I Like These…

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them… Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

“A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.”
Mahatma Gandhi

“I’m gonna put a curse on you and all your kids will be born completely naked.”
-Jimi Hendrix

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
-Marianne Williamson

“When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why are they poor, they called me a communist.”
-Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.
Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
-Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”

“The powers in charge keep us in a perpetual state of fear, keep us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant sums demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, never to have been quite real.”
-General Douglas MacArthur

If we don’t stop the Reds in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they will be in San Francisco.”                                                                                        -US President Lyndon Johnson

“If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate
greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”                                               -Mahatma Ghandhi

“If you took all the fools out of the Legislature, it wouldn’t be a
representative body anymore.”                                                                                                         -State Senator Carl Parker of Texas

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Mind-Changing Time In Georgia

Originally published in Flagpole Magazine
Remembering The End Of Racial Segregation

When I started school outside Atlanta, I had some of the very same teachers who had taught my father years before, in the same oiled-floor buildings. Jonesboro was a small town with a big new highway, and was quickly “developing.” Just like everywhere else in the South, the only blacks at my school were janitors or lunchroom workers. Whites and blacks had never attended school together in the South before 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal.

Blacks were largely a servant class when they intersected with the white world. Not only were the schools separate; there were separate “colored” restrooms, waiting rooms, even separate entrances to some buildings. The facilities for blacks were never as well maintained as the ones for whites, it seemed. Better-off whites hired black women as household “maids” and often entrusted them to help raise white children like myself. Just like white homes, black homes in Jonesboro ran from squalid to neat, but none were grand.

My father had a political and social sense that seemed to me shrewd and innate. He could have followed some of his family into banking, but he wanted to farm. Some of Jonesboro’s most solid citizens, he said, lived on Mill Street – all black-owned homes.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision did not make many Southern whites happy, for they had been raised with the “nigger” as convenient target or scapegoat for meanness, diversion or the frustrations of life. Among many whites, insulting and berating blacks – not usually outright in their presence – was second nature. For white children (and many adults) it was the insult for all occasions: “you dirty nigger,” “you nigger-lover.” This was playground talk when I grew up. (I was taught never to use that word; “Negro” or “colored” were the proper terms.)

“Martinlutherking” – everybody said his name like one word, but with very different feeling. Blacks absolutely trusted him, even revered him, while many whites reviled, mocked and feared him and his movement. He was going too far, too fast, they would say. “You can’t legislate morality,” they’d say. “States’ rights!” Signs in some restaurants read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

Douglas was bigger than me, a year ahead in school, dark-eyed, unctuous; I didn’t know him well, but at high school one day he said teasingly the Klan had burned a cross on my lawn. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but later that day mentioned it to my dad.

“How did he know?” was his wry reply. We went to the edge of our yard where my father pointed out a charred figure in the grass. It didn’t look like anything at all to me; perhaps some gasoline had been burned on the ground. Of course my father knew who these people were; he grew up when everyone in the county knew everybody else. If he was afraid of them, I never sensed it; I think he knew them too well for that.

The Law

It was a tense time. After the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, the South was under federal pressure to end racial segregation in its public schools. Some state legislators were threatening to close down the schools rather than integrate them. (Public schools were closed for a time in both Alabama and Mississippi.) Defending segregation was a politically popular stance, taken by Alabama’s governor George Wallace (who apologized years later) and Georgia’s Senator Herman Talmadge, among many other Southern politicians. Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver was more moderate. Many sensible whites recognized the rightness of the Supreme Court’s decision, yet dreaded the difficulties they knew it would bring.

Georgia law required closing any school that integrated the races. Under federal pressure, Governor Vandiver proposed to change that law, but still make closing schools (rather than integrating them) a local option. Such a loophole made the bitter pill more acceptable to the segregationists. Ultimately, Georgia’s legislators would vote to accept integration rather than to close any schools. But first they created the Sibley Commission, which went around the state to hear from the public. The commission’s purpose may have been more to defuse public sentiment than to really decide anything – and to cover the backsides of the legislators who “were elected on a pledge to maintain segregated schools at all costs,” as the resolution that established the commission said. (After all, it said, “there has been ingrained forever in the hearts and minds of all Georgians the custom of segregation of the races in the schools of the state” a custom that “still meets with the virtually unanimous approval of all but a few persons of each race.”)

Speaking out for keeping the schools open was controversial. The state PTA declined to take a stand. Sympathetic business people were afraid they’d lose customers if they spoke out. Some people were supportive, but wouldn’t take a public stand for fear of losing their jobs. My parents reasoned that their livelihood – raising cattle – wasn’t affected by public opinion. They formed a local chapter of a state group – HOPE, for “Help Our Public Education” – to encourage citizens to speak before the Sibley Commission.

