someone approaches you with a well-intended, (and hopefully legitimate), offer of financial support. Some forms of sponsorship might be shady or based upon the execution of a chain of events, perhaps involving the movement of some “material”, before the cash becomes available. It’s more common, though, to receive basic types of appreciation, such as a home-cooked meal or a place to stay for the night.

Playing private parties can be a good source of income and once you make a few solid connections of this type, life can becomes easier. The only down side is the implied quid-pro-quo wherein the host generally wants to hear certain songs or expects to “sit in”. That’s generally okay but it does get awkward when someone’s wife wants to go all Janis Joplin, usually in some horrible approximation thereof, and then not leave the stage.

The inimitable John Kay ! Note that dark sunglasses can be helpful when having to view large (numbers of) nudists.

My band was once hired to play a private 4th of July party for a large and very well organized colony of nudists. When I say “large” I mean both in terms of body count and average attendee girth. When I say “organized” they owned the land they used for the festivities and had built an impressive compound that hosted people throughout the week. There were about 350 nudists present and although the event was 40 years ago, I’m still in therapy. I’m all for self-acceptance and personal esteem but I was not prepared for the jiggling mounds of flesh on display that sweltering Georgia day.

The nudists were very nice people, in that zany way that hippies usually are, and their generosity was overwhelming. The band was not in any way compelled to disrobe. Someone had deep pockets as the PA was top flight and professionally engineered (a guy from Showco). The event was also impressively catered with a veritable cornucopia of food (including vegetarian options) as well as top shelf alcohol. Not all in the crowd were unattractive but enough were so as to make it difficult to look at anyone straight-on for more than a few milliseconds, thus dark sun glasses became a necessity. I must have looked like John Kay except I did not suffer from any type of visual impairment – though might have were I forced to view the mountain of flesh without some form of protection.

Most nudists, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are politically and socially motivated more so than by any lurid or carnal urge that the typical outsider might imagine. By stripping (literally) away any pretense, people can presumably better view the other for what they truly are – a human being to be accepted independently of any perceived physical imperfections. (Or so goes that zany hippy logic) Talk to any seasoned medical professional and they will generally exhibit a bored attitude towards the nudity of others although generally only within the confines of a medical encounter. I’ve always been on the fence about the whole “let it all hang out” thing. If you have the body for it then I suppose it might be alright but in absence of that then maybe first hit the gym for a few months (or years) before presenting yourself to the public ? I’m speaking in general because intentional public nudity is not on my bucket list. I mean if I have to run out of a burning house with little or no coverage then so be it, but that’s about the only way I’ll do it.

My Father had a roommate named Bill whose very plump girlfriend we chose to nickname “Elastic Woman” because of her preference for those thick, industrial grade bras and girdles that were clearly visible under the polyester pant suits that were once all the rage. Women of a certain size used such clothing to forcefully constrain their flesh which might otherwise “spill out” in a vulgar protoplasmic display. We theorized that, so tight were the garments worn by “Elastic Woman“, that should they break under the strain, they would jet across the room in a sling-shot style effect, killing any one in the line of fire – a sleeping boyfriend, the cat, or maybe even the television. Damn, how did I get off into that ? Oh yea. There were a lot of women at the gig who resembled “Elastic Woman” minus the clothes that is.

Oh that we all could have the self-acceptance ability of cool jazz cat Herbie Mann

For the most part, the gig progressed quite well with the crowd demonstrating its appreciation by dancing in clusters of hand-holding hippy families which hearkened back to the commune days of the 60s. During a break, one of the upper level colony representatives introduced us to his wife which I thought might be part of some Inuit-influenced wife sharing ceremony. If it was, the fact that I, nor any of the other band members did not know the proper acceptance protocol, must have stopped it. In retrospect, I’m sure it was nothing of the sort. Rather than continue the awkward moment, he asked if he could sit in with the band on a few tunes. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem but the fact that he was nude and profusely sweating from lots of outdoor hippie dancing in the July heat meant that he would have had to wear the guitar in such a way that it would make contact with the matted greasy stomach hair (see photo to the left) as well as certain “other” body parts which in my mind would totally defile the guitar. I certainly knew he wasn’t going use my guitar.

