Man In A Suitcase

Atlanta, Georgia

I think I've always had an affinity for the South in general and Atlanta in particular. My mother grew up in Savannah, so I was exposed to many of the region's peculiarities at an early age. There was a lot for a kid from New York City to like, especially the food (I discovered fried chicken long before meeting the Colonel and developed a taste for okra a decade before my first Indian restaurant) and the warmth of the people. (The warmth of the climate I could have done without.) And when, just three years out of college, I was offered transfers to either Atlanta or Anaheim, Atlanta was my first choice. (The job, alas, wasn't.) To this day my occasional visit to the region is tinged with wistfulness and a touch of regret about the path I didn't take.

With that said, I should point out that I'm not all that sure about Atlanta the place. You know, the airport that Dante would have admired, the traffic that makes you long for Boston or Los Angeles. Architecturally it's in desperate need of an identity; most of the interesting buildings are new, but most of the new buildings aren't all that interesting. There are a few vantage points with picture postcard views, but a lot more places where bulldozers either have just been or are expected any moment. It's hard to find anything of historical interest among all the chrome and glass. And it isn't all Sherman's fault; surely something built since he came through a hundred years ago was worth preserving!

Of course, the enterprising photographer can always find worthwhile subjects if he approaches things with the right attitude. Churches are generally interesting material, like this Christian Science church in the Midtown area. Some churches are forbidding; this one seemed to balance its stateliness with an appealing openness. At least until I got close. Suddenly I had my doubts about just how welcome visitors might be!

Atlanta is home to the most recognized brand in the world: Coca Cola. AKA Coke, a nickname the company fought for decades before accepting the inevitable and trademarking it. They've built a museum dedicated to themselves, which is worth a look for what it says about them and about us. Self-serving? Damn right. (And why is it that only slim, attractive, active people are seen drinking Coke? And why is it that they never show anyone with Diet Coke? The only time it appears in their video presentation is as cans going through a UK factory. Don't fat people drink their products?)

As the museum tells it, Coke has become almost universal in its association with a happy, energetic life. (Eat your heart out, Nike.) Beyond the advertising and a remarkable collection of memorabilia, the most memorable parts of the exhibition were the amateur and professional art devoted to the subject of Coke. The most striking is this giant Bolivian Coke bottle made of wood and stone. It all makes me think of how Steve Jobs convinced John Sculley to leave Pepsi for Apple Computer. He asked Sculley if he really wanted to spend his life selling sugar water to children. Wouldn't he prefer to change the world? Looking at Coke's legacy and Sculley's history at Apple, he should have stayed with the sugar water. (I once spotted an Apple employee at an airport lounge reading a copy of The Dilbert Principle, which I described as the second funniest business book I'd ever read. Of course he had to ask what was first. "Odyssey by John Sculley", I replied. He winced. He agreed with me, but he still winced.)

Having Saturday free, I took a drive out to Stone Mountain, a remarkable piece of geology a half hour east of Atlanta. The mountain is the largest piece of exposed granite in the world, rising 825 feet above ground level. Since the 1960s it's part of a state park, with various exhibits and attractions commemorating times gone by and a few that never were. Much of the attention centers around the Civil War, including a carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the mountain's face. First attempted in the 1920s by Gutzon Borglum, the carving finally took shape in the 1960s. At 90 by 190 feet it's the largest single piece of sculpture in the world. Such effort and the esteem in which these men are held to this day (to say nothing of their hostility to Northern icons like Lincoln and Grant) raises some interesting questions about our attitudes toward our past. Shouldn't Southerners accept that they lost, that they were wrong, that they should put that moment of insanity behind them? Perhaps the biggest lesson is that wars don't settle things nearly as well as they teach us in school.

As for many people, my visit to Stone Mountain was a nice day in the sun. I couldn't resist the challenge of hiking the 1.4 miles to the top. (Yes, I made it. Barely.) After that I settled for more relaxed activities, including a train ride around the base of the mountain and a walk around a collection of 19th century homes. The centerpiece is the grand house on the left, the sort of home that could have inspired Gone With The Wind's Tara. It's a fine example of gracious Southern living, at least for the privileged few who could afford it. One wonders at the labor required to set such a fine table in an age before washing machines, dishwashers, soot-free lighting and the rest of our modern conveniences.