The Klan

The local Ku Klux Klan, no doubt believing that things could fall either way, paid close attention to HOPE’s activities, which mostly consisted of sponsoring information meetings. Klansmen (not in costume) came to some of the meetings and tried to disrupt or outvote those present. When the Sibley Commission came to Clayton County, Klansmen were lining the exit stairs after the hearing. One HOPE insider later turned out to be a Klan informant. That was all right: the Klan itself had been infiltrated by the county police, as the police chief assured my father. My parents took comfort in the fact that the local police were not Klan-dominated, as they were in some places.

Jonesboro was a small town, but not a backwater. It was on the railroad and the main highway to Florida, and had played roles in the twin epics of the Civil War and Gone With the Wind. While the place had no apparent history of racial violence, it seemed to be something of a center for Klan activity.

“I kind of felt like they tried to use intimidation more than violence,” remembered Philo McKinnon, a Presbyterian minister active in HOPE who was interviewed years later by my mother. “I tried to treat everybody alike,” he said. “If I met a Klan member and knew he was a Klan member, I tried to treat him like everybody else… They tried to intimidate you in different ways rather than really confront you. I felt like if you stood your ground, you’d get along all right.”

McKinnon never had a cross burned in his yard, but most HOPE members did. My parents had several. Following one information program at a PTA meeting, 19 crosses were burned in the county, McKinnon said. One day, my mother was shouldered sharply in the grocery store by a woman whom she didn’t recognize. “Communist!” the woman hissed. “Nigger-lover!”

After HOPE’s first public meeting, my parents were closing up the Presbyterian church where the meeting was held, when a dozen Klansmen appeared outside, one in full costume. A group of them surrounded my parents’ car. My mother is not sure if the little church didn’t have a phone, or they just never thought about calling local police. But she was terrified, and they might have stayed at the church except for their children, who were at home with a babysitter. They headed for the car.

“I remember looking at the KKK,” my mother later wrote, “and thinking, ‘All right, you Klansmen, you are the ones who have talked so much about how you are the protectors of Southern Womanhood and how you always protect Southern ladies from danger. Well, I’ll show you who’s a Southern Lady!'” She reached into her purse, and pulled out “the white gloves that women in the 1950s always carried. I pull on my white gloves, raise my head up in the air, and walk straight toward the KKK just as if I can’t see them.” The Klansmen moved aside.

“The very next night,” my mother wrote, “the Klan came back and burned our first cross by the driveway right in front of our house.” The Klan may have been right to fear the seemingly innocuous activities of the HOPE group. “It swayed public opinion,” according to my mother.

“Because of meetings like this, things began to kind of turn around,” agreed Rev. McKinnon.

The Sibley Commission heard testimony from 1600 white citizens and 200 black citizens. “A three-to-two majority of the witnesses favored maintaining segregation even at the cost of abolishing public schools,” the Commission’s report said. The majority hadn’t favored keeping the schools open, but neither was it a shutout. Many public officials wanted to save the schools, and they could now point to significant public support for their position.

The alternative that had been put forth to integrating Georgia’s schools was for the state to finance privately run, segregated schools. That didn’t happen, but privately financed “segregation academies” sprang up anyway. Until that time, private schools were almost unknown in the South.

In the end, as in most other places, the integration of Jonesboro Senior High by two brave black students was anticlimactic. The new students were shunned by most, but they were not attacked. I knew the parents of certain of my friends to be staunch segregationists – one even talked of moving to South Africa where apartheid still ruled – but mostly their own children were less hostile than they were.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Even Hippies Have To Eat

Originally published in Flagpole Magazine

When The El Dorado Was The Only Place To Go For Fresh Food

My great-grandfather is supposed to have said that he’d just as soon open his mouth and let the sun shine down his throat as to eat white bread. I feel the same way, and did 30 years ago when “Good Food,” AKA the hippie-run Son House Restaurant in an old Broad Street filling station, was the only place in Athens that didn’t serve white bread and iceberg lettuce – or, for that matter, meat.

I was newly graduated from UGA and had grown to like this “cow town with a university.” I wasn’t exactly on a career track – not a fast one, anyhow. I was finding I liked doing things with my hands – working on my car – things I’d never done before. In those days you could work a part-time job and live in a $40-a-month room in a houseful of students with a shared refrigerator out in the hall. There were not nearly as many restaurants in Athens then, and the food tended toward “meat-and-two” vegetables plates – inexpensive but unremarkable. Student types could eat cheap at Alice’s on Thomas Street and admire the peculiar decor, including a chair and table – complete with place settings – bolted upside down to the ceiling. There was also Magnolia Terrace, a boarding-house where you joined others at a common table and passed the food around. But these places mostly served canned institutional food – nothing fresh but the cornbread. As for “better” restaurants, there almost weren’t any in Athens. You could eat Mexican, Chinese, steak or barbecue.