I think he sensed the overall vibe and said, “Hey, I’ve got my own instrument” for which I was very grateful. His over emphasis on the word instrument suggested he was about to add, “no pun intended” but thankfully he declined. As a guitarist, he was pretty good in that Yasgur’s farm kind of way where you turn it up like Leslie West whom he kind of resembled albeit with no clothes. His sitting in led to more nudists on stage (which they had built) so it’s not like we could ask them to leave. Any mental adjustment I had made over the past hour in response to playing for the naked hippie pack was reset by having sweaty, corpulent bodies jumping around in uncomfortably close proximity. Mercifully, that was more or less the end of the engagement. The load out was plagued with people asking various questions which in any other case would have been fine, except, again, they were totally naked while trying to help lift road cases – a very unsafe proposition. So I kept the shades on even though it was well past sun down.

These days it’s difficult to escape body obsessed culture and shows like “Naked And Afraid” – a name I could never really remember, confusing it with names like “Nude And Angry” or “Irritated and Naked”. I notice that gyms seem to have these programs on wide screen TVs perhaps as a motivator for people to get into shape. Given the widespread availability of plastic surgery I suppose that route is a possibility though it seems that once you go down that route, it requires ongoing “touch ups” and associated procedures to protect the original investment. You just have to decide if what you have really needs any “help” in the first place. I mean, maybe the hippies got it right in that you should just roll with what you got but maybe just keep it private ?

“Writing As Penance”

Forced Entries is the sequel to The Basketball Diaries

I’ve been on something of a break while attending to other matters which has included catching up on (re)reading some favorite books to recharge my creative batteries. I rarely check out new publications, not out of some form of “they don’t make them like they use to” snobbery, just that when pinched for time I’ll gladly opt for the familiar over rolling the dice on the latest “must read” whose publication was probably facilitated by some back end nepotism or an inside favor granted to a former sorority sister. Sorry, but I’m recovering from the bitter sting of rejection as my essay on Southside Atlanta crime apparently lost out to a “Top Ten Botox Docs” style article which, by the way, was a huge smash. When I stare daggers at the person who just cut me off in the around-the-clock traffic jam that Atlanta has become, I really like it that the face shining back at me will be smooth and wrinkle free. Where was I ? Oh, yea. So I ran across a copy Jim Carrol’s “Forced Entries” when looking for a lost debit card (which is still missing). I’m a pushover for my favorite books. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, sit down, and start reading. Oh and this isn’t a book review. I’m not sure I’m capable of that. It’s more of a recommendation and some brief comments.

Sordid Tales or Catholic Sojourn ?

On one level, Forced Entries is a book of observational tales set in 1970s New York where Jim Carroll (of “The Basketball Diaries” fame) handles life as a young poet with a clingy drug habit (is there any other kind ?) And, taken superficially, it does provide plenty of entertaining anecdotes on topics such as Warhol, the shame of being a poet, and the realization that 60s style activism smelled funny in the sunlight of the new decade. Certain icons (Leary, Hoffman for starters) might have just been as full of it as any corporate leader or politician they ever demonized. This is where a real book critic might use the word irreverent though Carroll is anything but that. He earns the right to sarcasm by laying out a careful analysis of almost every situation with the (eventual) ability to see his own role in the scene. Most of us will detail the behavior of everyone else, few talk about how we might have contributed to any emerging controversy. Don’t get me wrong, Carroll is no saint, though he does make appeals to them – even the lower tier ones:

I light a candle midway down the right aisle, in front of the statue of an obscure saint named Dustan, who I find out later is the patron saint of lighthouse keepers… I don’t know if I should take it as an omen, but the fresh wooden taper will not catch on the flame I am using to get a light… I take my seat under the plaster blue eyes of St. Dustan, who it turns out was also heavy into politics and writing hymns, one of which was quite a hit on the Gregorian charts.

There are lots of way to board the train with this book meaning you can start reading anywhere although, as with most books, it’s better to start at the beginning. I treat it like a literary “8 Ball” where you shake the ball containing the answer wheel suspended in some form of murky ink from which answers creepily emerge. Except with Forced Entries I tend to get confirmation in some strange sense that I’m either full of it or am living more honestly than before. The capacity to deceive oneself is quite significant and something about reading this book counteracts my tendencies towards that behavior. It’s not a morality thing, more of spiritual investigation. I mean, is it an accident that Carroll keeps winding up in cathedrals, sometimes sitting through “4 funerals” of people he doesn’t even know ?

The Ritual Within The SpiRitual

Continuing with this line of thinking, the book is a sojourn of a lapsed Catholic whose connections with the Cool and Hip (The Velvet Underground Warhol, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al) provide no insulation against life’s bad weather or even the tedium of daily existence which can be as hard to handle, if not more so, than any crisis.

There is no cool left in me. The only resources I retain are a minimum of rage and controlled madness, barely enough to offset the bullshit paraphernalia of art and the city. I thought I could deal with, perhaps even come to understand, my obsessions through some strained eloquence.

