Stewart Avenue – Tu t’appelles Comment ?

Any conversation beginning with the phrase, “Look Motherfucker”, cannot be a good one. Especially when it is happening between an ex con and a muscled out greaser type trying to impress people by taking on a former Reidsville state prison inmate. It was difficult to determine the extent of their acquaintance but the greaser had referenced a nickname for the ex con that was evidently reserved for use only by the closest of friends. The bar patrons at the Fireplace, (supposedly one of the “classier joints” on Stewart Avenue), were moving away from the bar in anticipation of violence though in a routine manner that was motivated more out of practicality than fear. They had seen similar scenarios play out many times before so there was absolutely no reason to let a dispute between two Budweiser-fueled Neanderthals get in the way of scoring some action. To wit a poodle haired musician raving on about his “badass band” never broke eye contact with a mini-skirted girl as he picked up their drinks and relocated to the couches surrounding the dance floor. I also moved but stayed close enough to catch the action. “No one calls me that except my friends and you damn sure ain’t of them”, bellowed the con. “Let’s take it outside punk”, the greaser challenged. The ex con gladly let his younger opponent lead the way. Reflexively, (and most unwisely), the greaser turned his head slightly as he pushed open the entrance at which point he was torpedoed in the back of the head and fell out cold out onto the concrete in front of some arriving patrons. “Oh my”, said a thrill seeking Delta flight attendant as she stepped around the human baggage. And that was it. Over and out. Nothing to see here folks – just another Wednesday night. What that ex con’s nickname was I do not know. Nor did I want to find out if it was going to provoke that kind of reaction.

A nickname is generally assigned to you without your involvement or approval and usually in response to some habitually exhibited behavior (sometimes unknowingly). Within families it is most often a “cute” variation on your given name or as a tribute to your appearance. Schoolmates are a common source of nicknames as are team members should you play sports. But other times they can be given to you as a form of mockery and in response to some offense (real or imagined) and the only way you can shake it off is by engaging in fisticuffs or by arranging for someone to intervene on your behalf  such as an older brother or scary friend. Running with a gang can help in these situations but then you might wind up with an equally as obnoxious nickname from your group. Nicknames on The Avenue served a dual purpose with the first being for simple descriptive or entertainment purposes and the second being for evasion of the law. If you don’t know a guy’s real name it becomes a little difficult for anyone to ever tell the police what it might be.  In the rare event that anyone did give you a real name then it was most likely an alias. I worked alongside a guy for close to 4 years and never knew his real name. It kept changing with the season – usually the tax season or the football season. The more accomplished gamblers and crooks always concealed their real names but some of these guys were not very imaginative. One month it might be Robert F. Jones and the next F. Robert Jones. Yea – that’s sure gonna throw off the debt collectors and lawmen.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim, while not specifically interested in nicknames or places like Stewart Avenue, did in fact help us understand that applying a label to someone could influence that person to engage in behavior commensurate with the label even if the person had no prior inclination to do so. As an example there was this one guy named Jamie who lived in the Trailer Park next to the La Fiesta Mexican restaurant. His “offenses” were 1) his accent indicated some degree of education beyond high school. He exhibited a professorial air and that alone could earn him a beating from some chip-on-the-shoulder “you think you’re better than me” redneck. 2) He was well-dressed in comparison to the typical Stewart Avenue guy, and 3) (perhaps worst of all), he spoke with a slight lisp. He came to Brothers Three on a near nightly basis to score a sixer of Pearl which was an unusual choice for the area – my guess was that he was of Texas derivation. According to the ladies of the trailer park and the Ladies of the Night he always flirted though never followed through. According to them he was recovering from a nasty divorce and wanted to keep to himself. I arrived to work one day as Jamie had just left Bros Three and Terry said, “Oh Professor Fagot (pronounced Fah-go) was just here. Perhaps you two should get together and talk about writing essays”. The latter being a reference to my frequent school writing assignments. And there it was – the nickname ! The effect was quick and brutal. After that, no one ever called him Jamie again. I saw him one night at LP Pipps, (a bar next to what would become Peaches Record store),  crying into his beer. He  was obviously three sheets to the wind and whined to no one in particular, “maybe they know something about me that I don’t know about myself – maybe I am what they call me”. Clearly not his best moment. In any case I, as well as anyone else sitting nearby, was obligated to move away else be counted as an associate. Guilt by proximity.

The worst type of nickname was the self-applied one. It was cowardice plain and simple. Give yourself a nickname before anyone else can thus avoiding uncomfortable criticism. But this was a widely despised practice and almost never prevented others from completely ignoring your work. One of the worst offenders on Stewart Avenue was the owner of Brothers Three – a young short guy named Miller who dubbed himself “The Killer”. At first I thought it was a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis which would have been cool but the other guys told me that it was simple compensation for being short. None of the women he pursued reacted to “The Killer” so I assumed it was something he used to impress other men but it might have hurt him to know that it was just a source of humor. He wasn’t generally respected but he didn’t care since he spent as little time on The Avenue as possible. He had access to funds via his family and by the end of the 70s sold out and moved to the lake.

During my time on “The Avenue” my sobriquet was “The Kid” because I was much younger than everyone else or at least it seemed that way to them. (I was a mere 14 when I started working). There was another guy called “The Kudamachi Kid” but since he was about ten years older than me there was never any confusion. I never knew what “Kudamachi” referred to but I think it had something to do with muscle cars. He worked in some capacity at the Bishop Brothers Auto Auction which was something of a south side Atlanta institution. At the time it was like the “Land of Misfit Toys” except for abandoned and totaled cars that dealers would buy and fix up (maybe) and resell for outrageous money to people with no credit. I do know that “back in the day” it was more honorable and there would actually be decent cars on offer and entire families would pack a fried chicken dinner and head to the auction on Saturday night.

Anyway, I was just happy that “The Kid” was pretty benign and it seemed to me then that no one would expect much from me. Boy was I wrong. Because I was young and relatively green they used me to “run errands” for them such as running liquor down to Kaiser’s Trim Shop for the Weekly Friday parties. Never mind that I was 14. Never mind I had no license. They would toss me the keys to a Lincoln Town Car full of scotch, beer, and sealed boxes of god only knows what with orders to deliver. Were I to be caught by the police I was told to lie and reference my “sick, aging Mother” which would have been awkward since it would have been clear to even a lunatic that my errand was far from one of mercy. Once I became “reliable” in the eyes of the gamblers and bookies I was sometimes asked to give rides to various mistresses up and down the Avenue presumably to thwart detection by wives who might ransack the family car in search of evidence. Those conversations were always boring and nearly unbearable due to over application of cheap perfume. I greatly preferred rolling up to a friend’s house in a Cadillac rather than transporting floozies.

I never shook the name nor did I want to. As with others on The Avenue I benefited from the anonymity a nickname provided and being thought of as perpetually youthful was never a bad thing. Besides it provided a natural excuse for ongoing adolescent behavior although that eventually became a problem. There were many others with nicknames some of which were highly unimaginative such as “Little Bit” for women of diminutive stature or “Stretch” for the tall guys. By contrast one of the better ones included “Rodeo Nagle” who was a car salesman known for “corralling customers” into making deals. His ever present cowboy hat and sterling silver bourbon flask, combined with wild tales of the rodeo circuit, went over well with the working class guys needing a ride. It has occurred to me many times since then that these nicknames allowed people to disappear into a fantasy that provided a respite from the daily grind which in moderation is an excellent coping skill. Of course you know you have a problem when you take offense to insults against an identity that doesn’t really exist in the first place. Let me know if you have memories of The Avenue and might have had your own nickname. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

Advertisements

4 responses

  1. I am a truck driver now, but back in the day I ran with some folks who were very well know on the “Avenue” as they called it. When I get back in town I’ll try and write what I remember from back then. Some it was good, some was not so good. Most are long gone now, or hanging g out in Florida because of old warrants.

    Like

    1. Ah yes – evasion of the law seemed to be a primary concern for many Stewart Avenue people

      Like

  2. Thanks for the great blog posts. I will admit to having a fascination with Stewart Avenue, even though I am not from Atlanta and have never lived in Georgia. I guess part of my interest developed because I enjoy history and have become more and more interested in city and neighborhood history, with it’s highs and lows. I particularly have been interested in what causes neighborhoods to decline and what can bring them back to life. Even though I I’ve never lived in Georgia, I had heard of Stewart Avenue as a notorious street filled with crime and vice. I’ve come to realize each city has a street like that (for example, here in Memphis we have Lamar Avenue).

    You’ve done a good job of providing some details on Stewart when it was more lively, vibrant and a little more family-oriented (though I cannot imagine walking past prostitutes in my neighborhood every day as a teenager). I imagine it was gut-wrenching for many of the locals in the neighborhood to watch Stewart slowly slip away in the 70s and 80s and bottom out in the 90s. I imagine it was a slow decline, as it likely took a couple of decades to really hit bottom. Part of me also wonders why people choose to sell and run rather than to stick around and fight for their neighborhood. I guess as people it is simply easier to pack up and leave for what we believe to be greener pastures; staying and fighting is tough work and the outcome is always uncertain.

    What a great story it would be for Atlanta if Stewart could somehow make it back towards being a safe family neighborhood, even if it never becomes quite as vibrant as it apparently was. It likely never could be quite as vibrant as it probably was in the 50s and 60s, since those were pre-interstate days and Stewart would have almost certainly have seen much more traffic then.
    I visited Atlanta about 2 years ago and, after touring downtown, I made my way down Metropolitan (Stewart Avenue, of course) to see it for myself. I will admit it was depressing to see such an abandoned and decaying site. I will say that I saw no obvious drug activity or prostitution, which is at least something of a positive. In general, the street was basically abandoned and pretty quiet overall, as you noted in one of your blog posts. I tried to imagine what it might have been like in better times, though it was tough to imagine. So much time has passed and so many of the landmarks are gone. About the only landmarks that I recognized were the Alamo (which isn’t an operating motel anymore) and the The Gold Rush, which appeared to still be an operating (though undoubtedly low-end) strip club.

    Here’s hoping that Stewart can somehow make a comeback. Heck, maybe city leaders will someday find it in themselves to restore the old street name and remove the Metropolitan Boulevard name. I look forward to future blog posts so that I can learn more about Stewart and what it was like before it seemingly reached the point of no return.

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading ! You are right on in that most cities have their equivalent of Stewart Avenue so it’s not a unique situation by any means. The two primary causes for Stewart Avenue’s decline (at least as I see it) was the completion of the Interstate project that basically obsoleted Stewart Avenue. Who would continue to use it as a route to Florida when you could zoom through town on an upgraded, widened expressway ? The second had to do with court-ordered busing in schools which in turn triggered the “white flight” of the early 70s that had people leaving in droves to the suburbs although this occurred nationally also. Downtown Atlanta didn’t have much to offer anyone at the time so inner and near city living had little appeal to most people. Commuting to downtown was what people did but after say 6 p.m. everyone had fled to the burbs. I’ll try to handle these issues in an upcoming post but those are the basics. Thanks for dropping by.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: