The Lakewood Freeway Bridge To Perkerson Elementary

The Lakewood Freeway bridge to Perkerson Elementary

Take a look at this bridge which exists at the intersection of Perkerson Rd and Springdale Rd in south west Atlanta. (Note that Lakewood Avenue turns into Perkerson Rd at this juncture). It was originally constructed to give school children safe and quick access to Perkerson Elementary located on the other side of Highway 166 – the original name of this stretch of highway. These days it is known as Langford Parkway and before that, Lakewood Freeway. It’s hard to imagine now but in the mornings of the distant yesteryear there would be an ant line of children waiting to ascend the stairs under the watchful eyes of student school patrols to prevent any “dillydallying” or fights. (Most of those happened after school). The bridge, as well as the walk to it, was an opportunity to experience life without adult interference – like a first exercise in personal independence.

Geography has a restorative property in that anywhere of significance I’ve ever been has kept a small piece of me which will be returned, along with accrued interest, when offering tribute even decades later. The bridge is like “thanks for remembering me, now here is a little something for you” with that “little something” being, for example, a latently powerful memory of carrying the books of a girl I once fancied. The universe, with its annoying tendency to view things in aggregate, might not see the value in one person’s reminiscence but I certainly do. To me, “things” have a presence beyond simple occupancy of space. After all, they, like us, are arrangements of atoms and chemical bonds so it makes total sense that we can trade a prion or two. Logistically, I would approach the bridge from the top of Springdale Circle turning left onto Springdale Rd near Bobby Richardson’s house and walking the few hundred remaining feet to the base. I remember the center steel rail being all nicked up with scabby imperfections that provided familiar comfort as my left hand brushed over them. Life might change but the bridge did not.

All Polyester Clothes Suck

Make no mistake, Shag carpet was never NOT ugly

At the time, my Mother was grateful for the arrival of polyester clothing which greatly reduced the need for ironing although that fabric, unlike cotton, did not breathe at all – a total liability in the oppressive Georgia heat. It was a form of walking suffocation! By the time I had trudged up Springdale Circle, crossed over the bridge and made it to class I was totally pissed off from being so hot and itchy. You might recall that polyester fabric holds static electricity very well, a property I exploited to perpetrate a form of parental payback.

Hard wood floors were then giving way to unnaturally-colored shag carpeting making it trivial to accumulate an abundance of negatively charged electrons by rapidly rubbing your feet on the deeply piled material after which you could “accidentally” touch someone to discharge those feisty sub-atomic particles in what was a quick and painful experience. In the cooler months you could even see the electrical arc closing the distance between you and your victim. How exciting!

The first day of school was always the worst – it would be 7:30 a.m. and already 86 degrees. I would be wearing a cardboard-stiff canary yellow shirt that added 10 degrees to that. My feet would be pinched into submission by “penny loafers” whose overall quality was well reflected by the name. The older kids shuffled onto the scene and clustered into groups dictated by last year’s social order which had somehow been suspended during the Summer. Cute girls laughed at geeks and the jocks mocked the freaks. My next door neighbor, being older, acted as if she had never before seen me let alone knew me. Whew, got carried away there – thought it was therapy time.

On either side of the steps are drainage lanes you could use to easily run your bike up onto the bridge.

Back to the bridge. As you can see from the photo, it was fenced to prevent falls and to stop kids from dropping stuff onto cars below. It never occurred to me do anything except maybe spit through the fence but even that held fatal potential should the saliva wad find its way into someone’s car. You gotta understand that most automobiles then had no A/C, thus open windows were more common than not. Once I got to the other side of the bridge, I felt like a Spanish explorer setting foot on virgin land. In front of the school were lush, verdant woods (or so I imagined) making it seem like I was part of some relief party for an overworked priest at a frontier Mission that had been hacked out of the wilderness. (I can make something out of nothing). Adjacent to the school was Jere Wells Community Health Center and to the right, Stewart Lakewood Library and the associated shopping center.