I can’t keep a steady style in my writing standing on these shifting platforms of artifice and quick change. I try to fuse my life and my work, to keep up with the tiresome dodging of cars and drugs. Bur when you are walking such a thin wire above such a chic and sleazy cosmopolitan abyss, you don’t stop to think. 

His view on the Church:

I was this Catholic kid, and I never really lost that. I loved the rituals of Catholicism. The mass is a magic ritual; it’s a transubstantiation, and the stations of the cross – I mean, a crown of thorns? Getting whipped? It’s punk rock.

He tries a proverbial geographical cure to Bolinas, California where life improves yet, his path to redemption inevitably requires a return to (rematch with) NYC where he rids himself of literal and figurative corruption. His comeback does involve a couple of harrowing temptations that invite a return to the bullshit artifice and manufactured hipness inherent to the city experience but he he experiences relief which, at a minimum, allows him to function in a much less anguished fashion.

I’m like a boxer making a comeback out in the sticks, where I was sent by too many knockouts in the big city.

The Downside

The only problem with this book is how, like its predecessor, it has been hijacked by would-be hipsters as evidence of drug use for creativity enhancement. It didn’t help that the movie version of The Basketball Dairies pandered to this idea while promoting second string ideas into major movie components (the classroom violence scene). However, if you pay the least bit of attention, such activity is unambiguously represented as a dead end street. Collections of impressions rarely translate well to cinema as they will be reworked in service to lowest-common-denominator audience sensibilities or, in the case of the Art-House circuit, desired critical acclaim at an upcoming film festival (no matter how obscure). “Winner Of The Coveted Frowning Pygmy Award for Best New Film In An Unknown (And Unwanted) Genre”.

I understand that some enjoy reading the “look what I did to support my drug habit” type of story which might be part (a small one) of a larger arc but it’s not really about that. Anyone interested, or cursed, with a thirsty spirit for what lies beyond will probably pursue any number of activities that will not make any sense when viewed through the lens of practicality. But there is little hope in discouraging the true pilgrim from what is most assuredly a Mission that will involve some sordid side trips now and then. In terms of the title of this entry, “Writing as Penance“, that is a phrase associated with Forced Entries as well as some other publications though I don’t know who first coined it. However, to me, it makes perfect sense as forcing oneself to put down words that capture ideas and experiences in a way that is honest and reasonably intelligible is not only difficult but does purify the author or at least validate the workman-like nature of the effort. It clears the books if only for a while.

Church, Chow And Change

It somehow escaped my attention that S&S Cafeteria at 2002 Campbellton Road closed last year after 50 years of service to the Southwest Atlanta community. I remember this place as well as other cafeteria chains that have either waned in popularity or have been edged out by real estate development. I’m talking about Picadilly, Morrison’s, and Davis Brothers cafeterias all of which flourished in the southeast during the mid to late part of the 20th century. The food quality varied with location but it was generally passable with an occasional glimpse of accidental culinary excellence. Of particular significance was the role these places played on Sunday afternoons throughout the Bible Belt (more on this in a bit). Cafeterias were also popular during the week and provided chow for working stiffs or the elderly for whom home cooking had become dangerous or difficult due to cognitive (or appliance) failure. For the aged, the cafeteria might be the only form of public interaction outside of a doctor’s visit.

And then you had people like me – an inveterate bachelor totally disinterested (or incompetent) in cooking who needed to fulfill the biological obligation with an occasional halfway decent meal. These places were also great for eating your way out of a hangover though it required dark sunglasses as the interior was extremely well lit and the heat lamps radiated such intense heat that sun screen would have been helpful. I would also go to some of those buffet style, (dis)comfort food restaurants that instigated rules to prevent abuse of “all you can eat” deals. There would be a huge sign, in retina singeing red, explicitly forbidding buffet take out. When confronted, an obese woman clutching a Styrofoam box screamed, “I didn’t come her to read no damn signs, I came to eat”.

You’re An Imposter !

It never occurred to me that anyone would use cafeterias to make social or romantic contact but I was wrong. My physical similarity to another customer, a popular local physician, helped perpetuate an ongoing case of mistaken identity. Any attempts to correct the situation only intensified it. One of the line workers would say, “Oh hey Doc, What’s up man ?” I would jump in, “I’m doing well but I think there has been a big mistake, I’m actually not a do-.” But they were too busy and would cut me off, “That’s funny Doc. Gotta get back to it, See ya later Doc.

