Sunday, September 27, 2009

Portraits of Children

Bill Taft hosted another Evening with the Garbagemen spoken word and music night at Opal Gallery. My piece took inspiration from the space's current exhibit and opens with a dark bit I once performed at The Star Bar but wanted to think about more sincerely.

Up until a couple years ago the Little Five Points Zesto had a plaque on the wall from Atlanta Magazine naming it one of the "Best of Atlanta" for 1981. Nothing since. They've finally taken it down which is probably for the best. If you're an Atlanta restaurant that peaked during the Missing and Murdered/Wayne Williams era … you might not want to draw attention to that fact. Especially if you're an ice cream stand. That's just too creepy. "Oh yeah, the kids used to love coming in here. Back in 1981. We even sponsored a little league team up until they couldn't field enough players. But we still keep the pennant up."

In 1981 I was ten. But I was a white kid living in Wisconsin. And ugly. A tubby social outcast with limp, greasy hair that oozed out like play-do through the perforated scalp of a Hasbro action figure. I was the kind of kid a predator in a late model sedan would circle the block to avoid. Portraits of me from that time are painful to view. There's the ugliness of the subject itself compounded by the panicked self-consciousness in its eyes. It's the image of a child being tortured by attention. The camera may not steal a soul but when you hate to be noticed it can certainly crush one. Such a picture on a milk carton would have caused dairy sales to plummet destroying the economy of my native state.

I was aware of Atlanta then from television. I watched a lot of television. There were news reports of children gone missing and a city on constant alert. I remember a proud mountain of a mayor reduced to the hushed tones and stoic understatement of the bearer of bad news. Then there was the SuperStation. Of the mere dozen or so cable channels at that time Atlanta-based WTBS ran the most comedy. I was very interested in comedy. The SuperStation played old black and white sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and The Adams Family. And for a time it had an original sketch comedy show called Tush. It had no studio audience or laugh track and the cast were complete unknowns to me. Was it funny? I'd have to decide that for myself. I must laugh or not at my own free will. Even the star, Bill Tush, looked no more famous than a local used car dealer who did his own commercials; as if in later years the Wolfman and Donna somehow got their own show. I did laugh and thought it was funny. I also remember wondering what it must be like to do comedy in a city going through such tragedy.

Throughout the 80s Atlanta had less violent but still unflattering moments. In 1985 Coke changed its formula causing a populist revolt against a greedy, cynical corporation that holds nothing sacred. The revolt succeeded in a return of Coke Classic but helped boost the company's stock price and did nothing to reduce childhood obesity. The 1988 Democratic Convention seemed to gain more lasting cultural relevance from Rob Lowe committing statutory rape at the Hilton than from anything Michael Dukakis said at the Omni. Then in 1989 I moved here.

Isn't Atlanta always losing its innocence? From Sherman's ashes to our Olympics getting bombed to every episode of the Channel 2 Action News. What do we make of tragedy in a city that prefers a good sales pitch? Pay shocked attention to it all and then move on to the next sale? Shove a camera in the face of someone who knew the victim then go to commercial? Or make a dark joke about it all and call yourself edgy? Then look at portraits of other children and hope for the best.