Things Start To Get Ugly

By the time I became a 7th grade student patrol the number of kids seeking bridge passage had easily dropped by half compared to just 2 years before. Those remaining kids, like myself, were usually the children of divorced or single parents. The school was still functioning but teacher and student attrition was undeniable and things like student plays and PTA functions would be increasingly cancelled.  After completing grammar school, I rarely used the bridge and once I started working at Brothers Three I opted for the more direct route of walking down Perkerson, turning left onto Langston, taking another left past Sylvan Motors onto Stewart and then into the lot containing Banks Liquor and Bros Three. Ah, home again! As a visual aid, I’ve provided a crude graphic which should help when reading the following paragraphs. As a general note, standing near the “Pile of Bricks” location offered a nice view of the fireworks happening in the Fall over at the Great Southeastern Fair.

My walking route to work.

One day as I was walking to work, (the blue line represents my route), I heard the rumbling of a car approaching from behind which was hardly surprising except that it wasn’t passing so I peered over my left shoulder to see a leering, pudgy, stringy-haired, middle-aged guy driving a cherry red convertible. At first I thought he wanted to “get it on” which he did though not in the way I had imagined. I mistakenly assumed it was in the sense of physical conflict since on the Avenue you always had someone wanting to fight because of a perceived insult the source of which might not even exist – they just liked fighting. So, I rapidly inventoried my recent actions for evidence of a “street offense” (e.g. maintaining eye contact for too long) and, finding none, moved into the sequential thought process of, “Hmm, if it’s not a beef… then what could it be… maybe he is….. wait…one of those guys….who likes… uh oh”. All of this occurred right at the same time his car assumed a position parallel to mine.

My Time As a Brick Mason

It was clear he was no stranger to the underage hustle scene. I pondered my options the easiest of which involved continuing to calmly walk the remaining 100 feet or so to Langston where I could cut over and be at Sylvan Motors inside a couple of minutes. On the other hand, my Stewart Avenue training required definite action to deter future solicitations of this variety. I did in fact walk towards Langston without fanfare which apparently fueled his hopes that a liaison was emerging or at least not out of the question. What he did not notice was the pile of bricks on the curb in front of the house belonging to the Combs sisters.

He had this rolling narrative going on, very little of which I could actually hear due to the percussive muffler noise (damn man, take that thing to Midas). What I could hear was a babbling incoherence with the occasional reproductive obscenity tossed in to make clear his intent. And, being encouraged by my continued silence he completely failed to notice how, when I stopped to select a brick with nice sharp edges, I pivoted towards him while hoisting it into launch position. His carnal urgency turned to surprise then to fear as I launched the brick in the style of a shot putter. Physics tells us that when a projectile is thrown up its energy changes from kinetic to potential energy as the height increases and the velocity decreases which in simpler terms meant that, as the brick falls from its peak, someone’s convertible was going to get messed up. So he guns the car but the brick still manages to catch the trunk making an awesomely deep dent.

The Krazy Kat cartoon – Ignatz Mouse was known to frequently throw bricks

I held another at the ready in case he came back which I thought he might because he stopped about 100 feet away while looking into his mirror to see my next move. No way he is going to call the cops. I then picked up another brick and held them both high – he wanted no part of it and sped down past the Gilbert House. Once I made it to work I shared the story knowing I would then become the brunt of enduring jokes – “Hey Ignatz, maybe you could make it to work on time instead of flirting with strangers

I later learned that a guy fitting his description had similarly tried to pick up one of my girlfriends who pretty much gave up on walking anywhere so frequent were the overtures coming from roving “creepy uncle” types. This activity intensified and culminated some years later with the very unfortunate abduction of Lubie Jeter at Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center as part of the infamous Atlanta Child Murders – something I write about in this post. Clearly a nadir of the time and place and, in my view, the true pivot point into an undeniable decline from which the area has yet to recover even though some of the older problems no longer remain.

