Perkerson Park, situated in Southwest Atlanta, had been largely ignored for decades before it experienced a resurgence courtesy of a Disc Golf Course which has flourished in the location since its debut in 2011. It amazes me that this general area continues to be ignored by developers given that before the real estate bubble Capitol View had some action and Sylvan Hills was being eyed by a number of land speculators. Since that time, however, investors continue to hold on to their money waiting to see how the Belt Line project will progress. While I’m aware that people started moving into the area as far back as the 90s the growth has never been comparable to that experienced by neighboring areas such as East Point and College Park. Years ago I ran into a buzzed hipster who claimed to be a reporter / writer for Creative Loafing (if i recall correctly – I was probably buzzed also). She was telling anyone who would listen that she had just closed on a “cool house”. Upon making an inquiry as to its location I was met with the classic hipster response of “Oh I’m sure you won’t know where it is but if you must know it’s Capitol View”. Rather than engage in a back-and-forth with someone hell bent on one-upping the universe, I offered a simple, “You’re such an urban pioneer”, which she mistook as a compliment. Back to the geography – it’s important to note that the official address for Perkerson Park is 770 Deckner Avenue which produces confusion for those unfamiliar with the area as there is a nearby street called Perkerson Rd. which hosts the Jeremiah S. Gilbert house located in the neighborhood of Perkerson Woods. In reality Perkerson Park is more aptly described as being in Sylvan Hills so the proximal street names can be somewhat misleading.
Wholesome Jam Sessions
A reader of this blog informed me that in the early 1960s the majority of Perkerson Park “action” was mostly of the “wholesome variety” with the pavilion being a favorite hangout for teenagers and church groups. My source also tells me that local boy turned music star Tommy Roe would show up for the occasional jam session as he was perfecting tunes like “Sheila” though he was somewhat protective of that particular composition perhaps sensing that it would be a hit. Later there was The Spontaneous Generation who was destined for the big time and had some success with Up in My Mind. (backed with a cover of The Who’s Pictures of Lily). They never realized their full potential due in part to an unfortunate accident involving keyboard player Terry K who remained in the region for quite some time thereafter making music now and then produced by local music teacher Jon Lloyd. Another band that jammed there included Enertia though there were other musicians worthy of note whom I will attempt to cover in a future post.
Relative to aesthetics and geography Perkerson Park was lush green and in close proximity to Sylvan Hills High School (The Golden Bears) which insured a lot of use by students. (Exactly what they “used” there varied with the times). The Park was comprised of two major parts – the upper level which contained three baseball fields (one for softball) and the general recreational area that included a tennis court and a pavilion. The levels were bisected by an unimpressive creek that ended into some woods which provided an easy escape for marijuana smoking kids seeking to avoid the law or bullies looking to rip them off. Those not experienced with navigating that back patch of woods (or too stoned to do so) would inevitably trip on the underbrush or run into trees. You then had to loop around behind Cahoon Street and emerge between one of the duplexes to complete your escape – not that I would know anything about that.
“You Bitch. How Could You ?”
In my first year of Little League the ball fields were unkempt with over grown grass and a creaky old score board with metal numbers. In my opinion this was the best situation as we could play baseball in peace without hyper competitive parents injecting their madness into our games. As the 70s progressed I noticed that some of the dads would drink liquor at the game and harangue coaches to get more playing time for their “gifted son” who might very well be just an average player. Some of my coaches were “fans of the flask” themselves and weren’t above getting a little tight to deal with the lunacy of the parents. One of our coaches passed out during the game and we let him sleep it off as we knew how to deal with tactical game issues as well as he did. The funny thing is that while in his semi-coma state he kept muttering, “you bitch, how could you” under his breath. It became a tag line at practice and later games. I’m also pretty sure more than a few affairs got started at the ball field bleachers as some of the dads would zoom in on women whose husband always seemed to be traveling. The pickup action would start even before the game as some guy would slide onto the bleachers next to a Mom and open with the line, “so what team does your son play for ?”. In reality it was a small world then and people more or less knew who was in the market for action as the gossip traveled rapidly. But it was still kind of tough to watch such garish displays wholly lacking in polish. To put it bluntly these guys had no game and even I could see that.
