I’m living in Athens, Georgia, thinking about ghosts and the continuity of time. It’s hard to be in this town without feeling a kind of historical gravity pulling at your shoes. Around every corner, vestiges of the past are waiting: a civil war that erupted more than a century ago, a rock music scene that erupted more than a decade ago. What once happened persists, but it doesn’t stay the same. A ghost is not what it used to be. Events and ideas are reshaped, revised, repackaged. The past is what the present wants it to be.
They say General Sherman spared this town as a favor to an old friend. Most of the South, including Atlanta, wasn’t so lucky, but that’s an old story. Now antebellum architecture still stands here as a document, a frosted memory, and many of the grandest mansions have become University of Georgia fraternities and sororities. Imagine Athens at the end of the war, an untouched island in a sea of destruction, the townspeople carrying a little guilt, not having suffered as much for the cause.
The front page of yesterday’s Athens Banner-Herald tells how the Post Office received a ticking package, so they notified the police, who decided “to proceed with the utmost caution” and assume it was a bomb. They brought the package to a vacant lot, attached to it a small explosive, took cover and detonated the thing (a large color photograph depicts the moment: two police officers hiding behind their vehicle while a box explodes in the distance). It turned out there was no bomb inside, but there was a toy piano and a note: “Dear Michelle, Hope you like this. We’ll send you a bigger one next year.” The note was from the little girl’s father. They’ll have to explain to him what happened, what they thought or didn’t think it was.
And then they exit, check in hand, and they walk back up the street, and time begins to accelerate, and their feet move a little faster.
How do you define a town? If you were to define Athens by its collected places of consumption, by what it sells, you’d likely conclude that it’s a standard college town targeting college students and recent graduates. The main incoming highway is flanked by strip malls full of discount department stores, grocery stores, liquor stores, fast food joints, movies theaters, auto repair shops, and the like. Downtown you’ll find a predictable assortment of bars and clubs, eateries and cafes, clothing boutiques, book stores, record stores, stores selling useless knick-knacks and UGA paraphernalia, and more ATMs than you can shake a stick at. It’s all very convenient and it’s yours for a price.
There’s a welfare office across the street from my house and all day I see the young black women coming slowly down the street to pick up their monthly income, not so much walking as being pulled by a gravitational force. Sometimes they come in pairs or threesomes, sometimes with children in tow, sometimes very much alone. And then they exit, check in hand, and they walk back up the street, and time begins to accelerate, and their feet move a little faster.
Many years ago the Japanese brought a leafy vine called kudzu to America, and we were impressed by its ability to prevent soil-erosion and to cover up ugly stretches of ground. Now kudzu has spread throughout much of the South, and Athens is no exception. It grows voraciously, swallowing up the landscape, giving it uniform texture. Not only does it travel horizontally but vertically up and over entire trees, entire banks of trees running along roadsides. What you see are enormous human figures draped in a deep green blanket.
Someone won the Georgia lottery: a thousand bucks per week for a lifetime. Even the losers can share the experience vicariously (being absolved of want forever). Meanwhile, in southern counties of the state, it’s been raining too much. Rivers are flooding. Entire towns are underwater. Caskets disinterred from their graves are floating away, hundreds of them sailing past rooftops and treetops. You can see them on the news. Authorities say it’ll take months, maybe longer, to match each body with its plot of ground.
In front of City Hall there’s a double-barrelled cannon that stands as one of Athens’ most prominent historical monuments. It was invented by a local man during the Civil War and is the only known one of its kind. A plaque there tells its story: “Cast in the Athens foundry, it was intended to fire simultaneously two balls connected by a chain which would ‘mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.’ It failed for lack of a means of firing both balls at the exact instant…. the lack of precise simultaneity caused uneven explosion of the propelling charges, which snapped the chain and gave each ball an erratic and unpredictable trajectory…. It was presented to the City of Athens where, for almost a century, it has been preserved as an object of curiosity….”
