Last night, I was hanging out in southwest Atlanta with my friend Ben Hodges, who is actually the whitest kid I know. For example, I went over to his house so we could make a night of it going over my proposed edits for a chapter of his memoirs.
I showed up around nine o’clock and Ben had just finished the last beer in his house. As much of a party as words alone can be, I wasn’t going to dig into any of my proposed edits with just water, so Ben suggested we walk down to Reggie’s—a block or so away—to pick up a six-pack.
Ben, as I said, is already the whitest kid I know—like “radium-grade blonde curls, lab mouse pale skin, and eyes so blue, they look like watered down blue razzberry Kool-Aid” level whitest kid I know. Here’s a picture of us. It’s black and white and yet it’s still the right color for everything but his eyes:
But on this particular night, added to his usual “I make Jim Gaffigan look tan” pallor, Ben is also wearing round-rimmed sunglasses. At night.
His usual gold-round-rimmed coke bottles, he explains, are still at the shop being fixed, so he’s wearing these prescription sunglasses just so he can focus on things. And they look about as opaque as 180-gram vinyl—just black as the shadow of death. Ben looks like Powder the albino in a platinum blonde wig, or blind Matt Murdock, missing only the tapping stick sweeping like a metal detector in front of him.
So we’re walking down the sidewalk, and it’s just garbage everywhere. New garbage on top of old garbage all compressed together by the elements and swept to either side of the sidewalk only unintentionally by nothing but who-cares-about-this-town human traffic, trash hanging like mute-colored toilet paper from every untended bush, vine, and tree—like the whole of Capitol View refused to give some vengeful demigod candy on Halloween. And I honestly don’t understand how Ben in his contractor-cleanup-bag sunglasses is navigating around the broken glass, used condoms, and various water-wilted, sun-faded packaging from McFoodStuffz™.
“I bought these sunglasses for the bright sun of the desert!” he exclaims, handing them over to me so I can verify their tenebrity. I peer through the lenses, and they summarily execute the streetlights without a fair trial. My head also immediately starts hurting from my involuntary attempt to resolve the blur of his prescription. It is clear that only science our daughter can save his eyes—or at least she could preserve them in a glass jar at Ripley’s for the amusement of his posterity.
“The desert, Michael!”
So there we are, in southwest Atlanta at night, walking the sidewalks to Reggie’s convenience store—me, the annoyingly just-happy-to-be-here-in-the-thick-of-it suburban kid, engrossed in a riveting conversation with Ben, who looks like the human equivalent of three minus two blind lab mice.
And I’m not really afraid. Ben and I are generally too oblivious to be afraid until after it’s too late. We nonchalantly stroll on past the slumped alcoholic figure of a trench-coated homeless man, shuffling behind his squeaking shopping cart. We’re lost in conversation while we walk past a data cluster of very angry or just very excited—I can’t tell which—black men bellowing at each other across the street while the caption “unintelligible yelling” stretches out at the bottom of my internal HUD.
We walk into Reggie’s and some guy who’s just leaving the place with a brown paper coozie full of malt liquor says, “Here comes Midtown,” under his breath as we pass. We make the pre-fated-by-demography selection of “local artisanal craft beer for urban hipsters” and head to the front to pay. The cheerful smiling clerk, behind the bulletproof glass which indefinitely preserves both her cheerful smiling face and the memory of what kind of neighborhood this is, sells us our beer with a knowing glance, like she could have guessed our selection when we walked through the door.
And there’s a middle-aged black man with long dreadlocks leaning his forearm on the counter in front of the bulletproof glass, looking vaguely at the worn and senile composition tiles that can almost remember a time when they were able to remember that they were once a sickly but clean shade of Kitchen-Aid Aqua Sky with contrast speckles for added visual texture. When we approach, the man in dreadlocks perks up a bit, as if preparing himself for an interaction he plans on initiating.
“You guys live around here?” the man finally says while Ben is paying.
“He does,” I reply, looking to Ben and seeing a tiny twitch of irritation under his glasses. Ben, realizing he must now wade in, tells the guy, “Yeah. I live over on Graham Street.”
“Hi. I’m Al. Good to meet you,” the man says, extending his hand.
We shake his hand, tell him our names, and then Ben and I politely brace for the pitch. I’m really ashamed to say it, because I know it means I profiled someone even though I like to think I’m not a racist, but I’m honestly just sitting there waiting for the “three kids and no money, fought for my country, wife left me, can’t even buy dog food, stranded out of town, just need gas, just want something to eat, not a drug addict, trying to live clean” speech I’ve heard so many times before. I’ve even got “sorry I don’t have any cash” locked and loaded on my tongue.
But his pitch never comes. Instead, I kid you not, he says, “You guys heard about the Turnaround Plan for the Atlanta Public School system?” I was stunned.
“Yeah. I’ve heard of it,” Ben replies after a puzzled second of hesitation. He’s still scanning for the angle, but obviously surprised like me.
And then Al starts explaining, his eyes getting wider and wider with excitement as he goes, about how he’s been going to community meetings, and the APS is not doing right by the community. His daughter is going to this school and she loves it. But they gonna tear that perfectly good school down because they can’t use SPLOST money to fix it. I looked it up, he says over and over again. I looked it up, he says. They can only use SPLOST (and it kind of sounds like splosht when he says it) for new buildings. And they say they care about our kids and they tryin’ to bring the community together. But they just care about new buildings. And they linin’ their pockets, he says. And every word he says is true.
And Ben, who loves Atlanta deeply, who knows the history of every one of her broken-bone-never-healed-right streets, who could easily be a tour guide for all the sunken splendor of its urban decay, hears in Al’s voice a kindred love of this stricken community. And Ben just stops searching for the angle. I can hear the change in his voice. This has become a conversation.
“Yeah. The Atlanta Public School system has been doing this same thing for fifty years,” Ben says with great sadness. And right as he says it, this wizened black security guard who works at the convenience store and looks like he could have fought in the Korean War—walks by and exhales this knowing and affirming sigh like “Don’t I know it.” And then Ben, who is basically Atlanta’s human Google, rattles off a bunch of similar cases I don’t remember the names for where the APS skewered the community. A thing they have been doing over and over and over again, and—to Al and Ben and that security guard’s great disappointment—continue to get away with even though the information is readily available. You can look it up. Or ask Ben.
And I’m looking at Al who cares about his community. He’s always voted yes on SPLOST before because he thought it was for the better of the community which he loves. He says he’s lived there twenty-six years, and he is just waking up to the reality (almost right before my dazzled eyes) that the government really can’t be trusted to care a lick about the community. That the community actually needs to try to take care of itself. That the government pretends to care about him and his family just so he’ll continue to vote them tax money to line their own pockets.
And I can hear that he’s just waking up to it. He has the enthusiasm of a new convert. He doesn’t articulate his beliefs perfectly, but what it lacks in polish it makes up for in zeal, and his sincerity is contagious.
He tells us how he is going to city meetings and talking to the Atlanta school superintendent, Meria Castarphen, and she can only ever answer the questions he asked her at the last meeting. But every meeting he comes with a new question (he’s got a satisfied twinkle in his eye when he unveils that part of his strategy), and she can’t answer it. Because she hasn’t made up a lie to explain it, he explains.
And at this one meeting, he says, he starts the whole thing off like this: “Miss Superintendent, I looked up your name in the dictionary. Castarphen. And, you know what?” And he pauses for effect. “Your name is oddly similar to the word catastrophe—then the air just let out of the room, you know?” he added in a lower quicker voice before resuming in his public tone, “And that’s what this will be if you pass it. A catastrophe.” At that point, he continues retelling, his words are just going in one ear and out the other, so he turns to the crowd and starts talking to them instead. He just turns his back on Castarphen. And he has the data. He looked it up. He’s looked it all up. And people start to listen to him. And now the APS has scheduled a new stop to show up at his school, because they know he’ll be trouble for their plan if they don’t deal with him.
And then after all of that, he finally tells us what he wants from us. Simply: he wants me and Ben to “vote No on the SPLOST.” And at this point, I just love this guy, this community champion leaning on counters in front of bulletproof glass, trying to enlighten his neighbors.
But I’m not sure how his neighbors are receiving all this, or how long Al’s enthusiasm will last when it confronts the apathy and derision so commonly reserved for people whose sincerity is embarrassing to people who have nothing in their lives to get all that excited about. And I wonder how many other people in this community were once like Al—sincerely trying to work for a change—but I just never met them in a convenience store during the brief period before they got all the air let out of them.
I don’t know if Al brings tears to your eyes and a thrill to your heart like he does mine. But I tell you right now, Al is the solution. Atlanta would be a different place if it were filled with people like him. Maybe we wouldn’t have bulldozed neighborhoods and businesses to build our bypasses and our stadiums that we eventually decided to move to my suburbia where I LOL about safely scanning for angles while Al, who cares about his town, leans on countertops and tilts at windmills and Ben, who cares about his town too, whistles in the dark, blind but somehow still surging through the refuse.