In The Day

Things were as crazy then as now: there was a crazy war going on, racial attitudes were tense, most white people (at least in the South) were out-and-out racists, but old attitudes were dying. Hard. The hippies wanted none of it. Actually “freaks” was what we called ourselves.

There was a sort of culture war between the old guard and the longhairs, and there wasn’t much middle ground. We were mostly middle-class kids with no real worries, but had enough sense – whatever our parents might think – not to buy into the skin color thing. Or the war on drugs (for better or worse). Or the war on sex. Or the white bread.

When the tiny Son House Restaurant opened (named after the blues singer), there were fresh flowers on every table, and the bread was home-baked. All the vegetables were fresh. The place had Athens’ best jukebox selection, Margaret Keister remembers, with all kinds of music.

Keister ran the place along with Carol Babb, Karen Hannon and Pam James. To buy feta cheese, somebody had to drive to Atlanta – you couldn’t buy it in Athens. (Supermarkets scarcely sold bread that wasn’t white; when they started to sell yogurt and herb teas, that seemed like a revolution.) The Son House closed after nine months because the building’s owner had other plans. But the tiny hippie restaurant had given me an idea.

Everybody thinks he wants to start a restaurant. What fun it will be; our friends will come! But it is a complicated, labor-intensive business that for the most part pays poorly (which is why restaurant folks deserve your tips).

In those days, some of us thought we could do anything. That would be about half right. But at 25, how do you know which half? After Son House closed, I asked Margaret if she wanted to start another restaurant. She didn’t, but Pam James did. My father gave me $10,000 to put into it. Pam and I drew up a partnership agreement – she would oversee food preparation, I would manage – and we began looking for a place. I’d heard that a restaurant’s location has a lot to do with its success.

Beginnings…

Downtown Athens was thriving then. This was before the mall took away the bigger stores. Rents weren’t cheap. Over at “Hot Corner” – Washington Street at Hull – a young Alabaman named Johnny Bond had bought the old Morton Building, hoping eventually to sell it to the county or to a historical group (as in time he did). Meanwhile, he kept collecting rents from the dentist, the pool hall and the barber and beauty shops in the four-story building. And he was looking for a tenant for the old drugstore space on the corner.

It was a building with a history. “Pink” Morton had been an Athens newspaper publisher and builder who owned two dozen local buildings and was a delegate to the 1896 Republican convention, according to James K. Reap’s history of Athens. Inside the building, entirely above the second floor, was an old vaudeville theater. Bessie Smith once sang there, and Louie Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell and Duke Ellington, as well as local talent, had performed. The theater was said to possess excellent acoustics. By the 1930s vaudeville had subsided, and the Morton began showing movies – all for black audiences. Then, in the ’50s, a small projection-room fire closed the theater.

“It’s a good business corner,” people told us. Hot Corner had been, well, a hot corner for businesses (mostly black-owned) for many years. It was a little off the beaten track, but not far. The old drugstore had most recently been the “El Dorado Tavern.” It was painted completely black inside: the walls and the windows, too. It needed a lot of work, and the landlord wasn’t spending. But it had a solid terrazzo floor, high ceilings of pressed tin, an ancient ceiling fan and huge plate-glass windows.

Yes, we could see a restaurant there – just as soon as the wiring was replaced, the plumbing fixed, plaster scraped, tables built, benches, stoves, shelves, pots, licenses, inspections, tax forms…

We worked out a lease with the owner and got to work. The place generated a lot of interest. People stopped by to help on the promise of payment in meals once we opened, except for a couple of plumbers and electricians who weren’t that interested in vegetarian food.

We were calling the place by the name of the old tavern, “the El Dorado.” Nobody came up with a better name, so we just called the restaurant that, too. (My suggestion, “The Trough,” was discouraged by others.) It was about this time that Smokey Joe showed up – a scruffy giant with an Irish accent who told us hobo stories of his life. One night I let Joe sleep in the back room where food and beer were stored for opening day. Joe went through a good bit of the Budweiser and was out like a light in the morning. Later, sober, he thoughtfully advised me against leaving beer and hoboes together.