I’m sitting on the seventh floor of the UGA library watching the grounds sprawl below. Tiny, brightly-colored people walk the paths, mechanical as action-figures. The stadium on the edge of campus lies like an enormous dormant reptile curled up for the season. Farther away the whitish debris of afternoon haze begins to settle on surrounding hills. Everything is as it should be. Everything is under surveillance.
More than a few women in this town use umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun—something I recall seeing only in old movies about the South. But so far this summer the sun hasn’t been very intense, so these women must be making a statement, projecting an image of class, cultivation, character, grace. It’s the continuity of time. A five dollar umbrella can still take you places.
The town’s hippest coffee-shop is called Jittery Joe’s, a cavernous, ill-lit space full of vintage furniture and cigarette smoke. On the walls hang fairly confrontational works of local art (at present they’re looming nudes), and through overhead speakers spills a fairly edgy selection of jazz and rock music.
I met Ort in the backroom of a burrito shop. You may remember him as the off-kilter guy who introduced the famous video, “Athens, Georgia—Inside/Out,” the documentary of the town’s musical heyday when bands like R.E.M., the B-52s, Pylon, and the Bar-B-Q Killers were just becoming household names in alternative households nationwide. Most of those bands have broken up, or they’ve become much larger than this town, but Ort is still a fixture here. He’s a consummate storyteller, animated and articulate, and it’s clear he’s honed and polished these stories over the years. That night his swirling beard was flecked with beer foam, and he told about traveling the country, sending postcards to his girlfriend while she’d chart his journey, matching up his postmark with its place on her maps. He became determined to find the most obscure town, one found on no maps, and was eventually sent by a postal worker to a small spot in Alabama that was indeed supposed to be such a town. So Ort went there as if it were the sacred destination of a few faithful pilgrims, and from there sent a postcard. But alas—his girlfriend found and charted him anyway. I think by then I’d already lost the story’s point.
The grasshoppers here are a rare hybrid variety nicknamed “lobbers.” They’re strange primitive things, mostly black with a few bright red stripes. Legend has it a few of them escaped, years ago, from a UGA lab—an experiment that got away. And they proliferated insanely, almost to plague-like proportions, and now you can walk down certain streets and see herds of them lying lazily in the sun. Each one is a little beautiful fugitive. There’s a man in my neighborhood who’s been seen in his frontyard wearing a short silky robe, sucking up lobbers with a vacuum cleaner. Just like that, he erases them from his property, but no doubt they’ll be back again tomorrow.
The town’s hippest coffee-shop is called Jittery Joe’s, a cavernous, ill-lit space full of vintage furniture and cigarette smoke. On the walls hang fairly confrontational works of local art (at present they’re looming nudes), and through overhead speakers spills a fairly edgy selection of jazz and rock music. The bathrooms are covered with graffiti: quotes from Freud, light philosophy, paranoid rantings, etc. One room connected to the coffee-shop contains a tattoo parlor; another contains a small bookstore/art gallery. Time magazine would love this place; it’s a little shopping mall of alternative culture. Under one roof you can purchase a double-espresso, a Paul Bowles novel, and have a chained angel engraved forever on your forearm. It’s open twenty-four hours for your convenience and you’re sure to find the place packed with what Time would call Bohemians, wide awake and drinking caffeinated products at 2 A.M. on a weekday night.
I was in a farmer’s market looking at the fresh spinach. A woman with a cane hobbled up beside me, eyed the produce momentarily, then asked if spinach is anything like poke salad. I told her I’ve never heard of, much less tasted poke salad. She said: “Well then you must not be from around here. Everyone in these parts eats poke salad. It’s poisonous, but if you boil it enough then you’ll be okay. I boil mine once, then drain it and boil it again, then drain it and boil it a third time. Then I pray over it. That usually does the trick.” So the trick, according to this broken Southern prophet, is to avoid death (in three easy steps).
