Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Key to the City

My friend Sonya has a favorite expression which I'm fond of using. She always prefaces tales of her myriad adventures by saying, "So there I was, sittin' at home, mindin' my own business."

View of Downtown Atlanta from Buckhead
Maybe I wasn't exactly sitting at home that day in September, 1981, but when Al Bartine called me into his downtown Chicago office to tell me that our operations were being relocated to Atlanta, I really had been minding my own business and didn't quite know what to say. Having spent considerable time working at and supporting our Atlanta regional office, I had made friends there, and yet, I had never considered going so far as to move there, since I thought (silly me) that moving was always at one's own discretion and on one's own timeline. You found a place you liked, and you figured out how to get there. Even though I had grown up in the South, in Memphis, the place I'd always envisioned living was somewhere within a fifty mile radius of Los Angeles. That day in Chicago changed everything.

When I had first visited Atlanta on business with my boss, I had observed several things:
  • The city, although geographically located in the American South, seemed to have strong Northern overtones. Many people sounded like Midwesterners or Northeasterners, yet it was quite easy to find good barbecue.
  • People drove fast. I was used to commuting on Chicago city expressways and downtown city streets every day of the week, but driving in Atlanta was a horse of a different color, and I was more than a little scared.
  • There was no perceivable order to the layout of the streets, and combined with the aggressive driving, this made for some challenging navigation.
  • Even though there was a sense of gentle, relaxed Southern hospitality, Atlanta was possessed of an equal sense of assertive self-confidence.
  • I kinda liked the place.

My wife Karen and I took stock of our situation in Chicago, and given the attractive move package and career options, we relocated to the city over Memorial Day weekend of 1982. Owing to the remarkably high temperatures that first Saturday, we had to run to a department store to buy shorts, which we had not owned in Chicago. On the way into the Richway store in suburban Roswell, we walked behind two men in overalls chewing on sticks of hay, something we probably wouldn't have seen in the North Shore Chicago neighborhood which we'd left only days before. I raised an eyebrow, because to me, this didn't look quite like the urban South that I remembered from my youth.

It was probably about three or four years later that my schedule of commuting, working long days, business travel, and studying for my master's program began to catch up with me. I found myself lamenting that I was living in what appeared to be endless suburbia. Granted, it was a very nice, well-planned flavor of suburbia, and I hadn't seen anyone else eating hay out in the open, but nevertheless, I was longing for the elements that defined Atlanta, the city whose motto was simply "Resurgens" (Latin for "rising again"), coined after it began its rebirth from the ashes of the Civil War. After all, this was the place I'd heard called "The New York of the South." There had to be something that I was missing.

Atlanta in 1871
Growing up in Memphis, my work, education, and recreation were mostly confined to the city limits, so when I moved to Atlanta, I was expecting to find a bustling city core. But in the early 1980's, the Atlanta scene was all about outward growth. The city had no natural boundaries, and suburbs were being built at an astonishing rate, unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Indeed, real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution proclaimed in those days: "It is altogether probable that in terms of land area, Atlanta is the fastest-growing human settlement in history." It was hard to keep up with it all.

I had almost given up finding the true Atlanta when something fortuitous happened. Early one sunny Saturday afternoon, as I was lamenting yet again about the endless sprawl, Karen told me that she'd had enough of my fussing. She ordered me to get in the car and said she was going to drive us somewhere. I asked where, but she refused to tell me. She seemed dead serious, and I deemed it an unwise time to argue the point. We headed off down the highway toward what I thought was the city.

Downtown Avondale Estates
About thirty minutes later, we drove into Avondale Estates, an "in town" neighborhood a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, where my wife's friend Ginna Evans had grown up and still lived. Ginna and Karen had talked at length about Avondale, and Karen had passed some of that along to me, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by what I saw that day: beautiful vintage homes of all sizes on pristine lots, people out walking, massive trees spanning the streets, and a charming downtown defined by Tudor-Revival style architecture. There was a peacefulness to Avondale which was the perfect panacea to all my lingering post-relocation anxiety, and for some reason, I felt immediately at home, even though I'd never visited there before. We drove up and down the streets of Avondale, then headed to the bustling DeKalb Farmers Market, with walls of Asian spices, rows upon rows of freshly picked produce, and a massive fish market. We bought some oversized, delicious cookies and ate them in the car, and I realized at that very moment that I had just experienced one of those pivotal moments in my life: I had stumbled upon something which looked very much like the essence of the true Atlanta.

In the ensuing years, Ginna and her family adopted us. We spent countless hours in Avondale, attending family events of all sorts, and I especially enjoyed hearing the stories Ginna's parents and friends told about what Avondale and Atlanta had been like when they had moved there so many years before. Over time, I began to realize that these were the same sorts of stories I would have been hearing had I been back home in Memphis; indeed, this was very much like that home, just a few hundred miles east. Going to Avondale made me feel good, like I had grown up there and belonged there. Even though I didn't live in Avondale itself, its sense of community was what began to tie me tightly to Atlanta.

For a few weeks in 1995, I actually became an honorary citizen of Avondale. We had moved from Atlanta to Charlotte in 1993 as part of a corporate relocation, but two years later, after our company was bought out, we opted to return to the familiarity of the city. I took a job in Atlanta while my wife and children stayed back in Charlotte until our house could be sold. I commuted back and forth every week, but having no convenient place to hang my hat during the week in Atlanta, I was delighted (and relieved) when Ginna's family offered me their upstairs room. We had fine dinners (Ginna's family at one time owned a chain of Atlanta restaurants), did the dishes, mowed the lawn, and in the evenings, watched the Braves on the living room TV or cruised around looking for houses. Those were some splendid days, and I am forever grateful to the Evans family for helping me make it through that period of transition.

View of Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park
Eventually, I became an Atlantan. It's been 33 years this Memorial Day that I've lived here, except for those two years away in Charlotte. Even though I live in the northern suburbs, I've learned the ins and outs of the city. I've wandered endlessly from one part of town to the next, and in the process, I've grown to love the place. I've made wonderful friends here, many of whom share the common thread of growing up in a Southern city in the 60's and 70's. I reflect on those good times, but I also look forward to the next wave, because the city is growing yet again, this time from the inside out, with a myriad of in town neighborhoods rebuilding and expanding to meet one another. Few things make me happier than sitting outside on a patio as the sun goes down, observing the diverse patchwork of humanity and style that defines Atlanta and watching the glow of the lights as the city's heart beats on steadily into the night.

Meanwhile, quiet little Avondale Estates, having played second fiddle in recent years to the burgeoning neighboring city of Decatur, is experiencing a renaissance of its own these days, and I can't wait to see what's on the horizon. But every time I drive to it or through it, I will always remember that afternoon in 1986 when I really and truly found a home that perhaps had been waiting there for me all along.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


In eight seconds, it was gone.

Baptist Memorial Hospital, once the flagship of the thriving Memphis medical center, was leveled by controlled implosion on Sunday, November 6, 2005. The 21-story building, erected in 1955, was once the largest private hospital in the United States. It was demolished to make way for the University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park, a facility devoted to bioscience research. I had visited Memphis earlier in 2005 but had not been aware of the forthcoming demolition, so when I returned the following spring, seeing an enormous pile of earth and rubble where the hospital had once stood was quite shocking.

Baptist ran deep in my family. During my childhood, my mother was hospitalized several times, sometimes for a week or two at a stretch, and my dad would take me down when he went to visit her in the evenings after work. The hospital was located in the midtown medical center, about a 20 minute drive from our house. We became so familiar with Baptist that we knew every nook and cranny of the place. We knew which dishes to order at the spacious wood-paneled restaurant on the main floor, the location of all the phone booths, and which gift shops featured which magazines. 

One of my favorite stories revolves around a humorous incident that occurred one night in the lounge area on one of the upper floors. My dad and I had gone down to get some coffee and Coke out of one of the machines, and two highly inebriated gentlemen were sitting in the room by a dollar bill changer. One of them pointed to the machine and said, "You know, that thing right thar' is dumb. I put a five dollar bill in thar' yesterday, and it gimme change for a one!" My dad and I looked at each other and smiled. You couldn't make up some of the stuff we would see and hear at the hospital.

Baptist had its share of famous patients -- it sheltered Elvis when he was visiting Memphis and required hospitalization. My mom worked at a doctor's office adjacent to the hospital in the early 70's, and she said that you could always tell when Elvis was there, because the corner room on the 19th floor (the neurology and neurosurgery ward, always kept very quiet) would have aluminum foil taped to the windows. It seemed that the bright light was too much for him. I recall many occasions passing by the hospital on Union Avenue and seeing a mirror-like reflection from the windows of that corner room.

Over the years, my mom received excellent medical care at Baptist, and by the time I reached my teens, I had become very accustomed to being at the hospital. Once I learned to drive, I would go down for visits myself or sometimes take a friend along. Many of them knew my mom and thought of her as family, so I don't think she ever minded having extra visitors. I began to become quite familiar with the names of the medical staff, who I would hear paged constantly: "Paging Doctor Callison, Doctor Maston Callison...Doctor Boyd, Doctor Allen Boyd." In those days, cell phones were non-existent, and pagers were new inventions, so phone calls were the norm. Eventually, the daily comings and goings of the staff and the general cadence of the place began to feel like part of my life. 

There were difficult moments, such as the night when my dad couldn't make it because of work, and I arrived just before the end of visiting hours. I padded into my mom's room and watched her sleeping there, so frail. I remember hoping beyond hope that she would survive the night, which she did, greeting me with a smile when I visited the next day. The nurses always said that she was a great patient.

In January of my senior year in high school, my father suffered a heart attack while working one Sunday morning at his grocery store. We rushed to the hospital and met him in intensive care. True to form, he was in good spirits, joking with the staff at every opportunity. I remember sitting in the ICU waiting room with large groups of family members, some of whom had brought lunch or dinner while they waited for news of their loved ones. So many stories, I thought, so many people in need of a miracle. We had been lucky with Dad, and he went home within a week or so.

In the fall, I headed off to Chicago to attend Northwestern. After all the time I'd spent in the hospital, I started thinking that a medical career might be my calling, and at the persistent urging of our family physician, who had been dean of the UT Medical School for a time, I enrolled in the pre-med program. For four years, I studied biology, chemistry, physiology and psychology, along with a generous dose of liberal arts, eventually concentrating on neuroscience. But at the end of my undergraduate days, seeing myself in quite a different place and frame of mind from four years earlier, I chose not to apply to medical school.

Almost one year later, in June of 1978, Dad suffered another heart attack, and this time, his condition required open heart surgery. The procedure was still relatively new in those days, but he pulled through. After several long days in coronary care, then intensive care, he was transferred to a regular room and appeared to be stable. I headed back to Chicago, where I had recently moved, but a couple of days later, we lost Dad. I never got back to Baptist after that.

I suppose it's a bit strange to think of an institution like a hospital as a second home, but in a way, that's what it was for me during the 60's and 70's. I ate there, did my homework there, even slept there on several occasions. The devoted staff worked night and day to care for their patients, and rarely did I hear a complaint from anyone. More often than not, they would greet us with smiles and gentle spirits when they came into the room. Baptist brought my parents through some rough times, and being there gave me a different perspective on life and what a gift it was.

In the end, I don't think I could have witnessed the Baptist demolition -- it was enough watching it on YouTube, and I'd rather remember it the way it looked in the old days. The bricks and mortar of Baptist may be gone now, but they'll forever occupy a place in my memory and in my heart.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


"Lunche-r-r-r-r-o!" The announcement would come over the tinny loudspeaker in our South Central Los Angeles office at precisely 9:30 every weekday morning, when the food truck made its first appearance of the day. It was good to know that people were thinking ahead.

Of the many pleasures in life, my perennial favorite is lunch. I really have a thing for it. I guess many people do, but I'm a morning person, so by the time lunch rolls around, I'm ready to rock and roll, whether it's a weekday or the weekend. It's more than just food to me -- it's a chance to get out and immerse myself in the rest of the world, and I find that if I don't take that break, I'm generally frustrated by day's end, a little out of sorts and feeling that I've missed something. I realized some time ago that the roots of my lunch obsession run pretty deep and that they can be traced back to my early days of weekend work at my dad's grocery store.

Ladies lunching at National Cash Register, Dayton, OH, 1902
My father managed a store on Lamar Avenue in the city of Memphis, and it was patronized by a broad cross-section of the citizenry. Most of my dad's friends were salespeople or food brokers, and they usually arrived a little before lunchtime. After doing a bit of business, they typically would offer to take my dad, and sometimes me, out to lunch at any of a number of local favorite spots. One-of-a-kind cafes and restaurants were abundant in those days, and many places offered plate lunches consisting of homemade specialties and scrumptious desserts. People in sales seemed to know both the new places and the classic establishments, and in their company, we sampled everything. I always looked forward to these forays, and the sales people were usually lively conversationalists who didn't exclude me from the proceedings; indeed, they often kept two threads running: one for the shop talk with my dad, and the other asking me about school and outside activities. I liked the idea of being around adults and eating good food while being made to feel a part of it all.

When I began working in the late 1970's, people still did serious lunches. It was not out of the ordinary to find myself sitting at a hotel restaurant, sipping a before-lunch alcoholic beverage (scotch and water with a twist was my favorite), at the mercy of whichever manager had decided to take us out. Back in those days, talk about work issues rarely made it to the lunch table, and instead, we traded stories about movies, concerts, family, politics and home repair, in no particular order.

One of my favorite memories from that time was dining at the Golden Gate Restaurant, a family owned business on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Our company's CEO, a kindly elderly gentleman whom we referred to as "A.M.", would invite three of four of us to accompany him almost every week to the Golden Gate, and once seated, we would be presented with a generous basket of bread and butter, into which we would all dig with abandon. The food was predictable and good, and the prices were very reasonable. Going to the Golden Gate with the "big boss" really made me feel part of the working world.

The Beef-Eatery, on the other hand, was our quick go-to greasy spoon. This tiny establishment, just around the corner from our office, featured a selection of burgers and sandwiches, all prepared in a dark, low-ceilinged kitchen. Once the staff had prepared your order and placed it into a brown paper bag, you either took the bag with you back to your office or headed up a rickety flight of stairs to a "dining area" which could only be described as spartan. If you chose the takeout option, the bag would usually be spotted liberally with grease by the time you got back around the block.

We had many other favorites in Chicago: Burger Baron, The Off-Center Cafe (A.M.'s quote about Off-Center was, "I could make better chicken salad at home"), some Irish pub whose name I do not recall...the list goes on and on. I never tired of heading out for lunch, regardless of the schedule or the amount of snow on the ground at the time. Sometimes, we would head to my boss Al's brother's cafe on the West Side, where we would be greeted with something like "Yo, Al...you brought all da guys!", then treated to a hearty hot plate lunch. Of course, there was always Diana's, which had absolutely no signage on the building but was a favorite of the Chicago cops, who would park in a somewhat hidden lot around the corner from the entrance. We always felt safe there.

When I started traveling to Los Angeles for work, I carried on the tradition I had started with my dad and made friends with the company salesmen, who would always take me to their favorite Mexican restaurants. We usually ended up at any number of places in the community of South Gate, just a little east of the Harbor Freeway. The guys knew when my morning flight was arriving, and by the time I had driven from LAX to the office, I had just enough time to put my briefcase down before they were ready to head out to lunch.

When I moved to Atlanta in the early 1980's, I reacquainted myself with Southern delicacies such as barbecue and Brunswick stew. At the time, Atlanta had a local Mexican chain called El Toro, and I wish I had a dollar for every "Speedy Gonzalez" lunch I had at one of their many locations -- I would have retired ten years ago.

For two brief periods in the 1980's, I broke tradition and became religious about bringing my lunch. The first time was when we were saving up a down payment for the house we planned to buy when we moved to Atlanta. The second time was solely for the purpose of saving money. Both periods were successful but marked a real departure from the typical midday break.

Back when CD players had just been invented (yes, I'm dating myself), many lunch excursions culminated with a trip to one of our local Atlanta stereo stores, where we would listen to the various players and push the eject buttons, just to watch the CD drawers slide in and out. A few of us had made the leap from vinyl to CD's, but for most of us, this was window shopping. In those days, stereo stores were staffed by people who could seamlessly launch into a discussion of frequency response, wow and flutter, or the merits of Dolby C over Dolby B. Sadly, those days appear to have vanished into the ether of flawless digital reproduction.

One of my favorite lunch traditions became known simply as "Tsu's". One day back in the late 1980's, a small group of my friends headed to a north side cafe called North Peking and sampled the General Tsu's dish which, of course, goes by about twenty names: General Tsu's, General Tso's, General Chow, etc. The original group reported back to the office that they had discovered something quite grand, so the next week, a larger group headed out to North Peking. This tradition continued every Monday for four years, with the crowd gradually increasing in size to over a dozen participants. Only when several of us moved away or to other jobs did the tradition finally come to an end. I still drive by the place and have a hankering to go in.

Nowadays, we try a little bit of everything: new places, old standbys, "meat and three" cafeterias, sandwich shops, pizza joints, cheap Chinese, and occasionally, the high spice of Indian or Thai. We tend to look for value, and Atlanta is pretty good in that respect. I've never really gotten into the "power lunch" thing, because a) it's too expensive, and b) it requires too much focus and concentrated thought. I'd rather just go out and be surprised by whatever happens on that particular day. And besides, lunch is our chance to reconnect, catch up, trade stories, and resolve crises. It is a sacrosanct time, and my friends and I tend to become rather annoyed when others do not respect the noon hour. So many fascinating things have occurred during lunches: emergency whiskey acquisitions, random power outages, even insects falling from the ceiling onto us. The list goes on and on.

In this new year, I'm thinking that I may want to economize a bit more, because after all, there may come a time when I want to do something drastic, like being able to retire. I consider it now and then, and I guess retirement would be okay, as long as I could maintain some semblance of my lunch habits. Without lunch...well, I don't even want to think about that.

Until later, bon app├ętit, my friends. Maybe I'll see you at the next table.