Thursday, May 7, 2009

Atlanta, Part Three

Time: Late February/Early March 1974
Place: Atlanta, Georgia

Background music:
“Beware of Darkness” George Harrison
“One Too Many Mornings” Bob Dylan

In the twilight hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, I got a ride from a young trendy guy driving a red sports car. I asked him if he knew of any place where I could crash for the night.

“There’s a bar called ‘The One.’ It’s a gay bar,” he said, “I could give you twenty dollars and you could go in there and maybe make friends with someone who would take you home for the night. You might find it a interesting new experience.”

I had noticed the bar he was talking about on my endless Peachtree Street marches. I thought back to my experience the week before, in the car with the nice man who had adjusted my seat belt. I remembered his disappointed sigh.

“No, I don’t think your plan would work for me,” I said, “You can drop me off at the next light.”

All I wanted was a warm place to sleep, even if it was only for one night. My cousin Abby lived in Atlanta. She was an elementary school teacher. I looked her name up in the phone book and called her late Monday afternoon. She had just come home from work.

“I’m just passing through,” I told her, “I’m on my way to New Orleans. For Mardi Gras. Dad knows I’m doing this. He’s totally cool with me taking the week off from school.”

Abby knew Dad would never have let me take a week off from school. Abby also knew Mardi Gras had just ended. She said I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted.

Abby lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Her roommate was also a teacher. Their apartment was in a complex on Buford Highway. There were miles of apartment complexes on Buford Highway. The apartment complexes all looked the same and had names like Tempo Majestic, Epic Gardens, Regency Woods I and II, and Monaco Station. Many of the residents were upwardly mobile Jewish singles.

“There are so many Jews living here,” Abby explained, “that we’ve nicknamed it ‘Jewford Highway.’”

Abby’s apartment was clean, compact and generically stylish. Potpourri blanketed the air. She cooked a nice pasta dinner. She pointed out the jar of fruit she and her roommate were fermenting into something sweet and alcoholic.

That night I slept on the couch. In the morning, Abby and her roommate left early because they had kids to teach. Abby gave me instructions on how to lock up the house if I decided to go out, and about the time they would be home to let me back in.

Once I was alone in the apartment, I took a scalding hot shower and made myself a large breakfast. I left a note thanking her for everything and that I was heading on to New Orleans. I locked the door as Abby had instructed and headed back to the streets. It wasn’t safe to hang around. I was sure that Abby was going to call my parents, if she hadn’t already. And I didn’t want to abuse her hospitality.

A few days later, I was on a downtown street at about three in the morning. I was resting against a street lamp when an expensive car drove past me, turned the corner and parked. It was obvious the driver of the car was waiting for me. I realized that the way I was leaning on the street lamp, with one leg raised, was exactly the way the stereotypical hooker stands in cartoons I had seen in men’s magazines.

I had nothing to lose, so I got into the car. The driver was a pudgy bald-headed man with round glasses. He was wearing a polyester suit. He was smug and effeminate.

“Well?” he asked.

“I just want a place to sleep,” I said. The desperation in my voice made me feel foolish.

“I know a place you could stay,” he said, brushing invisible dust off his pants, “It’s run by a man everybody calls Uncle Rooney. Now, Uncle Rooney expects certain favors from his guests. He is very strict about this. Are you willing to grant Uncle Rooney the kinds of favors he might be asking of you?”

It wasn’t a matter of willing or unwilling, I felt incapable of doing any of the things Uncle Rooney might want me to do. I felt helpless and lost. I got out of the car and walked away.

After wandering around downtown for almost two weeks, I found a temporary employment agency. If I had spotted it the first day I was there, my time in Atlanta would have been much easier. The agency was an old storefront with one huge open room, a desk by the back wall, and a row of chairs against a side wall. They hired men to do simple labor jobs and paid them at the end of the day. If you wanted work, you had to get there at the crack of dawn. I discovered the place in the afternoon, so I hung around an alley across the street until they opened the next morning.

They had me fill out some forms. An hour later, I joined a group of men in a van that took us to Atlanta’s growing suburbs. We were taken to a construction site where rows of wooden skeletons that would soon be upper middle class homes lined muddy lanes. Our job was to clean up messes left by the building crews.

We stacked leftover two by fours, gathered errant nails, and stuffed garbage into bags. At noon, we were fed sandwiches and sodas. At the end of the day, we were herded, dusty and tired, back into the van.

On the ride back, the men talked about how they were going to spend their money. Most planned to drink their earnings, others had food on their minds. I decided to spend my pay on a bus ticket back home to Chattanooga.

If Dad gave me a hard time for coming home, I would point out that I had proved that I was capable of living on my own. What I wouldn’t point out was that I could see now that was no future for me out here. I had to go back. I was too tired to fight anymore.

I slept as best I could on the bus ride to Chattanooga. When I arrived it was early Friday night. I still wasn’t quite ready to go home, so I called my friend Tim. He agreed to let me stay at his house that night.

Tim arrived at the bus station with his dad. I was surprised to see Tim’s dad since Tim had his own car. I would have preferred it if Tim had come alone, but I was asking to stay in their house. His dad didn’t ask me any questions about why I ran away or how to get in touch with my family. He only asked me if I was hungry.

Tim had bunk beds in his room. He gave me the lower bunk and he took the upper bunk. I told him about most of my travels on the streets of Atlanta. He was mainly interested in the Mothers of Invention concert because he was a huge Frank Zappa fan. I lied and said it was the best concert I had ever seen.

“Which songs did he play?” Tim asked.

“I can’t remember them all,” I said, “but ‘Penguins in Bondage’ was outstanding.”

Saturday afternoon, Tim drove me home. I asked him not to drop me off at the front door. I got out two blocks away and walked through neighbors’ yards to the house. I opened the front door as quietly as I could. Luckily, I made it to my room without anybody seeing me. I stripped down to my long underwear, got under the covers of my bed, and went to sleep.

I didn’t wake up until Monday morning. A few times I lifted my head and thought about waking up, but then fatigue drove my head back into my pillow. I heard the bedroom door open a few times and hushed voices outside the room, but no one came in to disturb me. When I finally woke up, I took a shower, ate breakfast and went back to school.

The memory of what my parents said to me about disappearing for two weeks is long gone. I know they didn’t say much. My parents and I avoided direct confrontation with each other, unless it was about something too big to ignore. I went back to my normal routine as though I had never left.

My big brother told me that when I was gone, Dad had decided to let it slide, my running away and missing school, because I needed to blow off some steam. That led me to believe that Dad knew that I was upset and was as unwilling or unable to talk about my problems as I was. We both found it easier to run away than to confront each other.

The End

(I drew this when I was in grade school. The Generation Gap was big news back then.)

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