The bridge seems a bit worse for wear though remains intact. Given that it was a mere Google street view picture that prompted this post, God only knows what else might be revealed if I actually visited it in person? I now realize I never really said anything about what it was like to actually be on it (other than the spit thing) so maybe it was the coming and going aspect that appealed to me in that it offered a clean separation between home and school (or work) – an idea that doesn’t really exist now. What place holds some of your memories? The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2021

Here’s A Chip For Your Shoulder

Atlanta had its own hippy scene based around the Memorial Arts Center particularly the area between 10th and 14th street which hosted activities not all of which were motivated by the betterment of society. For example, my uncle was shot (he survived) in an incident at The Catacombs in what originated as a bar dispute. Around the same time, there was a counter culture publication called “The Great Speckled Bird”, more commonly known as the “Bird” published between 1968 – 1976. Check the following quote from the March 20, 1075 issue:

The BIRD did not create the Atlanta Hippie Scene nor did the latter create the BIRD. Yet they struggled against some of the same powers, hand-in-hand. At the same time, they were often in conflict with each other – politics vs. lifestyle.

https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/GSB

This is all important as early 70s youth began to exhibit suspicion towards the increasingly over-earnest ethos of the 60s hippy lifestyle which many pursued simply as a means to get laid. It is important to understand that hippy sentiments did not guarantee an authentic concern for the larger social view that a political activist might take. The two interests could be very different in their respective goals. So called “free love”, for the hippy, was the reward for even token social work although no one would ever (using the parlance of the time) “cop” to that when expressed in such obvious terms. Living in a commune could bring challenges the stress of which could be eased by the satisfaction of having made a cultural contribution and, more importantly, by the promise of frequent recreational sexual encounters. Note that my view here does not include the idea that such activity was necessarily wrong. Just understand that political activism and hippy sex, while apparent natural bedfellows, weren’t necessarily the best of friends outside of that.

Peace And Love, Bro !

Of course the vagaries of communal living would intrude upon these idyllic situations in the form of unanticipated pregnancies, questions of paternity, and peer group conflict which might then make the comforts of the straight world seem not so bad. I mean, there is nothing like the transcendental pain of an abscessed tooth to drive one back to “The Man” for some relief. Don’t know about you but I’ll gladly accept the capitalist services of an experienced dentist over those freely offered by some whiskey-spitting shaman. And yes, there were those genuinely concerned with social improvement (if not outright replacement) but lots of hippy excursions were financed by indulgent parents who hoped that it was all just a phase. This is to say nothing of the very important issue of Vietnam-era college deferment abuse which warrants its own discussion.

Check out Peter Coyote’s book “Sleeping Where I Fall” – his personal look at 60s activism which also illustrates, quite unintentionally, that going all in on counter culture and later deciding to (re)join “straight” society (or a form thereof) is not at all challenging if the family cash machine is still available along with the social connections it affords. However, for those of a working class background who might have had a vested interest in the promise of social equality, maybe they saw it as an opportunity to get in on some fun before accepting the impending monotony guaranteed by a life of manual labor. Some might have sought to extend their activism into perpetuity perhaps as a means to avoid the straight life altogether. But that involved an eventual harsh landing as there was no familial financial cushion there to soften the touch down. Activists, while in the shared struggle, will usually function as equals but upon departure from the movement will tend to (re)assume roles congruent with their upbringing.

Some say that assistance from the privileged is essential to articulate “the struggle” to the establishment in terms it can understand. However, there were/are those who view such an approach as being weak and far too much of a compromise in which case nothing short of revolution will facilitate meaningful change. Apparently, this works both ways. In 1972, the BIRD’s midtown office was firebombed though the perpetrator(s) were never found perhaps due to lack of investigative enthusiasm by the Atlanta Police Department. Through the years the BIRD had published a number of articles which probably did not cast the administrations of mayors Ivan Allen and Sam Massell in a flattering light. As a result, the APD, likely with pressure from City Hall, leaned into vendors of the publication by selectively enforcing laws many of which were rarely used except for reigning in agitators, of any generation and color, as well as their backers. The BIRD pivoted into new digs and continued publication into 1976.