I swear – I am NOT Doctor Phillips !

The whole thing came to a head one night when a regular diner, an older woman, brought over her daughter and granddaughter, respectively about 40 and 20 years of age, and introduced them while making reference to an absent daughter in case I was underwhelmed by the beauty presently on offer. I had just cracked my 30s so I guess she was splitting the difference age-wise. “And girls, this is Doctor Phillips, an up-and-coming $urgeon. He was recently featured in the Atlanta Journal.” It was like Moses being offered his pick of Midian Shepherd women. I explained that I was not “Doctor Phillips” nor a physician or even close to being one. Well, that did the trick and they became red with embarrassment, but not for themselves – for me ! As they marched off, the daughter asked, “What kind of sick bastard would act like a Doctor just to meet women”.

I wasn’t out of the woods just yet – one of the cashiers took a liking to me though it became noticeable only after examining my ticket which included a “senior citizens discount.” I assumed it was an accident but it kept happening. While she was in my age range I did not find her at all appealing at least in that way so it got to be a bit awkward. However, it wasn’t awkward at all for my roommate who, unbeknownst to me, invited her and a co-worker over to our house one night. I came home to find two randy Picadilly women sitting on my couch – they were still in uniform ! Before I could react, one of them said, “I would just LOVE to get out of this itchy thing and take a long hot shower right about now.” As a person who likes to compartmentalize things in my life, this was like a cattle prod to the brain. Was I hallucinating ? I know it was rude but I feigned illness and locked myself in the bedroom until they left. Of course, this then meant that I had to find another cafeteria to go to.

How Sunday Church Works (Or Doesn’t)

Church attendance took place in two waves with the first group going only to Sunday School so as to complete their religious obligation in time to make it to the cafeteria and enjoy a leisurely early lunch. So the fat and happy first wavers would be strutting out of the cafeteria around 12:10 just as the second, and much larger, wave of main service parishioners would be queuing up in a line that might already be out the door. There would be some nasty looks exchanged between the two groups with the latter questioning the former’s spiritual integrity. Although, in my opinion, Church was mostly secondary to the food experience for either group and those obsessed with beating the crowds would always park on the fringe of the Church parking lot to facilitate a quick getaway. You couldn’t really blame the Moms who might look forward to the experience so they wouldn’t have to cook on a Sunday. But they tried to bundle too much into it all – bring along Grandpa and Grandma and task the older kids with guardian duty. These diners might not offer a Blessing over the meal under the assumption that their earlier service attendance provided more than adequate evidence of  gratitude thus it was fine to proceed directly with the chow down.

Preachy Preachers

The clergy were definitely hip to this scene and most would never dare end the Service late, fearing that next week’s collection plate might be light as a form of retribution. Some clergy would openly joke about the situation going so far as to make reference to that day’s anticipated food specials within their sermon !

I know I’m keeping you from that butter milk fried chicken and smooth cream corn but remember that no human gets through life without experiencing at least some of what Job went through during his tribulations.

Quite a juxtaposition but he wanted (perhaps needed) to let congregants know he wouldn’t be keeping them much longer. They were already thinking, “Job didn’t have to wait in cafeteria lines like we will if you don’t wrap it up there, Preach.” In contrast, some clergy, particularly the Baptists, might hold the congregation late just to assert authority and make a case against gluttony albeit without explicitly mentioning it. My friend Demetrius told me that his Church had it the worst where the Preacher might drone on until 1 p.m. or longer depending on “where the spirit took him.” The cafeteria rush would begin around 11:45 a.m. and might not end till around 3 p.m. after which the dining room looked worse than the chow hall at San Quentin after a nail gun riot.

You Gotta Act Right !

Engaging the cafeteria line involved a strict protocol. First was picking up a tray and some rolled up silverware that might become magnetized due to repeated washing in an industrial sized utensil cleanser. Next was the selection of coleslaw, carrot salad, or the “radiation green jello” topped with cottage cheese any of which could be subbed in for a vegetable if going for the daily special. Next up was the pricey entree, a large piece of fish, quiche (rare in the South at that time), a Ribeye steak or some Prime Rib. Anyone selecting these options might be singled out for derision by those in line behind the “big spender“. “Ooooo. Mr. Money bags, gettin’ that high dollar food.” Next up were the daily special options (e.g. “Dilly Plate”) such as the square cut cod, spaghetti, chopped steak, sliced roast beef, followed by whatever vegetables were on offer – mashed potatoes were a standard. A dinner roll or corn stick was available as was dessert including that lemon pie wedge with the meringue that would shift and collapse under its own weight after an hour at room temperature. Then you picked the beverage from pre-filled glasses of ice-tea or sodas before encountering the food line cashier who would print up a ticket to be paid at the conclusion of your meal to another cashier located near the exit doors. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it ?

Don’t Even Think About It !

Breaking in line could result in an ass kicking. One simply did not try this and exceptions were made only for the elderly, infirm, or someone who was obviously joining a family already in line. Still, the latecomer would get the stare-down and be expected to offer an explanation which was usually along the lines of, “Excuse me, I’m so sorry. I was parking the car and need to get to my wife and kids.” Another offense involved holding up the line by asking stupid questions or making witless remarks to the line workers who did not like behavioral deviations as it interfered with overall efficiency. I discovered that the thing to do was tip the table workers very well so word would float back to the line that I was “okay”. This would establish some bankable good will upon which I could later draw should it become necessary. Not that I ever held up the line – I just didn’t want the people handling my food to NOT like me.

Cafeterias are still around and the behaviors I describe are not unique to the South or a specific type of Church. I’ve seen plenty of Catholics bolt immediately after Communion to beat the crowds which, if you live in a metropolitan area, is really not necessary since there are many more eating options now than in previous decades. There are even various brunch joints where people willingly stand in line for hours waiting for a shot at an overpriced Spanish omelette delivered by an overworked wait person. But, if it’s in the right part of town then your social rep can improve. It has never occurred to me to Instagram my high dollar eggs-and-bacon experience yet many do. Let’s just say that enough eating and takeout delivery places exist to lessen the concerns of even the hungriest church goer stuck in an interminable Church service. Ryan’s Steakhouse is popular I’m told and evidently the “Chocolate Fountain” (!) at The Golden Corral is not to be missed. If, however, you live in the country or deep in the suburbs you might find yourself having to plan an early departure from a service gone into overtime. Not all cafeterias are equal and where you go could well be the difference between a full on Redneck Communion or a solemn, loving meal between family members and fellow congregants. © 2019 The Stewart Avenue Kid.

Atlanta Police Zone 3 Precinct – Update

The New Precinct will be right across from the Alamo Plaza – “We’ll be watching you even if it is 26 years too late”

This is an update to my Stewart Avenue Crime Time Part 1 post on what I believe to be a very important development for the Stewart Avenue / Metropolitan Parkway corridor. The City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs has just recently called for proposals to install art in and around the Zone 3 Police Precinct which is soon to be built at 2353 Metropolitan Parkway. Area residents, as well as the Police Chief, expect the precinct to contribute significantly to neighborhood safety but also to the revival of the area’s image. I find it interesting, and entirely appropriate, that the precinct will be located directly across from what used to be The Alamo Plaza where the nadir of Stewart Avenue took place in 1993. As an area native, I appreciate what I think is a strategic decision though even if it wasn’t, it represents a stabilizing bookend to that tragic event which I covered in Let’s Go Drink One.  I’ll provide an excerpt here: (I know – how arrogant to quote myself though it is kind of relevant)

Some North side guys experienced a nasty bachelor party run-in with a transsexual hooker and his/her pimp. It was the classic consumer case of “we didn’t get what we paid for” although the “Returns Department” issued a “Lead Refund”. So the City stepped in, closed down the the Alamo Plaza, (once a wholesome motel for traveling families), repaired some potholes, did some repaving, and applied a new name with little expectation that anyone would buy in to the idea that it would change anything.

The Stewart Avenue name had already become quite offensive to city leaders of the time and the resulting double murder at The Alamo (sounds like the name of a movie) was the proverbial last straw. Check the Atlanta Time Machine page for some more details. Atlanta likes to change street names as if that alone will fix things but I sincerely hope the precinct makes an impact. Logistically, the location is excellent as it provides plenty of room for expansion as well as rapid access to a number of areas. While I can’t be sure, I think this might be the essential turnaround event for this area to flourish. In-town properties are scarce and the Metropolitan corridor is minutes from Downtown or the Airport with almost no traffic when compared to all other parts of Atlanta. Lastly, if you are new to this blog, it’s pretty much devoted to the history (albeit a personalized one) of Southwest Atlanta so feel free to look around.

Chain Gangs And Wino Caves

There is a rock quarry located on Sylvan Rd in Southwest Atlanta (well technically East Point) which I’m told was at one time worked by a combination of convict labor and black citizens who found themselves in violation of arbitrary laws, historically known as “Black Codes“, designed to (re)enslave them despite the ratification of the 13th Amendment. However, I don’t know when this particular locale was “opened for business” or to what extent the labor pool included Black Code “violators”.  History would have us believe that it was only the “worst of the worst” who were employed for cutting stone under the blistering Georgia sun.  This page, however, describes such issues in greater detail as well as the Atlanta Bellwood Quarry for which solid documentation does exist of labor and human abuse. According to another site, Georgia was, in the 1890s, the first state to use convict labor outside of prison walls though it rapidly “caught on” in many other states. That the idea of a “convict” might be extended to include a person or family who found themselves in violation of trip wire laws designed to entrap them was/is shocking.

Employment of chain gang labor persisted into the 50s when it was largely abolished but not before politicians / businessmen had enriched themselves by offering massively discounted labor as part of project bids. (See The Shawshank Redemption for a dramatization of such actions). Georgia abandoned the practice only in 1955 and North Carolina only in the 70s. By the 60s, the Sylvan Rd quarry was abandoned as a going concern and apparently hadn’t been touched in years. I wanted to point all of this out because the area might represent an enduring offense to the humanity and dignity of those forced to carve stone for a city that valued only part of the population. For the kids coming to the area in the 60s, we were unaware of this past. No one talked about – at all ! The quarry was merely a fascinating land mark to be explored and “conquered” in a way that kids imagine – long before video games that is. That is also attracted winos and indigents only added to the mystique.

Urban Camping

A satellite image of the Sylvan Rd Rock Quarry – Click to Expand

Access to the quarry (outlined by the red rectangle) could be gained directly off of Sylvan Rd though it involved commercial trespass so the winos waited till close of business before descending into the quarry to traverse the field of unevenly distributed sharp-edged rocks on the way to the opposite side where the cave was located (the green oval) – about 10 feet up. The easier approach was to enter from the rear of Springdale Christian Church (outlined by the blue square) and proceed up through some lush woods that overlooked the southeast corner of the quarry and provided direct access to the cave. But as that route required walking conspicuously through what was then a very new neighborhood, the winos wisely avoided it, fearing arrest. The cave opening had been formed by some mutually receding, clam shaped rocks that seemed content to remain in place until some future tectonic action might end their relative placement as well as the life of whomever had the misfortune of being inside the cave at the time. But, such a possibility didn’t stop us or the area winos from fully investigating what it might offer. It was perfect for teenagers wanting to sneak a drink of King Cotton Peach Wine, smoke a Camel or look at one of the nudie mags someone left behind. For the itinerant alcoholics, or those on the lam, it was simply a place to cool off before moving on.

Getting into the cave was a young man’s game as one had to crawl head first into the entrance and move slowly downward while spidering out one’s limbs to balance across some oddly angled rocks until reaching a relatively flat and spacious area about 5 feet down. How the winos made it in (especially when drunk) I don’t know as none of them seemed in sufficiently good shape to get TO the cave let alone INTO it. Not surprisingly, they accumulated a number of bruises in addition to the ones they already had. So once they made it, they usually didn’t go anywhere for a while. It’s tough to accurately estimate a wino’s age as they will always look older due to ripped garments, random extremity lacerations, and the usual personal hygiene deficiencies accompanying the lifestyle (rotten teeth, fetid breath, and weapons grade body odor). But it didn’t stop them from offering up tales of olympian achievement or circuitous justifications for their behavior. 

Who Shot John ? 

One of the winos characterized himself as a former military insider whose knowledge of John F. Kennedy’s “true” assassins (surprise, there was more than one) made him an enemy of the state. So he was destined to be forever on the run adopting various disguises as he made occasional contact with similarly ostracized individuals identifiable only by a set of secret gestures. “How do you know who might be such a person“, I asked. “Oh you just know, it’s the look. And then you offer up the signal. But, I’ve really told you too much already“. Most of these guys were just providing entertainment in exchange for money, cigarettes, old clothes or anything we might offer. None of them remained long in the quarry but they left us with a valuable gag reel which we riffed on for weeks making ridiculous hand gestures as if mercenaries in some unnamed military campaign. “My nom de guerre is Colonel Sanders and I served proudly in the Fried Chickens Wars of the 60s“. No one, especially our parents, knew what the hell we were talking about which made it even more funny.

Ann Margaret Was Bad In The Sack ?

