When the musical of my life is written and performed there will be a massive, sour-faced chorus all singing “why don’t you have your phone?, oh, where is your phone? oh why why can’t you keep your phone?”. The chorus will be channeling my family, friends and work colleagues who are all frustrated by my ability to have my phone both functioning and with me. The story that follows will make this inner circle roll their eyes and click their tongues.
My phone is charged, but languishes at the lost and found in Atlanta’s airport. I knew before I disembarked ( I refuse to say deplaned) that I had mislaid it, but the crew were keen to hurry me off the flight, lest I slowed the twenty minute turnaround. They advised me to report my loss at the Delta desk. I did, and by the time I arrived at my midtown hotel, the pilot (well, he said he was the pilot) had emailed me to say he had the phone and that it would be waiting for me at the airport when I return for my return flight. It is only on Lifetime or in porn movies that the dashing man with the braided epaulets turns up in the hotel lobby…
I mention the missing phone so you can begin to understand the particular challenges I faced this weekend in my endeavor to get to know Atlanta. But in fact I think that my experience would have been not much different with on-the-road access to the internet and to local cab companies.
I always remember too late that people need cars if they are to explore American cities. The distances are just too great, the space is just too huge. Of course, if you want to see the really famous stuff, you can hop on and hop off the tour bus, but here in ATL the Coca Cola HQ, the CNN HQ and the Jimmy Carter Library hold little attraction for me. I don’t do soda, I dislike both rolling news and Piers Morgan, and I can’t get past the feeling that Jimmy Carter looks like a crumpled English brown paper bag (as opposed to American brown paper, which is almost impossible to crumple). My hotel is within walking distance of the Margaret Mitchell house, but I didn’t choose to go there. I haven’t read the book.
In Atlanta, I decided, I would ignore the big stuff and instead explore some of the less fashionable neighborhoods, shopping local and small, and meeting people along the way. I would take the advice I always give to Americans visiting Ireland: don’t try to cover too much ground. Don’t dash from place to place, but instead take time to sit and talk to people.
I did some internet research before leaving the hotel at about 4pm. Decatur Square promised two hundred shops and restaurants and was described as eclectic. I got a cab. It cost $20 and when I got there, most of the shops had gone and those that were left weren’t all that interesting. A good cook store, a boutique full of tiny clothing items and a gift store with perhaps a little too much clutter for dogs. I had seen all there was to see in about 35 minutes and, without the smart phone, I had no way of knowing if more places of interest lay just a block or two away. My inner Irish person kicked in, and so I immediately looked for a bar.
At Farm Burger their promise is quality beef and their servers wear t-shirts branded “100% grassfed.” (I nearly bought one for Hansel, but thought better of it–doesn’t pay to advertise that sort of thing in downtown Washington DC.)–but they have all sorts of other snacks available for just $3 each. I ordered Pozole–a cup of spicy stew with pig cheeks, hominy, strips of crunchy tortilla and topped with cilantro. I also ordered some deep fried chicken livers. Four huge ones for another three dollars. I had Sauvignon Blanc served in a 1/2 pint milk bottle which served as a carafe. $12–half the price of similar quality in DC.
All the while, people came and went and I chatted to them. There was a woman of Samoan descent who was waiting for her mother and polished off some chicken livers and a beer or two as she sat at the bar. Lisa the waitress (a Sondheimesque voice from a past life strikes up a warning note: ” If they’re getting paid they’re not your friend. You can’t claim them as a friend. They’re working, really working, only working in this bar”) filled me in on the history of the restaurant and had the kitchen crew whip me up a salad of marinated beets and locally produced Decimal Place goat’s cheese. Delicious.
By this time Lisa and I had worked out that there was no easy way for me to get back to my hotel. Everyone in Atlanta has a car and thus in a suburb like Decatur Square there are no cabs to be found. I had no phone, so Lisa called me a car. “He’ll be 30 minutes” she said “Have another glass of wine”.
This morning, I did some more research and decided that both Little Five Points and Five Points might be worth a visit, perhaps also with a trip to the Art museum which was today offering free entrance to those with Bank of America cards. At last, a benefit I could wring from my financial institution.
I took a cab to Little Five Points, continuing my quest for eccentric Atlanta. There was slightly more in this neighborhood than in Decatur square but all of it was devoted to meeting the needs of ATL’s potheads–lots of hookahs, and glass bowl pipes and items commemorating Bob Marley. On one door, a fly poster urged attendance at a march to legalize marajuana. I wonder how many got it together to show up? Men with beards and women with torn jeans and torn noses sat on the baking pavement and stroked their scuzzy dogs.
There were lots of vintage clothes shops with beautiful window displays and gorgeous rows of dresses sorted by color, not size or style. All vintage shops should adopt the strategy of Clothing Warehouse in order to avoid the random, ragbag look of thrift stores.
It is fun to shop based on complexion, not circumference. I purused the racks of teal and green and rust, but I am big in the twenty first century and so feel like a Gulliver when shopping the past.
It was 86 degrees. I stepped into the cool darkness of the Vortex, a bar famous for its burgers and massive beer list. I had a Sweetwater Pale Ale, brewed locally, and struck up a conversation with a smoker at the bar. (Smoking is disallowed in most restaurants in Atlanta, but is permitted where no children are served. The Vortex is distinctly Goth and not the sort of place that serves chicken nuggets, or offers crayons.). The smoker had ordered the Sunday special–a Monte Cristo sandwich. This is a sandwich of ham and cream cheese and maybe mushrooms in challah bread (or similar). It is battered, deep fried and served with a side of raspberry jam. My new friend let me try some of his. Sweet, savory, crunchy, fabulous and filling. We also had some sweet potato fries with pepperberry sauce. TDF.
I had spotted a bus stop and so decided to take a chance that the route would take me somewhere interesting. We passed a hair salon–Sweetwater, like the brewery– which recently survived a makeover from Bravo’s Tabatha Coffey. Lucky Atlanta, not only does it boast its own Housewives, but it also earned a visit from cable tv’s queen of cutting remarks. The bus passed large houses on wooded lots. Would I catch a glimpse of Chateau Sheree, or bump into Kim and the girls walking KJ? No such luck.
At the front of the bus, a square metal door at shoulder level just behind the driver swung open into the aisle and banged shut every time the bus rolled. It side swiped more than one boarding passenger. A couple of passengers tried to close it, but the latch was broken. A cover masking the bus electrics clattered from roof height at the back of the bus. It fell with a terrible clamor, hitting an asian woman hard. She simply got up and moved, leaving the metal the size of an aircraft bin cover on the floor of the bus. The driver ignored all these distractions and bashed on. Opposite me, a sweaty bearded man with two bibles and a plaid shirt fulminated about the bus company’s decision to invest in 30 new handblowers for the corporate toilets, rather than in bus maintenance. No one made eye contact with him.
I ended up unmaimed at a MARTA station and took the metro to Five Points in downtown Atlanta. The neighborhood was a complete bust. There were signs to Underground Atlanta, a mall that allows shoppers to escape the heat of a Georgia afternoon, but none of the shops seemed very interesting to me–there was a big emphasis on baseball caps. I was close to Olympic park and not all that far from my hotel in mid-town. The bus business had taken a long time and so it was too late to go to the Art Museum. I decided to walk in the direction of my room and hope for something interesting along the way. Oddly, very high end brands all platinum and white jostled to be noticed between the Hampton Courts and Quality Inns and Fairfield Suites.There were hotels everywhere, but, on a Sunday, no-one around. Perhaps the hotels were built for the 1996 Olympics and now serve conference attendees during the week? Certainly, this part of the city is quiet at weekends. There were parking lots as far as the eye could see. Perhaps they too are full to bursting during the week but today it looked as though the city has more square footage than it has people paying rent–parking lots are just space no-one has paid to build on yet. There was hot sun, hot concrete, and a few men talking to themselves while sitting rubbing sore, bare feet or eating from styrofoam boxes. I was hobbling too by this time and noticed that quite a bit of my pepperberry sauce had made it to the front of my shirt. I fitted right in.
I am sorry I didn’t make it to the Art Museum or the Design Museum and maybe I should have taken an MLK tour. If I’d had my phone I would have have been able to check out everything on offer in my chosen locations, and I would have saved both time and shoe leather. I’d have pictures of the Monte Cristo.