Learning Your Craft
Lots of guy learn to play guitar simply to impress girls but those with serious intent usually separate themselves from the pack by progressing rapidly and seeking out performance opportunities, which is where you really learn your craft because you see instantly what works. Getting feedback from strangers is essential to growth and if you are in any way good, you will own your weaknesses and learn to separate the constructive comments from the crap. During a live set, I once had an obese lady throw a dill pickle at at me in what I initially believed to be an expression of dissatisfaction until she pulled out another, (from where I do not know), placed it between her rather large breasts and started licking it. While this didn’t count as nuanced feedback on the performance taking place, I did take it to mean that whatever song we were playing in that moment was provoking a definite reaction and should maybe remain in the set (or not). See, that’s profound and memorable feedback you would never get in a pure rehearsal situation or when playing for friends.
It’s a general truism that praise from a family member or a close friend (or sales person) is mostly meaningless outside of its ability to soothe and encourage – unless, or until, it is balanced by input from a neutral third party with specific knowledge in the domain under consideration. In absence of such it becomes an American Idol kind of thing where the tone-deaf contestant submits for an audition on the encouragement of a drunk uncle who sort of, kind of used to be in a band that, back in the day, got really close to making it. And when the contestant gets slaughtered by the judges, they really never saw it coming because no one had “the talk” with them about their actual prospects for a music career. Not to say that American Idol judges (or drunk uncles) are especially knowledgeable (some are, some aren’t) but there is a certain level of bad that is objectively observe-able in those desperate for a shot at stardom. Let’s just say that playing some tunes at the family barbecue picnic is fine though should never be confused as a general validation of talent.
A Very Short Artist and RCareer
As I pointed out in this post, there were many cover bands in the East Point, College Park, and Sylvan Hills areas with most of them working the local bar circuit while writing originals in hopes of attracting record company interest. Many were accomplished in faithfully reproducing the rock tunes of the day with some of them choosing to play songs likely to appeal only to other musicians. This became a problem for club owners whose priority was to sell alcohol. (No one can easily dance to “Roundabout” by Yes). Thus, bands would have to calibrate their performances for dancing and drinking or risk not being invited back. In their group biography, Aerosmith referenced a deliberate intent to avoid the cover band grind so they could focus on their original set even if it meant living in poverty and having to steal food. While playing 5 sets, 6 nights a week will do wonders for your musical chops, and put a few bucks in your pocket, breaking out of that into a record contract is difficult especially if your original songs are simple approximations of the covers used to promote beer purchases.
I went to Los Angeles right before “hair metal” peaked and the glut of bands made it pointless for anyone to come to LA since there were a million groups already present most of whom were equally as good as, if not much better than, anything you could bring to town. It was a peculiar mix of desperation, greasy long hair, and onset alcoholism. The mayor should have put up a sign “Dear Rock Bands – No Vacancy. There is No Room for You. Go back Now“. Everyone was incredibly insecure and restless which led to aggressive drug use and frequent personnel turnover as guys jumped ship to find that “magic” combination that would land them the top marquee spot at Gazzarri’s, The Whiskey, or The Starwood. (See Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years which explores this topic in much greater depth). Once “pay to play” was implemented it should have been a sign that maybe you go back home and roll the dice there (and much more cheaply). Some bailed out of the hair metal scene and landed in “New’ Country bands – a genre just then getting off the ground. Most found straight jobs or enrolled in College and generally adjusted to a life of convention. Some, however, couldn’t let it go and kept at it even though hair metal continued to wane in popularity.
You Guys Are Marvelous, Let’s Keep In Touch
I once shared a large number of drinks with an A&R guy at Atlanta’s Charley Magruders who was in town to scout one of “The South’s hottest bands“. I was astonished by his capacity for alcohol as well as his general knowledge of politics and science which dominated that evening’s discussion even as everyone else was totally digging the band. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me so I asked him about the group, “Oh them”, he said, as if they were an intrusive presence, like an apartment neighbor playing the stereo too loud. “Well the singer is too pudgy, the guitar player is good but he looks 35, their songs are average – they are more like jams, not real songs and, besides, everyone else has passed on them”. So he was there just for the drinks – the band’s manager was picking up his tab (and by extension mine). He had absolutely no intention of signing them with the main reason being that no other record company wanted them so how could they be any good – outside of the club scene, that is ? When the sweat soaked singer (he actually was kind of fat) looked over at the A&R guy for the smallest sign of approval, my host raised his glass high and gave the thumbs up as if watching a 26 year old Mick Jagger lather up the crowds at Madison Square Garden. Al Pacino would have been envious, so masterful was the acting.
He invited me to join him and his boss (my potential employer) not long thereafter at Danny’s in Marietta where he similarly rejected another “hottest band in Atlanta“. It was particularly awkward when the singer and guitar player sheepishly strolled over to check-in during a break. My record label friend adopted a hyper-supportive tone,“Dynamite set guys. Any hotter and we would have to call the fire department”. Wow. What a line. Any career I had been contemplating in A&R ended that evening as I didn’t relish the idea of having to lie so overtly to bands. I was told to treat it like a mediocre date – be positive and polite, promise to call, but let it fade into history and if you just have to be honest, then do it via phone to eliminate the possibility of physical assault. I was really good at identifying talent (still am) just that I lacked the tolerance for accommodating the endless layers of bullshit endemic to the music business. The bands that did get signed believed quite mistakenly that their troubles were over and certain fame awaited. But of course, that rarely panned out and the A&R guy who signed them would always leave or get fired leaving them with no advocate at the office. But that’s okay. Everyone at the label “still believes in you, baby” even as they quietly drop the option for the second record and slowly, yet firmly, show you the door “Let’s keep in touch, you are so talented“.
There is a type of musician who, in the presence of more flashy players, can easily go unnoticed though you quickly realize that he or she is instinctively covering a lot of parts musically and vocally, while writing songs that do an end-around on your critical thinking filters. As an example, instead of using a complicated chord progression, they “see through it” and offer a tasteful alternative that is easier to play and provides fluid voice leading ultimately resulting in something better with much less effort. Most of these guys are what I call intuitive musicians who see the bigger picture of any song and work inwards to remove the junk, thus allowing the essence of the song to become evident – as opposed to the more technical musician who just likes to throw in things on top. The late Sonny Sharrock characterized most rock guitarists as “Jugglers”, musicians who have a set number of “tricks” they rotate though or juggle as part of their performances. It doesn’t take long before you’ve heard all of their tricks and become bored.
But there were two guys in Sylvan Hills who were of this intuitive type. The first was Terry K. whose Father was a local music teacher. Terry was part of The Spontaneous Generation who had a regional release in 1968 with “Up In My Mind” backed by The Who’s “Pictures of Lily”. Jan Whitten was also in the band (cousin of Mike Whitten, the original drummer in the Atlanta rock band Alien). Most people from Sylvan Hills will probably remember an unfortunate accident which resulted in Terry’s general withdrawal from life though he still wrote songs and served as a sounding board for others. While he wasn’t the type of guy who mastered note-for-note renditions of something like Third Stone from the Sun he could comfortably sit in with someone who had and offer complimentary accompaniment all without much preparation. He had a solid ear, almost like a jazzer, so hearing chords and melodies was easy for him. Need a harmony line ? No problem. Advice on a chord substitution ? Sure. A complimentary descending keyboard chordal sequence ? How many do you want ?
There was another guy name Olin Rainwater who fell into this category though he was far more prolific in terms of musical output having written hundreds of songs. He was truly a walking band in the sense that he could sing, play guitar, and write tunes so he required minimal backup to perform. He could have easily been a power trio guy in the vein of Mountain or Creem as his lead lines were bluesy and his rhythm was spot on even as he was singing. The act of singing and playing simultaneously came quite naturally to him whereas I always struggled with that. When it came to covers, Olin was able to listen to songs, even those with rich instrumentation and complex arrangements, and boil them down to the essentials. Oh, he might miss some of the extensions but his ultimate chord selections captured the right tonality while leaving room for the color tones which he could supply vocally. Amazingly, he could do this within minutes of hearing a song and, best of all, be ready to perform it not long thereafter. Now, that’s talent and courage that few people have. I would still be worried about whether a chord was an F#minor with a flat 5 and he would be like, “No, let’s do it. 1-2-3, go”. That he was so confident bolstered my confidence which made it all so much easier. It was an additive, no, a multiplicative effect that was truly liberating. When people trust each other, great things can happen.
While rehearsal was important, he also liked to throw songs my way (his own or cover tunes) which required learning the song as the band was playing it. This involved me looking at his guitar neck, copping the chords, and internalizing the structure – again, while the song was being played. He might solo but it was just as likely he would give me the nod. It all somehow worked – not because I was so good but because I didn’t have to worry about him dropping the beat or screwing up which only emboldened me to try things I normally would not have. Like me, he was a Stones fan particularly of the weaving interplay between the two guitars where the listener might not be able to immediately distinguish who is playing what. It all sounds so well integrated that there is no need to dissect it. Besides, if that even crossed your mind it simply meant the performance was at best average.
When it came to writing songs, I didn’t know what his process was but it was fast and versatile such that he could write to a title or a phrase or begin with a set of chords. However, he told me that his biggest challenge was the distraction of having multiple options. He felt he could go in different directions – rock, country, R&B, or avant-garde and it wasn’t clear what the most expedient thing would be. And the resulting confusion undermined his goal setting efforts. Most people are limited in a way that makes these considerations largely academic or irrelevant, but Olin was gifted in an absolute sense so I could appreciate his struggle (not that I shared in it) just that he truly had a number of possibilities that most artists do not. And there was always the tug of financial obligation which led to a stint with local oldies band The Cruise-O-Matics. just to pay some bills.
There are a number of stories to relate though I’ll let it sit for now. I do recall with great fondness in the mid 80s stopping by his apartment on Pharr Rd which he shared with his future wife Sloan. At the time I was living behind the original Longhorn Steak house on Peachtree so it was easy to pop by and talk, learn tunes, and generally shoot the breeze. We had both left the south side for more convenient access to things and Buckhead was only in the earliest stages of becoming the obnoxious night time entertainment district that it would grow to be. However, then it was easy to get around. But as is the case in life, he went his way, I went mine and it was quite some time before I spoke with him courtesy of a chance encounter with Sloan. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago but it was really good to reconnect. For a taste of his music check out this video compilation assembled by Dean (a fellow south sider and good friend to Olin) which is just a sample of a much larger catalogue of impressive stylistic variety. I have an 8-track tape of some of his sessions completed at Song Bird studio off of Howell Mill Rd which I plan to convert to MP3 – as soon as I find an 8-track player to do so. © 2019 The Stewart Avenue Kid
My first actual “get off my lawn” experience came from a guy who lived on Springdale Place in Southwest Atlanta. (Out of respect for the current owners I won’t be specific about the address). On my way home from school. I cut though this guy’s yard and he comes out screaming that I was “disrespecting his home” and that I shouldn’t be “so goddamn lazy” and that I should “get a haircut”. When I related this story to others, someone rolled his house (something of a lost art) which of course made the guy think that I did it. Anyway. Moving on to a more general (if not biased) view of this dynamic – It becomes the duty of each generation to discredit the one preceding it just as the established populous will condemn younger generations who “carelessly squander” the “hard won freedom so selflessly given” to them by their forefathers. “Ungrateful young punks” was a commonly heard phrase. Some degree of generational friction is inevitable and especially so in times of economic decline when people go on fault finding missions. However, I’ve also noticed that in communities where job possibilities remain scarce, Happy Hour conversations will usually telescope down to the troubles of that particular day as taking a longer view becomes far too depressing. Sort of a working man’s realization of “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof“. And the commonality of the shared struggle, along with gallons of booze, would allow people to forget the differences which is why you could find people in their 20s tossing back drinks right next to some geezer all without conflict unless (or until) someone cadged one too many drinks which was a serious offense.
His defense mechanism involved blurting out random accusations of homosexual activity with the hope that any scrutiny he was enduring would be redirected to his target long enough to allow for an escape
Speaking of which – there was a professional mooch named Ray, a young guy, who got banned from LP Pips for stealing left over drinks from uncleared tables. He positioned himself in proximity to large parties waiting for the group to disband after which he would swoop in and guzzle half empty pitchers of warm beer while alternately sucking down residual vodka from long abandoned mixed drink glasses which might also contain cigarette butts. “The vulture is a patient bird, my friend” he would say of his “accomplishments” which was shocking in that he saw his scavenging as some noble strategy sanctioned by Mother Nature. When confronted, his defense mechanism involved blurting out random accusations of homosexual activity with the hope that any scrutiny he was enduring would be redirected to his target long enough to allow for an escape – sort of like an octopus squirting ink to disorient. And as people took time to puzzle out the veracity of his claim (which might also involve those not present such as the President, Mary Tyler Moore, or Billy Graham) he would be gone. Someone rightly pointed out that if he put half as much energy into legitimate enterprise as he did mooching, he could afford his own damn drinks and perhaps rescue whatever was left of his loathsome reputation.
Talk to any young woman who worked a hotel check-in desk during a typical fraternal convention. Having to endure the amorous advances of fezzed-up “Potentates” took its toll
Mooses, Elks, Lions, and Shriners
While I encountered many representatives of preceding generations at Brothers Three and Banks Liquor store I also ran into them at the The Stewart Avenue Moose Lodge which was located on the hill behind the Golden Ribbon. The Lodge served as a private club for the older set who basically liked to get their drink on, shoot some pool, and have the occasional BBQ for charity which is ostensibly what they were all about. What I liked about the Moose crowd was that they did not give a damn about anything and with the exception of a few jerks who couldn’t hold their liquor it was a laid back place. If you walked out the door connected to the pool room, the view overlooked the Ribbon and a portion of Stewart Avenue. If you were buzzed enough you got the idea that this was really “something”. That you were seeing a “city in motion, on the up and up” and that just maybe things were going to work out after all. But then your eyes would fall down to the parking lot of The Ribbon where someone was throwing up.
This was still the era of the Fraternal Organization which included The Lions Club, The Shriners, The Elks, The Lions Club, The Rotary, The American Legion, and The VFW with lots of member overlap between them. Civic clubs used to be THE way to get the inside angle on good jobs particularly in sales. I’m not challenging the sincerity of these groups, or their charitable contributions, but they could do some Olympian level drinking which, in the case of the Shriners, was addressed by Ray Stevens in his “all too real” Shriner’s Convention song. For supporting testimony, talk to any young woman who worked a hotel check-in desk during a typical fraternal convention. Having to endure the amorous advances of fezzed-up “Potentates” took its toll and on-the-spot employment resignations might occur due to the unrelenting (and completely unwanted) attention from men with more hair growing out their nose than on their head. George Carlin’s Shriner assessment was quite direct possibly because they disliked his long hair and hippy sensibilities:
Forty percent of all arrests, traceable [to alcohol]. Fifty percent of all first admissions to mental institutions traceable to alcohol. And then, of course, there’s diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, heart disease, insanity, divorce. So I always say “Drink up, Shriners!” whenever I see a couple of ’em.
Despite the generational friction, you could learn something from these old timers though it always fell along very practical lines such as “work for a good company”, “get married”, “buy a house”, “have children”. (preferably in that order). This was totally understandable if you grew up in the shadow of economic ruin and ongoing military activity both of which would require different existential skills than those required in the 60s and 70s wherein diplomacy and social activism might be more appropriate over a defensive mentality. (“Are you a Hawk or a Dove ?”) It’s the difference between protecting hard-earned achievements and trying to grow something totally new based on a kinder world view. Both approaches are useful although not necessarily in equal amounts or at the same time or under the same roof. Maintaining hyper vigilance in anticipation of the next financial crisis would come at some mental expense just as throwing caution to the wind when planning one’s future could be reckless and irresponsible. Family dinner table discussions could be very interesting.
Defrocked Priests and Trust Funders
I knew a guy who liked to drop acid and read The Book of Revelation. That took courage.
Moving into less serious territory, there were a couple of older characters I enjoyed talking to. The first was a former priest who I’ll refer to as Father O’Malley since I never knew his name or the circumstances of his departure from the Church – defrocked, resigned, or excommunicated ? There weren’t many Catholics in the area so it was hard to verify his backstory, but I could easily imagine him in the predawn darkness shuffling past rows of saints, some high level, some obscure, on his way to the six a.m. Mass where he was met by the same three parishioners. He had the stilted gait of the aged though his face remained unaffected by any pain he might have had so people thought him to be much younger. Periodically he would walk into the liquor store carrying a large Bible in whose margins he had scribbled various interpretative notes highlighted by tobacco smears and dried bourbon splotches. I thought these writings must surely relate to secret truths or ancient christian mysticism. And maybe they did – but there was also quite clearly a phone number written on at least one page (in the Book of Ephesians) with the name “Zelda” under it. His brand was Maker’s Mark which had that melted seal thing going on which maybe reminded him of Papal authority. Or maybe he just like getting blasted and reading the Bible. I knew a guy who liked to drop acid and read The Book of Revelation. That took courage.
Father O’Malley rattled on about church politics and how the priorities were all wrong (something of an understatement even then). “I should have been paid by the sin” he laughed. “There is no money in saving a soul just once – you gotta keep ’em coming back to pony up. Confession is just a cover“. I imagine that it was such frank talk that displeased his superiors which no doubt facilitated his exit though he had a point which definitely applied to other denominations. If you are “once saved, always saved” then why bother going to Church after conversion ? Evidently his years in the Confessional gave him preternatural ability to see through anyone’s line of bullshit and, when drunk (which was most of the time) he called them out which made him no friends. My takeaway lesson was that having deep insight into others is worthless in absence of self-restraint.
There was another guy named Bill – a pipe-smoking, professorial looking gentleman of some means which, based on his check mastheads, was due to a trust fund. Well into middle age, he alluded to Ivy League education, extensive global travel, and friendships with famous musicians though rarely included specifics. It seemed calculated to promote an air of respectability but there was a sophisticated sleaziness to it all which was very entertaining. One evening he is in NYC having “soup at Ratner’s” with some “poet friends” and two days later he is San Francisco “listening to an acetate of the upcoming Grateful Dead” album. I suspect that portions of his overall story were true though he clearly had a well lit pilot light for bullshit that could be fully dialed up in the presence of women or whomever it was needing to be impressed. He was like a performer always in search of an audience. And I was just a struggling student working in a liquor store which is why I think he let me in on his approach that legitimized “aggressive embellishment” when discussing one’s pursuits and accomplishments. “Don’t understate what it is you do. Talk it up. If you don’t then no one else will”. He had a point and I definitely needed to up my self promotion game. His “thing” was to mix pipe tobacco with marijuana and puff on that throughout the day. He could get away with it too since he looked perfect with a pipe (the only thing missing was a monocle). This “system” allowed him to smoke up in public without getting “too stoned” so he was engaging in a form of micro dosing decades before it was in vogue. He took great pains to ensure that the odor of his special blend did not betray his motives. That he was rarely without his pipe completed his cover. In addition to the look, he also had the confidence to pull it off which supports the idea that if you do something with élan then no one will take notice.
As always there is more to say and these are but two of the older characters I encountered on a frequent basis with the bulk of them being kind of hard-assed about life and not the least bit interested in anyone’s opinion especially coming from some “young punk“. What I did find was that if you could make people laugh (intentionally or not) then you would be welcomed. Not necessarily because they liked you, but just that the tension of the day would be eased, the laughter would attract women, and then the drinks would REALLY start to flow which is really all a working man really needs. There will always be the world class bullshitters like Bill and while I don’t see myself ever rising (or sinking) to his level I do understand his motivations and took a page from his book. The same with Father O’Malley. Just because I can see imminent trouble in the lives of others doesn’t mean that I should say anything. They probably already know anyway. (That I can’t seem to recognize it in my own life is another issue altogether). By the mid 70s there were at least two retirement communities in the area that were well populated and this overlaps with my job at Brothers Three that involved helping old women hide booze under their groceries so they could smuggle it into these buildings. Anyway, maybe I’m writing all this because I’m “getting up there” which I knew would happen though didn’t realize it would be here so soon. © 2019 The Stewart Avenue Kid
During the 70s, In addition to the Krishnas, The Way International (TWI) had a significant presence in Atlanta as did The Unification Church. Even Scientology had someone working the plaza down at Georgia State University. Speaking of the plaza there was also a “fire and brimstone” preacher who would drag a really big cross through there while raging on about “rampant Devil Worship”. He got banned from campus though my primary beef wasn’t his belief that we were “Irredeemable Minions of Satan” (a decent name for a metal band) but that he had attached a wheel to the bottom of the cross to make it easier for him to haul it around. Talk about being hypocritical and lazy.
I don’t think anyone joined the Moonies specifically to get laid but by the looks of many of them, The Unification church might have been their only shot at having some sex at least in this lifetime.
But it was The Moonies who exhibited that far-way, slack-jawed look that media outlets seized upon as evidence of the supposed “cult mind control” being used to siphon off the energies of American youth for seditious ends – basically to stockpile tax-exempt cash reserves for the gurus and self-declared men of god running the show. The shot callers at the Unification Church kept its labor force on the streets up to 12 -16 hours per day hustling for dough. And, unlike TWI or Scientology, the Moonie crew rarely bothered to hawk the benefits of membership except when inviting people to their weekend retreats at which, according to media reports, food was withheld pending the completion of long sermons after which famished attendees consumed drug-laced food (allegedly) designed to keep them from leaving the retreat which all along had been nothing more than a base camp for new recruits.
I don’t know how accurate this media report was but the Moonies did flourish perhaps by providing Mass Marriages calculated to ease the tensions and loneliness of the over-worked novitiates upon whose shoulders the “Church” was being built. That your spouse might be someone you didn’t know or even like was supposed to be overlooked in the name of church growth. I don’t think anyone joined the Moonies specifically to get laid but by the looks of many of them, The Unification church might have been their only shot at having some sex at least in this lifetime. The only Moonie I met that was in anyway cool really wasn’t a Moonie at all – he just masqueraded as one so that, like a hobo riding the rails of freedom, he could get free passage around the country albeit as part of the sweaty Moonie horde. He put in the time, sold the goods, and reunited with the group at the end of the day but confessed that he would be leaving once he rotated back to California. I’m not sure how he escaped the attention of the over-seers because, unlike most of his church peers, he had an undeniable streak of independence that in a cult situation is really frowned upon. I even asked him how he pulled it off. “I’m a good worker, I keep quiet, so they leave me alone”. Words to live by.
I do know that claiming large blocks of personal time was a standard technique of all the “new religions” which was remarkably effective as it would slowly isolate you from soon-to-be-former-friends, school mates, and family. Your initial involvement might be one meeting a week, then it’s three and then you are scheduling school and work around “ministry functions” because they start talking about spiritual priorities as if earning a living and going to school are inferior “worldly pursuits”. Car rides to and from various events are crammed with other “believers” and talk centers around arcane theology and there is always some upcoming special event which is right about the time you realize you are involved in something far more involved than you had originally imagined or even wanted.
While the mission of the organization involved promoting the Word Over The World, in my view it was more about having a young, mobile and unpaid sales force on the road working in the financial interests of The Way International.
If you aren’t immediately familiar with The Way International you might recall them being roasted by “The Soup” in relation to the dancing ability of their performers seen in the “Renewed Mind” video – although my experience with the organization predates this event by decades. The Way touted a form of power-based Christianity offered in home fellowships called “Twigs” so one need not tolerate musty sanctuaries filled with paraffin skinned geezers wagging the bony finger of accusation just because you had long hair. No Sir ! TWI offered fellowship with people your own age many of whom were attractive young women immersed in a new flavor of Christianity. The main pitch of TWI was a class called PFAL (Power For Abundant Living) which alleged to provide keys to the more “abundant life” referenced in John 10:10. The class was pitched (at least to me) as a one stop shop for spiritual truth that could totally replace all my previous religious training and provide a general blueprint for successful living. However, I soon learned that there were other classes to take (such as “The Renewed Mind”, “Dealing With The Adversary”. “The Christian Family And Sex”, “Intermediate and Advanced PFAL”) and if you tossed in the outreach platforms such as the one year “Word Over The World Ambassador” program and “The Way Corps” leadership program then you could easily become busy for years. There was even a College at Emporia Kansas for those with academic inclinations.
While the mission of the organization involved the promotion of the Word Over The World, in my view it was all about having a young, mobile and unpaid sales force on the road working in the financial interests of TWI. I won’t go into the group’s theology here as entire forums exist to debate that, as well as the ethics of the leadership, but there was a great deal of terminology to be learned which served as a marker of your current organizational progress. Within a five minute conversation you would encounter unbelievable amounts of bullshit buzzwords and internal lingo (“take a checkup from the neck up“, “get your needs and wants parallel“) yet people would walk away from it all exhilarated as if something meaningful had actually just happened. My distillate thinking on TWI is that many participants were on the level, at least initially, and really wanted to make a difference. But any time you have a large group of young, impressionable, and naive people, someone is going to notice and find a way to take advantage of that. I had a lot of friends involved in that scene, but I give them the credit for that and not TWI which was simply the umbrella organization under which we might have met.
He exploded into laughter as Colt 45 sprayed out of his nose – “Who let this crazy white motherfucker in here ?” Who indeed…?
I never really ever left TWI because I never really joined them at least not to the extent that everyone else did. My default approach to life has always involved an insatiable curiosity flanked by a strong level of paranoia which meant that I could easily be found in the strangest situations without every wanting to fully invest in whatever scene I had stumbled upon. In short, I was a natural party crasher who got easily bored (or suspicious) with the party that everyone else seemed to really dig. To wit, I once wound up in the bowels of West End at a poker game as the only white guy sitting next to a Black Panther, fresh out of Reidsville who, in growling tones, was laying out his vision of the future. “The last days are soon coming for you and all things White – your happiness and fortune will soon be mine“. I really wanted to avoid confrontation, but his timing was impeccable. I responded, “Well thanks for the head’s up there Eldridge but the end isn’t here quite yet” while laying out a full house (jacks over 9s) which took the pot. He exploded into laughter as Colt 45 sprayed out of his nose – “Who let this crazy white motherfucker in here ?” Who indeed…?
My involvement with TWI slowed to an end for a couple of reasons the first of which was that it was inconsistent with the lifestyle I enjoyed as part of the general Stewart Avenue experience (see the posts on this site for a deeper description). So, you know, hanging it all up to serve a Church, any Church, wasn’t on my mind. Second, I wanted to finish College and since I had to work to pay tuition there was little time left anything else. My last meaningful intersection with TWI was as a side musician for a band who had entered “The Way Music Challenge” which was sort of an internal “Battle Of The Bands” with the prize being… well I can’t really remember. The tunes were easy cover songs (at least I thought so) though the actual show itself was typical Way production with its hyper “attention to detail” thing going into over drive. People obsessing about how someone’s hair was combed (or wasn’t) or if the lighting was hitting the stage “correctly”. Guys ! It’s just a church gig – not The Stones at Madison Square Garden.
I did have a conversation with a Scientologist back in the 70s and when I told him that I had spent some time with TWI he responded, “Man, those guys are really intense. They are like a cult aren’t they”.
I was hungover the day of the show and could barely hide my contempt for the whiny control freaks in charge of it all, but I was supportive of the band I had agreed to help so just wanted to see it through. After sound check, and before they let in the crowd, I noticed this stunning blonde in a form fitting yet very tasteful white dress standing over my amplifier, cleaning the dark spots and scuff marks off the tolex (the consequences of playing dingy bars). I was amazed that anyone would even care (again “attention to detail”) and I fell into something of a trance watching and wondering how far she would go in cleaning it. She went all the way which was very hard work – especially so given her attire. When I got on stage for the performance the amp looked sparkling new. She gave me a big grin. I wanted to ask her out but as I knew I didn’t want to go to another “ministry function” I just let it be.
If you’ve made it this far you probably want to know what any of this has to do with Stewart Avenue. Or you were (or maybe are) associated with TWI and some search engine result brought you here. Anyway, in the former case it does matter in the sense that at one time in the 70s (and into the 80s) you could easily encounter Salvation Army workers, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Moonies, Way people, and a few groups who couldn’t be classified walking up and down The Avenue some of whom were just on their way to a destination while others stopped to “witness” to passersby. I got to meet many of them simply because they would stop by Brothers Three for some refreshment or just to stand in the air conditioning for a while before going back out into the heat of Summer. That they all got along or at least tolerated one another was pretty amazing. I never saw any fights, or anyone try to convert anyone else. That would have been funny. However, I did have a conversation with a Scientologist and when I told him that I had spent some time with TWI he responded, “Man, those guys are really intense. They are like a cult aren’t they“. Oh, the irony….
One of my favorite origin-of-life theories involves the notion that each of us has chosen to be on Earth to experience a recreational break from Eternity which, I suppose, could become boring. Kind of like choosing to pull off the Cosmic Highway into a rest stop – in this case Earth. Like how a traveler down I-75 might check out one of those Alligator farms on the way to Florida. Certainly this can all be represented in far more noble terms but I’ll hold off on the deep theology at least until Happy Hour. Some of the early church sermons I endured as a kid were as interminable as the promised pleasures of Heaven (or agonies of Hell) that await us upon departure from this planet. I remember sitting in a stifling-hot sanctuary fidgeting against itchy “church clothes” while having to feign appreciation for the Preacher talking about things that made me paranoid long before I knew such a word existed. When someone says, “God is always watching over you” my default reaction is, “Wow. Even in the bathroom ?”
And then there was that after-the-service walk down the center aisle and the predictable comments of elderly parishioners who smelled strongly of moth balls. It was like they were being embalmed incrementally so by the time they got to their own funeral there wouldn’t be much left to do except slip them into the coffin. The only thing that made the overall church experience bearable was a number of cute girls in the nearby pews but the scene was too well chaperoned to offer any interaction opportunities. My family “churched around” at places like Springdale Christian, Perkerson Baptist, and Capitol View Baptist before settling in at Capitol View Presbyterian (no longer in existence) located across from Sylvan High School. At the time, Presbyterian churches represented a form of “Christianity light” in that you got “sprinkled”, not fully immersed and your personal interpretation of biblical passages could be as figurative as you would like as long as you didn’t try to start theological debates. I think the Presbyterians were trying to go after the “walk-aways” from the Baptist Church which was a total drag (at least for me) with its promised damnation for those refusing to comply with the hyper conservative missives of the church few of which could actually be found in the Bible. Being horny was definitely a crime even if you didn’t act on it. Even thinking about being horny was off limits so on that account alone I needed to find another scene.
The general activities at our church were geared towards the interests of “older people” and youth programs weren’t even on the map. I recalled how Pilgrim children always looked like adult Pilgrims except in miniature. There was no period of adolescence back in the the Pligrim days and the kids were viewed as adults-in-training simply to be seen an not heard until they could demonstrate comparable levels of repressed behavior customarily exhibited by adult Pilgrims. The concept of adolescence emerged only in the early 1900s evolving slowly over time well into the 60s as the youth of America grew restless with the idea of having to leap directly into forms of work favored by their parents especially when there were new possibilities on offer. That this might have been perceived as laziness or ingratitude for the sacrifices of previous generations was most unfortunate. The early work-aptitude tests I took made no mention of artistic occupations and teachers sought to route anyone with such tendencies into factory jobs, draftsmanship, architecture, or some form of engineering. No Sir. No way was society going to tolerate another generation of distracted, self-indulgent hippy workers.
When someone says, “God is always watching over you” my default reaction is, “Wow. Even in the bathroom ?“
The reason I bring any of this up is because lots of people, (then and now), didn’t seem to understand how and why various religious cults grew in popularity in the 60s and 70s, but when considering what I just told you then it should be easier to understand. Put simply, organized religion of that time, combined with long established societal expectations, ignored the interests of young people while doubling down on the practice of berating the youth of America for not falling in line with another war on communism. The social condition of the US was far from ideal at the time and a generic repetition of what might have been appropriate (or at least familiar) a decade or two before might not be in the best interest of the country. So, imagine that in this context if some new, hip church showed up that intentionally welcomed young people then could it be that big of a surprise that there were takers ? I mean a church (even if it wasn’t a recognized one) that had people your age who held common interests ? That didn’t require you to wear suffocating clothing ? Alternative religions exploded in size in the 70s because young people needed a place of their own – that’s all there was to it. In saying this I have demeaned the work of many Sociology PhD students who had to dress it all up just to get past their committees and eventually graduate although I stand by my version that has more explanatory power.