Each team was sponsored by a local merchant such as Holton Dodge or Millirons Garage (I played with the brothers Larry and Donald) though we were individually required to sell chocolate to raise additional funds to further supplement the league’s bank account. As if that wasn’t enough each team also had to select a “Team Queen” who was usually a sister of one of the players although a cruel dad singled out an effeminate player as a possible candidate. It all escalated to the point where they had a beauty pageant to select the prettiest Team Queen. It was a total circus and I got tired of showing up because of all the activities that had nothing to do with baseball combined with the coaches becoming all “big league” and competitive even though most of them really had no solid ideas about the game let alone how to teach the fundamentals. Worst of all they took note of whose parents showed up and benched any kid whose parents (or parent) didn’t show up. In effect bowing to pressure to play the children of the loudmouths and sponsors. This, combined with the fact that my folks were fighting at home led to a personal malaise and a corresponding slump on the field. What had once been fun was now a total drag. I do have to give props to one of the umpires, Don F., who cheered me up and was very encouraging.
Being Too Good Can Be a Problem
Most parents were completely delusional about the true extent of their kid’s actual talent and it was only in the face of “real talent” that it became clear that their son was probably not destined for the big leagues. As an example there was a young black kid named Daryl Underwood who hit home runs with great ease and he regularly embarrassed the league’s best pitchers by effortlessly “moon decking” any type of delivery that came his way. Despite his obvious ability (or perhaps because of it) he was denied participation in that year’s All Star team. This was one of my first personal experiences with overt racism and it puzzled me that the league would forgo the superior abilities of a player simply because of skin color but the coach was overheard saying in a rabid tone that that year’s team was “goddamned going to be 100% lily white“. This all became academic at least for that moment when Daryl died not long thereafter having fallen out of the back of a pick truck on the way home. There was another great athlete named Jeff Culbreth who was far too good for the Little League scene and after a successful high school career in baseball, football, and basketball he was drafted by the Braves though spent only one year with their Greenwood team before returning home and also meeting with an untimely demise.
Ah before I forget – here is a picture of one of the sponsor pages from my 1970 version of the Perkerson-Sylvan Little League bulletin. Check the end of this post for more pictures. If you grew up in the area get ready for a trip down memory lane mes amis.
Quaker State Hair Mousse
The Park was also a place for backseat romance for the younger crowd but guys like James B. (a mostly toothless illiterate gas station attendant) enjoyed taking his conquests there for some action which he would relate to us (completely unsolicited mind you) at Bros Three. He had a habit of punctuating the sexual aspects of his story by sharply inhaling air which made a whistling sound as it rushed over his bare gums. The volume and duration of the resulting sound corresponded to the level of pleasure he had experienced. Once he started down this road there was no stopping him so you would just have to walk away if it got too vivid. He would usually be smoking no filter Camels during these performances and if he inhaled too deeply or quickly he would double over into a paroxysmal coughing fit. Upon recovery he would behave as if nothing happened and then offer, “but it was soooo goooooood”.
James worked at the Shell station at the corner of Stewart and Cleveland which was operated by Raymond Hoffman a straight-laced import from Pennsylvania with whom I later worked at Banks’ Liquor Store. James was pretty good with gas station activities and this still being the era of full service gas stations he had plenty of work. It also put him in direct proximity to lustful women who would drive into the station in various states of undress. I believed him as we experienced the same phenomenon at Bros Three with the Drive in Window which was actually more of a door. The trouble though was that these women were usually unappealing in the extreme at least as far as I was concerned. Some of the older guys, or guys with lower standards, would happily roll the dice.
James was not what you would call a hygiene fanatic. On Friday he would have a couple of day’s worth of accumulated oil in his hair which had dropped from the grease rack under which he spent most of his time doing oil changes and lube jobs. Gobs of the stuff would still be there on Monday afternoons when he stopped by for a few beers. It functioned like sort of a hair Mousse. As he had pretty thick hair it kind of worked but he had this continual petroleum smell that followed him around. Every time he lit up a cigarette I was afraid he might burst into flames. None of this seem to deter his conquests. James had a daughter who took a liking to me and she would drive up to Bros Three and ask if I wanted to “go parking” with her. She would catch me on the way back from taking trash to the dumpster (how romantic). It’s not that she was bad looking just that after having endured many of her Father’s conquest stories, combined with the whole petroleum hair gel thing, I really couldn’t get enthused. I mean what if she too enjoyed making that whistling sound ?