Across from the real buildings is a new museum devoted to Gone With The Wind. I find this confusion of the real with the fictional both amusing and bemusing. Like the Stone Mountain riverboat named after GWTW's colorful heroine. Am I the only one bothered by the idea of naming a 19th century artifact after a character created in the 20th? Or the oft-discussed idea of recreating a Tara that never was to satisfy the book's fans who would rather see a fictional landscape than the real one that inspired it? (Yeah, yeah. I know: lighten up. Must be a shortage of bran in my diet.)

I find the story behind Gone With The Wind at least as interesting as the book itself. In many ways Margaret Mitchell seems a character not of her own time. And not of the Antebellum (I love that word!) South either, despite her success in recreating it, but of our own age. Peggy was a fighter; after leaving an abusive first husband, she couldn't stand the thought of moving back to her father's house. So she talked her way into a reporting job at the Atlanta Constitution, quite an accomplishment for a woman in the 20s. When she remarried she kept her name, scandalizing her friends with a pretense of living in sin with new husband John Marsh. GWTW began during a long convalescence: when she became too cranky for her husband to bear, he suggested that she take up some project to take her mind off her own whining. The result still sells a quarter of a million copies a year, making it second only to the bible. (Which depending on your personal belief system makes it either the best selling work of fiction in history or the second best.)

The house where GWTW was written has been saved from the modernization that has taken over much of Atlanta. Built in 1899 as a grand single family home, it was converted to small apartments by the time Peggy and her husband arrived in 1925. She referred to their apartment on Peachtree Street as The Dump, which was certainly appropriate. Tara it ain't. The thought of her churning out a couple of thousand pages of typescript on her little portable boggles the mind. And one can only imagine how the 4'11" Peggy and her over-six-foot husband managed in the single bed that was all their bedroom could hold. (One wonders also about the picture behind the bedroom door, with its naked couple about to get to know each other real well. Pretty racy stuff for its time.) Peggy Mitchell is at least as interesting as Scarlett, her life and times as worthy of note as those of her creation.

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah was a part of my childhood, the destination for an endless series of car trips to see the Wexler side of my family. I never thought much about the city and certainly never appreciated it. That's changed in recent years, in part because of my greater interest in history, architecture, culture and the search for subjects for my photographic skills. But another aspect of Savannah's emergence in both my consciousness and that of the larger world was the publication of the book (you can even hear the italics in their voices when the locals mention it). I refer of course to Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, a remarkable work that captures the charm and bizarreness that is Savannah. Of particular interest to me was the discovery that my uncle encountered most of the book's characters during his years running a dry cleaner's in town. (He has a wonderful picture of himself holding a couple of Elvis's more garish jumpsuits, which he cleaned during The King's run through town in the 60s.)

Savannah is everything Atlanta isn't (and vice versa). It's old, overgrown with trees and foliage, gracious, set in its ways, and slowly making its way out of the nineteenth century just in time for the twenty-first. This is a place that recently opened the first part of a highway that they named after Harry Truman. Why Truman, I asked. Because back when they decided to build it, that's who was president. (There's a joke that when James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, was about to return to England he told the locals, "Don't do anything until I get back". And they haven't.)

After decades of neglect and decrepitude, Savannah finally realized the value of its history and started restoring some of its beautiful old architecture to its former glory. I'm impressed by the riverfront, where the old warehouse buildings have been turned into restaurants, shops and other tourist hangouts without wiping out the historic interest. It's a nice place to spend a weekend afternoon, at least if you can ignore the big, ugly Hyatt that some idiot allowed to be built in the middle of it all. One nearby tourist trap holds fond memories from my childhood: the Pirates' House is a restaurant that dates back to early Savannah and is mentioned in Stevenson's Treasure Island. Mostly I remember it for an ice cream sundae that was topped by a live sparkler. Doesn't take much to impress a kid, does it?

Alpharetta, Georgia

I'd hate for you to think that my travel is all glamour and excitement. Some trips are memorable precisely because they're so forgettable. A case in point: a recent visit to our Atlanta office, hidden away in the northern suburb of Alpharetta. My first impression of Alpharetta was that they must have finished building it about twenty minutes before I arrived: everything looked so new and unused. Clearly this wasn't so. In fact, major parts were still in the works.

My second thought was that I was in some kind of Disneyland-inspired Hell where everything was a mall and what little ethnic culture existed was prepackaged in plastic. I did eventually discover something resembling a real community, although it too was new and sparkling. Where's the dirt, the worn out buildings, the abandoned cars? Do these people have elves that show up at night and make everything perfect again?

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