A pothead acquaintance of mine used to roll joints on his Ouija board to get “some of that paranormal thang goin’ on – Ghost Ganja !“
It didn’t mean that these setups were all on the level or that they had the best interests of everyone in mind. Maybe they did at first and the mission got corrupted over time or perhaps there was bad intent from the get go. Some “older” people figured out how to mobilize and manipulate “hippie labor” to their own ends. And it certainly didn’t escape my attention that lots of participants (young and old) were simply pleasure seekers looking for action. So you had older clergymen dipping into the congregation for some “comfort” but it was all rationalized because there are “no rules” right ? Any pretense about trying to better the world through communal action was generally abandoned although, as we moved into the 70s, the sex and drugs remained. Any time you have large collections of young people then hookups will happen and outsiders will notice – some of whom were representatives of the larger mainstream churches angry that their offering plates were losing money to some “sex cult”.
For reasons only they could tell you, the Hare Krishnas used to aggressively canvas Stewart Avenue in the late 60s and early 70s which paralleled their activities in downtown Atlanta especially before rock concerts at The Omni where they would offer bread and incense in exchange for small change donations. The Krishna women (the few that there were) had this rapid fire sales move where they would step to you while pinning a rose to your shirt all within like two seconds after which they would extend their hands to get the donation. It was an impressive maneuver and easily worth the 50 cents I might offer as tribute. On Stewart Avenue, the Krishnas worked the stretch starting at Zayre’s discount store up to Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center as there was a fair amount of foot traffic which simplified their goal of selling incense or a copy of their magazine which talked of the “GodHead”. They targeted younger people such as myself but weren’t shy about talking to anyone who might have some spare change jingling in their pockets.
For those old enough to remember, Atlanta Airport, and US airports in general, used to be plagued by any number of religious and human rights groups who would aggressively panhandle travelers so much so that it was finally shut down altogether. Such activity was masterfully parodied in the Airplane movie wherein Robert Stack runs a gauntlet of donation seekers. The Krishnas had a temple down on Ponce which hosted a weekly vegetarian feast where it was rumored that they laced the food with “brain washing chemicals” which only served to intrigue me. But my objections to the Krishnas had nothing to do with religion or their choice of food (spiked or otherwise). I could just never join a group that required baldness or at least a crew cut. Maybe I was vain but I also noticed that women did not generally look favorably on Krishna men except perhaps for the female Krishnas themselves who always seemed to have a peculiar form of body odor. It’s quite possible that the men did also but the women had this flirty way about them that involved getting much deeper into your personal space which would make any hygiene deficiencies much more apparent. Of course, 4 hours of canvasing the Atlanta streets in July might result in having a certain body aroma independently of your religious mission.
I’ll be splitting this post up into multiple parts because I’m like 1800 words into this thing and still have a lot to cover. But before I wrap this up I wanted to point out that the first ever Christian (or religious) bookstore I ever encountered was Berean Christian Bookstore located on Cleveland Avenue. It’s still there ! Although I think the name might have changed. For those of you familiar with the area, who might also be having a senior moment, this was close to the Old South Bottle Shop and the K-Mart farther down Cleveland Avenue right after it crossed over I-75. One could also move farther down the road to play a few rounds of golf at Brown’s Mill Golf course.
While this doesn’t seem such a big deal now it was then because it never occurred to me that there would be an entire enterprise dedicated to christian publishing. I just assumed that all you needed was a copy of The Bible and a decent Church and you were good to go. But Berean’s had like 15 different styles of Bibles and Concordances on offer as well as study guides in addition to books about “Godly Living”, “Christian Ethics”, and several publications on the dangers of the occult – to which I was immediately attracted. This wasn’t at all a superficial interest as my Father had a book by parapsychologist Hans Holzer, all around “ghost guy”, long before such a thing was popular. I read how he and his “medium friend”, Sybil Leek would investigate supernatural activity which probably influenced later movies like Poltergeist. Just to say that I was no stranger to the terminology of the occult or its negative image in the eyes of Church.
I had a Ouija board when I was a kid and I’m certain that any spirits inhabiting that thing were scared off (more probably bored) by my inane questions. The odd thing is that I kept misplacing it although it later occurred to me that maybe it was hiding from me. “Oh no – You again ! Please, NO !” I wasn’t the only person who took a cavalier attitude towards the thing – A pothead acquaintance of mine used to roll joints ON his Ouija board to get “some of that paranormal thang goin’ on – Ghost Ganja !“. At the time, Scéances were still happening and there was a group of older kids who held these things and they talked about how they got “signs from the beyond” so I attended one of these and NOTHING happened. Well, the girl next to me did put her hand on my thigh which in my mind qualified as a supernatural event. So we left the Scéance early thus breaking the “sacred circle” albeit for a very good reason…. Stay tuned for Part 2.
This is Part 2 of “Stewart Avenue Crime Part 1” so you might want to check that out before proceeding but, hey, do whatever you want ! I got a chuckle from this article wherein APD Chief Ericka Shields offered her opinion on the “dark days” of Stewart Avenue.
“We had people from all over the state coming to Stewart Avenue, and it wasn’t for shopping either. [A] Majority of the cases that we made involved those who lived nowhere near here”
What the Chief describes is the classic situation of people cruising an area for “services” they would never tolerate in or near their own back yard though feel entitled to as long as it’s in another neighborhood located far away. This is a variation (albeit a far more serious one) of the practice of cutting though residential neighborhoods during a rush hour commute but then calling for blood should it occur on your street. Once an area is perceived as being disinterested in its own safety (although that is hardly ever the case) it becomes ongoing justification for outlying city residents to ignore the fact that decent people might still reside in the area. And just because they lack the financial and political clout to address the blight and crime doesn’t mean they want (or deserve) for the problem to perpetuate itself. It’s like once a landfill winds up someplace, the outsiders want it to stay there forever because “God knows we don’t want it where we live”.
I was stingy with my sympathies for those caught soliciting prostitutes as it was their ongoing patronage that contributed to the decline of my neighborhood. It’s tough to watch what was once a thriving, prosperous area go down the tubes and when you encounter people who are enthusiastically contributing to that it’s easy to cop an attitude. I was probably more tolerant than most but others, especially business owners (mostly car lots), took great delight in the misfortunes of outsiders seeking illegal action who wound up getting ripped off, roughed-up, arrested, or maybe even all three. There is a rhythm unique to any urban region and those out of sync can easily be identified and exploited. Stewart Avenue had a rhythm as did Ponce de Leon and so did Moreland Ave – at least before the gentrification. And while they were similar, you didn’t necessarily get a pass at “Southern Comfort” just because you liked to hang out at “The Crystal Palace” or “Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern.” While all the inhabitants might not get along we did in fact recognize each other as part of some post-Appalachian, urban-hillbilly ecosystem though it was no guarantee of peace. I’m reminded of Hunter Thompson’s comment in “Hell’s Angels”:
[Nelson] Algren called them “fierce craving boys” with “a feeling of having been cheated.” Freebooters, armed and drunk—a legion of gamblers, brawlers and whorehoppers.
Which is to say that despite a common regional lineage or shared socioeconomic status, the guy you might be drinking with might easily turn on you because of some perceived slight once the liquor had taken hold. So then, how do you think such a person would react to an outsider ?
Caught With The Pants Down In The Wrong Part of Town
Not all of those seeking “action” were outsiders but plenty were and many Cobb County, Ward Cleaver types would take the “long way” to and from Atlanta Airport airport with a stop for some action. And, if they had a flat tire or, worse, got assaulted by a hustler, it would involve an awkward phone call for help. There would be guys coming into Brothers Three or Banks Liquor trying to make you part of an alibi by using the store phone and telling their wives (or whomever):
My car broke down and I pulled into this store and am using their phone. Hey, What’s the name of this place ? Yea, Three Brothers ? Oh, Brothers Three. No, No, don’t worry I’ll call the tow truck from here. I gotta get off the phone now. Let’s talk later.
Actually their car was in the back parking lot of an Adult Bookstore where they had hoped to have met someone but that was all conveniently left out of the conversation. But the work was far from over as they had to cook up a plausible explanation as to why they were in the area in the first place. This was almost always a variation of “I-75 was packed so I got off onto Stewart Avenue and got lost.” Let me be clear. I could not be less interested in someone’s proclivities and personal vices just that they should pursue them closer to their own damn home and not attempt to sell off such an obvious bullshit story. Sometimes, we would have wives call us back and ask questions because their intuition told them that something was wrong.
On occasion an area native would get caught in a way that might expose a formerly hidden lifestyle. Getting nabbed with a hooker could be a problem but much more so if getting caught soliciting men which happened to at least two area business owners. Neither recovered from the resulting shame. I was surprised to see a highly respected teacher of mine cruising the Avenue which didn’t result in any major consequence until he was later busted for participation in an organized prostitution ring. He was successful and cultured but his yearnings for the flesh brought him down. Women weren’t immune from lapses in judgement either. My own history involves being approached by more than one married woman with a yen for younger men. They didn’t take rejection lightly which might later involve them telling their husband that I was the one who had approach them ! That could be incredibly awkward for all involved and I was grateful for having a number of surly co-workers glad to work as my advocate in these cases.
Stewart Avenue always had a significant degree of ambient crime including bar fights, vandalism, and the occasional mugging that might take place down towards University Avenue. The area winos aroused little interest except from angry car lot owners who didn’t like them breaking into cars to seek refuge from the cold or rain. Nothing worse than opening a car for a potential customer only to find a scabrous, urine-soaked drunk writhing on the front seat. Yanking them out and hosing them down was a favored form of revenge but it’s not as if they were guilty of any major crime. One of the more enduring winos was “Mike” who was rumored to have connections to steady money which might have been true since he kept going strong despite obvious health problems. That he was a slave to alcohol did not prevent him from refusing offers of beer even when in the grip of Delirium tremens. A can of Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon simply didn’t pack the punch of his beloved Barton’s American Blended Whiskey. In a pinch he would accept some MD 20 20 or a bottle of gin but beer was for weaker men.
There was lots of fighting going on mostly at night and in the parking lots of various bars and liquor stores. Some of these altercations were a source of great amusement even to the participants themselves who would realize how foolish they must look taking swings that never landed. I watched a fight in the parking lot of Banks Liquor make it’s way to the other side of Stewart Avenue into the Adult Bookstore parking lot where the drunken pugilists (three of them) decided to call it quits since no one was willing to “tap out”. The fattest of the three decided to retreat in a peculiar manner by scaling the fence surrounding the 166 underpass upon which his pants leg got caught resulting in his being suspended upside down. Eventually his pants leg tore and he fell squarely onto his head. And like a bug with a tough exoskeleton he somehow scuttled up the sloping pavement to rest underneath the bridge. His was hyperventilating and vomiting. I had a pair of binoculars that someone had pawned for some Scotch so I could verify that he was sliced up pretty bad. Someone called the cops who showed up and basically screamed at the guy who responded with enough force to convince them that he was okay.
“Stick-up kid, but look what you done did”
Now if you want to talk “real crime”, there were holdups such as the one I was involved in at Brothers 3 wherein some guys busted through the sliding side door while slamming my co-worker Larry in the head with the butt of a shotgun. It was a move designed to signal serious intent and it worked. After dropping Larry, I saw them heading towards me so I just hit the floor as did an older customer and a young black guy named Ron who looked like running back Jim Brown. None of us had any money of which to speak and while they had made a bloody example of Larry they left everyone else alone except to verbally berate us and threaten certain death should we not remain on the ground for at least 30 minutes after their departure. (We were up inside of two). Their take was around $170 and a six pack of Schlitz Malt liquor which, in my opinion, reflected a lack of ambition. The main guy was an impossibly skinny, pimply faced black dude with a floppy hat who had come in earlier to case the joint. He had told me that I looked like Rod Stewart (completely untrue) and it was such an out of context remark that I mentioned it to Larry, but we just put it down to the guy being a flake job – which he was. In the aftermath of the robbery Ron told me that he knew one of the guys and guaranteed that he was going “handle it” though I never received confirmation that he did (not that he owed anyone). In any case, he turned out to be a cool guy who would drop in just to say hello now and then to shoot the breeze. I suppose there is something about being in a tough situation with someone that can help form a bond. He was definitely the kind of guy you would want to be robbed with – assuming you had to be robbed at all.
The problem with the incipient crime was that legitimate businesses simply trying to maintain or make a come back could do very little to combat the growing negativity associated with the area that persists till this day. As a prime example, Caruoso’s Italian restaurant attempted something of a reprise at the intersection of Langston and Stewart next to the new Kroger that itself had displaced Earl Bennet’s Trailer park – a place I detail in this post. However, no one wanted to drive in from other parts of town especially when there were plenty of eating options all over town. Even the famous Pilgreen’s restaurant located on Lee Street struggled to keep them coming in but they at least lasted longer. Atlanta had a problem with crime in the 70s which included on-again, off-again notoriety as the murder capital of the nation. Going back to the article referenced at the beginning, the Chief said the following:
When the name was changed to Metropolitan Parkway, it made many people cynical, and now the corridor has numerous potential for great things to happen. Our goal with the precinct is to integrate it into the community as we will have meeting spaces for local organizations and anticipate having officers moving within the area
I do agree that there is a great deal of potential but unfortunately that’s ALL there is at this point as no major real estate moves have been made. Very odd given the corridor’s proximity to the movie studios and the music amphitheater along with an abundance of cheap land that is also very convenient to downtown and the Airport. The demand for inside-the-perimeter living would suggest that it’s only a matter of time before the area blows up but it still remains dormant for the time being.
Note that this will be Part one of a two part series on the role that crime played in the demise of Stewart Avenue and the resulting negative reputation that persists until today.
In October of 2017, plans were announced to create a Zone 3 Atlanta Police Precinct on a square of land close to the former location of The Fire Place Lounge (an attempt at creating a “classy joint” on Stewart Avenue). The proximal area contains at least one new gas station which presages a nascent form of progress to which the Precinct would add a sense of safety. For those who remember the area in the 70s I think the new precinct would be across the street from what was once Thoni’s (pronounced “Thone-Eyes”) gas station – a dirt cheap but poorly maintained fueling establishment. The last time the city paid significant attention to this area resulted in the name change to “Metropolitan Parkway” which was a ham-handed attempt to “push the reset button” on south side history. The motivating event (and nadir of what was already a bottoming out period) was a bachelor party turned double murder that took place at the once wholesome Alamo Plaza. Some guys didn’t like it that the prostitute they had hired turned out to be a transvestite so payment became an issue and the pimp fired off some fatal shots. Overreaction all around. After that, no one wanted to know anything about Stewart Avenue. Anyway I think the precinct relocation project makes logistic sense as it would provide convenient and rapid access to many areas within Zone 3 while making future expansion much easier than it would be were the Precinct office to remain at its present location on Cherokee Avenue.
Zone 3 has its own Urban Dictionary entry which I suppose is a form of recognition “reppin’ the O-3 all day long, bitches!” although the entry has questions as to whether East Point and College Park are part of any Zone when they, as cities, maintain their respective police forces. Speaking of East Point. When I was a kid it was one of those cities with oppressive law enforcement that preyed on residents as a source of income. Speed trapping “outsiders” is one thing but leaning heavily into your own community is another level altogether. In my experience they preyed mostly on younger drivers and generally anyone who seemed incapable of hiring a decent defense attorney. Things that Atlanta City police would generally NOT pursue (driving with no shirt, loud muffler, cracked windshield, busted license plate bulb), would be pounced upon by East Point’s finest and if there just happened to be some underage drinkers in the car or a pack of rolling papers then all the better. A friend of mine was pulled over for “singing while driving” ! The cop’s analysis was, “Acting the fool like you did coulda caused a wreck. That rock music is too loud anyways”. Ah yes officer, so was it perhaps that “hippie music” that attracted your attention with the hopes of finding a “lid of grass” or two upon which to base your application for sergeant ?
For those who forgot or just weren’t around then, the State of Georgia used to have an annual car inspection requirement that could easily be met by slipping some extra cash to the “inspector” (usually a bored-out-his-mind gas station attendant) who would, for enough money, deem a go-kart as being fit for the road. I once assiduously studied the inspection requirements and walked through the parking lot at Stewart Lakewood shopping Center with the checklist in hand. It didn’t take long to realize that few automobiles could legitimately pass the evaluation or remain in good enough condition over time to comply for more than a few months. So almost anyone could be “legally” stopped. Cops could say, “I stopped you because you car is unsafe to operate – I could impound your vehicle right now”. So then, the reason for the stop could be to create the reasonable suspicion required to make the stop in the first place ! (If you just experienced a “what the fuck” moment then congratulations). While the inspection law might not have been conceived specifically to bypass the 4th amendment rights of citizens it most certainly was exploited by various municipal law enforcement groups (almost always smaller cities) to do exactly that. Once the state abandoned the annual inspection approach and moved to the emissions model then things improved considerably but it took some time.
Fairness requires me to say that the Atlanta City Police didn’t really engage in this behavior nearly as much as did East Point, College Park, and the Ga Highway Patrol. Probably because Atlanta Police had its own internal problems and they could always find plenty of felonies to address thus eliminating the need to build a budding (no pun intended) career on hassling long hairs and returning Vietnam veterans. As an example of this different attitude, I was, at the time, driving a junked out, barely-held-together-with-bondo Pontiac Le Mans that was so visually offensive that an Atlanta City Cop pulled up next to me just to say, “I could write you a bunch of tickets but your car is a form of entertainment to me – it makes me laugh whenever I see it”. And then he sped off. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or thankful. Bondo was used to fix holes and dings in the body of a car. The idea was to fill, sand down, and paint but for those of us with real clunkers there could actually be more bondo filler on and in the car body than actual metal. And if you didn’t care to paint the car (or have the money to do so) then it looked all patchwork-like (see picture) especially so if there was an abundance of rust which could produce a kind of car leprosy effect. I had so much rust on the car that I made sure to get an updated tetanus shot.
Back in the 70s the police didn’t do much in terms of patrolling on Stewart Avenue at least in my experience. Once the frequency of low-level street crime reaches a certain level in any area the cops start to ignore it because they realistically cannot address it in any meaningful way. Plus, they get the idea that the community isn’t really doing much to help itself so why bother ? The city then decides to redirect police resources to other locales where complaints are being made by well-heeled citizens whose voice might more easily be heard in the Mayor’s Office. It’s a true sign of transition when cops start blaming you for being a victim of petty crime. “So why were you walking around late a night anyway ? What did you expect ?”. There is some tragedy here in that domestic violence winds up being all too common in these environments and if someone doesn’t have much money then it becomes very difficult to “stay somewhere else” even for a night or two while things cool off at home. I would see women from time to time with bruises and black eyes stroll into the store avoiding eye contact. It was clear something wasn’t working at home but what recourse did they have ? Many of them didn’t work or if they did there wasn’t enough money to leave. This is why some of the waitresses up at the Huddle House would spontaneously leave town with a truck driver. While such a move could look completely irresponsible it could have been the very thing that kept them out of the hospital (or worse).
Whew. I got off track there. So back to East Point…. I had the misfortune of rear-ending a friend of mine. His car I mean. So I got a court date in front of the infamous “Judge Duffy”, a well-known hater of long hairs and, in my view, probably anyone who had NOT participated in one of the World Wars. (I guess The Korean War too). As we sat awaiting the case, an unhappy defendant put on an exhibition of flagrant courtroom defiance:
“Don’t make no difference what you gone do Judge. I ain’t gone bow down to you. In fact YOU da one that gone bow down to ME”.
The courtroom erupted into laughter not because of what the guy had said, but because of to whom he had spoken. Duffy went apoplectic and his gavel oscillated faster than a piston in Richard Petty’s Plymouth at the Dixie 500. By the time order was restored, the lunatic had been dragged out by the bailiffs. I had also been laughing just because everyone else had but then Duffy calls my case and is staring straight at me. “Oh no – he saw me laugh”. He quickly asked if the damage had been addressed (it had) after which he slammed the gavel and shouted, “$35 or 10 days”. So I realize that he has to offer an alternative to the fine in case a person doesn’t have money. But 10 days ? I mean 3 days I could see. Maybe 5. But 10 ? It was then I noticed that the courtroom clock read straight 10 a.m. Hmmmm. Of course, I chose to pay the fine rather than become a guest of the East Point jail which, as I was told by an indigent defendant, “wasn’t really that bad”. “Besides”, he said, “I could use the rest. My old lady is driving me crazy”. I never thought of jail as a possible respite from marriage but perhaps his relationship had some quirks not commonly found in the typical union. So much for connubial bliss. It was also helpful to know that, “No one does the full-time anyway unless you make trouble. You would do at most 4 days out of 10“. Good info but I still had plans that did not involve eating jailhouse food.
There was some intersection of interests between East Point and Atlanta City Police relative to an area in West End called Dimmock Street which was a “stop and cop” – a place to purchase weed typically the absolute worst quality available (so I was told). It was so well-known to police that they would mess with the dealers in the winter by rolling up hard and extinguishing the flames from the burning barrels the weed merchants had going just to keep warm. The dealers would scamper like roaches as the cops blew in and laughed triumphantly as they doused the fire. Sure, they would make arrests now and then but it was just as likely to be customers as dealers. A lot of the customer traffic came from College Park and East Point so the respective police departments of those cities would be on the lookout for cars with loads of “young punks” to roust on the suspicion that they were “holding” something especially if they were coming down Lee Street (which turns into Main Street) from West End. See, going through West End towards downtown was a favored route to rock concerts at The Omni. And while not everyone was interested in Dimmock Street (or what could be bought there) the cops didn’t care and assumed that any group of young people coming from that direction after a certain hour at night just had to be up to no good. Going back to the inspection thing – a noisy or smokey tailpipe would be all that was necessary to pull someone over.
I’m going to end Part 1 here as I’ll need to transition to the more serious types of crime and how it impacted the area. I don’t want to cram too much into one post so I’ll post Part 2 soon.
I find myself at a crossroads with this post in that I’m struggling (albeit mildly) about the direction in which I should take this blog – if I should take it anywhere at all. It was originally motivated by a self-serving need to document some of the events and perspective of the area before I forgot it all. Most of these posts are things I’ve related in conversations through the decades so I figured why not just write it all down and refer people to it just to save time ? You know – I’ll create a “FAQ for Stewart Avenue” kind of thing. What I didn’t understand is that people don’t read as much as they used to and competition for attention is at an all time high what with various social media notifications littering one’s phone. This is in addition to ongoing daily responsibilities and the inevitable vagaries of life. It’s also somewhat problematic that my posts tend be much longer than the typical blog one might encounter. For that I make no apologies because I’m always trying to get AT something with these things even as I’m attempting to be informative at a factual level. Were I a better writer, the posts might be more impactful with fewer words. As to what exactly it is I’m trying to get AT, I don’t really know. It could be something really heavy, (at least for me), though it’s probably just more of the general restlessness I’ve always felt that doesn’t allow me to feel satisfied with the various projects I pursue. I’m no tortured artist here but I know well the frustrations associated with trying to nail down a specific feeling or idea and falling short. Most work is only an approximation of a greater ideal anyway and I suppose I can be cool with that. At least for today anyway.
So people prefer to hear these stories along with any comments (wry or otherwise) that I might use to punctuate the narrative. And having spent a significant amount of time in various “night life” establishments I do realize that the verbal tradition has always been more popular than the written one. And these stories will usually sound better after a few drinks though alcohol is by no means a prerequisite for enjoyment. Nonetheless, I’ve attempted to capture that verbal “saloon dynamic” in how I write these things but it’s only an approximation of how I would REALLY convey the story which might involve more grit. And it wouldn’t be at all gratuitous since the language of the time and place was in fact, on average, more primitive though infinitely more to the point than what one encounters in other parts of life. Just to say that you might suspect that what I’ve offered in these posts is a somewhat sanitized version of events…..and you would be right.
Anyway this approach has all sort of worked and I do get positive feedback although the target readership for this blog is surprisingly hard to nail down demographically. On any given day I get 15-20 visitors most of whom appear to be genuinely interested in the content but there are always a number of apparent out-of-towners who seem interested in escort style companionship as evidenced by the search terms they use and the articles they access. For example, I somewhat regret using the word “prostitute” in one of the post titles because it draws in the “wrong element” (albeit a minority) though prostitution was (and continues to be) a big factor in the demise of Stewart Avenue so it was reasonable to include it. In summary, I do get steady readers who are enjoying the content but I get comparatively few comments thus it remains a mystery as to what they might like to see in future posts. This is not at all to say that the “well has run dry” only that I don’t really know who the readers are so it’s hard to know what direction to pursue. I completely understand that many are, like myself, former residents of the area but there is large variation in age with some having lived there and left before the down turn.
The “baby boomer” generation is supposedly those born between 1946 and 1964 which is a wide enough interval to guarantee big differences in taste, interests and motivation so what might be fascinating for me might not at all be for someone born in 1948 (although I’ve gotten interesting feedback from people as old as 90 !) As an example, I get antsy in discussions with Atlantans who aggressively praise Lewis Grizzard as a comedy genius since I never really “got him”. Grizzard did no one any favors by trying to make a fetish of being southern combined with that over the top, “down home” humor which seemed only to turn back the clock on how southerners are perceived. Put it this way, I’ve never met someone who actually tried to make their southern accent MORE intense although comedians like Jeff Foxworthy who, with his cackling drawl, continue to perpetuate a post-modern Hee-Haw idea of what life is like in the south. He makes a lot of money so there is obviously a market for it. I make distinctions between him and someone like Jerry Clower who actually grew up in the stark rural environment he used to generate material for his act which was more akin to improvisational story telling than offering mere riffs on “redneck culture”. Clower was more organic whereas recent “southern comedians” are more contrived and glibly observational which is odd since most (if not all) of them are in fact southern ! This isn’t to say that I don’t see value in what I call “working class humor” and one the best modern examples actually comes from Canada in the form of the “Trailer Park Boys”. I relate to that show on several levels because 1) I’ve had friends like that and 2) were it not for a few lucky twists of fate, I might very well be one of them ! That show has like 10 seasons though I’ve only watched perhaps the first 5 of them. That it’s set in a Canadian trailer park is just a small detail as the set of characters is somewhat universal.
What has amazed me is that I’ve been able to travel to different parts of the world and have a talent for finding the equivalent of Stewart Avenue in that locale. It could be that I unconsciously seek it out but it’s probably just as true that it seeks me out if that makes any sense. Perhaps I’ve been indelibly marked with a universal symbol which implies that I’m always down for some action and craziness. And maybe I am but I’ve somehow been able to put that aside long enough to get some work done now and then. It’s been suggested that perhaps I should making a documentary of the area what with guerrilla style, IPhone-based filming being all the rage. So it should be relatively cheap outside of personal man-hours. And while this is a possibility the question then remains “for whom would I be making it” ? Once I get a direction in mind then the compass will surely work. Your comments are welcome.
The history of “modern” professional wrestling goes back well into the 19th century though the distillate thinking is that it reached its first “golden era” (at least in America) after World War II, leveled off in the 60s, and experienced a decline in the 70s. It rebounded in a very big way in the 80s once it was more or less centralized but not necessarily in a way that benefited the wrestlers themselves. Anyone who has seen Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” should quickly understand that it is usually someone else other than the wrestler who makes the big bucks. Obviously, there have been individuals who have carved out their own financial independence (or seem to have) in a way that has transcended the ring – Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, and The Rock come to mind. If you want more background on the history and evolution of Atlanta wrestling in particular then check out this page, this YouTube series, and this page.
The appeal of wrestling has always been pretty basic. The guys of old said what they wanted and any resulting conflict was handled quickly by going into the ring. All problems could be addressed via physical competition which as we know isn’t how life really works but if you can relieve your frustrations by watching some other guys deal with theirs in an entertaining fashion (even if they are only acting) then perhaps its worth a watch. They draw out the villains who at first seem to be getting a way with unchecked badness though the good guys eventually catch up to them and administer justice in the form of a “smackdown” thereby restoring order after which it all starts up again because, you know, that’s the cycle. It’s okay to watch but I wouldn’t recommend actually trying to apply a “crossface chickenwing suplex” to a jerk co-worker or a “heart punch” to the guy who cut you off in traffic as 1) there are serious legal consequences and 2) you would probably hurt yourself more than the other guy. Just keep cool and learn to meditate. I don’t know how many guys (and a few gals) I’ve seen who attempt various wrestling moves (usually after several drinks) only to wind up in the Emergency Room where the pain of embarrassment usually far exceeds the pain emanating from any actual physical injury.
I wasn’t what you would call a “true” wrestling fan but in the late 60s there were only three network channels and a single public station. As far as I was concerned wrestling stood out from the other shows of the time (I could never get into Bonanza) so it provided novel entertainment. Initially, the wrestling matches were shown on WQXI / WXIA TV but later moved to TBS Channel 17 where it found a new generation of fans or perhaps just some viewers who were stuck at home and had nothing else to watch. A guy named Ed Caparal called the action and conducted interviews though Freddie Miller was later part of the scene as was Gordon Solie. You should also remember that television sets at that time had a problem with the channel selector knob falling off or breaking altogether in which case you had to use pliers to change stations. (One might also have to use a coat hanger in place of a broken antenna). For the UHF channels it was a bit easier as you could spin the selector dial. Let’s just say that switching channels could be a pain so people might have watched wrestling because they were too lazy to get up.
“Policemen turn in their badges when I come to town” – Rowdy Roddy Piper
The least you need to know about wrestling is that the good guys are “faces” and the bad guys are “heels”. Occasionally a face can become a heel (or vice versa) but the roles usually remain intact for a while once established. The primary purpose of the televised matches was to setup conflict that could only be fully resolved later that week (or month) at a live ticketed match. Some injustice would be perpetrated by a heel against a face involving assault from behind, gang beatings, challenges to one’s masculinity / lineage, or attacks with a folding chair. The better wrestlers were those with the ability to creatively trash talk (also known as “shooting”) to further insult opponents and their fans thereby promoting ticket sales. The nature of the manufactured conflict would also frequently fall along political lines wherein the “heel” is alleged to be from Russia (Nikita Koloff) or whatever region is currently perceived as being the least friendly to US interests. I’m told that in the 50s that German and Russian heels were quite common and that those “Iron Curtain punks” were always soundly defeated by “wholesome American boys” who knew “damn good and well how to whip some commie ass”.
One of the Atlanta stand outs was El Mongol (né Raul Molina) who was emblematic of wrestlers who were assigned roles not always congruent with their natural heritage and background. In the ring El Mongol was presented as a sadistic bone breaking Mongolian martial artist though he was actually a Mexican family man with a Fu Manchu mustache. It was the same with Canadian Abdullah The Butcher (né Lawrence Shreve) whose native tongue was English and whose culture was far from that of a “Madman from Sudan” as the script had it. But who cares as long as the crowd gets into it ? Just to say that if a wrestler is alleged to be a former KGB agent don’t be surprised if the guy couldn’t tell you where Russia might be located on a map. There were exceptions in that the Iron Sheik was Persian which came in very handy once US-Iran relations soured in a really big way although he got his start a few years prior to the hostage crisis. Other conflicts were based on one wrestler ripping off the image of another such as Tommy Wildfire Rich who allegedly appropriated the style of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair (a consummate trash talker). The most entertaining bit was that of the thinly veiled gay wrestler – a role first presented by the flamboyant Gorgeous George whose influence was apparent in guys like “The Exotic” Adrian Street and Adrian Adonis. Adrian Street would celebrate victories by applying lipstick to his supine opponent, kissing him, and then following up with a kick to the face which enraged the rabidly homophobic crowds who were disgusted by a triumphant overtly effeminate wrestler. The words you would hear from the crowd were not even remotely pleasant.
“I’m wearing six hundred dollar custom made lizard shoes” – Ric Flair
For those wrestlers who lacked the gift of gab there would be managers to do the trash talking for them. A prime example was Dandy Jack Crawford – a bowtie and bowler wearing aristocrat who lurked at ringside tripping up opponents with his umbrella while feigning innocence when caught. Some of these guys might have wrestled previously but usually they were men of average build hired for their strong ability to stir up crap and exacerbate ongoing feuds to keep the crowds fully engaged. They would sometimes “betray” their proteges by switching loyalties to opposing wrestlers (during mid match). Or, the protege might betray the manager resulting in a switch from heel to face (or vice versa). Most wrestling managers worked with heels since the potential for twisted plot lines was far greater than those of a good guy whose persona was generally more limited and boring.
Many of the early matches happened at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, a once prestigious event space, which in 1980 became part of Georgia State University. Towards the end of its run it hosted rock shows and numerous high school graduations even as the facility fell into a state of neglect and disrepair. Large vermin could be seen in and around the venue. One of the roadies for Johnny Winter said that the rats backstage were impossible to scare off and would scamper on stage during equipment load in and sound check. (Why they didn’t come on stage during the actual show remains a source of mystery – maybe they just weren’t into the music ?) Once the Omni opened in 1972, the wrestling events moved there and while the word “Omni” has only two syllables it turned out that for Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes it had three syllables – The “Ahm-a-nee”. The new facilities were far better and the seating capacity was much larger giving the impression that match attendance was down when it actually wasn’t it. But they turned up the heat anyway by having some “Cage Matches” to sell more tickets. (According to this source the first ever Cage Match was in Atlanta on June 25th, 1937 though it doesn’t say where it took place). These specialty matches were designed to up the ante by having a full on group melee with the winner being the proverbial last man standing. The customer got more bang for the buck.
“A computah took yo place, Daddy ! That’s hard times !” – Dusty Rhodes
Many of the the wrestlers of the 60s and 70s were not what you would call obvious athletes nor did their physiques reflect a lifestyle normally associated with a world class competitor in any sport. Many were just naturally large “farm boy” types who wanted more action than small town life could offer. So circuit wrestling provided relief in the form of mobility albeit to larger smaller towns in the region with Atlanta being the biggest. It was better than working in the local factory for the rest of your life. Despite the fact that lots of wrestlers were not physically “cut” it would be unwise for a layman to engage someone very accustomed to slamming into turn buckles and being thrown (or throwing someone) out of the ring especially when they are weighing in at 240 lbs. As the 70s progressed, bodybuilding intersected with wrestling and steroids became more freely available which led to greater strength and impressive physiques such that by the 80s many of these guys were truly intimidating – not that some of the old timers weren’t. Freddie Blassie, (for a time billed as “The Vampire”), used to file his teeth ringside in anticipation of biting his opponent. Of course the problem with steroids is that if your competitor uses them then so must you assuming you don’t want to look out of place. Then again, there were plenty of guys who carried extra weight and managed to be amazingly nimble in the ring.
“I should have been born triplets. That’s how much talent I have, you pencil neck geek” – Classy Freddie Blassie
The Stewart Avenue connection was that many of these guys could be found drinking in area bars just like anyone else seeking diversion from the daily grind however that might be defined. They were usually treated well and enjoyed a form of celebrity recognition. One night there were approximately six of them boozing it up in LP Pips. André the Giant was up front near the entrance holding court with three women sitting on one of his thighs. He was drinking out of a beer pitcher as it didn’t make sense to provide him with the conventional 10-12 oz beer mug. Towards the back were Dusty Rhodes, Wahoo McDaniel, Ivan Kolloff, and some others whose names I’ve forgotten. The rules of Kayfabe (the protocols on how wrestlers should interact with each other in public) have it that heels and faces should never mix though there were no faces present so it was just some wrestlers getting soused after a match. Dusty seemed particularly moody and even when a few girls wanted to talk to him he brushed them off using his normal voice which was a far cry from that soul gospel accent he used on TV. If you aren’t familiar with his accent then check out the infamous Hard Times speech – “A computah took yo place, Daddy ! That’s hard times ! Start watching around the 50 second mark.
I attempted a conversation with Wahoo McDaniel who in reality had Native American heritage which calls into question his decision to drink like he did that night. He looked at me as if I were a bug on his windshield so I concluded it was in my best interest to move on. What struck me was that they were all bloated and carrying a lot more weight than I would have expected. And with the exception of André The Giant they were all shorter than they appeared to be on TV. Note that I didn’t say that they were “short” just that when an announcer says someone is 6’6″ though in reality they are 6’1″ then it’s gonna be surprising. You could see obvious razor cut scars on their foreheads (an old wrestling trick to get the blood flowing to rile up the fans) as well as the “road weariness” common to anyone who travels for a living. With the exception of André they all exuded a brooding “don’t f**k with me” kind of insolence and had no interest in answering questions or going into character for anyone not even the women who had been buzzing around.
But André (a native of France) was “on” that night which might explain why he was up front while the others sulked in the back. He was definitely interested in the ladies but I’m not sure they were interested in him outside of basic curiosity. That guy was super tall and his head seemed as large as a small beer keg. I offered him a “Bonsoir monsieur, comment allez-vous” which genuinely pleased him as I suspect he didn’t get much of that down south or if he did it wasn’t recognizable as French. He gave me a big grin and shook my hand which was truly shocking as his index finger landed on my forearm such was the size of his hand. I think he responded with a “Pas mal jeune homme, pas mal” but his voice was so low and thick it was hard to tell. (He made Barry White sound like a choir boy). The moment was short lived as he left to track some short-shorts wearing waitress who had caught his rather large, saucer-like eye.
When wrestlers of old recount their achievements, they frequently cite the various championship belts they might have “won” which is odd given that match outcomes, especially the marquee events, were always negotiated in advance. Thus, could anyone say that a “Championship Belt” really meant anything ? And some of the titles were perhaps created only to hype specific events such as “Introducing the new Georgia TV Tag Team Championship holders, The Assassins !”. Isn’t the championship belt thing just a prop in the ongoing saga between faces and heels ? For the most part it is though wrestling isn’t without its own brand of politics. It turns out that “winning” (or being selected to win) a championship is something of a testament to one’s popularity (or infamy) which can obviously help sustain one’s career. Being popular with those who booked the matches was essential to putting bread on the table. Those who couldn’t provoke a reaction, or appeal in some way to a regional crowd, or effectively trash talk were destined to become one of the anonymous drones who got tossed around (and out of) the ring literally and figuratively.
Since that time wrestling has been monopolized and corporatized with detailed employee contracts being the norm. Script writers exist to generate copy for promos and the wrestling matches more closely resemble rock concerts than the bare bones budget productions they once were when being produced and broadcast out of Atlanta. Everything is efficiently managed to the point of being incredibly boring. According to this Forbes article John Cena is the WWE’s top draw who pulled in around 9.5 million in 2016. I must say that after seeing his promos I was not impressed with his “shooting” ability compared to the old timers. When looking at YouTube vids of Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes promos you see true improvisational artistry that betters that of any in-town hipster improv comedy troupe. But Cena’s promos come off as being dry rehearsed readings of tightly managed story lines. But that’s okay since the WWE will probably make more money off of merchandising in one week than I’ll make my whole life which tells you what it’s all about now. If I had to pick a favorite contemporary wrestler it would be The Undertaker although at this point in time he is now considered an “older” wrestler which means I must be getting “old” also – but how can that be ? © 2018 The Stewart Avenue Kid
Stewart Lakewood Mall was built in several phases with the original groundbreaking taking place around 1952 with subsequent construction in 1962 followed by the addition of a spacious discount store called Woolco – a subsidiary of Woolworth which already had a presence in the Mall. I became an unwitting shoplifter at Woolco by walking out with a Duncan Yo-Yo (the Butter Fly model). I really didn’t mean to do that and considered returning to pay though a friend of mine had once been arrested because some youth-hating manager thought my friend was trying to return stolen merchandise to get some quick cash. (As if two T-shirts would be worth the risk). In general I noticed a reflexive distrust of youth coming from the older generations many of whom didn’t like anyone without a crew cut. Some level of inter generational tension is inevitable but the older store employees seemed to harbor special resentment for those they perceived to be “undisciplined young punks”. My track record with older people has never been that good. I once had an old timer call me a “long haired son of a bitch” just for quietly going around him in a Piccadilly (or was it Davis Brothers ?) cafeteria line. Others did the same before me though they were spared insult. My response was a simple, “Well Sir – at least I have hair”. The line workers got a kick out of that.
I was always dubious of Depression era people who seemed to think that everyone else was by comparison wasteful, ungrateful, and lazy. Not everyone felt this way but enough did so as to make it a true drag. Eating beans and rice every night and putting cash under a mattress isn’t evidence of being a good person (especially if you are going to be pr**k to everyone else) but there were plenty of old timers then who felt that way. I was fortunate in that while my oldest relatives lived through the Depression, and preferred the simple life, they didn’t begrudge my enjoyment of modern conveniences nor did they require me to suffer in some neo-Puritanic way as a demonstration of character. If you want to save every penny then good for you but don’t get angry with me because I’m having a good time and still find ways to save. Now there’s a grudge that I’ve kept for some time now. Could you tell ?
One of my geekier pursuits as a youngster included the assembly of car model kits which was then a really big thing with some kids pursuing it as a competitive hobby. Woolco offered a nice model selection and the hobby was interesting for a time though I became far more enamored with slot car racing because of its kinetic nature and the social interaction. Anyway, the better kits could have around 100 parts that required paint and glue so the acquisition of craft paint, brush sets, and high quality adhesive became necessary. I recall Tester’s being a popular brand and, if you weren’t of age, you had to have an adult make the purchase since underage glue sniffing (aka “huffing”) had become a problem at least as far as the media was concerned. While I never actively pursued this method of intoxication, the model building process involved long hours in the presence of fumes which could easily result in (at least to me) an unpleasant lightheaded dizzy feeling. It seemed to me that a glue high was akin to drinking rot guy whiskey and therefore must be a refuge for only the most desperate. But there were always those “glue heads” who swore that it was a “good kick” followed by some pseudo-jive lecture on which brands provided the “cleanest high”. In my experience, huff heads occupied the lowest rung on the thrill seeking ladder and were generally ostracized by everyone unless they were buying lots of drinks and only then for the duration of the drinking session. No one liked these guys, especially cops and women, and they generally met with untimely ends. Only a glue head can tolerate another glue head.
In the middle of the Mall, between the parallel walkways, was a free-standing, glassed-in kiosk containing pay phones. In the Summer this structure became a lung-melting heat trap appropriate for use in at least one of the nine Circles of Hell. I used to rifle the coin returns for left-behind change and frequently came up with something although my actions were motivated more out of boredom and borderline OCD behavior as opposed to financial need. One day my Father and I were walking by this hothouse and noticed a very tall man slowly dropping to the ground as if kneeling to pray before flopping over onto his back where his head rocked back and forth a few times and then stopping still. “Damn ! A heart attack“, I thought. My Father entered to check it out thinking that the guy might simply be drunk (a reasonable suspicion) but he wasn’t. And while I don’t remember the exact dialogue, the cause for the fainting spell had a lot to do with the guy’s total lack of preparation for the sweltering temperatures of Atlanta in August. Speaking of the parallel walkways, I would sometimes take my bike to the Mall and cruise up and down them which angered store owners and patrons although I never went very fast. But again, it was just one of those generational things and there were lots of old women who would be startled by the smallest of noises. So you know – better to dismount and push the bike when on the premises. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series if you want to vicariously experience the SL Mall then visit Ansley Mall which I believe has preserved the outdoor parallel walkway structure. You could always drive to SL Mall now and despite the fact that there are stores there, a lot of it is in ruins and doesn’t present a good idea of what it used to be like.