I walked through the largest local cemetery—it’s very old and has a kind of tiered layout, like an enormous birthday cake for the dead. Winding through it is a heavy red river that resembles Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. Here you can see the grave of that guy from the B-52s who died of AIDS a few years ago. I’ve heard the band is trying to make a come-back without him, and it’s probably the right time to do so. Anyway, someone told me this cemetery is for white people only, unofficially of course. So not many people know that in fact there is one black man buried here. His grave is off to the side, away from the others, obscured by brush and trees, but he’s as present as any of the other dead.
I finally got up the nerve to visit the Ragpile. It’s a mountain of used clothing piled in the back of a downtown thrift-store, and for weeks I’d been hearing about it from those who prefer their fashions recycled. It’s a black hole of polyester and acrylic, a chaos of dead garments, an unsorted accumulation of the past. I entered the store and approached the monstrous thing, witnessing its dimensions, absorbing its profundity. Perched on its heights were three old women, each rotund and bespectacled, each sitting in her own territory, picking through the ruins. One of them noticed my intrusion and called out in my direction: “It’s Wednesday and that means it’s Senior Citizens’ Day at the Ragpile, and that means only Senior Citizens are allowed on the Ragpile all day. And we’re Senior Citizens.” I stood in bewildered silence for a moment, then thanked her for the information and departed. It’s not every day history will have you in its folds.
UGA is about to commence classes and yesterday was the season’s first home football game. The town was inundated with rabid fans who spent the pregame hours driving around waving Georgia Bulldog flags, tooting their horns and generally whooping and hollering. Postgame they spilled from the stadium and much of the town became an enormous party: fraternities and bars full as cattle-barns, streets full of sauced Southerners waving open-containers. It was epic. Now it’s the next morning and everyone’s waking to the grim reality of the recent past. A cleaning crew comprised of three young shirtless black men is cleaning up the party debris on the vast, elegant grounds of a UGA fraternity. A large Confederate flag billows in the background. The sun presses down like a warm peach.
Every story is an indictment against the present.
The current music scene in Athens is much like the scene in most other college towns: some good bands—plenty of not so good bands. The sounds being generated can’t be reduced to a single category, which is to say the bands don’t all sound the same. In a given week you could witness the inspired arithmetic of Harvey Milk, the smouldering nakedness of Vic Chesnutt, or the wiry wanderings of The Jack-O-Nuts, all fine musical experiences in their own terms. None of these bands sound like R.E.M. and none of them weep for the glory days of the early eighties. But that time and reputation did exist, and you can’t deny its persistence in the town’s collective consciousness. The legendary 40-Watt Club (where many of those early bands cut their teeth) seems to make most of its money now holding late-night discos, often with a nostalgic focus on the music of a particular past decade (i.e., eighties, seventies). These events are well-attended, and seeing the kids lined up outside, waiting to get in, clutching their currency, it’s hard not to think how it’s come to this.
Out driving around today—ninety-mile triangle of red clay and kudzu. Black men napping on crappy couches in weedy frontyards. Baptist churches the size of toolsheds. Satellite dishes separate the poor from the very poor. Thick air. Sinewy sky. Profound boredom everywhere.
Not long ago I was downtown, inspecting a chewed-up section of my front bicycle tire. An old man leaned down and said: “That tire looks like it’s about to have a cardiac arrest. Let me tell you a story. When I was a kid I had a tire that looked like that. I took all the air out, taped it up real good and put some air back in there, and you know what? It worked—it held, and I didn’t even have that fancy tape they got nowadays.” Every story is an indictment against the present.
Summer is verging on autumn and I’m almost out of time here, the way most experience conforms to time, comes to a theater near you, continues in a long line of moments. The sun is setting pinkly on the horizontal shelf, obscured by distance and atmospheric dirt, but more defined than it was at noon. No doubt it will rise again tomorrow, and the day after that. There’s a hunger everywhere, but every hunger is not the same. Athens is a town of survivalists without an apocalypse, and many of them are good people. It’s a town whose history is larger than itself, filling up spaces that don’t exist, ghosts that don’t exist, but are beautiful nonetheless.