One of the longer residents of the cave was Howard who, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, preferred to be called Sonny as a form of tribute to his birth Mother whom he claimed to have known only for a few years before being packed off to live with his Father and new Step Mother. I noticed a correlation between the names and level of drinking. “Sonny” liked to get unapologetically and paralytically drunk whereas “Howard” drank less (though still to excess) and exhibited anxiety with his inability to cease alcohol consumption. Unlike most of the winos seeking refuge in the cave, Howard was a local who lived in a trailer on Stewart Avenue with his sister. She had given him money to purchase tomato seeds and fertilizer at King Hardware though failed miserably in the mission having chosen to buy a half gallon of Smirnoff instead. So he was banned from the trailer and sought refuge in the cave. He expressed great admiration for Rod Stewart who was just then experiencing his first major taste of success as a solo artist. He saw in Rod a kindred spirit attached to the ways of romance and nostalgia for the “Gasoline Alley” of one’s youth. Howard talked openly of his brief but torrid love affair with none other than famed actress Ann Margaret whom he claimed to have met as her star was in ascendence. “She was a lousy lay“, he said while puffing on a Lucky Strike. “Not nearly as good as Jayne Mansfield or Raquel Welch”. Wait… What ? I noticed that exaggerated masculinity was a characteristic of any of these stories as if their problems could all be traced to being “too much man” for society at large. 

The appeal of what was once powerful and compelling will usually wane with time especially when considering that girls had no interest in going to the quarry with me which is why I stopped going. Besides, I had already begun my tenure on Stewart Avenue which afforded access to many things of far greater interest than some smelly cave inhabited with outcasts and those not long for the world. In viewing the Google satellite maps of the area it appears that the quarry is intact although overgrown with a mixture of kudzu and the greenery common to humid Atlanta. Since the geography seems the same, perhaps the cave is still there and it might even contain the refuse of teenage drinking and smoking – or even some of the graffiti we spray painted on the stone. I’m pretty sure I could still find it though getting into it might be a challenge what with the extra pounds that I now carry. As I keep pointing out in my posts, the general area is quite ripe for aggressive housing development though building on top of quarries is usually quite difficult. So even if town homes and condos spring up on the proximal boundaries, the quarry will probably be left alone. It could become a dedication site for those who labored and died there but that would require a much larger examination and corresponding acknowledgment. This is one of those situations where I would really like input from the older readers of this blog so we can get the story straight. The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2019

 

You Drink Too Damn Much

Life can sometimes pile on in ways that seem unfair, particularly when compared to those people better prepared (if only financially) for the vagaries of existence. Most will view a job layoff, the loss of a family member, or being dumped as exceptional and not something to be taken personally. Those more accustomed to misfortune might view such events as evidence of diminishing luck and regress towards a fatalistic outlook. And if you swallow the idea that the exception has become the rule, then a drink, or something like it, can help keep the mind straight as conventional coping mechanisms will become increasingly ineffective under chronic stress. Of course, drinking is a conventional coping mechanism customarily employed by the masses to smooth nerves frayed by a demanding boss, a looming deadline, or a shrinking bank account. Social drinking can also ease communication with prospective love interests or at least cushion the trauma of personal rejection (is there any other kind ?) so it’s not without benefit. However, when pursued over time and ritualistically, (e.g. happy hours, nightly cocktails, weekend benders, tail gating), it can facilitate an incremental nadir involving a special blend of raw misery, legal problems, and self-loathing – which lends credence to the expression:

If you have 100 problems and 1 of them is drinking, then you really have only 1 problem

Alcohol (or an opioid) is no respecter of persons. It exhibits a profound normalizing effect across socioeconomic and racial groups. To wit, there are plenty of well-heeled sloshes who find themselves quivering through withdrawals in a sweat-soaked hospital bed, lying next to a homeless guy as both wonder “how the hell did I wind up next to him ?” At that point, they have more in common than not. My personal view is that addiction is a spiritual tapeworm which intercepts any good that might ordinarily be destined for the better parts of yourself. The addiction flourishes even as you don’t and inversely so. A deteriorating physical state and decline of self esteem will correspond to an increase in cravings.

Carrie Nation – I wouldn’t want to piss her off but it looks like someone already did.

I’m no Carrie Nation. So, if and to what extent someone drinks or “uses” is really their business until it spills over (no pun intended) onto spouses, children, co-workers, or strangers at which point it does become a larger issue. Morally though, if you wish to supplement, limit, or expand your consciousness then no problem as long as you keep your personal revelations away from me. After all, I did my own brand of experimentation and also worked in a liquor store which involved frequent encounters with urban shamans hawking their drug-and-booze-derived philosophies. Stewart Avenue was mostly a hard drinking section of town though one had easy access to any thing including LSD, the Ayahuasca of its day, which promised deep insight otherwise available only to the Mystics or meditating mountain dwellers. Despite its undeniable entertainment value, it didn’t really “fix” anyone or anything. A friend, and one time prelate of the local LSD scene, offered:

If I’m being honest, the wonderfully intricate answers that were so solid in the trip, would easily disintegrate with the first bit of returning reality. All that insight ran for cover when I sat down in front of that unpaid stack of bills.