I cannot reasonably capture the significance of Perkerson Park in a single post. I just wanted to present an overview here. There are many more stories I could relate but I’ll save them for the book ha ha). Anyone with personal experience of the Park will have their own tales on offer – the proverbial good, bad, ugly. And depending on the era of your experience it could be innocent memories of teenage romance, a family reunion or a church barbecue. Or …..maybe a bad (or good) acid trip, a great band, or a fight between those types who had no other way to distinguish themselves except by violence. In fact my last time at Perkerson Park was not a positive one as it seemed to be inhabited by those with no promising job possibilities so they didn’t know where else to go. I mean once you start closing in on 30 you might want to consider making some decisions that don’t involve getting blasted in the Park. And while I can understand the appeal of such actions and wasted plenty of time doing nothing myself – I kind of knew that it was best to move on. © 2017 The Stewart Avenue Kid
And finally here are some more excerpts from the 1970 Perkerson-Little League bulletin:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”
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
“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
This site is dedicated to Stewart Avenue located in South West Atlanta, GA. Just as a simple matter of triage – if the names “Crystal Palace, Perkerson Park, The FirePlace Lounge, The Roman Lantern, Jolly Fox, Purple Onion, 72 Lanes, or FunTown” mean anything to you then you are probably in the right place. I say “probably” because it is likely you have done some Internet searching to determine if there is anyone who remembers these places and, more importantly, has anything interesting to share. It’s okay if you don’t want to admit to your current spouse, friends, or social group that you might have spent some time in these places (ha ha). But at this point I should point out that there are more wholesome references to the Stewart Avenue area which hearken back to a simpler time before the infamous early 70s “white flight” that triggered a general economic decline that has never really stopped. I’m talking about the slot car racing places in the space that became Shakey’s Pizza, or Caruso’s Italian restaurant, the Drive in Theater that became Arlans department store as well as the outdoor Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center that had many cool places, (e.g. Federal Bakery, Dipper Dan Ice Cream, Pet Jungle, and Orange Julius). That was in fact a kinder time that I will handle in another write up though for now let’s start with the grittier aspects of “The Avenue”, which is all anyone seems to remember anyway.
If The Avenue were a person it would be in jail or a mental institution or possibly both. In it’s heyday it was like a charming Mafioso who could appear to be your best friend and make you feel connected, buying you drinks, introducing you to women. But the moment you borrow money, which is what he has been setting you up for all along anyway, and find yourself unable to pay the principal, (let alone “the vig” ), then he will gladly grind you into dust while telling you, “Sorry, but I can’t have people thinking I’m soft”. The Avenue indulged most every vice at apparent low cost but there was always a time for collection, which could be years down the road or, as some found out the hard way, right there on the spot. The only thing consistent about The Avenue was its inconsistency. Beat downs for the smallest of infractions were common although anyone familiar with the territory understood the protocol and codes of behavior so the victims were usually of the flashy newcomer or loud mouth variety. However, the protocols in effect on one day might be completely ignored the next or reshaped in some way so as to rationalize spontaneous violent behavior. Also there were many loud mouths on The Ave it was just that they had taken the time to establish a support system to help protect them in case of conflict.
Let me be clear. I didn’t grow up NEAR Stewart Avenue I grew up ON Stewart Avenue and the difference is obvious to anyone who knows the area although for most people it’s not something one would normally lay claim to as an achievement. That’s okay. At the time most people wanted to protect their reputations and not screw up their chances for advancement that could lead to a predictable straight life though you would still find them at Dee Ford’s on “Nickel Beer Night” being paralytically drunk while listening to Dee work through one of his classics such as “I Want to Do Beautiful Things To You (In The Morning)”. The Avenue was mostly an antidote to boredom but it was easy to take it too far. A person seeking an innocent after work cocktail, (“Let’s go drink one” was a frequently heard invitation), could easily wind up at The Crystal Palace until 5 a.m. and, the next day, have only vague memories of activities that, if true, would require Miranda protection and an experienced criminal attorney should legal inquiries be made. Most people just wanted diversion and generic intoxication and were willing to take the consequences. A painter gets paint on his clothes and an electrician gets shocked so being on The Avenue would inevitably involve the accumulation of embarrassing experiences that could actually be pretty fun but had the potential for full on ugliness. As time went on and The Avenue got meaner the risk was greater especially given that a random drinking mate might have zero investment in the so called “straight life” thus a bloody barroom brawl resulting in a manslaughter charge was not a real problem for them. In some cases it could raise one’s credibility. It was just part of the territory.
Every day after school I rounded the corner of Langston turning left onto Stewart past Sylvan Motors and past the gaggle of hookers blurting out promises of carnal delights every time they saw me. Once I got to know them, (not in the Biblical sense I assure you), I might even stop now and then to exchange some banter as I moved on to work at Brothers Three package store located in a lot next to the 166 overpass just down from Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center. These women would amaze me with their tales of cheapskate johns, unimaginable perversions, and dreams of finding a way out of the life. Despite their sometimes soul crushing stories I always had a feeling of returning to a familiar, safe place – a place where I could be myself and experience life without censorship or as part of a sermon being delivered by a moralizing preacher who later that week would be sampling the pleasures offered by one of those ladies of the evening I encountered each day. (I would know because they would tell me). With the passing of each day it was as if I was being exposed to some cosmic ray that resulted in an aura the color of a neon beer sign that became noticeable to my friends at school. More than one person said I “corrupted” them though I was just a doorman to a demented party and what someone did after gaining access was on them. Early in life I came to understand that there are people who really enjoy being outraged and it’s all just an act. Their reactions of offense are just for show designed to convince themselves that they aren’t responsible for what is going on around them and maybe they aren’t. However, they could always leave the party but few did. In any case many later moved away when their families bolted to the suburbs in the early 70s, which is something my family probably would have done had we been able to afford it. Some of those people did come back for a visit – they had had a serious taste and loved to drop in now and then for some sweet action that could never be found in the suburbs.
Anyway this is just a “hello, is there anyone out there who can relate” kind of post and I’ve seen various Internet discussions on specific locales, such as Stewart Lakewood shopping center or The Southeastern Fair. I’ve contributed to a few of those blogs though I’m interested in more recognition for this part of town as there is a lot more to discuss and document than just the sleaze and party mentality that many associate with the area. I do want to get past that element as lots of families lived there (some still do) and it represented essential life experience for many of us who remained during a pivotal era for both the area in particular and the city of Atlanta itself. Many lessons were learned most of which have largely been ignored by existing city planners and neighborhood revival groups although I’m largely supportive of them and their efforts to bring things back if something like that is possible. I had to laugh when a young, hipster type told me about the “cool house” he had just bought “across from a place you’ve probably never heard about called Perkerson Park”. I asked what his address was and he flipped out when I told him about some graffiti in the basement of his house that a friend of mine and myself had put there back in 1974. I took a chance on assuming that the “artwork” was still there and indeed it was.
For the time being “The Avenue” lies dormant under the “new” name of Metropolitan Avenue which was given by City Hall after some Northside guys experienced a nasty bachelor party run-in with a transsexual hooker and his/her pimp. It was a classic consumer case of “we didn’t get what we paid for” although the “Returns department” issued a “lead refund”. So the City stepped in, closed down the the Alamo Plaza, (once a wholesome motel for families making the trip down to Florida down via Highway 41), repaired some potholes, did some repaving, and applied a new name with little expectation that anyone would buy in to the idea that it would change anything. But it was all that they could really do. I mean by that time it was all on ice anyway and it became like the end of a Japanese monster movie wherein Godzilla would slip down deep into the ocean to cool off until a future seismic event would disturb his slumber at which point he would reemerge hot for action. Will The Avenue ever return ? And if it does will it pick back up where it left off like a binge drinking uncle ready for a new bender or will it perhaps be ready for some much needed rehab ?
Prior to the economic recession the neighborhoods surrounding The Avenue such as Sylvan Hills and Capitol View were slated for gentrification and increased sales activity occurred before it all ground to a halt. Some developer was intrepid enough to erect a condominium complex across from what used to be Thoni’s gas station but the timing was bad and units didn’t sell as expected despite the touted proximity to the Airport and Downtown. Nearby East Point definitely experienced a revival and pockets of West End had some growth. But unfortunately, The Avenue remains an expansive barren automotive killing field where numerous former used car lots once stood. Even the prostitutes and petty thieves are gone – well most of them anyway. You can’t rip people off if there is no one to be ripped off. In any case there is much, much more to say about Stewart Avenue and this is just a start. Please feel free to contribute. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid