Clowns, Jugglers, Fire-Eaters

Since day one, My Darling Atlanta’s motto has been simple: “We love the City. We hate the City. We live in the City.” We know that sometimes it’s easier for us to focus on the hate than to remember why we love our neighborhoods in the first place. That’s why today it brings us great pleasure to publish the following from local novelist, filmmaker and all-around Renaissance man, M.A. Torres. The following is a kind of love letter to East Atlanta Village, composed of equal parts grit and magic, just as it should be. We hope you enjoy it.—Paul Cantrell, Editor-in-Chief, My Darling Atlanta

Clowns, Jugglers, Fire-Eaters

by M.A. Torres

Ah, there’s the sun. Through barren trees. The leaves won’t be back for a while. The trees don’t care what the birds sing. I opt not to walk through Brownwood Park, but I practically live there. I avoid nature because I don’t trust it. The sun and I don’t often see each other on account of my basement apartment, a kind of dungeon. I try to catch up with it when I can. Vitamin D and all.

When I got to Atlanta last year I abandoned the car. It had driven as far as it could go. I’m on my feet a lot.

A transparent somnambulist, through the East Atlanta Village. Down rows of pretty houses, up the street to the main square where Flat Shoals and Glenwood meet.

I don’t miss where I lived or where I worked, or most of everything/everyone I left behind in Florida. It’s too soon to clearly define what it means to live here. Anywhere was better. I keep telling myself that.

What I can tell you is that I like the people here. In fact I enjoy them, which is a lot for an introvert to admit. Meeting them, speaking with them. People tend to be kinder here. Polite. When I talk I don’t have to dumb it down.

As a non-driver it’s easy for me to get around. I walk everywhere or, if needed, take MARTA. I hear complaints against the public transportation system here, but it’s still better than where I used to live. Maybe I’m still in the honeymoon period with the city. We were dating for about ten years before I final uprooted and married EAV. Maybe I’ve finally convinced myself that it’s all worth it. Maybe I was in Florida too long and anywhere else seems that much better.

I hear lot of locals griping but I can’t relate to it: ominous traffic, crime, impending development, MARTA, hipsters, etc. There are great things that I feel are being taken for granted. Maybe it’s those things that attract me, or rather, distract me from what everyone else often complains about. At least you have MARTA; your sidewalks are old and cracked but at least you have sidewalks; and traffic— well, you just have to give yourself a head start to wherever you’re going. You’re luckier than you realize, folks. Live in Tampa for a month and then move back here. You’ll see what I mean.

No regrets about any of the changes I made or any bridges I might have burned to get here. It took adjusting, and I had to reestablish a whole new lifestyle. That’s the part I’m still trying to figure out—was I wise to do this? Is it worth it?

Old routines no longer apply. No more 8-5 job. Don’t have to wear a tie anymore. But even at my laziest or most uninspired moments I am determined to still get up early, shower, shave and get dressed as if I were going to my old job. You have to give a fuck. Make the bed. Take a shower. Shave. Eat healthy. This discipline and daily routine is supposed to reduce depression. Give you a sense of purpose. What I really had to adapt to was being idle. To meander productively.

This article is a combination of excerpts from an incomplete novel and an aborted letter to a friend. I wanted to recount my daily routines now that I found myself retired before my time. This happened by accident. Wasn’t part of my original plan. In an alternate universe I wouldn’t be living in Atlanta, but that’s another story… so here I am. I can admit now that I love Atlanta.

It was my plan to continue my career in real estate maintenance when I relocated. Turns out the job market was much worse than anticipated and that type of work was scarce. And it seemed to have turned to shit the second upon my landing here in January of 2014. In less than a year I have worked several part time jobs; I learned early on that that’s how the local job culture works. Most of my friends have multiple jobs just to make ends meet. It’s a given you’re going to work a lot.

The East Atlanta Village appears to be the only place in Atlanta where the dress code is hobo-casual. I say that respectfully because I wouldn’t want to denigrate all those stylishly dressed folks I see all the time, like the man in the purple suit walking into Joe’s Coffee just a minute ago.

The intersection where Flat Shoals meets Glenwood is the unofficial town square. During the Civil War there stood a Union cannon at this intersection. Apparently it helped to win the Battle of East Atlanta. Now it’s the center of two of the best vantage points in the Village. The easiest thing to do is watch people all day.

At times it’s a ghost town, barren streets and quiet avenues. I’m an outsider in that like many transplants I can’t call this my own. I’m just an observant poseur among longtime villagers. But it’s the fact that I’m made to feel so welcomed. As if the welcoming mantra was, “everyone is welcome to be who they are.”

No tourists today. They mostly come from outside the perimeter anyway. Anti-locals if you will. Absent is the banal, the ordinary. But even with its vacuous streets, something is happening here. An energy that emanates. Ghosts of the Civil Dead? The accumulated vitality of all the active artists and musicians?

You can throw a rock in any direction and hit a drinking establishment or public house. Once upon a time during a moment of delirium a manic pixie leaned over to me and whispered,

“The Village is full of magic.”

I was born in Brooklyn, NY. When I first visited Atlanta I felt an energy reminiscent of how Brooklyn was when I lived there in the 70s and 80s. I immediately fell in love. Having lived here for a year I’m still feeling out the peculiarities—the way everyone runs on their own time, by their own clock; the way the air always smells like someone somewhere is smoking a joint; almost everybody is always hungover, etc. Restaurant servers, baristas and bartenders with degrees in literature. Everyone is a writer or actor waiting in the wings for that break.

