Category Archives: Southside Atlanta

Perkerson Elementary and Southside Atlanta Education

Back in the 60s any kid living in the Stewart Avenue area probably went to one of four grammar schools: Sylvan, Hutchinson, Capitol View, or Perkerson. I attended the latter whose location still remains the same since its inception although the original building has long since been demolished and replaced with a more contemporary structure possibly several times over. The Principal at the time was Mrs Merriam Phillips who later retired and was replaced by a guy name JA Walls who some say was brought in to deal with the impending integration and busing activity to support that. In any case my entry into the scholastic life was pretty gentle. The Kindergarten teacher, Mrs Smith,  taught us how to sit still for a period of time and also encouraged collaboration on various art projects. My most vivid memory of this time was of a kid in leg braces who used to chew his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with his mouth wide open. He would look at you slack jawed while making loud smacking noises as the dark brown peanut butter congealed with the purple jelly into a thick goo that coated his teeth and tongue. Frankly, I think he did it on purpose but no one called him out on it since he was probably going to be wearing those braces for the rest of his life. I just made sure not to sit near him which was probably the first ever major decision I made that required significant analysis on my part.

garbage_man

Looks like a cool job to me

As we eased into the first few grades we were presented with a number  of those rigid standardized tests designed to determine one’s occupational potential. My results indicated a fruitful career in sanitation engineering or waste disposal. I was totally cool with this as I particularly liked how the garbage men hung on the back of the trucks cruising from house to house. People seemed happy to see them come and go. I didn’t put it together that the whole process was a bit aromatic but the apparent coolness was enough to entice my young mind to consider this line of work. This didn’t go over well at home. My Mother worried that she had failed me in some way but my Dad was like, “What the hell – at least you know he doesn’t mind working”.  Back then there was this operational idea that a student was destined for either the “academic” (college) track or the “technical skills” track (blue collar or military). The results also sought to flag those with artistic tendencies and rediect them into more socially acceptable job areas such as “engineer”, “journalist”, “HVAC technician”, or perhaps “detective”.  It was never cool to have an outcome which suggested that being an artist, dancer, musician, or actor could be good in and of itself.  The reigning philosophy then was that the last thing our country needed was another generation of artistic shiftless hippies.

As a supplement to the diagnostic test the students would be asked to write essays about their future intent which seemed a harmless enough exercise until you realized that the teachers used these essays as a profiling tool to identify potential troublemakers and “bad eggs”. You have to understand that many of my grammar school teachers had been teaching since the  40s so their idea of a “clean young mind” was based on archetypes from a bygone era. Consequently, there is no telling how many students from this time are still in therapy (or various 12 step meetings) because some test result routed them into a line of work which they accepted simply to appease familial and social expectations.

Hearses can also be used to haul around band gear

I found great humor in the fact that a friend of mine stated a strong desire to become a mortician despite the fact that no one in his family lineage had any thing to do with the funeral home business. Initially I thought he was just trying to anger the teachers and I admired him for that but he was completely on the level and had an authentic enthusiasm for the job. He thought (quite rightly I suppose) that the job would offer good pay and flexible hours. Later, as we moved into high school, he interned at a local funeral home and they let him drive the hearse around which he, (unbeknownst to his employers), used also to haul music gear for his band. The school teachers had no idea what to make of his stated intent but couldn’t really find fault as it was something that society needed.

Typical 60s skirt and hairstyle though it was “too edgy” for the older Perkerson Elementary teachers

We had some relief in that there was an influx of younger more progressive teachers such as Miss Atwater whose penchant for mini skirts inflamed the passions of her older male co workers along with the fury of the matronly teachers who despised the rising hem lines and the flourishing sexual revolution which Miss Atwater symbolized even though her manner of dress was totally mainstream for the time.  Like many her age, she had a husband over in Vietnam “fighting the spread of communism” while she held it down back in the US fighting off guys with college deferments. I must say that she never judged us in the way that the older teachers did who demanded obvious and ongoing evidence of patriotism, civic duty, and “good home training”. Miss Atwater was totally cool even if you said you wanted to be a circus clown, juggler, or magician (all of which I wanted to be at one time or another). Unfortunately not all young teachers were so hip. Miss D. wasn’t much older than Miss Atwater but seemed squarely in the “Cold War” camp as she berated our apparent apathy and general lack of appreciation for US efforts in Vietnam. She genuinely feared Kruschev’s prophecy that Communism would one day bury the United States. Her boyfriend was supposedly a Forest Ranger and I visualized this hyper masculine outdoors type of guy who had hacked out a radiation proof bunker deep under the forest floor where the two of them would wait out the inevitable Russian invasion while making strong patriotic babies worthy of the land that my apathetic generation had carelessly lost.

I was popular with the girls or at least it seemed that way. One day the cutest girl in the class (I know because everyone said she was) came up to me and announced that we were going to be boyfriend and girlfriend. I had no idea what that meant but it seemed to be cool. On paper her name was simply Janet Jones BUT her first name  was pronounced as Zhuh-Nay. What I didn’t know was that her Mother was a Burlesque Dancer of some reknown at a time and place when that occupation was still very much in the margins of society. The annual Parents Day Lunch was announced and after Janet’s Mother indicated her intent to attend there was an unusually high turnout of Fathers who might have otherwise skipped out. I need to be direct – Janet’s Mother had a magnificent bosom that was captivating even though I was far too young to understand the full implications of such physical attributes.  Evolutionary biologists will tell you that the tendency to stare at large mammaries comes form the same place in the brain as does hunger and thirst. This would account for the fact that everyone (Moms, Dads, Teachers) found themselves gazing at Janet’s Mother.

Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” could have been written about Janet’s Mom.

Most of the Mothers and teachers had that “tsk, tsk” thing going on while the Dads were exchanging knowing smiles between each other while trying in vain not be noticed. The whole scene was somewhat reminiscent of the “Harper Valley PTA” song. As Janet was my “girlfriend” we sat at the same table and there was a steady stream of men dropping by just to “say hello”. Janet’s Mother was used to jaws dropping (and wallets opening) in her presence though since she was there with her daughter she had toned it down some but it was impossible to conceal her generous endowment.  She was in total control and everyone knew it. Had she dropped her fork I think 10 guys would have stabbed each other for the right to be the one to pick it up and return it to her. I suspect that several divorces were set in motion that day but I was getting the thumbs up from grown men whom I guess were theorizing that Janet might grow up to be similarly equipped.  I was far too young to be thinking like this though once the older kids ran it all down for me I knew the score. My elation at being associated with Janet and her Mother was short lived as they moved away soon thereafter which was a frequent occurrence given that burlesque dancing was an itinerant profession. I would say that I missed Janet but the void was filled almost immediately by Darlene Dyer who, like Janet, approached me and declared us to be boyfriend and girlfriend. So once again I was “off the market”.  Although she too soon abandoned me by saying, “I can tell that you don’t like me”. Well actually I did but she seemed so sure that I assumed that she knew better. It was only later that I learned that she had dealt me in for an “older guy” a grade or two up.

While this all sounds so innocent it wasn’t very long thereafter that things changed rapidly in the area which triggered a decline that persists to this day in Southwest Atlanta. When I finished Perkerson the area was still pretty solid but many families had left the area as part of the “White Flight” to the suburbs in anticipation of court ordered school integration. There was a corresponding turnover in the school teacher roster with most of the older set choosing to retire leaving the “new generation” of teachers to deal with the issues facing urban Atlanta. Keep in mind that Perkerson was located right across the street from the Stewart Lakewood Library and the Shopping Center so the recollections I discuss in this blog post also contain information on the school’s decline at that time. I don’t wish to short change my experience at the school. It was a pretty idyllic experience and I did manage to learn many things although at times the curriculum seemed designed by social engineers who had first sought the approval of McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover. Despite this there was a high degree of rigor and an insistence on learning math, geography (sometimes in the extreme), and writing although one teacher, Mrs Creech, had a maniacal fetish for verb conjugation that eventually resulted in her dismissal. As the school integrated, so did the teaching staff. In particular, the Librarian Mrs, Hemphill hipped us to the poetry of Langston Hughes at the same time she talked up the merits of Silas Marner. (An interesting juxtaposition). She also recommended the then relatively new “Outsiders” book while also pointing out the earlier published “Durango Street” that was written from an Afro-centric perspective.   While the area did in fact decline the quality of my education did not. I learned a great deal  – it is too bad that others didn’t stick around to do the same. © 2017 The Stewart Avenue Kid

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Trouble In The Trailer Park

In an earlier posting I discussed the evolution of Highway 41 which involved the creation of roadside camps to accommodate traveling families of the early and mid twentieth century making their way to Florida.  I also mentioned that the contemporary completion of I-75  had kind of a “Bates Motel effect” on the area wherein only individuals seeking “action” would think of using Stewart Avenue purely as a travel route. It is hardly surprising then that some of the roadside camps eventually evolved into trailer parks as did other parcels of unused land such as the one I’ve linked to here . This particular park, (now a church), was located at the intersection of Langston and Stewart Avenue and was flanked by Sylvan Motors and the immensely popular, family owned La Fiesta Mexican restaurant with its bevy of beautiful sisters.  The park extended to the other side of Stewart Avenue (adjacent to Gary’s Motel). I remember going to a Sunday meal there courtesy of Miguel – a classmate of mine at nearby Perkerson Elementary whose family had recently moved in from Guadalajara.  There were other trailer parks in the area of course with one being across the street from the Zayre department store although I was not very familiar with it.

Apropos of nothing Earl one day flatly informed us that Schatzi was sexually insatiable and her ongoing satisfaction had became his primary responsibility

Example of a 70s era trailer park - What was supposed to be a temporary situation became permanent

Example of a 70s era trailer park – What was supposed to be a temporary situation became a permanent one

It would be too easy to say that the trailer parks were purely for low income residents and immigrants though I can never imagine that copping to trailer park living would be a good opening line in any conversation (then or now). It’s important to understand that these parks were originally there to provide temporary resting spots for motorists with trailers in tow. It was only over time, combined with challenging economic times, that the necessity emerged of keeping or renting a trailer in one spot for an extended period of time. (The history and politics of this kind of housing are briefly explored in this blog). Just to say that the Stewart Avenue trailer parks weren’t part of some master plan cooked up by a group of fat cat real estate developers to erect cheap housing in anticipation of an eventual windfall payout. Nor was it a situation like Cabbagetown wherein the cheapest of housing was provided for Mill workers. The lots were there simply to collect income on under utilized spots of land. So what better to do than accommodate labor-class workers stranded in the very city that had once offered steady trickle down employment. When times were good many of these people made adequate money cutting grass, sweeping up car lots, pumping gas, washing windows, or cleaning motel rooms. Literacy could be, (and usually was), an issue and not being able to complete even the most basic of industrial training meant that factory work at nearby Owens Illinois, Nabisco, or the Ford Plant was out of the question.  But let’s be honest – lots of the trailer park residents had little interest in a daily work commitment as showing up to work with a skull-numbing hangover was not an attractive prospect (although plenty of Ford and GM workers did just that).  In short the interest in daily drinking always seemed to win out over ambition. These people were mostly binge workers who would labor intensely over a period of days or weeks followed by long periods of alcohol fueled celebration.

Hidden among the trailer park population were those with active criminal warrants or those seeking refuge from other criminal elements. They weren’t too hard to spot as they exhibited a noticeable degree of paranoia combined with an unwillingness to interact with anyone except perhaps only when drunk. Computerized national criminal databases were nascent then so not all warrants were registered thus one might evade the law for years or even decades. And passing an alias to a trailer park manager was easy especially if living parasitically off of a lonely single Mom or divorcee. An extra $20 in the rent might help the landlord take a kinder view of the new stranger who had moved into the lot. There were some ex-cons for whom there were no other housing options and most of these guys were simply cooling off and wanted no trouble. One guy was about as fierce looking as a person could be – a more intimidating and larger version of the ex-con turned actor Danny Trejo.

Imagine a much larger version of this guy

Imagine a much larger and meaner looking version of this guy

All muscle and sinew the guy had more scars and tattoos than bare skin. I imagine his shadow alone could subdue the average man.  There was a trash talking speed freak type of guy who dealt drugs in the area.  He put it out that the ex-con was responsible for the regional drug traffic and the more gullible swallowed the story. It would have been easy for “Danny” to rough up the speed freak but that was precisely what the drug dealer wanted as it would send “Danny” straight back to Reidsville. Instead, “Danny” flipped the guy’s name to my Father including details of past and upcoming transactions which I’m guessing my Father used to his advantage as the speed freak disappeared altogether but not before showing up one day at Brothers Three with a swollen lip, a black eye, and his arm in a sling. Whether my Father had administered the beat down was unclear – he was more than capable of it though it was just as likely that he delegated it to someone else. After that “Danny” had no more trouble except from some rookie cops who were trying to make a name for themselves by harassing an ex-con but that’s another story. My Father frequently intervened in the lives of those he felt deserved some level of help. Technically he was sworn to uphold the law but did so using an old school approach that leveraged information from the street in a manner that was mutually beneficial to all involved. Let’s put it this way – at his funeral there were as many criminals as there were cops and they all seemed to know each other. I was approached by a man the size of modern refrigerator who handed me a card with only a phone number on it. “Call me if you ever get into trouble –  I owe your Father and I will be glad to help if I can”.

A young woman was arrested for trying to stuff her grandmother’s wig down the throat of a horseshoe rival.

A fraction of the trailer park women turned to prostitution for extra cash although this practice wasn’t viewed favorably by the residents as it drew heat down on the Park itself. In the Summer, short shorts and halter tops were standard for most women walking up and down The Avenue but they did it more so for personal comfort than for attracting attention although it was a standard response for men working in the car lots and gas stations to line the street and whistle or cat call them. Kind of a “white trash” beauty march. One day a resident named Al offered me five dollars to help him move in some new furniture.  None of the pieces he described seemed particularly heavy but once I got inside and saw how narrow the trailer hallway was it became evident that he definitely needed assistance tilting the furniture to avoid puncturing the paper thin walls. He could have gotten help from someone within the trailer park itself but as he told me, he needed someone “sober” for the job. Upon entering the Trailer Park I felt like an interloper at a Carnival who had accidentally walked past the Ferris Wheel and Cotton Candy machines into the tents where the Carnies themselves actually lived. It was like catching the bearded lady engaged in some mundane activity such as eating dinner. Everyone we passed stared at me even though I recognized several of them as being customers at Brothers Three.  One of the women whistled and screamed out. “Save your strength honey – Mama’s got some lovin’ for ya”.  My own role in all of this was more of an observer as I initially found the accents of the residents to be so thick so as to be incomprehensible.  I thought it must be like “The Cant” of the Irish Traveler or perhaps some organically evolved Trailer Park Patois – and maybe it was.  After a month or so I could get my head around it.

PBR - The lifeblood of Earl B.

PBR – The lifeblood of Earl B.

The most well known of Trailer Park characters was Earl Bennett – a tall lanky hillbilly with a bloated belly that characterizes the career beer drinker. From behind you might never know that, from the front, he looked as if he had swallowed a bowling ball.  Miller or Rough House would flip him a six pack of tall boy Pabst Blue Ribbon in exchange for odd jobs such as cleaning up the lot, washing windows, or cutting weeds. The beer had to be doled out every 45 minutes or so, which kept Earl working with a nice enough buzz but not so strong as to interfere with his productivity.  At the conclusion of his labor he would retire to the area behind the store to finish off the beer in peace while deeply inhaling a few no filter Camels. He was the originator of the infamous Sunday afternoon Trailer Park Horseshoe games. They could, and usually did, get quite ugly. After the alcohol kicked in aggressive accusations of cheating were common. More often than not, a horseshoe would be thrown at someone’s head and that’s all it would take for a full on melee to break out complete with rakes, kitchen utensils, and mops. A young woman was arrested for trying to stuff her grandmother’s wig down the throat of a horseshoe rival. These events caught the attention of the Atlanta City Police who found themselves in the odd position of having to instigate a ban on Horseshoe games although they really had no legal basis. But they scared the residents enough that they found other ways to entertain themselves on Sundays. Anyway it was during one of these events that Earl injured his hand which led to further calcification of his already arthritic fingers so holding a can of beer became a challenge – but he found a way of course.

Earl moved across the street to do clean up duty at Gary’s Motel – one of the first in the area to aggressively promote the availability of “Water Beds” for the “sleeping” (wink wink) comfort and pleasure of its customers. It was at this point that Earl became a full time gigolo for Schatzi the operational manager of Gary’s. She was an older German woman who was  the most unattractive female I have ever seen. Her accent was so thick almost to the point of self-parody – She could have been an extra in a Mel Brooks movie. The story was that some shell shocked GI (I’m guessing also blind) had married her and brought her back to the US after which he promptly died – perhaps in a Medusa like event wherein upon recovering partial sight his heart turned rigid with regret.  Given the abundance of WWII vets in the area she caught a lot of heat more so for being world class ugly than German although the latter did not help her cause.  Apropos of nothing Earl one day flatly informed us that Schatzi was sexually insatiable and her ongoing satisfaction had became his primary responsibility in exchange for free room and board. (Since that time I have yet to encounter a more extreme non sequitur). According to Earl it was his hand, the one damaged in the drunken Horseshoe match with its calcified bumps, that provided Schatzi with unspeakable pleasure.  He would then reproduce for us (completely unsolicited mind you)  these events along with an approximation of Schatzi‘s ecstatic moans. I’m still in therapy as a result.

At some point around 1974 I think – Kroger purchased the lot and the residents were displaced to make room for a brand new grocery store and some other business. Caruso’s Italian restaurant which had previously been located down the street across from Nalley Chevrolet tried to recreate the magic next to Kroger and it seemed for a while as if the area might turnaround – but it didn’t. The other area trailer parks experienced a similar fate though whatever replaced them failed also. I don’t know what ultimately happened to Earl – he came in one day to tell us that he had left Gary’s (and Schatzi) and moved down to the Town and Country Motel but that wasn’t working out either as Schatzi had said bad things about him to management so he was packing it in and leaving to escape sexual slavery . I find it interesting that micro housing is now something of an interest to those not wanting to commit to a specific address or large mortgage payment for extended periods of time. Mobility, both geographic as well as social, has always been a feature of the American way of life so I’m not at all surprised that people might be pursue such a lifestyle given the shenanigans of the real estate bubble. Let’s hope that the economy doesn’t tank again as even those capable of towing their homes behind them might have to “park it” due to lack of work or opportunity. It happened before. © 2017 The Stewart Avenue Kid

 

 

 

Are you Crazy or Just High ?

Marvin was a late-20s, seemingly homeless, black man who roamed Stewart Avenue though without the customary despondency and gaunt visage that marked the typical destitute person. He was schizophrenic and was the first individual I had personally encountered to have suffered from this devastating illness. He had returned from Vietnam a couple of years earlier and made his way onto Stewart Avenue where he worked intermittently at Gary’s Motel or The Alamo. Ed, a co-worker and a Vietnam vet, thoroughly validated Marvin’s military history though this probably wasn’t necessary as there were plenty of area vets (going back to WWI) capable of sniffing out false military service claims so guys rarely tried the “down and out veteran” scam. Still, it was good for me to know that Marvin was on the level. The primary symptom of his illness involved being plagued by the voices of unsympathetic women who aggressively berated him – mostly at night as he tried to sleep.

He said that that multiple women spoke to him in a variety of accents and at different levels of volume but most of them sounded like women he had known previously. “What do they say to you ?”, I asked. “Man what you think they say ? The same shit a bitch says to any man. Why you ain’t got a job ? Why you can’t buy me things ? When you gonna find us a nice place to live ?” He paused before delivering the shocking piece-de-resistance, “You might be able to stand against one or two of ’em but can’t no man stand against twenty bitches in his head goin’ on like that”. He had a point. I could not possibly imagine what it felt like to be excoriated on a nightly basis relative to every perceived failing as a man and a provider. Let alone by an ensemble of twenty women. I always imagined Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son leading the pack of Marvin’s accusers.

One Aunt Esther would be enough let alone twenty

Dealing with one Aunt Esther would be plenty but try handling twenty

Since that time I’ve known a few schizophrenics all of whom tell me that the voices rarely have anything  positive to contribute and when they do it’s usually a setup for something worse to come. How Marvin got accepted into the Army with schizophrenia, an illness which almost always begins in youth, remains a mystery. Perhaps it hadn’t yet fully manifested though I’m pretty sure that the area Draft Board wasn’t very choosy and unless someone demonstrated overt signs of illness then they got sent over.  At times Marvin displayed an other-wordly serenity and benign indifference to life normally associated with a mountain top Guru or someone like David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu. On such days he rarely said a word but exhibited a beatific smile as he looked through me as if seeing Ganesh on the left, Jesus in the middle, and Buddah on the right.  (Or whatever Deities one might prefer to imagine). At such times it was easy for me to believe in the Divine as I found it impossible that anyone could fake a smile like that. (It has been said that God speaks to you through others).

“You might be able to stand against one or two of ’em but can’t no man stand against twenty bitches in his head goin’ on like that”.

When Marvin felt like talking he liked to create words he believed necessary to address society’s ongoing and willful ignorance of transcendental concepts. He carefully explained that there is a rarely observed dimension of  truth and realness to life that “the fakers” and “unenlightened” could never see. So he coined the word “reallyality” to capture this idea as in, “So dig it my young brother. Let me lay down the reallyality of the situation for ya which I can see that you can’t see.” In stark contrast, on his bad days he seemed a solid candidate for exorcism such was the suffering and confusion in his eyes. His facial expression would morph between shame, terror, anger, and ecstasy as if auditioning various personae to find the right one to help combat the demented, soul-flavored “Greek Chorus” in his head.

"I've always depended on the kindness of Stewart Avenue men"

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of Stewart Avenue men”

But mental illness was not at all limited to men and there were a few women who came by Brothers Three or Banks Liquor though their pathology seemed to be of the “bag lady” variety in keeping with the “gathering” stereotype commonly associated with women. I’m not sure if society is more kind to mentally ill women but in any case I saw far fewer women than men on the streets.  It could also be that many men have no interest in the institutional life and seek release even if it means living on the street and in shelters. In any case there was a regular female customer whom I believed to have been in the grip of an obvious mental decline that was taking some time to fully bottom out. In her mid 30s (by my estimate) she lived nearby with her parents, which itself was an indicator that not all was well. She, let’s call her “Blanche”, was an attractive woman who exhibited a very dangerous form of behavior involving the simultaneous expression and repression of sexual desire. Basically, she would talk to men in unambiguous sexually-laced overtones only to react with righteous indignation when they responded (which they always did).  Blanche preferred to torture older men and zoned in on Johnny – a middle-aged divorcee with more hair growing out of his nose and ears than on his head.  His beer gut had become so large that he had outgrown his Sansabelts  and had resorted to buying pants that he could close up and over his stomach. He had a decent singing voice with his marquee number being “Mack the Knife”, (a song I’ve always despised because it encourages overwrought performance), which he would deliver on Friday nights at the Moose Lodge located on the hill behind the Silver Ribbon.  Despite his smooth vocalizations he still couldn’t score even with that super heavy drinking crowd with an average age of 45. He was perpetually strapped for cash as he would blow all his money buying drinks for much younger women who would always wind up leaving with someone else. The ongoing rejection, which should have led to a reconsideration of his approach, seemed only to feed his desperation and desire for feminine company.

Blanche grabbed a bottle of wine and walked past me over to Johnny’s cash register even though I was much closer. Johnny’s mouth was already hanging open so I knew this was going to be good. “So young lady – how are you this evening”, he asked. “I’m doing fine Sir, but I might be doing a whole lot better if I had someone to help me drink this wine. As a matter of fact I could use help doing a lot of things”. She punctuated her remarks by slowly stroking the bottle with an up and down motion as she stared Johnny down. Although I had seen her performance previously I had to admit that she had taken it to a new level. But she wasn’t finished. Before Johnny could offer a response she continued with a bad girl giggle, “I went to the pet store today and the manager asked me if I wanted to play with his big long pet snake. Do you think I should have ?”. She drew out the words “biiiiiig” and “loooonnnng” for dramatic horny effect. Now at this point the adage, “Anything that appears to be too good to be true usually is” should have emerged in Johnny’s thinking but in his enthusiasm (and onset priapism) he clearly missed the personality switch. And, like many before him, could not help but take the bait, “I damn sure like what I’m seeing and I have a pretty big pet snake that you could play with”. But the personality in Blanche’s head who had laid down the kinky talk stepped aside and some maternal, nun-like, repressed identity kicked in with, “Why you sick motherless bastard ! You scum bag ! How dare you talk to a lady like that ! I’m going to call the police !” And then she spun around and blew out of there. After I stopped laughing, which took quite a while, I had to console Johnny who was understandably confused and irritated and even more so once he realized that I knew all about her scene and had seen it play out before – usually in the area bars where it always ended similarly until bar owners got tired of the act.

“I damn sure like what I’m seeing and I have a pretty big pet snake too”

Fred MacMurray - "Come in Arkansas"

Fred MacMurray – “Come in Arkansas”

Periodically there were itinerant mentally ill people (or terminally senile what with Alzheimer’s disease not yet fulling being on the radar then) who would show up.  It wasn’t always easy to detect until you were half way through the encounter. To wit, one day an elderly gentleman walked in decked out in a faded pin-striped suit and a fedora asking for a pint of Schenley’s vodka.  He resembled an older incarnation of Fred McMurray’s character in Double Indemnity.  We occasionally got guys like that – walking anachronisms high on some nostalgia kick. As I bagged the booze he slowly peeled back the left side of his jacket in a deliberate manner as if to reassure me that he was not going to draw a weapon. He paused, (obviously for effect), and with his right hand pulled out what appeared to be a long stick of incense, which he then admired as if it were a treasured find. He retrieved an antique-looking cigarette lighter (adorned with Masonic engravings), flicked the ignition wheel, and  elegantly waved the large flame back and forth under the tip of the incense as if initiating sacred communication with the Great Beyond. The incense emitted a pungent odor after which my strange friend then raised the stick high in the air and bellowed, “Come in Arkansas ! I say there  – come in Arkansas !” I was stunned. I had seen some crazy shit but this was on an entirely different level. He stared intently at the tip of the incense while his anxiety grew given that no response had been offered from “the other side”. After twenty five seconds of uncomfortable silence I gently said, “Arkansas here – mission aborted. Repeat – mission aborted”.  Without acknowledging me in any way he visibly relaxed. So much so that he  stumbled towards the door and then outside where he collapsed on the curb front. I considered calling the cops but noticed a cruiser already rolling up.  I walked outside but before I could weigh in the cop says, “We know him. He is a repeat customer. His wife reported him missing”. I ran down my story and the cop laughed, “Yea, last time it was Alaska but I can’t figure out the incense connection”. I had to remind the cop that there were lots of Hare Krishnas working the area and incense was their primary product on offer. Of course I’m certain that when the cop got back into the cruiser he told his partner about the Krishnas without giving me credit for the info. Avenue cops were like that – always gleaning information from the locals and later passing it off as the result of their own personal research or “cop intuition”.

In reality (or reallyality as Marvin might say) the general policy towards the end of the 70s and moving forward was to “deinstitutionalize” the mentally ill population which pushed many of them out of facilities onto the streets and into jails.  The  distillate thinking at the Federal level was that the governmental financial burden was too great and that Medicare (as well as private insurance companies) wanted no part of sustained long-term or life-long care so what else to do but release people.  Idiotic justifications were trotted out along the lines of , “they [the mentally ill] really need to learn how to function in society so what better way than to put them back into it”. Nice logic there huh ? Adding to the complexity is that it’s difficult to determine the causal directional flow between alcohol/drug abuse and mental illness – that is which causes which ? Guys like Marvin weren’t alcoholic at least in any way I could detect though on occasion he would enjoy getting loaded. In general those suffering from depression can experience an uplift and a form of happiness  when using alcohol, which is a contradiction given that alcohol is itself a depressant.  And after decades of sustained chemical (ab)use  one has to wonder if a life without the chemical is actually possible, which is an intimidating consideration for someone whose grasp on reality might already be rather tenuous.  It is important to note there ware also plenty of “winos” many of whom were simply low bottom alcoholics who were otherwise capable of work and normal social interaction if they were so inclined. It’s just that they preferred life with an ongoing buzz and were taking a booze-fueled break from the daily grind. Lots of these guys were just looking for a kick and many of them were capable of responding to treatment. Just to say that not every down-and-out case has a mental issue behind it.

In any case there were many more examples of “crazy” Stewart Avenue people and to a large extent anyone who remained in the area for long might very well start to unconsciously assume characteristics of those people merely to combat personal boredom or to liven up social interactions. The mentally ill can be charismatic and free speaking in a way those with an investment in society might never consider. It can be risky to say what you really think or to point out the absurdity of daily life in a public setting. But if you are at least entertaining about it and/or have an interesting spin then you can kind of get away with it at least for a little while. Just don’t expect that big promotion anytime soon as society (and the workplace) tends to value conformance and predictability over innovation and humor.  © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

“Getting Down” on The Avenue

“Getting Down” – A sports wagering phrase used to describe the act of placing a bet

It has been my experience to know many professional gamblers most of whom worked as hard (or harder) as any young attorney scuttling for recognition in a large, soul-sucking law firm. Unlike the lawyer, a gambler needs a decoy job of some sort to minimize IRS scrutiny and at least two of the guys at Brothers Three Package Store worked there for this purpose. I should note that I’ve encountered lawyers for whom their ostensible occupation was merely a front for lucrative illegal activities so maybe attorneys aren’t the best example but you get the point. Stewart Avenue gamblers were mostly of the football “spread betting” variety although dice games and the occasional multi-day poker matches were also popular. The idea with spread betting is to accurately predict the margin by which a team will win, which is far more interesting and financially rewarding than straight out win/loss betting. For example if the Atlanta Falcons play Seattle then one might reasonably expect the Seahawks to win the game outright. But it might be more interesting for the one accepting the bet (the bookie) to offer a point spread of  7 points to entice bettors to put money on the Falcons – so if Seattle doesn’t win by more than 7 points then the bookie pays off to those with money on Atlanta. If the Bookie knows his trade well then that point spread will result in a predictable betting pattern that can be exploited.

Stockbrokers are Bookies too though they won't admit it

All Stockbrokers can be thought of as Bookies though they would never admit it

So the bettors interact with “Bookies” who establish the spread (aka “the line”) for upcoming professional and college games though some simply republish this information from a more authoritative source.  The act of making the bet is called “getting down” (at least back in the 70s) and the cost of making a bet is the “vigorish” or “vig” for short.  The initial line is established early in the week and can fluctuate in reaction to “the early action” especially if that action becomes one sided suggesting then that the line was perhaps unwisely established. Adjustments are possible and the Bookie himself can “lay off” the action onto other Bookies (and so could a bettor) which is known as hedging one’s bet. Just to say that distributing financial liability is not a concept unique to Wall Street. And if all of this sounds like the basis of a financial market it is – a very big one wherein the potential for profitability is significant. Little surprise then that people of all occupations (postmen, CEOs, mechanics, physicians, cops, salesmen) would be attracted to these potential gains. Even less surprise then that guys would obsess over betting decisions because for many it was the only way to pay for a family vacation or the upcoming Christmas Season.

Bookies could be independent or function as a representative of an organized bookmaking outfit that might employ any number of people to insure a well run “sportsbook”. As bookmaking was illegal (and still is) in Georgia then some payoff to law enforcement might be involved although many law enforcement personnel liked to bet – including the occasional Judge. Sports betting was seen as a “soft vice” and as long as there was no major violence and the money wasn’t mixed with income related to drugs or prostitution then it was usually left alone. Many bookies liked to flash it up with large cars, copius neck and hand jewelry, exposed chest hair, and ostentatious consumption of food and liquor. Track suits and athletic wear were popular clothing choices as most of them were overweight. They attracted a certain type of woman – the fast and loose type that enjoyed having access to quick cash. There was this middle-aged dyspeptic bookie who seemed to belch out every word of a sentence in between drags off a no-filter Camel. He was forever gobbling Rolaids that he would chase down with sips of Scotch. (That alcohol and cigarettes might be contributing to his stomach issues was evidently not a concern for him). Another guy had a shaved head and eyebrows like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon which he thought made him look all mean. However, his attempted bad boy image was totally compromised by the out of control nose hair which snaked its way out of each nostril.

Some of the novice bookies with pinky diamond rings and gold necklaces learned the hard way that keeping quiet about winnings was better than being pistol whipped in the parking lot by someone who saw them flash a wad of cash in the bar. On The Avenue, Bookies might take your action in person or at The Fireplace or at one of the many Airport Bars like the Scotch House,  My Brothers Place,  Admiral Benbow, or Modine Gunch’s.  The Moose Lodge overlooking the Silver Ribbon was an active bookie site although one needed to be a member or guest of a member to gain entrance. Some action was taken late at night but that was dangerous as most people, including the bookie, were usually too drunk to think clearly.  Many phoned in their bets which was a ritualistic process not to be interrupted since a guy might be putting down money on 12 or more teams (maybe double that if including college games) thus accuracy during transmission was essential.  In a tone usually reserved for somber occasions such as funerals, a guy would read aloud his picks after which they would be confirmed by the bookie. Once the bet was “down” the tone and mood would lighten considerably.

Super Bookie Allen Hilf took action in Detroit for 40 years !

Legendary Detroit Bookie Allen Hilf aka “The General” aka “Fat Allen”.  He took action for close to 40 years ! Note the athletic wear

Most bettors stuck with football season but one of the Brothers Three guys also bet on basketball and baseball. He also took frequent side trips to the dog track in Florida which is how I first became interested in gambling. Terry brought back a track book containing finish times and place information on each dog. Having “read ahead” at school I pointed out that these kinds of details could be used in a process called regression that could predict a  dog’s finish time given that a number of assumptions were met. A more involved type of regression could help predict if the dog would finish first, second, or third but just being able to generate a finish time was a helpful start. As far as Terry was concerned I was talking another language so it wasn’t until I actually developed some actual predictions that he paid any attention to me. I would work things out using an old accounting-based calculator though would have to write out intermediate results onto a legal pad as I went. This was a tedious process that had to be repeated to verify results since Terry would then take this information into consideration when making bets at the track. The initial predictions were useful and Terry did better than his normal “baseline” (what he would have bet in absence of the generated information). Remember that this was long before cheap personal computers, Excel spreadsheets, and statistical programs that make quick work of this kind of thing.

Maybe a dog's weight (x) influences how fast he rounds the track (y) which you can estimate

It’s possible that a dog’s weight (x) influences how fast he can round the track (y) which we then estimate with a regression line.

The initial period of betting success was due mostly to consistency of conditions at the dog track though I cautioned against aggressive betting as the predictions were aging.  No one ever really knew if a dog was underfed, over fed, or had been given a drug to perform better. And of course new dogs would come onto the scene so the predictions would have to be regenerated. Any scrap of information from a track employee could be helpful, “Oh yea – one of the trainers we had for 10 years up and moved to San Diego” or “we cut our chow budget by 10%”. I didn’t always know how to integrate this information into the model but did what I could and the relative prosperity continued. It was difficult to determine to what extent Terry was using the predictions as gamblers have a certain pride in their own abilities that prevents them from acknowledging others especially if it is coming from “some goddamned formula” which is how he originally characterized my idea. Relative to football he was a natural seeker of information and had assembled a national phone-based network that facilitated the discovery of insider details such as, for example, Oklahoma’s quarterback just got dumped by his girlfriend. This would factor into his bet and unless the bookie was equipped with similar knowledge then Terry would usually come out on top. He had a nose for less obvious factors that might be important but it remained difficult to determine the relative importance of these factors. How much weight should you give a particular variable when making a bet ?  Is playing in snow more important to consider than if playing without the usual starting Center ? That’s where the regression came in handy.

Though I was never specifically acknowledged for my work, I was given a full introduction to the gambling culture which was incredibly entertaining.  No one batted an eye when I showed up at some of these bars – I was clearly underage but no one cared and I got the full brunt of the crazy talk, heavy drinking (though I did not participate  – at least initially), and of course the fast women who, quite frankly, scared me. They could be quite attractive but very aggressive and intimidating with their come-ons. An older woman with freakishly large breasts and spidery eyelashes (note the order in which I presented that information) took a liking to me and offered to “break me in” anytime I so desired. But I couldn’t handle the intensity or speed at which the proposal was made. Nor was I particularly interested in having the world know about what I thought should be a private matter. I failed to mention that she made her offer in front of about twelve other men and women all of whom were looking at me going, “Well ?” before breaking into uproarious laughter. Though these guys lived only for the moment and seemed to focus uniquely on sporting outcomes I’m sure that any of them would have made good stock brokers, financial analysts, or even statisticians as they possessed an instinctive understanding of numbers and could easily spot things that ran counter to an existing trend. So where I might be an analytical gambler they were of the intuitive variety. Modern gamblers seem to be combination of the two.

The book and movie "Moneyball" made pro sports pay attention to stats. Note I don't think Brad Pitt really knows stats but he is going okay nonetheless

The ideas behind “Moneyball” made pro sports teams and gamblers pay close attention to statistics. I don’t think Brad Pitt really knows much about math but then again he doesn’t really have to now does he ?

Later when I studied mathematics formally I started to look at ways to maximize the return on an initial pool of money over a series of bets. This was not anything special as I was sure that other people had considered these applications. My overall thinking about math was why bother with it unless it could be practically applied  ?  Terry would see my calculus text book and took a childish joy in pronouncing the title as “Cal-Koo-Lus” or “Kak-U-Lus”. He liked to chew on cigars and I could tell when he had been thumbing through the book as there would be tobacco juice splotches on various pages. Despite his jokes (and disregard for my book) he respected what the math could do.  The problem at the time was that to apply it to football or baseball games was more involved as getting data could be difficult and generating predictions for many more variables was an exhausting process. I was also struggling with how best to integrate this information into a model. Worse, there were humans involved whose behavior varied more than that of the dogs making it more difficult to predict a weekly score. The death knell to all of this was that eventually word got around that someone was attempting to employ a “system” which no bookmaker likes even though bookies themselves commonly used their own systems. It all really came to an end on a personal level when one bookmaker dropped by with one of his goons to quiz me on the nature of “my system” and to suggest a “collaboration”. I feigned ignorance by claiming  that it was all just a school project that had gotten out of hand. “Besides”, I said, “it doesn’t work so well on team sports” (which was partially true). I’m not sure he believed me but not knowing anything about the mathematics there was no way he could argue. More importantly he knew that my Father was connected to law enforcement which likely tempered any inclination he had of pushing the matter further – at least by using simple intimidation. I was shy then but not fearful and in the bookie’s mind the fact that I had put together some predictions was evidence enough that I had some options so why continue to lean into me ?

Mathematically assisted betting is now very common and thanks to movies like “Moneyball” there is increased awareness of how statistics has been used by professional sports teams to identify under-valued talent. Baseball in particular now has its own branch of analysis called “Sabermetrics”. There are entire conferences where sabermetricians go to present research results on almost every imaginable angle in baseball. Vegas has also invested in data science approaches to insure that their casinos and book making operations remain profitable. So anyone seeking a short cut or simplistic system to beat the odds is in for a rude awakening as odds making outfits have their own guys working against you. Just to say bring your lunch if you want to go head to head with them because you are going to need it. Back to the bookies – one important aspect of their trade that I have yet to mention is that the more successful ones know the habits of their customers quite well which allows them to exploit that knowledge over time. For example if you know that a guy has a weakness for the home field advantage then why not leverage that info against him ? In particular bookies love bets made out of emotionalism since it usually impairs logic. And online betting is no exception. In fact it is easier for them to look at your betting history and use that as input into THEIR models ! But you still have options in that you can use one or more local guys, Vegas, or go to the offshore services. The distillate wisdom is to use all three to leverage differences in point spreads. It’s not like it used to be – that is for certain. The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2016

Stewart Lakewood Library Closes

The parking lot view. The door on the left opened into a meeting room (at least in 1969 anyway) where Bernard, the emotionally fragile puppeteer, had a breakdown

The parking lot view. The door on the left opened into a meeting room (at least in 1969 anyway) where an emotionally fragile artist had a breakdown

On September 18th, 2015 the Stewart-Lakewood Branch of the Atlanta Public Library closed its doors after 56 years of service to residents of the 30315 zip code and surrounding environs.  While I was aware of its imminent demise I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia, which hit me with a level of intensity I had not anticipated. All this activated a long dormant neural pathway as I vividly relived the panic of having overdue books. My God ! What would the fines be by now ?  I’d rather displease my parents than one of those eternally aging, yet never dying, librarians who, in their off hours, inhabited the nightmares of Roger Waters. Strange thoughts given that the last time I stepped foot inside the building was around 1987. I’m astonished at how fast one can regress, mentally speaking, from middle age to adolescence within milliseconds. This overdue-book neurotic flashback aside there are few places in your life that offer a respite from whatever it is that, well, causes you to seek out “respites” in the first place. And while I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to many global destinations it is the Stewart Lakewood Library Branch (and memories thereof)  that has always provided a reliable “go to” psychic oasis for me in times of distress. Back in the day it was a great place to experience what the enlightenment gurus of today might call “The Now” or “The Moment”. I didn’t get hung up on what hadn’t been done or what needed to be done which, paradoxically, made it possible for me to get many things done seemingly without much effort. Before we leave this section, (and before I start trying to convince you that I’m the new Tony Robbins), it is important to know that the Stewart Lakewood Branch closed as the brand new Metropolitan Branch opened up the street near the intersection of Dill and Metropolitan Pkwy. So it’s not as if they left the area high and dry although I think maybe they should have first checked in with me before doing any of this.

SL_ENTRANCE

A recent photo of the entrance from a Yelp reviewer. Note the book return container which is probably the same one from 1971. Horrible people would wait till the darkest of night to throw in their long overdue books thinking they wouldn’t be found out. Bwa ha ha ha

My first memories of the Stewart Lakewood Branch start in the mid-late 60s when we would take short walking trips from Perkerson Elementary located right across the street. It’s not as if the Perkerson Library was deficient or lacked interesting books. Just that the teachers thought it a good idea for students to become facile with the operational dynamics of a real functioning library since that was where serious scholarship and research would be accomplished. I was a very quick study with the Dewey Decimal system and could zoom through a card catalogue faster than anyone I knew (including my academic arch nemesis Doreen). Mrs. Hemphill, the Perkerson Librarian, showed me the protocol for inspecting books: when removing a book for browsing also pull out the one next to it about an inch so you will know where to replace the first book should you not find it helpful. This simple knowledge impressed one of the craggy librarians over at the SL Branch. Perhaps thinking that I might have the stuff to be a librarian she gave me a tour of the sacred “behind the counter” area where I suspected they maintained Stasi-like dossiers on all those with overdue books and even people who simply looked like they would not return books on time. I was greatly relieved to find no evidence of such files though I did most of my reading at the library so I didn’t worry so much. I did notice 1)  the overpowering smell of stale cigarette smoke and 2) that they maintained a list of physical descriptions matching people suspected of unsavory behavior. I never had any problems at the Library even as the rest of Stewart Avenue declined. However one of my classmates told me that when walking she was occasionally followed by a creepy guy (and not always the same one).  So she started getting rides to and from the Library which was quite inconvenient since she lived at most 1,000 feet away from the building. As for the smell of cigarettes ? Well back then people liked to smoke in public and smoke breaks at work were very common. It was no worse than say the Teacher’s Lounge at Perkerson which at times contained what resembled a rolling bank of fog. When someone entered or exited smoke would billow out into the hallway forming cumulus like structures.

As you entered the Library they had a rack of paperbacks which was always my first stop. I would stand there reading through stuff like “The Exorcist” (it was way too scary to attempt a full read) or “Chariots of the Gods” which flipped me out with its theories of prehistoric alien visitations and discussions of extra-terrestrial landing strips such as the Nazca Lines in Peru. I even took a crack at The Autobiography of Christine Jorgenson (“The first person to go abroad and come back a broad”) until it disappeared permanently from the rack. I was told that people frequently stole the paperbacks which was quite easy as inventory control systems then weren’t very sophisticated.  I also liked sports biographies such as Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay” which I found to be very inspirational even though I had no interest in becoming a football player. And Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” destroyed my illusions that baseball was a pure sport. In reality I preferred the opposite side of the library because it got more sunlight courtesy of a large plate glass window.  When it rained the drops would hit the glass with a pleasant sound resulting in a hypnotic effect and I would drift off to sleep. The reading area was spacious and the chairs were large and comfortable. When my friends came along we could setup comfortably in this area as long as we didn’t make noise. We had all perfected the “library whisper” so rarely did we get any grief.  I found it incredibly odd that the while the Librarians wouldn’t let me check out a book rated for adults such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or “The French Connection” (also a famous movie at the time) they had no objections whatsoever if I read the same book while on the premises.

tachisto

A tachistoscope – the one I used looked different. It was silver and more streamlined. These days you can download software to do the same thing

I was able to rapidly read books which I believe was the result of training with a Tachistoscope – a device that was en vogue in late 60s-early 70s education in general and at Perkerson Elementary in particular. It projected a page of text onto a screen and, starting at the top, a light would overlay a series of words on a sentence moving from left to right with the number of words being adjustable by the user. The rate at which the light moved was also adjustable and with practice the reader could “take in” more and more words per sentence and even multiple sentences at a time thus increasing reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. They would test you after a reading session to insure that you were actually “getting” the material. As for me I can say that this system worked extraordinarily well and to this day I can rapidly zoom through an abstract, email, or article sometimes having to pretend to read it slowly just to convince someone else that I actually did read it. I don’t think that this technique has much to do with intelligence – it was just a matter of practice as far as I was concerned. Anyone around at the time will also be familiar with the then heavily promoted Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course that I assume relied upon similar principles though I don’t know if a projector system was involved. Advertisements for Ms. Wood’s reading system were infamously parodied on Cheech and Chong’s 1973 Los Cochinos hit comedy record.

Bernard's reaction to the assertion that Puppetry isn't a true artistic pursuit

Bernard’s reaction to those foolish enough to question his career choice or the legitimacy thereof

The Branch also had interesting artistic demonstrations, poetry readings, and plays that provided much needed distraction for antsy school children especially in the brutal heat of Summer (Perkerson not then being air conditioned). It was around 1969-70 that we went to see an exhibition put on by a troupe of dedicated puppeteers led by a super serious beret wearing guy named Bernard who clearly did not dig having to do this gig. His assistant was a pretty woman who selected myself and two other guys to help move in their gear and set things up. The rest of the troupe hung back and shared a smoke in the parking lot. It was cool unpacking the various puppets and implements of the show and very fascinating to get an idea about what went on behind the scenes. Bernard watched from a distance and snorted in disapproval when someone set down a road case a little too hard for his taste. I thought he was actually going to cry – but the Assistant ran over and consoled him in warm velvety tones.  I realized he might not be happy with how his career was going. From an early age I had been exposed to various creative types (mostly musicians) who were always lamenting about ongoing lack of recognition and having to forever play less than desirable gigs. But this was different in that most people could at least understand what a musician goes through – but a puppeteer ? That’s gonna be a very hard sell at the Family Reunion. I imagine the following taking place: “So Bernard, will you be joining your Father’s Accounting firm soon ?” Bernard would then storm off in righteous indignation leaving his Mother to say, “He is under a lot of stress these days. His little Ventriliquist group isn’t as popular as he had hoped”. And Bernard, hearing this horribly inaccurate description of his life’s calling, would tearfully exclaim, “Dammit Mother, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m a Puppeteer NOT a ventriliquist ! You never listen to me…….”  Anyway  the show came off really well but ended on a sour note when Bernard finally lost it during the Q&A session when some kid’s simple minded comment caused him to seize up in a frothy rage rendering him unwilling (or unable) to respond. The charming Assistant stepped in to smooth it all over which apparently was her primary role in the troupe – that of managing Bernard’s temper tantrums and setting right his offenses.

So where are we now ? Prior to the economic recession of the mid 2000s the Capitol View area experienced significant gentrification and Sylvan Hills was not far behind what with the proximity to the Belt Line. Nearby East Point had boomed and even Hapeville was experiencing a resurgence. I heard that the owner(s) of the “Cross Roads Shopping Center” (formerly Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center) was attempting to attract the likes of Home Depot to facilitate the anticipated flurry of repair and renovation business.  This triggered some romantic notion (at least for me) that the area and the Library would return to its former days of glory when it was packed with children and teenagers though 1) it wasn’t clear that the initial wave of buyers would be bringing/starting families and 2) the whole Shopping Center would have probably been razed anyway. As developers, home flippers, squatters, and old time residents of the area pondered these possibilities the real estate bubble burst so it all became academic and since that time it’s all been in a holding pattern. I’m told that Sylvan Hills has recently been experiencing some sales activity as the Belt Line concept seems to have taken hold.

Sting is telling you to "read". Better pay attention !

Sting is telling you to “read”. Better pay attention because he turned out okay.

In the end I realize I probably haven’t adequately explained why I liked this Library choosing rather to relate some tales about the place. Everyone has their Zen Garden and the concept of Zen  (not that I know much about it) supposedly defies explanation. It’s hard, if not impossible, to “reverse engineer” one’s serenity inducing moments and places. It just happens and you can’t force it. Sometimes it’s a key relationship or a specific positive event but in my case it was neither (that I can recall anyway). It was more of a sustained experience of learning and developing in a pressure free environment not that what was going on at home or school was bad – just that I could be myself at the Library and really get some thinking done. While I’ve been rough on the librarians in this post there were a few who were very cool and supportive once they detected that I was on the level. One guy named “Van” (last name long forgotten) used to cruise by Brothers Three to score a six pack. He was always enthusiastic about books and learning and for a librarian he was extremely outgoing and talkative. I get the sense that the others with whom he worked probably felt that he was too loud. I think my last visit was around 1987 to see if they had a certain book. Near the front there was a poster of Sting dressed like some old world scholar holding a book with the caption of “Read”. (This was from a poster series sponsored by the American Library Association) Much of the look and feel of the place was the same as it was in the 70s though equipment had been modernized (for that era) and I noticed that many of the books I had read were still there suggesting perhaps that there wasn’t much rotation going on. But the same vibe was there. Anyway I regret not making it by the Stewart Lakewood Branch before it closed so I’ll have to rely purely on memories moving forward. I have been anyway but it would have been nice to have an updated mental snapshot. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

 

Atlanta Peep Shows and Porno Wars Part II

This is Part 2 of a series of 2. If you haven’t already perhaps you should first check out Part 1 to get the full context.

The Breakfast Club

While the majority of Adult Bookstore activity took place at night there was a type of customer who would check in during business hours presumably to avoid spousal or familial suspicion. There was also the “early riser” who would show up between 5 – 8 a.m. with a mission to score before heading in to work. This same pattern could also be observed at the nearby “No Tell Motels” such as “Gary’s”, “Town and Country”, and “The Alamo”.  Both types of customers usually lived north or west of the city, (as evidenced by their license plate county designations), and would drop in on their way to and from Atlanta Airport. I often wondered how these guys might feel if someone drove 30 miles to an Adult Store in their neighborhood ? Would they even allow such an establishment to exist ? Whenever I worked the morning shift at Banks  I would arrive around 7:30 a.m. to sweep the front store area and would usually see a full lot across the street. Around 8 a.m. there would be an exodus of guys wearing hats and sunglasses making a frantic dash to their cars and zipping down the street thus ending the “night rush”. It was on such a day that I recognized one of my former high school teachers who, unlike the other guys, made no attempt at disguise. This scene was awkward because he was a favorite teacher of mine. He also had this idyllic family scene he used to discuss in class but guess that it wasn’t as fabulous as he projected. I don’t know that he saw me that morning as his expression never changed as he got into the very same car he drove in to school every day.  I never saw him again after that. I thought maybe it was a one time thing but that idea was dashed once Fred told me that my teacher was a “regular”.

“If Georgia did away with its adultery and fornication laws, McAuliffe said [in an interview with John York], ‘We would not be protecting, in many cases, good wives who have husbands who want to play around, or in other cases, protecting good men who have wives who are a little bit promiscuous.’ ’- Hinson McAuliffe in an AJC interview as reported in the 8/25/69 edition of the Great Speckled Bird

On occasion things went awry such as when someone’s car broke down or when someone got hustled in the back room. That is – robbed in a movie booth by some “rough trade” looking to take advantage of a  sexually conflicted individual whose judgment was impaired by some carnal urgency. Who would a victim of such a crime contact for assistance ?  Not the Police. Not the wife.  Even at that time no person was going to make a call that includes the admission, “Hey I’m on Stewart Avenue” let alone “Hey I’m on Stewart Avenue in an adult bookstore where I got robbed by a guy I was trying to pick up”. That would be a life changer now wouldn’t it ? According to Tank the back room robberies were infrequent and rarely involved actual violence with simple intimidation being the primary weapon.  The victim might not complain at all due to embarrassment and potential exposure though, if he did, it was usually not until some time had passed since the perpetrator’s departure. Even then the patron would sheepishly approach Tank or Lee as if making a long suppressed confession instead of demanding law enforcement be contacted or at least asking “just what kind of a business are you running here anyway ?” Tank was like “Hey man, there is a big sign back there that says ‘one person to a booth’ so you break the rules then live with the pain”.  He recreated the event for us complete with hand gestures and recited that phrase reverently as if it represented a universal truth ranking right up there with “Force equals Mass times Acceleration”. It occurred to us over at Bros Three that perhaps the clerks might actually be in on these robberies and were simply employing an accomplice to do the dirty work. Just spot a guy with a wedding ring who appears to be gainfully employed and wait for him to make advances on the seemingly friendly stranger in the back room area who suddenly becomes angry and threatens violence. Easy money.

Be Mindful of Where You Die

One of the more unfortunate events took place in the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day around 5 p.m.  I noticed an ambulance and two police cars had rolled up into the parking lot at 2150.  A few of the patrons had scampered away but the cops were interrogating a Barney Fife looking dude out in front as the ambulance crew wheeled out what appeared to be a covered body.  Wow, what happened ? It was all too much to resist so I slipped out of Bros Three and crossed over The Avenue at Langston where I could discreetly approach the building. The cops were still grilling the patron as the usually totally-at-ease Tank was seen pacing nervously outside most likely because he wasn’t accustomed to, well you know, handling deaths during his work shift ? There was definitely some emerging unease between the cops and as I moved in closer, it became clear that they were arguing about who would be informing the next of kin about the death of the individual whose body was just then being wheeled out. Tank spotted me and waved me over with his ham hock of a hand and whispered horasely, “Yea Man, Some Delta or Eastern guy, looked like a pilot or something, was in the back doin’ his thing and some of the boys heard a ruckus and saw the guy’s leg sticking out of the booth twitching around – guess the son of a bitch blew a gasket. But I don’t need this heat – I got warrants. Hope they don’t check”. Tank clearly had other priorities in that moment and sympathies for the recently departed were not foremost in his mind. Evidently Barney Fife had assumed the noise was the result of some heavy action and let it slide until he realized the guy’s legs were no longer moving and hadn’t been for some time so he reported it.  The cops showed up, riffled the pockets, found the wallet, made the id, saw family pictures, and were on the radio consulting with their superiors about who would be delivering the bad news and how.  And you thought your job was hard ?

Gimme That Old Time Religion

I suppose that Solicitor McAuliffe’s on going project might have had something to do with preventing things like the above described events from happening although I never recall reading specific references to such incidents. His was more of a generic effort designed to eradicate places, publications, and people who sought to promote and/or profit from sexually oriented material. You might be tempted to think that all of this activity was initiated in the 70s but the Solicitor’s ideas go back to the previous decade when, according to 8/25/1969 edition of Atlanta’s own “Great Speckled Bird Magazine”, he stated: “If Georgia did away with its adultery and fornication laws, we would not be protecting, in many cases, good wives who have husbands who want to play around, or in other cases, protecting good men who have wives who are a little bit promiscuous.” It is interesting that he acknowledges a capacity for infidelity independently of gender though it’s even more interesting that he employed language (e.g. “play”, “a little bit promiscuous”) that minimizes the very behavior that motivated his aggressive campaign. I would have expected  much stronger  and more damning language though maybe he felt the laws were there simply to motivate good marital hygiene and to make an example of those who might “play” from time to time. And by removing magazines, movies, and gadgets from stores and theaters then those otherwise “good” people would be guaranteed to have problem-free marriages.

”If you need a dirty book, you’ll have to leave Atlanta to get it,” said Glenn Zell, an attorney for the stores. Mr. Zell said the owners of at least 16 adult bookstores had agreed Friday to close if the Fulton County Solicitor would dismiss all charges against their employees. – New York Times 01/19/1981

Selective Enforcement

However, there were some inconsistencies at the city level that were puzzling.  For example there was a “massage parlor” on Stewart Avenue located next to the Purple Onion Bar which was once home to a Shakey’s Pizza Palace.  The inconsistency was that these businesses, at least the one on Stewart Ave,  rarely encountered any significant pressure from the police even as The Solicitor was going full tilt on the Yellow Fronts and small markets who sold magazines. The proprietor of the Massage Parlor used to come by Brothers Three to pick up a six pack now and then and he always looked as if he had not one care in this world. There were no repeated raids, busts, or declarations of war on these establishments.  The same was true with the area prostitution which remained more or less the same as in previous years.  The distillate thinking was that either these Parlors were kicking up money to someone that the Yellow Fronts weren’t or that the issue of prostitution was somehow more tolerable – at least for the time being.  As 1979 rolled around there was the horrifying issue of Black Atlanta Children being murdered as well as prior concerns about the behavior of Reginald Eaves whose policies and practices as Atlanta’s “Super Chief” allegedly impacted the Atlanta Police Force in an enduring and irreversible way. So it’s not as if all was well with the city in all other respects.

Le Dénouement D’une Crise

The issues I’ve described here and in the previous post captured the attention of publishers such as Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione, and more famously Larry Flynt who was paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet in 1978 while on trial for Obscenity in Gwinnett County. While there were  lawsuits and court actions challenging the Solicitor’s work on the basis of First Amendment rights it was easy to see that neither side was being especially noble.  The publishers were making plenty of money and wanted to continue to do so.  I’m really sure that a general reader of these magazines was not that interested in “the intriguing interviews” which was the infamous and well-worn cliche used  to justify the purchase of Playboy. On the other hand does an adult really need someone to screen material and decide what is decent (or not)  ?  Should publications such as Playboy and Penthouse be classified in the same category as the Adult Bookstores ? Was the Fulton County Solicitor truly representing the interests of Fulton County residents or perhaps, (and more likely),  his own religious beliefs ?   These were all reasonable questions especially if you are growing up in a neighborhood that is on the front lines of such a conflict. Anyway, it all became academic as by 1981 the Book Stores decided to close up shop and leave town in exchange for having charges dropped. So the “Yellow Fronts” had been vanquished. In terms of the magazines, however,  they returned to the magazine stands of gas stations and small markets without consequence. And by the late 80s even places like the very popular and well respected Atlanta Oxford Book Store offered a selection of adult material that far exceeded (in quantity and variety) anything being offered in the 70s. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I wasn’t keen on the reality that there was a Book Store establishment so close to where I lived but I accepted it. Didn’t really have a choice. When traveling around town my default behavior was not to broadcast this history simply to avoid the inevitable questions like “What was it like ? Do you ever see anything weird ? What kind of people went there ? What’s the wildest thing you ever saw ? So why didn’t your family just move away ?”  Of course this blog answers some of those questions (in considerable detail I might add) though in reality I never really minded answering those questions except when it was clear that those posing the questions were just in it for the titillation and vicarious experience with little or no regard for how these things might have impacted the area.  In terms of the Stewart Avenue corridor the closure of the 2150 book store didn’t change anything at all. The location remained empty and dormant for quite some time after which it was purchased, renovated, and reopened as an “exotic dancing” establishment. The owner, a charismatic bald muscular guy with a Fu Manchu moustache dropped in at Brothers Three and assured us that it was going to be “a classy operation”.  I responded, “but there are already so many other classy places around here” which was a risky move on my part given his size. After a moment of silence, during which he no doubt had attempted to determine if he was being insulted, he decided to ignore me.   The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2016

Phone Booth Annie / Stewart Avenue Prostitute

Phone Booth Annie was a dwarf hooker who usually worked Stewart Avenue between Nalley Chevrolet and Dill Avenue. She was known for providing oral pleasure to patrons inside of phone booths wherein the John could appear to be making a phone call while Annie worked her magic below. Logistically this was a snap since, given her short height, her head lined up easily with the mid section of the average adult male. Now it couldn’t be any phone booth because they were usually paneled with transparent material although the lower glass of the phone booth located at the corner of Dill and Stewart had been knocked out and replaced with some plywood which provided the necessary cover for Annie to accomplish her work. Interestingly the phone booth was located next to the Capitol View Fire Station leading to a working theory that the busted glass and replacement paneling wasn’t an accident. After all, a day or two in the station could lead to some boredom thus some “distraction” for an anxious fire fighter might help take off the edge. The story grew and the phone booth got a reputation such that even the straighter area residents became aware of it which resulted in great suspicion towards anyone who might be in the phone booth or even near it. My guess was that it was one of the most under utilized booths in the area in terms of actual phone services. Someone told me that the phone didn’t even work !

“Fanta Orange Clears The Deck……”

When standing still or sitting on the curb Phone Booth Annie reminded me of a ventriloquist’s dummy that at any moment might animate and turn homicidal. She had a stiff walk which caused her to bobble from side to side even when walking straight. There was a facial scar (a pimp’s retribution I was told), that left her with a permanent scowl though independently of that it was clear that life had dealt her some bad cards though instead of trying to draw some more she stuck with the crappy hand. (The deck was probably rigged anyway). She sported excessive amounts of makeup and wore her hair in a permanent which was probably a wig though I never got close enough to make a determination. In terms of clothing it was almost always a terry cloth recreational outfit that she wore even in January ! She usually traveled with a larger group and it was kind of sad watching her trying to keep up with the rest of the women who were already walking slowly anyway. Occasionally you would see her standing alone waving at cars as they passed by with no attempt on her part to conceal her occupation. And if a cop car rolled by she just waved at them though not as means to taunt them but as a genuine sign of recognition. Anyway, she would come into Brothers Three with a group of women and between like four of them would buy a single Fanta Orange drink. They would then walk out into the parking lot where each would take a swig, swish it around, spit, and pass the bottle. One day I just had to ask what this ritual was all about and was told that Fanta Orange was the best thing to “clear the deck” after providing oral services. Since that time I have never been able to think of Fanta Orange (or Fanta anything), without this memory elbowing it’s way to the forefront of my consciousness.

You might be tempted to think that Phone Booth Annie fulfilled some kind of fetish role for men who had a thing for dwarves but I was told this wasn’t the case at all. She was just one of the many women who worked the Avenue who came (no pun intended), in all sizes and colors thus one of exceptionally short stature was just there for variety in the stable. I do know that she was frequently hired as a novelty act at some of the end of the work week blowouts taking place at businesses lining The Avenue. I discovered this first hand when I was asked to deliver some beer and liquor to an in-progress party at Kaiser’s Trim shop and as I entered the shop Annie was sitting there naked on a couch while a party was raging on. Before I could react a naked black woman weighing at least 250 lbs asked me if I wanted to dance – I politely declined.  This was all too much for my 15 year old brain and I got out of there fast.  Someone from the party had evidently phoned back to the store and provided a description of my reaction so by the time I returned my coworkers were already talking about hiring Annie and “Tiny” (the obese hooker’s name), for my upcoming birthday. No Thanks.

“So cutie, what brings you here today ? Is the Lord not keeping you satisfied ?

The Salvation Army had an installation (which remains till today), located just up the street past Atlanta Area Technical School and they would send their cadets up and down the Avenue collecting donations in exchange for a copy of their “War Cry” magazine. Most of these cadets were young enthusiastic Christians who were simply trying to make a difference and it was a quite a  visual juxtaposition seeing the cadets in their clean, snappy uniforms walk by a group of hookers each group with it’s own code of behavior and outlook on life.  There was cordial acknowledgement between the two elements though rarely was there any attempt at an exchange beyond the basics. However, I once saw a young female cadet stop and talk with Annie for quite a long time. I could only guess what they were discussing but when the cadet rolled into Brothers Three to cool off from the Summer heat I had to ask her about the event. She told me that she was describing some of the Salvation Army programs to Annie with the hopes of getting her off the street and into a better way of living although evidently Annie wasn’t interested. It then occurred to me that I had never heard Annie speak but according to the cadet she was articulate and seemed capable of accurate self-appraisal though feared what might happen to her if she abandoned the only life she knew. I wanted to continue the conversation but Jimmy, my co-worker that day, actually started hitting on the cadet, “So cutie, what brings you here today ? Is the Lord not keeping you satisfied ? I’ll buy one of your Jesus magazines and we can read it together.”  The cadet rolled her eyes and with a curt, “Have a good day Sir” bolted and after that no Salvation Army cadet ever stopped in again.

It should be of little surprise that many of these women rarely made a smooth transition (if at all), out of the life as many were trapped in a classic vicious cycle of needing money to finance a drug habit or kick up to a pimp so there really is no way to make an exit at least not without help.  Of course how could anyone ever really know if someone got out successfully since there was no reasonable way to track anyone ? You would see someone a couple of times each week over the course of a year and then not at all ever again. I’m not sure at what point I stopped noticing Annie’s presence on The Avenue. It took a few weeks and it was actually one of the older guys, “RoughHouse” who got on the phone and came up with information that everyone else except us seemed to already know – that Annie’s decapitated body had been found in a dumpster. It was an unusually harsh event that got attention but not enough for an arrest to be made. A pall settled in for a while that took months to pass though by the next Summer it had been mostly forgotten and Annie became a footnote in a larger story about a phone booth and prostitution continued to thrive. Thereafter Stewart Avenue became forever synonymous with prostitution although there were other areas of town such as Ponce and Moreland Avenue both which had significant activity also. There are other stories some with equally as horrifying outcomes such as the bachelor party gone wrong at the Alamo Plaza incident that led to the Stewart Avenue to Metropolitan Pkwy name change. However, Annie’s story is particularly emblematic of a larger struggle in the area and as far as I am concerned is the canonical reference for prostitution in southwest Atlanta. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

 

 

Alcohol and Alligators

“And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down Highway 41” – Dickey Betts / Allman Brothers

Stewart Avenue was once considered part of The Dixie Highway project conceived around 1917 in an effort to develop roads to link the Midwest and Southern States. The suggestion was a bit odd as interstate travel at that time was customarily accomplished via the train system so building long roads, let alone paved ones, was not at the top of everyone’s agenda. According to the Georgia History site an entrepreneur named Carl Fisher acquired what we now know as Miami Beach in 1912 and was interested in facilitating automobile travel between Chicago and his new property. After all who wouldn’t want to spend vacations in the warm climate of southern Florida (never mind that it would take weeks to get there). Various states participated in the concept for various reasons though it still didn’t change the fact that auto travel across such large distances even on paved roads could take quite a while thus ersatz camping sites emerged  to accommodate weary travelers. Checkout the aforementioned Georgia History site to see a picture of “Wilson’s Tourist Camp” which was located near Lakewood and Pryor Rd. (In the 1970s and 1980s this general area later became home to the salty “Joyce’s Tavern” a known hangout for the Outlaws Motorcycle Gang). Work continued on the Dixie Highway until 1927 after which the project was folded into the US Route System which sought to impose some national standards on the growing number of roads in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Ah how the bureaucracy grows.

In the book Prohibition in Atlanta: Temperance, Tiger Kings & White Lightning (page 133) we learn that The Avenue was a bootlegging route with farms and homes along the way sometimes providing a respite for runners of then illegal alcohol. One case involved the seizure of 10 gallons of alcohol and an alligator. The alligator I can definitely understand as any serious drinker (well anyone I would want to drink with) will always require entertainment along with the buzz. However, the 10 gallons seemed a bit lean and I’m guessing that the bootlegger had made a delivery or two prior to getting nabbed.  Later in 1929 a woman transporting 150 quarts of booze, (divvied up for individual sale I suspect), led the Police on a chase starting in Hapeville proceeding up Stewart Avenue into Downtown Atlanta where she crashed her vehicle and escaped on foot. (Having grown up on Stewart Avenue I met many women of similar spirit and capability).  All of this goes back to my fascination with labeling theory and it seems that once The Avenue experienced this kind of notoriety such events cemented it’s identity in the mind of the universe as a place forever and always to be associated with the baser desires in life. Even at it’s best it always a place to get “into something”. What struck me about the area was that I’ve never seen so many people so ready to fight over nothing. I suppose if you don’t have much financially or if education is not a priority then physical ability becomes the default marker for success. If there ever was a road custom made for the “Lower Chakras” then this was it.

“We cater to tourists and traveling salesmen. We don’t admit couples with local driver’s licenses” – Founder of the Alamo Plaza Hotel Chain

Since that time Stewart Avenue’s designations have included US 19 and State Route 3 although the most recognizable designation was/is as part of US 41 which ran between Upper Michigan and Miami, Florida.  Those of a certain age will likely recall this highway being immortalized in the Allman Brothers hit, and enduring classic rock staple, “Ramblin’ Man”.  Through the decades Interstate 75 replaced sections of US 41 in the sense that it offered parallel access with the added benefit of being an expressway. So after a point in time the appeal of using US 41 for any considerable distance rapidly diminished except perhaps for those with a romantic attachment to an older era or for those  possessing a fear of fast traffic. I tried explaining  to an old timer how one could shave hours off of a long trip by using I-75 but he wasn’t buying it. His philosophy was that, “Any man who needs to move that fast in life is running from something and can’t be trusted”.  Prior to the wide spread adoption of I-75, families would happily cruise down US 41 on their way to Florida and take some time off at family friendly Motels such as The Alamo Plaza on Stewart Avenue which, according to Wikipedia, was part of the first ever US Motel Chain. I find great irony in founder Edgar Lee Torrance’s words: “We cater to tourists and traveling salesmen. We don’t admit couples with local driver’s licenses”. With all due respect to the goals and ideals of Mr. Torrance – The Alamo Plaza became well known for aiding and abetting LOTS of sex outside of marriage.

The second contributor to Stewart Avenue’s decline was the court-ordered busing that came down from the Supreme Court to desegregate schools. This was a national issue impacting the entire nation. Once it became clear that busing would in fact occur then parents started selling like mad. Each area had it’s own trigger. Someone identified a guy on Perkerson Rd as being the first in the area to offer his house for sale to a black family but it was already happening in many neighborhoods thus identifying a single homeowner  seemed pointless to me. Block Busting had begun in earnest and I recall one day someone hammering on our front door and when I opened it there was this young woman who looked like Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, (“Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon”), asking me if my family was interested in selling our home.  Before I could speak she pointed down the street (to no house in particular) and said her agency was handling several pending transactions and that they were also “committed” to helping achieve desegregation in the nearby schools.  So much for subtlety. The idea of course was for us to panic though she was wasting her time  since my family couldn’t afford to move at that point so we were in it for the long haul. She was also wasting her time as by then any homeowner who had options had long since exercised them and split for the suburbs.

“Work the Womens [sic] not the Johns” – A Stewart Avenue Pimp

Some would say that a couple of other contributing events  finalized the demise of the area including the Energy Crisis of 1973 which many (most ?) believed to have been nothing more than contrived marketing to justify price hikes. No matter the case the waits for gas were long and people whose work involved long commutes or transportation felt the pain. Also the end of the Vietnam War sent lots of veterans back to town and job prospects (for those even interested) weren’t particularly attractive so a pall set in that never really left the area. Established business like Caruso’s Italian restaurant pulled out though they later re-entered the area up the street near Langston. They packed it in for good as it became clear that those interested in finer dining had left the area. Porn shops opened up (more on those in a later post) and places like “Boobs N Booze” came into being. Street crime increased and the working girls had their own tales of woe. Guys weren’t paying after services were rendered. One of the more established prostitutes explained it to me – A guy under financial pressure seeks out comfort though his stress prevents him from “performing” effectively which leads to embarrassment, possible rage, and sometimes violence against the women – so the Pimp has to retaliate. But this can get weird because some of the Johns in the area had a capacity for violence that matched or exceeded that of the Pimp thus it became very dangerous all around and the Heat would come down. As one of the pimps explained it – the idea behind pimping is to “Work the womens [sic] not the Johns. Anything else cuts into the bottom line. Ya dig ?”

I’ll continue the narrative in a followup post and there are certainly more details to be discussed that outline the reasons for decline and it wasn’t all due to the reasons mentioned above though they were big factors. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

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