Why Would You Live There ?

Speaking of city indifference – I didn’t realize I was some kind of weirdo simply (or uniquely) because of where I grew up. A north side girl whom I fancied once said, “Euuwww, Stewart Avenue, why would anyone want to live down there? ” While I might have a chip on my shoulder I certainly did not put it there. Many such comments emanated from those who were either part of the White Flight to the suburbs (or had been born there) where the topic of dinner discussion might revolve around what type of boat the family should purchase or if joining the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association was in order. In high school, I would be wondering whether to take a knife to school simply as a matter of practicality. It was funny how the youth living, for example, in 70s-era Brookhaven, would consider the act of going to a concert at The Omni as being a major excursion requiring detailed planning whereas for us it was just a simple ride up Lee Street as if going to the grocery store. But then Atlanta has always been two cities – North Atlanta (and the suburbs above it) and South Atlanta.

It was also about this time that it became popular for Marietta residents (then a distant suburb) to simultaneously claim an Atlanta identity which ultimately led to the necessary distinction between Atlanta proper and Metropolitan Atlanta. And since many of these non-Atlanta residents would work in downtown during the day they felt entitled to weigh in on political decisions that might ease, for example, their commute into the city even if it meant displacing actual city residents. This sentiment remains at the heart of Atlanta real estate development and public transportation financing. This was also a problem in the 70s for the Stewart Avenue corridor as many of the patrons of the “yellow front” pornographic bookstores, along with area prostitutes, were from Atlanta suburbs where such activity would never be tolerated. See here for more info.

Atlanta Needs Plastic Surgery

What started all of this? An acquaintance directed me to a YouTube video on the Lakewood Fairgrounds and its new identity as an anchor point for the growing Atlanta movie industry. This is great in one sense as it presages better things for a troubled area that Atlanta itself had forgotten except to change the name from Stewart Avenue to Metropolitan Parkway as part of a Jedi Mind Trick – “This is a place to be developed. Pay no attention to the people already living here.” I have, over many years, considered the median output of Atlanta Magazine involving articles and advertisements on essential city topics such as how to choose a plastic surgeon or plan that high-impact wedding ceremony. Creative Loafing is better at civic reporting and will generally discuss the south side but usually only in the context of some emerging hipster interest, restaurant or the Belt Line progress report as if simply name checking the perimeter communities, or having a correspondent living in one of them, is enough to be totally down with the people.

To be fair, I can understand this approach since publications need advertisers, which involves appealing to financially viable demographics. I mean, Atlanta does need its plastic surgery, twenty-five dollar, fair-trade meditation candles, and all the edgy dive bars it can get. One does see the occasional attempt at a “hard news” piece involving South side issues (frequently prostitution) which always seem to be authored by someone wholly unfamiliar with the context or anxious to use the south side as nothing more than a prop in a larger story. It could be said that my own blog uses the south side as a prop although, ya know, I actually grew up there and remained through the decline. However, there is not much to be done about those well-heeled Atlantans who will allege a strong knowledge of an area of town they rarely visited outside of the occasional “slumming trip” back in the day. It’s particularly frustrating that their views will probably be used by the city to introduce initiatives which benefit developers and investors more so than area residents. “Oh I have a condo next to the Fairgrounds – Bobby DeNiro is a dear friend.”

As the 70s progressed…hmm let’s just say “moved along”, people realized that the hookups could happen without the formerly obligatory social concerns. By the time “what’s your sign” became the premier and perhaps defining pickup line of the decade, no would one would ever again consider principled communal living except maybe in one of those insanely popular singles complexes such as Riverbend or Shadowood (once known as the “VD Capitol of Atlanta”) condominiums. There was an attempt around 1984 to revive the BIRD but by then the 70s “me generation” had fully mutated into the greed machine so well-personified by Michael Douglas in Wall Street even though that character became widely emulated instead of despised. These days, there is so much competition for attention that putting together a regular publication while, never easier, would likely get lost in the ocean of opinions…. including those expressed in blog posts on south side Atlanta. Keep Cool this Summer. The Kid.