The stand out memory of Stewart Lakewood Mall relates to the horrible Atlanta Child Murders which took place from 1979-1981 (approximately). On January 3rd, 1981, Lubie Jeter was selling automobile air-fresheners and had made his way up Stewart Avenue towards the Shopping Center as he stopped at establishments along the way including Brothers Three. It was a particularly busy Saturday so I paid almost no attention to him as he leaned into the store propping the door open with one of his feet as he asked if anyone wanted to purchase some car air-freshener. (These types of solicitations were fairly common). I told him “no” and he proceeded towards the shopping center (or at least appeared to be) where he, according to the published chronology of the case, was picked up by Wayne Williams. Obviously, I had no idea who he was at the time and even when the story broke I still didn’t put it together that he was the kid. It wasn’t long thereafter, maybe a week, that an attractive blond woman (I believe she was with the GBI) came into Brothers Three and asked myself and Terry if we had seen this young man selling car fresheners. When I responded in the affirmative she pulled out a pad, made some introductory notes, and calmly asked a series of questions. It was long ago but I recall that the questioning was very thorough and that she concluded the interview by verifying my personal information along with a comment that there would probably be a followup…. and she was right.
Listen – we’ll come back as often as we like and we’ll ask as many questions as we want and as many times as we want”.
I received visits from the Atlanta Police (for sure) and FBI (I think – or it could have been the GBI again) who basically asked the same series of questions to help nail down the sequence of events. When I was a kid I thought that cops, like Joe Friday, wanted “just the facts” but that’s not the way it always works. They like to ask the same question many times (at different times in the conversation) to establish consistency. Standard stuff really. The larger problem, well more of an inconvenience, was that they never called ahead, choosing rather to just show up unannounced. This wasn’t a problem for me but it was for my older co-workers who might be discussing their sports betting strategies for the upcoming week which might not go over well with the four plain clothes cops who just walked through the door. But if the cops/agents heard anything they didn’t seem to care. After all they had bigger fish to fry. They kept asking the same questions trying to get more details which is natural but I was coming up dry. I don’t know if I came off as disrespectful but one of the plain clothes guys said something like, “Listen – we’ll come back as much as we like and we’ll ask as many questions as we want and as many times as we want”. Okay…… I get it. There is immense pressure to solve this case and I’m definitely happy to help (and had been) but there is only so much I can offer based on a 5-10 second interaction….. It would be some time before the case was solved but at that time the larger impact was that everyone in town became aware that Stewart Lakewood Mall was a spot where a child met his demise so then the distillate thinking became that the south side of town must REALLY be going down hill.
As I’ve attempted to convey in several posts on this blog, I believe that it is only a matter of time before this area experiences a revival since there is a dearth of in-town properties. Prior to the real estate bubble burst (circa 2006) there was talk of Home Depot possibly moving into the Mall (more likely replacing a large part of it) in anticipation of home flipping and renovation. However, that never played out as the market froze solid so no moves were made. I haven’t been able to find out anything more recent though willingly concede that I haven’t researched it very hard. My sense is that with the nearby movie studios and amphitheater as well as close proximity to downtown and the airport that this area simply will rise again and when it does the land on which SL Mall sits would make an excellent shopping locale for a new generation of residents. There might be a Part 3 to this – might not. I tend to let things float into my head based on how (and if) people respond which might trigger long dormant memories. There is much more to say for sure some of which I captured in my post on The Stewart Lakewood Library which was located in the “corner” nearest the Huddle House. When I think back on this scene I now realize how close everything was then and I pretty much walked from my house (or grandmother’s place) to the Mall and to School. I had a bike I would use now and then but walking seemed more fun as I encountered many of the Stewart Avenue characters. I don’t know that I would have had it any other way. © 2018 The Stewart Avenue Kid
Crossroads Mall, originally known as Lakewood Center, is by far the most forgotten mall in Atlanta. It is located at the intersection of Metropolitan Parkway (formerly Stewart Avenue) and Perkerson Road next to Langford Parkway (formerly Lakewood Freeway). Sky City Retail History
In considering Stewart Lakewood Mall you might want to visit Ansley Mall which is its “twin” (more paternal than identical) having been built by the same developer although Stewart Lakewood evolved in phases over time. While Ansley has always been relatively well maintained and has endured the ups and downs of the Atlanta economy over the past 5 decades, the Stewart Lakewood mall (henceforth known as SL Mall because I’m tired of typing out “Stewart Lakewood”) took a commercial dive starting in the late 70s from which it has never really emerged. I mean no disrespect to current tenants of the mall but when at least half of the structure is abandoned and dilapidated it’s difficult for anyone to get excited. The back part could easily be used as a movie set for a post-apocalyptic thriller (Soylent Green – The Reckoning). In many ways, my decision to document the Stewart Avenue area was motivated by this blog (from which the opening quote was taken) which exists primarily to discuss retail mall space. And here is another blog from someone who grew up in the area though split the scene prior to the general regional decline. You might want to start with these references for some factual background which will also relieve me of the responsibility of having to list all of the shops that once existed at SL Mall many of which provided first jobs for area teenagers.
Before I get much deeper into any of this it is interesting to note that while larger mall installations are experiencing something of a crisis, the standalone / strip mall concept seems to be making a comeback. For example check out the renovation of Toco Hills which has gone retro perhaps as a nod to its past but it’s more likely that the lower maintenance costs of an existing one or two story setup combined with easier parking access might have something to do with the recent attraction to outdoor malls. That some long time tenants are leaving the mall due to pricey rent hikes doesn’t seem to bother the surrounding community or perhaps they aren’t yet aware of what is going on.
In the 60s and well into the 70s the SL Mall was quite practical and served the interests of the families still residing in the area. It was easy to drop by Big Star (formerly Colonial) grocery store for supplies or JC Penny’s to pick up some back-to-school clothing. Jacobs offered pharmacy services though my family favored Hays and Weldon over on Sylvan Rd. This was also the era of trading stamps so we would also shop at the Big Apple across from Hays and Weldon which was located next to an S&H store where you could redeem your stamp books for merchandise. The SL Mall had various promotions such as when radio station WQXI hired a helicopter to drop a bunch of ping pong balls marked with various prize names and dollar amounts. And the movie theater would host “Tubby and Lester” (a local Laurel and Hardy knockoff duo) on the occasional Saturday morning for the kids interested in that kind of thing. At Christmas they would put up a large blowup Santa (always a hit). Check this blog for some full on Southside / SL Mall photo nostalgia. Opinions vary as to when things started going “down hill” but I would say that by 1975 the exit momentum had been well established and families were leaving the area in an undeniable pattern so it was little surprise that Mall business began to suffer. Once the SL movie theater became one of those “99 cent theaters” in a desperate move to attract customers the writing was on the wall and it became so very clear that money wasn’t flowing into the area.
One of the businesses that stands out in my memory was the Huddle House which was a classic short order diner perfect for some post rock concert chow – usually on the way back from The Omni or The Fox. The waitresses were loud and brassy with a tendency to employ words like “honey”, “baby”, “sweetie” (sometimes all in one sentence) as a means to generate better tips. Frankly, such talk always creeped me out. One of the more senior waitresses lived in Blair Village which sounds simple enough to pronounce although in her patois it came out more like, Blay-a-yer Veal-ij which was then commonly known to locals as a place “where the elite meet to get stabbed” – such was it’s reputation for crime. She seemed the type to have a razor stashed in her bra right next to her cash roll. She hustled hard for the money (presaging the Donna Summer song by a few years) and flirted aggressively with men, especially truck drivers, who might offer her a better deal than whatever she had going on in that moment. Having seen this pattern a number of times I concluded that being a truck driver must have a form of sex appeal although it was the mobility offered by the job that was the real hook. Many of these short order waitress types liked getting around (in more ways than one) and saw the long haul drivers as a safer alternative to hitchhiking or an interminable Greyhound bus ride across the country. That they might have to give up “some lovin’” was simply part of the deal.
There was also a collection of girls from the area trailer parks who would congregate outside the Huddle House trying to flirt up some action. Many of them might have been built like Raquel Welch or some prototypical Daisy Duke (long before the show even existed) though I would lose interest after about two minutes of attempted conversation during which I might have asked horribly inappropriate questions (at least from their point of view) such as, “what school do you go to” (they didn’t). In the end I couldn’t talk their language – a point once driven home when a truck driver leaving the Huddle House said, “Hey ladies I just might have some of that Southern Comfort out in the truck” which ended it all right there. I was later told by one such girl that I was “too uppity”. That became a recurring theme in my early social life – that I was “too north side” for the south side girls but “too south side” for the north side girls. That wasn’t entirely true as there was a girl named Candace I liked whose father “Smitty” used to cut hair at the Barbershop located just next door to the Huddle House. But they split that part of town for a safer setup. In reality I don’t think I ever got a haircut from the barbershop – it was more like an express buzz cut. I was never in the chair for more than 3 minutes. For anyone with an interest in an actual hairstyle you had to go around the corner to The Viking which provided a full on luxury experience complete with a hair wash from a bosomy woman who might have been the primary attraction for many.
As the 70s progressed SL had its very own “head shop” which offered a rich selection of music much more so than the nearby Woolco or Woolworth who stocked “45” singles and only very few “long playing” albums and then it was “square” stuff like the Osmond Brothers or Pat Boone. But not much at all for a growing music snob with greater interest in groups not routinely featured on the pop radio. There were record stores in the area such as the Record Bar over at Greenbriar who encountered competition in the 70s from Turtles and later Peaches record stores. Of course the head shop also offered les accoutrements for the budding (no pun intended) marijuana smoker as well as “black light” posters, “underground” magazines, candles, and t-shirts. The clerks did little to hide the fact that they were heads themselves and were happy to entertain various hangers-on of the post-hippy type looking to chat up the cute hip-hugger wearing girls who might wander in “just to look around”. Much of the shop talk was laced with references to cannabis and general drug use so much so that it became irritating. I mean yea I get it – you are down, you are hip, you are a freak, we know you “turn on” – but why would you want to promote it? Even then I thought the freak parlance sounded stupid.
What I did like about the place was that there were people who could talk intelligently about, for example, the latest album from Nektar and how it compared (or not) to whatever Wishbone Ash had out at the time. The general mood was generally quite mellow though I distinctly recall there being something of a customer backlash when Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music double album came out. Lots of people were eager to buy it thinking that it was gonna be great only to find out that it was, well not what anyone expected – so there was a large scale demand for refunds for what was basically Lou’s big ole “F**k You” to RCA his then record company. Of course, the hipsters today inevitably encounter Metal Machine Music on their way to someone like Stockhausen though refuse to accept the joke and profess great love for this “work” claiming that it was somehow groundbreaking (it should be in the ground). Despite these occasional musical taste disagreements things rarely got out of hand. One benefit to the employees was that if they had the munchies they could go right next door to Orange Julius to get a cool drink.
There are other shops that figure heavily in my memory which I’ll address in a part 2 of this posting (Pet Jungle comes to mind as does the Bakery and Dipper Dan Ice Cream) but I’ll stop here for now. SL Mall also plays a role in the Atlanta Child Murders which was a truly unfortunate period in the town’s history. It’s also important to note that prior to the real estate bubble circa 2006 there was hope that this area would experience revitalization and that the likes of Home Depot would see fit to move into the Mall. After all it remains one of the few in town areas to not be redeveloped but with its proximity to the Belt Line I think it’s only a matter of time before things improve.