It Happens

Our landlord entrusted me with the key to the old theater. I chased the pigeons out and tried to fix the roof. I loved to show people the dusty theater, to unlock those nondescript doors in a rundown hallway and stand back as they saw it for the first time – this hometown opera house, three stories high with balconies all around, where Bessie Smith once sang without a mike.

Inside the old drugstore-tavern we put up barnwood siding against the plaster walls, and repainted inside and out. It was a bright and pleasant space. The rusted-out tin ceiling had to be replaced with sheetrock, but Athens artisan Paul Chew added a colorful mural of spiraling galaxies. Charlie Gard’ner contributed a painting of avatar Meher Baba, an icon of the era: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

We built tables from lumber and adapted some old church pews. We covered the bathroom walls with pictures from old magazines. We bought house plants at yard sales. After a good deal of scraping, we found colored panes above the blacked-out windows. To make a long story short, it all got done (not quickly).

But it was only after the huge tractor-trailer from “Tree of Life,” a Florida wholesaler, pulled up to deliver our first food order that I really felt we had a restaurant. We put up a chalkboard menu, and the people who’d helped us build became wage-earning waiters (or “waitroids”) and cooks. We opened for lunch on April 9, 1975.

My restaurant training consisted of working at Pizza Hut. If I had gone to business school, I’d probably have been told that business startups need enough money to get through the first year. By opening day, we had spent it all.

My strategy was to run a clean, not-too-weird place that would appeal not just to hippies. It worked. On day two, we had people standing in line to be seated. It was a little bit like a miracle. We got a mix of students and hippies, business- and townspeople.

Although neither Pam nor I were confirmed vegetarians, we served no meat; given the variety of casseroles, quiches and stir-fries one could manage without it: who would miss it?

I wanted to put tables on the sidewalk; such a thing was unknown in Athens then. We went before the city council, but unfortunately I had failed to lay any groundwork in advance, and we were turned down. But when we dressed up the sidewalk with a tree in a concrete-pipe planter, the city said nothing.

Sound tracks…

The “Eldo” was never without music on the stereo – the well-remembered (and sometimes best forgotten) music of the time: the Mamas and Papas, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, The Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Joplin, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf, Hot Tuna, the Dead, the Allman Brothers. For me, hearing Steppenwolf brings back the whole crazy era: “like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild,” and I am sure I’ll never get the Moody Blues out of my head.

The friendly Italian who picked up our trash for the city was Bob Russo. He was going to start his own restaurant, he told us, and eventually he started several. Deadpan troubadour Fred Schneider waited tables. His party band often practiced in the back while we cleaned up the restaurant at night. The B-52s, they called themselves. Brown’s Guide to Georgia wrote us up as a “hippie hut with a psychedelic ceiling.” The food was inexpensive and good, with different dishes every day (only brown rice and collards were the same, and the “through the garden” salad).

We bought local produce when we could get it, and sent our compost scraps back to the farm. Poree Sen Gupta, a native of India, came in to prepare authentic curries.

We kept a jar of homemade cookies by the checkout. It always amazed me that people would buy cookies until there were only two or three left in the jar, but no one would buy the last few cookies. The trick, of course, was to keep the jar filled.

The place paid for itself – barely – from the first day. Making money wasn’t one of our chief aims, fortunately. In retrospect we might have looked more toward the long term, raised our prices sooner, hired fewer part-time people. But the place gave people jobs and survived those early, interesting years. There must have been some wind at our backs, or maybe, as Fred later said about the success of “the B’s,” we were at the right place at the right time.

When I spoke to Pam about those days, we both recalled the problems we’d had. But we also realized that other people don’t remember those problems: they just enjoyed the place. Athens photographer (and vegetarian) Gary Crider remembers it as “the hub of my life for a long time. All my romances started there.” It attracted interesting people, he said, and the crowded tables and benches made it easy to meet people. And vegetarian food “was really hard to find back in those days.”

Jay Widener took a break from his landscaping work to serve as dining room manager and “just had a ball working there,” he now says. Whenever he thought the cooks had produced the best dish yet, it would be surpassed, he remembers. And it was a place where “you could be proud of what you were doing.”

“It wasn’t a restaurant, it was a lifestyle,” agrees Rick “the Printer” Hawkins, who printed menus and order tickets in exchange for food, and became a vegetarian under the place’s influence. “The El Dorado became sort of my coffee house,” Rick remembers. “I stopped in for at least two meals a day for probably more than 10 years.”

As manager, I took on too many jobs that I should have delegated and left after a few intense years. Pam and a third partner, Bill Walsh, changed the name to the Bluebird, and had to find a new location when the county bought and renovated the building. Eventually, all the original partners sold out, but the restaurant endured until 2009(?)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment