Monday, May 4, 2009
Atlanta, Part Two
Time: Late February/Early March 1974
Place: Atlanta, Georgia
“No Quarter” Led Zeppelin
“Penguins in Bondage” Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
I stopped a homeless man and asked him for directions to the Atlanta Union Mission. Someone had once told me that the mission gave homeless people food and a warm bed to sleep in at night. I was a homeless person, which felt liberating. Anything was possible. I didn’t have to go to school. I didn’t have to be in bed by a certain time. I didn’t have a bed, but the mission would fix that problem.
When I saw the line of sad men wearing shabby clothes standing in front of a red brick building, I knew I had found the mission. I went inside and looked for the first person who didn’t look like he’d been sleeping in the same clothes for a year. That and the nametag clued me in that the gentleman with the Coke bottle glasses and slicked back hair worked for the mission.
“I need a place to sleep tonight,” I told him.
“I need to see some form of I.D.,” he said.
I thought about my learner’s permit sitting in the desk drawer back home. I felt like he knew I had left it behind, and now I was in real trouble.
“I don’t have I.D.,” I explained, “I’m only sixteen.”
“You can’t stay here without some kind of identification,” he said firmly and then he turned around and walked away.
I couldn’t fucking believe it. I had to have identification to stay at a mission? Wouldn’t most people who were destitute, homeless, and without any worldly goods would also be without proper identification?
I needed something to cheer me up, so I went to The Strip and visited the head shops. I loved head shops with their black light posters, drug paraphernalia, underground comic books, and lazy strands of patchouli incense smoke in the air.
I had discovered underground comic books at the one and only head shop in my neighborhood. They were so different from the regular comic books I had been collecting. Instead of superheroes, underground comic books had hippies getting high, explicit sex, and gory violence. They were windows to exotic worlds that I wanted to visit.
One of the head shops on The Strip had a stack of underground comic books with titles I had never seen before. You could always find multiple copies of a regular Batman or Spider-man comic book on a drug store spinner rack. With underground comic books there was usually only one copy of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Mr. Natural in a head shop and once someone bought it, it was gone forever. As tempting as that stack was, I didn’t dare buy one. I couldn’t eat a comic book.
The Mothers of Invention concert wasn’t until Friday. I had an entire week to kill. I was afraid to stay in one place because the cops might pick me up for loitering, so I walked and walked. When I got tired of walking, I hitchhiked. Most of the rides came from hippies driving Volkswagen buses who were more than happy to share a joint with a fellow traveler. I never gave a specific destination. I would wait until we drove for a few miles and then I would point to an intersection and say that was where I needed to get out.
During rush hour that first day in town, I was hitchhiking from downtown to the affluent neighborhood Buckhead on the other end of Peachtree Street. A middle-aged white man in an old sedan picked me up. He was very polite. He told me I needed to put on my seatbelt. I remember thinking it was awfully nice of him to be concerned about my safety. I reached for the seatbelt strap but had trouble finding it.
“Here, let me do that for you,” said the nice man.
He reached over me, grabbed the strap, and pulled it around my waist.
“It clicks right in here. It’s important that you be safe.”
Such a nice man I thought. Then the nice man’s hand moved down between my legs and he started to massage my crotch.
I went cold inside. My body shivered. My legs bounced up and down. And my dick got hard.
“Let me find some place where we can have some privacy,” he said.
He drove around back streets. There was a lot of traffic, but the nice man was determined. While he drove with one hand on the wheel, with his other hand he continued to roughly massage my erect penis through my jeans.
I felt helpless to stop him. I could hardly breathe, much less speak. I surmised that he wanted to suck my dick. Nobody had ever done that before. Part of me was scared to death and another part of me couldn’t wait to see what it was like. The homosexual aspect was scary and enticing too.
It was more than I could stand and I came about the same time he found a place to park. He unzipped my jeans, peeled down my long johns and my underwear, and found that he was too late. He leaned back in his seat and sighed. It was a sigh of disappointment. All that trouble for nothing. I felt so ashamed. Ashamed that I was willing to go along, ashamed of my premature ejaculation, ashamed for being in that car in the first place. I zipped up my pants myself.
“Can you give me some money for this?” I asked lamely.
“But we didn’t do anything,” he said.
“Couldn’t you give me something?”
He didn’t look at me. He sat silently and waited for me to leave. My face was red hot when I climbed out of the car. It was the perfect ending to a hellish first day in town.
I spent my first night in town walking from downtown to Buckhead and then back again. I waited until daytime before I hitchhiked again. In the afternoon, I got a ride with two hippies in a van. They were also in town for the Mothers of Invention concert. The driver was thin and had long brown hair tied into a ponytail. The other guy was fat with a tangle of frizzy black hair. We were having a great time driving around, passing joints, and shooting the shit, until the fat guy asked me where I was from.
“Philadelphia,” I said.
I had never been to Philadelphia. I couldn’t even find it on a map. I chose it because it seemed far away enough that no one in Atlanta would know anything about it. The two guys became very excited because they were also from Philadelphia.
“Which neighborhood are you from?” the fat guy asked me.
I tried faking it by asking him to remind what were the names of some of the neighborhoods. He rattled off some names and in desperation, I picked one. The neighborhood I picked just happened to be full of people he knew really well.
“Do you know Craig Grogan or Jill Snyder?” he asked. “Surely you know Bobby Wilkerson if you’re really from Philadelphia.”
I told them that the next intersection was where I needed to get out.
After I was back on the road, I realized the fat guy had done all the talking. The skinny guy was probably the one who decided to pick me up. He probably got all kinds of shit from the fat guy. I decided that I was no longer from Philadelphia.
The days were hard, but the nights were brutal. The temperature would drop and my teeth would start chattering. I asked all the homeless people I ran into if they knew of any shelters specifically for teenage runaways. I always got the same answer. There was one place, but it was full. There was no way they could fit one more runaway into it.
Most of the homeless would suggest I go the Atlanta Union Mission for a free meal and a warm bed. No thank you, that place was fucked up.
One homeless man suggested I try sleeping in Piedmont Park.
“Be careful,” he warned me, “the park is closed at night.”
During all the trips my family took to visit Atlanta, not once had we ever gone by Piedmont Park. I imagined a park surrounded by a high fence that was locked up at closing time. I didn’t know that the park was an open space and that I could have easily hunkered down under a bush.
I walked at night until I became so cold and so exhausted I could barely move. Then, I would go into an empty downtown alley and lie on the hard ground. I would sleep for about an hour before jerking awake, afraid that someone would find me and hurt me if I didn’t keep moving. As the days crawled by, my body became dirtier and my mind grew cloudier. I wanted desperately to find a place inside to clean up and sleep. I don’t remember what I did when I had to shit or pee. I remember one morning sneaking into the Greyhound Bus Station bathroom along with another homeless man. He warned me that if the bus station employees saw us, they’d toss us out.
The hot water from the sink stung my hands as I scrubbed the grime off. The clean toilet was so shiny and white; I had to squint my eyes. The bathroom was so warm, I wanted to curl up in a corner and live there.
Even eating only once a day, my twenty dollars dried up fast. I had even burned through most of the six dollars I had put aside for my concert ticket. I managed to make a few dollars giving out pamphlets at the entrance to Underground Atlanta, a downtown historic site with popular bars and restaurants. I don’t remember what the pamphlets were for; I just remember that nobody wanted them. I couldn’t get paid until I had given them all out. I solved that problem by waiting a few hours and then stuffing all of the pamphlets into a trash bin.
I waited until Friday, the day of the concert, to buy my ticket. I hitchhiked to Lenox Square shopping center because I saw somewhere that tickets were being sold at Rich’s Department Store. I had managed to hang onto four dollars, but I still needed another two dollars and fifty cents. I panhandled shoppers in the mall until I had enough. I should have continued panhandling until I had enough to cover a meal, but I felt so disgusting and dirty and Lenox Square was such a nice place that I wanted to get the hell out of there.
The concert was a midnight show, and since I had nothing but time on my hands, I arrived at the Fox Theatre six hours early. I was the first one there. I curled up at the entrance and napped. I was exhausted and finally I had a place to sit where I didn’t think anyone would run me off.
Around seven o’clock, probably after school and a quick dinner at home, the hardcore Zappa fans began to trickle in. A couple who looked to be in their early twenties befriended me. They were amazed that I didn’t know the title to a single Mothers of Invention song.
“Mark, if you don’t know anything about Frank Zappa and the Mothers, why are you here so early?” asked the girl. “Mark? Mark?”
“Who’s Mark?” I asked.
“You are,” the girl said.
The problem with my alias “Mark Davis” was that I kept forgetting that it was my name.
“Well,” I said, “I always heard that Zappa puts on a great show.”
“That he does,” said the guy, “That he does.”
“Prepare to be amazed,” said the girl.
Sometime around eleven, the theatre doors opened and I joined a wave of people as we rushed to grab the best seats we could. The couple made sure I sat with them. We managed to get fourth row center seats. My seat was easily one of the best seats I’ve ever had at a live event.
After waiting outside for most of the day, the seat felt so comfortable and the temperature was so nice and warm. The only song I remember Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performing was “Penguins in Bondage.” I remembered it because the song had the line, “she’s just like a penguin in bondage, boy.” The way Zappa sang the word boy, pronouncing it boyeee, stuck in my head.
I was so tired from walking day and night and the seat was so comfortable. I couldn’t help but close my eyes for just a minute. The next thing I knew, the couple I was sitting with was waking me up because the concert was over and everybody was leaving. All that trouble for nothing. Everything I went through to get to Atlanta and get to that Zappa concert, and I slept through most of it. I wondered why I had bothered to go to such a stupid place like Atlanta where homeless people had no place to stay without an I.D. and gay men fondled you if you accepted a ride with them.
I lost the couple once I got outside of the theatre. I studied the crowd thinking I might see someone I knew from Chattanooga. Some friends had mentioned that they might drive down for the show. I later found out that they had indeed done that, but I didn’t see them. If I had, I probably would have gone home with them.
I left the theatre and continued my march up and down Peachtree Street. With the concert over, I had no reason to stay in Atlanta. I considered moving on to New Orleans or maybe even hitchhiking to California. Lack of sleep made it hard to formulate any long-term decisions. I kept marching because I couldn’t get myself to do anything else.
End of Part Two