Stewart Avenue Archaeology

Southern geography resembles a tropical environment and when factoring in the kudzu, it’s a quick reminder that nature is truly in charge. The “woods” in places like “Perkerson Woods” as well as those forested areas proximal to “Perkerson Park” are part of the regional appeal. (Back in the day it also made hiding from the cops a lot easier). Make no mistake, there is nothing more brutal than the midday Georgia sun but as late afternoon arrives, the light refracts through pollen dusted leaves resulting in a radiant golden-green hue seen commonly in big-time movies when the director wishes to lighten the mood and raise spirits.

I hadn’t realized that this was a contemporary movie production effect until I saw it employed in the movie Amélie after which I pointed out to a cinema production professional that, “if you want that kind of lighting, I know a place”. Although it was unlikely that Stewart Avenue could have provided the other essentials in support of a movie au sujet de la vie quotidienne à Paris. I’m told that many years ago, director John Boorman (an unfortunate surname for a director) noticed the aforementioned Georgia green color scheme in preparation for the movie Deliverance. Just sayin’ that we in Atlanta have a much sought after form of natural lighting. Never mind that the temperature might still be 98 degrees on an already incredibly humid Summer night.

Evidently, this is a contemporary post-production effect of which I became aware when watching themovie Amélie. I subsequently told a cinematic production acquaintance, “If you want that light naturally, I know just the place”. But then again, I don’t know that Stewart Avenue could have offered the other things so essential to a movie based on la vie quotidienne à Paris. I’m also told that, years ago, director John Boorman (an unfortunate surname for a movie director) noticed this same naturally occurring coloration while in early production for the movie Deliverance.

As it relates to the dominance of Mother Nature, check out my post on how the space once occupied by the Funtown amusement park and nearby Goofy Golf facility came to be devoured by kudzu and ivy to the point that a person might never know what once existed there. It’s also quite dangerous should you venture into such areas as getting a deep laceration from a hidden, tetanus-laden commercial sign is a real possibility. My larger point being that although Stewart Avenue and surrounding environs are part of the urban construction movement of the mid 20th century, it did not take much in the way of neglect for some areas to return to a plant life-enveloped, pre-historic setting.

Underneath the brush one can find decomposing automobiles, infinite liquor and beer bottles (some are mine), as well as hastily tossed-out firearms and other things I don’t care to mention because I can’t reasonably explain them. (I once found an artificial hand in the ivy near the dumpster at Brothers Three). This has recently worked to the benefit of the area in that movie studios now use such spaces although not in a way that directly rejuvenates the land, or surrounding neighborhoods, though I suspect that will happen eventually if the Atlanta movie scene continues to flourish.

For now, however, places like the back side of what was once the Stewart Lakewood Mall will be seen primarily as an ideal place for shooting a Soylent Green sequel but not much else. Let’s put it this way, getting a filming permit for the area is a snap as who is going to complain? By the way, that artificial hand I mentioned earlier? I used it as a drinking prop for almost 6 months until people got sick of me scaring them with it. I wasn’t going to let something like that go to waste.

So… Do You Have A Point?

So where is this going? As happens in life, you sometimes look through accumulations as part of a “Spring Cleaning” kind of effort and discover things – some good though mostly bad. In this case I found some writings I made about Stewart Avenue from “way back when” which in this case means sometime in 1976. Ya see, back then you just had to write things down on pads and going over some of this stuff reminds me of how much I hate cursive writing as it is basically illegible (my own included). What I’m about to roll out here is a “piece” (of what I’m not sure) directly related to my understanding of the area at that time and where it might be heading – specifically in the context of what sociologists then called “urban decay” which was always matched with “urban renewal”.

Most politicians of the time could not get any public enthusiasm for rebuilding within the city limits – certainly not on the south side of Atlanta. Before I lose what’s left of any continuity in this post I must admit that I am totally ripping off myself from a previous era so you won’t notice that I don’t really have enough original material to complete this post. Sorry, it’s been a busy first part of the year. Lastly, it turns out that I wasn’t “off” by much when imagining the future of Stewart Avenue.

Broken Street, Broken Road

I’m told that the the mud-caked path was paved over with the sinewy muscle of convict labor, their aching hands tattooed inky-black by scalding bitumen as the jelly-chinned mayor looked on greedily, the pockets of his crinkly seersucker suit bulging with dog-eared payoff envelopes. “Good roads make good men”, he bellowed in between laughs.

Despite that shaky debut, the young road bounced innocently along the contours of the land. Its chiseled gravel shoulders framed squarely by glittering blue limestone curbs that converged in the distance, forming an arrowhead pointing to the future, which, decades later, gave me a destiny or at least a place to go for the night. And, when homesick, I could angle my clattering, rust-eaten Pontiac onto that black road, an interstate umbilical cord, always pulling me home to the town’s navel.

I watched as the road fattened the city budget supplying the essential nutrients of tourists, tolls, and taxes. In return the city pampered the road with steamy asphalt facials smoothing out its dimpled skin. Steel bristled street sweepers brushed off the automotive detritus of the occasional accident, never fatal, as the kind road always forgave.

But it began to falter, the brilliant raincoat-yellow center line had jaundiced and then faded. I discovered that the invisible mouth of the government had bitten into the city’s money pie. At first, just an occasional midnight nibble but soon, numerous smacking chomps. The mayor made a casino-floor deal with the governor’s office and soon Atlas-like pylons were hoisting an 8-lane bypass high into the air shunting off the road from sunlight and the automotive oxygen essential to its existence.

A decade later I returned. The once handsome road was now scabbed over with the scar tissue of rusty metal patches, sliced open daily by spikes of busted glass from rotgut wine bottles. Unable to breathe, continually smothered by graffiti aerosol and goopy industrial waste. This broken street, its crunchy bones now caving in to form tire-hungry potholes biting defensively at the side walls of the passing Pimp mobiles the only traffic that the road, and the city, seems to host now. I have concluded that Bad men make bad roads.

The News Cafe: Slowing Down the Mental Hamster Wheel

The News Cafe. One of my Zen Gardens from the past.

While I don’t normally write about cities other than Atlanta, I recently noticed that the News Cafe in South Miami Beach has announced what they are calling a temporary closure though, given the plywood on the windows, it seems permanent. While it could be the result of a  COVID-related business dip it also looks like the Yelp reviews in the preceding months have not been kind. In any case, The News Cafe is (was) located at ground zero of South Beach and became something of an unofficial check-in spot for residents and tourists alike. Many know it as the place where Versace used to score his morning paper (or had an assistant do it for him) although my introduction to the area predated his arrival or at least coincided with it. Not that I knew anything about fashion or Versace. The Art-Deco district, as it was more commonly known then, was still emerging from a darker era, and there yet remained abandoned and dilapidated hotels next to the emerging luxury accommodations. 

While Madonna, as well as other celebs of the poodle-clutching variety, could be seen cruising the area, it was mostly working fashion models, German tourists, and wealthy South Americans who landed in South Beach. My first time on the boardwalk near Lummus Park involved a near collision with an impossibly tall bikini model zooming by on roller skates while holding a box of condoms. My first thought was, “Wow, they sure know how to welcome a visitor.” I had unknowingly stumbled into an active production set for an HIV Public Service Announcement. There was laughter all around albeit at my expense. 

Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. She is richer than anyone you know. I might have accidentally stepped on her foot in 1991.

SoBe (as it later came to be known) was clearly on the up and up and Gloria Estefan, who was experiencing significant popularity at the time, was a local investor and the growing contingent of Cubans added to the already established Latin flavor of the area such that one need not speak English at all to function. But it was still a self-contained bubble of sorts in that South Miami had little to do with North Miami and few remember that Miami was/is actually a different city than Miami Beach. If you suspect there were cultural politics behind all of this you would be correct. There were also communities such as Overtown and Liberty City distal to the Beach that figured heavily into area dynamics as well. Just to say that the South Beach of today was not at all evident in the late 80s and early 90s version. Then, you could still park your car pretty much anywhere on Collins. Mandatory valet service was rare unlike now when even Mcdonald’s has a valet parking service. And not far from The Beach was Coconut Grove which was starting to boom with the popular Coco Walk Mall.

The News Cafe itself was a 24/7 operation offering a combo of indoor and alfresco dining with access to international newspapers (hence the name) which, in the early 90s made it popular with tourists seeking a “back home” news fix. Even though the cafe is now closed you can see archives of their web-cam which shows the never-ending stream of people marching in front of the tables. For me, it was simply a place to zone out, read and slow down the mental hamster wheel. Many people travel with an agenda of “finding oneself” though I question this terminology as most people already know very well who they are and the real work involves coming to terms with how others, family, friends, society at large, are reacting to you (and vice-versa).

George Hamilton – Known for his ever-present “base tan”. I’m the opposite.

Certainly, the boredom and fatigue of existence can lead us to fantasize about another identity and that’s actually not a bad thing. But care must be taken to counter-balance it with established instinct. Then again, I could be totally full of crap. (I’ll save the philosophy for Happy Hour). I’m just saying that my side trips to Miami were actively restorative even if my engagement of the scene was passive. I’m definitely not the “George Hamilton, base tan” type of guy so I just soaked up the easy-going tropical vibes and that was enough. I’m one of the few people who can go to a sunny beach and actually come back more pale than when I left.

I picked Miami Beach as a semi-regular getaway destination for two reasons. It was $90 for a round trip flight which meant I could leave my home in North Atlanta around 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and be checked in at the El Sol hotel by 5:00 p.m. If the airfare seemed cheap, consider that Miami was then dealing with an image problem resulting from the assault and murder of German tourists and was trying a number of things to lure travelers back. I’d been dealing with Southside Atlanta crime all my life and concluded that Miami could be no worse and at least there was a beach. El Sol, about 15 blocks up from the News Cafe, was my go-to hotel. While I didn’t spend much time there, I did return each afternoon for the free poolside drinks where I encountered a large family of Argentinians who mistook me for a rich businessman although I did nothing to promote that impression. The Matriarch of the family invited me to dinner which I realized was to be a chaperoned experience involving a formal introduction to her daughter who was sitting quietly next to the pool. I got it – from their point of view maybe she can meet this rich American who will eventually propose marriage. Extricating myself from this situation while allowing them to maintain dignity wasn’t easy but I found a solution in feigned illness. “Lo siento. Creo que los camarones son malos.”

This was all so odd as I was recovering from some recent surgery and was quite thin, almost skeletal. And on this trip, I was mistaken for a homeless person, a junkie, a fashion model, a musician, various actors (young and old), and for the most part a garden variety beach bum. Most people would be offended to be seen as a generic vagrant type whereas I was cool with it because nobody bugged me for money and as my Stewart Avenue mentors used to say, “life is better if you can’t be easily identified in a police line up”. While I agree with that sentiment, it’s not as if I engaged in enough ongoing shady behavior to develop an active concern for avoiding lineups but sure, standing out can bring problems. Let’s just say that if anybody thought I was somebody, I put it down to fame of the Warholian kind – a whispy, ephemeral form of notoriety that departs as rapidly as it arrives.

I’m not a doctor but people in Miami thought I was

I went to a custom clothing establishment in North Miami and the owner recounted how just that very day, Mel Brooks had popped in to pick up twelve tailor-made shirts but was not happy with the eventual price. I don’t know if he was conditioning me to accept the notion of premium pricing or perhaps just wanting me to know of his famous clients. I just ignored it and started trying on a few things which pretty much fit straight away thus allowing me to avoid the high markup for alterations. Later that night, I wore some of the clothes and was instantly misrecognized as some soap opera actor whose primary appeal was to the divorcee set. That the actor played a physician was evidently the hook though I had to remind my “fans” that 1) I was not the actor in question and 2) even if I were, I still wouldn’t be an actual doctor! This didn’t seem to matter to them. I began to rethink my rejection of the Argentinian proposal…

One of the more interesting things that happened on one of these trips was the accidental friendship I developed over the course of a few days with a retired cardiologist from New York. He was basically a Snowbird seeking warmer climes and Miami was THE place. He was very outgoing and almost immediately started in with the “so what brings you to Miami” talk and he simply wouldn’t accept that I had no agenda or intent other than to relax. “You mean you aren’t here on business?“, “You have family here, then”, “Oh so you are you thinking about living here.” I just laughed it all off. This guy was wired to the max and even in his mid-70s, he had to be doing something else he experienced guilt. And by extension, he assumed everyone else should also. He was basically a walking Woody Allen movie. The concept of just chilling out was totally foreign to him. He was all, “I wish my daughter would take her life more seriously“, so I’m thinking maybe she had quit school or had run off with someone. “No, she’s a corporate attorney in New York but really should be a cardiologist” to which I replied, “you, mean just like you?” He laughed, “Didn’t I see you in the Catskills?

And just when you think he might relax into the moment he would pivot into, “You’re well into your 30s, why aren’t you married? It’s time to settle down don’t you think? And maybe finish graduate school?”  Ah, the Jewish parent I never had. I responded, “most people leave their neuroses at home whereas you make them essential travel companions.” I think he liked my apparent zen attitudes and perhaps I saw some hope in his assurances that hard work would translate to success. We were like a mutual antidote to each other’s problems. “It’s perspiration, not inspiration – what you do does not have to be perfect but if you keep doing it, then it probably will be“. Stuff like that which DID in fact make sense for someone like me, a procrastinating perfectionist. Given his age and accent, it was very likely that he recalled WWII and might have even had some personal experience in a concentration camp though it didn’t come up. Laughter didn’t come easy to him but when it did, he greatly enjoyed it.

Back to The News Cafe. While I hope that it does reopen, I don’t know that I would run right down there because it would be pointless to try reproducing the sense of a bygone era. Take what’s in front of you and make something out of that. Some years ago, I did take my Wife there but the magic of the area had long been consumed by hype and crass over promotion. In the end, most of my emotional respites wind up being simple – a Library, a cafe, a park, or even a familiar book. Everyone has some respite that occurs more or less naturally and without effort. Sometimes they last though many times they do not. Just be on the lookout for the next one which is hard to do if you are lost in nostalgia.

You Are Not Your Possessions

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

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

Someone foolishly trying to avoid the inevitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Anyone At Home?

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

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

What Do I Do With All This Stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

The Zone and Gene Dahlbender

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let The Ball Return Home!

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

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

Who the Hell is Gene Dahlbender ?

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

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

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

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

Could Have Been A Contender

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

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

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

The Mayor Of Stewart Avenue

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

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

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

People used to say this albeit unironically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dipper Dan Ice Cream Shop

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

Conway’s Nose Hair

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

Meeting Girls At The Mall

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

Ice Cream Kisses

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

Chili Three Ways

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

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

Beware The Nudist Colony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Writing As Penance”

Forced Entries is the sequel to The Basketball Diaries

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

Sordid Tales or Catholic Sojourn ?

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

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

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

The Ritual Within The SpiRitual

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

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

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

His view on the Church:

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

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

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

The Downside

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

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