Evidently, knowing life’s underlying scared geometry doesn’t help with the tedium of daily living. What a surprise ! The power company doesn’t really care if you just spent 7 hours circling the rings of Saturn while mind melding with The Universal Architect. Just pay your bill there, Dr. Leary, and we’ll turn the lights back on so you can experience some REAL “illumination”.

Geez ! What’s Got You So Worked Up ?

The Exorcist II – Dear God ! How did I wind up in this awful movie ?

But what started this particular post (rant) ? Ah yes, this 1980 video of Richard Burton being interviewed by Dick Cavett. A friend of mine sent me the link and I recall seeing this interview when it originally aired. Well I think so. I might have been out partying and saw it later in reruns. I always liked Burton and in addition to being a quality actor he possessed a velvety smooth baritone which I emulated in my youth (minus the accent) to unintentional, humorous effect. Anyway, he discusses a number of things though it’s the topic of alcoholism that interests me. Let me be clear that I’m not particularly interested in roasting Richard Burton or entertainers in general though this video so well captures the struggles of substance abuse that it merits discussion. The majority of the video commenters cast him as an unwitting victim, unfairly targeted by alcohol, whereas I see someone in denial who continues to play an active role in his own demise. Being equipped with abundant financial resources and a certain level of fame meant he didn’t have a particular boss to please. Nor was there a looming financial disaster that, for those of fewer means, might motivate a life change. He could, and did, delay his descent even though his persona had already become inextricably linked to alcohol. Unlike Dean Martin, who comically exaggerated his own drinking to good effect, such an approach would not be helpful to Burton who was, after all, an accomplished thespian who generally took on serious and challenging roles.

Accommodations were made for his “situation” which involved accepting work beneath his talents and for less money than he commanded in previous years. Anyone seeing the Exorcist II: The Heretic will know instantly that something went horribly wrong. Merely taking the role raised eyebrows. To be fair, It was a bad movie all around so its failure can not be attributed solely to Burton, but he was supposed to be the ace in the hole to ensure its success. The funny thing was that both Burton and Boorman, (the director with an unfortunate surname), thought separately that each was doing the other a favor. I suppose what really concerns me about the video are his references to maintaining abstinence via “my particular form of self control and, of course, the enormous assistance of my wife” as if either could realistically sustain abstinence in the long run. And was it really her job to monitor his behavior ? I’ve also never met someone, firmly in the alcoholic grip, who could summon enough self-knowledge or will power to effectively control addiction. There are heavy drinkers who are not at all alcoholic who can stop given sufficient motivation. They distinguish themselves from “real” alcoholics by being able to not drink without experiencing the crippling anxiety exhibited by one who has become “pickled” and not only wants the drink but “needs” it.

How Much Is Enough ?

In my experience, Burton was not simply a heavy drinker who accidentally got a bad rap. He wouldn’t cop to being an alcoholic though readily concedes, “I’m right on the edge of being one”, something I’ve heard numerous times from people invested in the idea that a drink remains a reasonable option despite all evidence to the contrary. In this regard, the video can be as harmful as it might be helpful in raising awareness to the problem of addiction. In Burton’s case, what was once a stellar career ended 4 years later at the age of 58 due to complications from alcoholism. Just so you won’t think I’m singling him out, take a look at this video of Oliver Reed and this one of Jack Kerouac both of which serve as evidence of  decline hastened by substance abuse. Reed passed away from a heart attack attributed to a drinking bout during a production break from filming The Gladiator. I’m not sure that I ever fully bought into the idea of chemically assisted inspiration though admit that getting out of one’s own head can lead to productivity though in no way guarantees it.

Without giving too much away I will say that I’ve tried such an approach (like it wasn’t already obvious), but found that it offers diminishing returns – and might even present a bill. Your mileage may vary. I recall reading The Pleasures of Opium by Thomas de Quincy and nodding (no pun intended) in agreement with his description of “portable ecstasies” and how “happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in a waistcoat pocket.”  For the uninitiated, he is talking about opium but substitute in the name of any popular recreational chemical and you get the point. Also, substitute in the word “inspiration” for “happiness” and you will understand why creatives might be loathe to forgo use of something that at one time might have worked for them. The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2019.