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