There’s a lot to take in on any given daily stroll.

There’s an iron dragon guarding the parking lot at Argosy. Across from the coffee shop, The Village Ogre leans as if defeated. Two or three transients hang out in front of Joe’s Coffee. At least they look like transients. Hobos or hipsters? There’s Homeless Jimmy, looking like the tramp on the cover of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Punk Rock Steve speaks with him, dingy gray hair and mustache, like some bass player left behind when a death metal band blew through town.

A splash page brimming with color and character: the lady with the crazy blue hair; the athletic couple; the sound guys from The EARL; a woman walking a polar bear. There goes the Village shaman, Jason Elliott, singer/guitarist for Spirits and the Melchizedek Children, scarecrow hat, illustrated skin, chain dangling from his back pocket as he scrapes his boots on his way to rehearsal.

This microcosm also includes a homeless woman and her meth-addict boyfriend who say they’re from Florida; we’ve all heard their pitch for spare coins. They’ve been banned from every establishment on the block, spending most of their time running some scheme. But sometimes they get paid to wash windows by some of the business establishments. Sometimes they get free bagels because somebody somewhere in the Village is looking out for someone else. There’s always a person who wants to rent you out a room, sell you a house, get you a job.

A manic pixie under a dirty hair halo floats back and forth on Flat Shoals, often banned from where she goes, excepting the Village dive bar, 529, because everybody is welcome there: the orphaned, the damned, the banned, the insane, the depressed.

Upon entering the nebulous bar, it immediately smells like someone lit a ganja joss stick. The bar is antiquated, with a purgatorial ambience. Every seat occupied, medicine cups overflowing, vintage country or blues or jazz playing overhead.

From the window I watch the diners at Flatiron. There’s a tattoo place above it. Do the cooks and bartenders get paid in tattoos?

No matter which way the compass points, no matter the errand I’m on—post office, bank, eatery— the gravitational pull is towards 529 Village Sports Bar and Lounge.

Beer baron and barkeep extraordinaire Lamont is rich with local history, bold with cynicism, but one of the friendliest, most giving humans I’ve ever met. If you talk to him, be kind, never talk shit about the music he’s playing (which switches from Loretta Lynn to Johnny Cash to Flying Burrito Brothers to Miles Davis to Allman Brothers), but ask him his opinion about Glen Danzig or Peter Murphy. Also, always make sure you have a ride home. Trust me.

The gathered are a misfit cast of comedians, poets, wild-haired musicians; a small coven of women who yell “Feminism!” as if they just discovered the word during their recent studies.

Clowns, jugglers, fire-eaters. I’d like to write that they are, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection,” but mostly it’s a group of working-class eccentrics burning a candle at both ends. The diverse group blends well. We touch elbows.

DJ Durrty Martinez hails from Honduras. He wears a bandana tied around his forehead and a long, leopard-spotted fur coat. The boys from the pizza place jokingly call him “Jemima.” He drowns in 7 & 7. He’s curious about everything, and sometimes the most profound things just seem to float out of him.

The pizza boys smell delicious. Ted Harberjack is the first comedian I ever met in Atlanta. He is also in my documentary, Millions of Poets Changing Shit. He’s 30 going on 165. A beautiful but damaged jester with a deep love for Steely Dan and episodes of Buck Rogers. An amazing raconteur, there is little difference between his conversation or his stage banter. Chris Feenan looks like a strongman left behind by a circus. All mustache and gun show. Kristie is one of the pizza girls, sometimes dresses like Laura from Little House on the Prairie. Her boyfriend makes movies. The first time I met her she was dressed like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde: beret, vintage dress, knee-high boots. I almost expected her to speak French when her mouth opened. We spoke of Italian westerns.

The commonality is everyone’s hunger. Waiting it out. Not hopeful and romantic but holding out and laughing through it. There’s a consensus among some of them that if given an escape pod to elsewhere they’d eject in a heartbeat. I did. And I landed here.

I often stop and wonder if I imagined all of them. Here they are as if sprung from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Suddenly a municipal truck rounds the corner and almost smashes into the building. I’m sure the tree there would have saved us. After all,

“The Village is a magical place.”

I think I was lucid when she said it but it took me a while to figure out what she meant. This isn’t so much a town of great drinking; it’s a place of epic hangovers. I acclimated to these conditions, weathered the overflowing contents of multiple medicine cups. Transitioned, transformed slowly. Right now I write this while sitting inside 529.

In the novel I was writing I described the people in the street as clowns and jugglers.

On the sidewalk if you listen in on the transients they are discussing art and human engineering. There’s a genius lost in there somewhere. His theories are transcendent dreams no one’s ever considered. Ideas that will fade in the ether…

I am bourgeois, the outsider looking in. Or depending what barstool I pick, inside looking out. This is where I wait, to see what the rest of the stay will be like. I step outside. It’s rained and everything gleams like a crystal city. On the corner here, where the cannon stood, the sun sets a particular way. It’s either beautiful or dreary, depending who’s looking.

Suddenly I’m floating. Lifted off my feet. Carried off. Clowns, jugglers, fire-eaters carry me off, pull me back inside.

M.A. Torres has directed several micro-budget films and documentaries. When he is not wrestling with the English language, he is busy photographing all things strange and beautiful. Currently he is going through a blurry black and white phase.

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Atlanta, Film, Georgia

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