Mockingbird, Brian

Mockingbird Title Image
Brian Sanger sits in the Starbucks at 1776 Peachtree Street, halfway through a venti, black, dark-roast, Ethiopian coffee, and an almond scone, and looks over a piece of music he’s composing. He typically prefers Caribou to Starbucks, but has no car, since his was totaled in an accident early the previous year, and doesn’t live close enough to the Caribou at Ansley to pop in whenever he feels like it, plus, he’s hooked on the Blue Note blend his friend, Claire Belmonte, convinced him to try a week or so before. He can easily walk from his apartment to the Starbucks on Peachtree, near Coach and Six where he works as a maitre’d, so he stops in every few days to stock up on coffee, try out whatever dark roast they’ve brewed up that day, and work on his music. Certain days, Claire joins him if she’s worked a club nearby.

When Brian arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were in the middle of their “worst to first” season and the city had won the privilege of hosting the Olympics the previous year. While he never considered himself much of a sports fan, aside from high school football games he had to attend with the band, he found himself getting caught up in the fervor surrounding the team, but usually couldn’t afford to attend games, instead watching them when they were on the television at bars he inhabited. He was glad the Major League strike ended the previous season and is happy to be supporting the team again.

In addition to becoming a baseball fan, Brian has spent much of his first first few years in town familiarizing himself with the gay scene in Atlanta and it was here he met Claire, who had gone to work as a bartender at his favorite hangout as soon as she turned twenty-one in ’94. She explained that she’d been working as a waitress in restaurants and bars while attending junior college and had grown tired of the men hitting on her. In gay clubs, they either left her alone, or chatted her up on the topics of the day while she mixed their drinks. Plus, she found, the older men left better tips.

Almost as if on cue, Claire enters and looks around. Spotting Brian, she gives a quick nod, then stops at his table. Brian regards her as a rather formidable woman, very close to his own height of six foot three inches, and well-proportioned, with long dark hair she usually pulls back, especially if she’s working. Today, she’s letting it flow freely. She doesn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty, but Brian still considers her extremely attractive, with expressive brown eyes and a charming smile she only displays to those she knows well. To everyone else, she’s an ice princess.

“What are you having?” Claire asks.

“Today’s dark roast.”

She seems less than enthused and dumps her bag onto the seat beside Brian and goes to check out the pastry counter.

Claire has a non-distinct “Atlanta” accent, which she’s worked hard to cultivate since she arrived there as a teen, but when she and Brian are together, she ditches it in favor of her original middle Georgia vernacular. She grew up less than fifty miles west of where Brian had been raised, far enough away for it to take coming to Atlanta for them to meet. Claire has quite a complicated past, which she’s been gradually revealing to Brian as he gains her trust. He knows she came from a deeply religious family and can easily imagine what that meant for a young woman coming of age in rural Georgia. Her difficulty in trusting people tells him much of the story. Learning more about what Claire has experienced deepens his conviction to bring his sister Charlotte to Atlanta when she finishes high school, hoping to spare her from the fate of their two sisters, already married and starting families.

Brian is the oldest and only son in his family, raised mostly by their mother after his father died in an accident at the agricultural plant where he’d worked most of his adult life. Brian sang in the choir at his church and was the drum major in his high school marching band, as well as playing in the brass section. He’s also accomplished on the piano and organ. When she was a toddler, Charlotte would sit nearby while he was practicing, enrapt by the music. When she got older, and began exhibiting signs of echolalia, Brian worked with her to help her try to communicate and would intercede when one of their siblings or a kid from school made fun of her. When she started writing lyrics as a teenager, Brian set them to music. His background in music and his involvement in their church made it almost inevitable that he’d be approached about taking over the choir when Gladys Phelps, the previous director, retired at age ninety. It was here where Brian gained the attention of Todd, the son of their pastor, Kenneth Williams.

Growing up, Brian had been in several relationships with much older men, usually under the guise of taking private music lessons or performing odd jobs inside the house, always with the utmost discretion, given that these men had far more to lose than him. Todd was the first person close to Brian’s age who had shown any interest in him, and Brian didn’t know how to interpret that, given that Todd was married and had two little girls at home. Todd had been relentless in his pursuit, however, and finally coaxed Brian into a clandestine relationship, which was mostly carried out at Todd’s house on days when his wife was out running errands or attending church functions. Brian suggested that it might not be the best idea to have their encounters at Todd’s home, but Todd insisted they’d have complete privacy. This proved to be wrong when Todd’s wife, Myra Lynn, showed up unexpectedly, after her women’s devotional group ended early, having found the book of Revelation too cryptic to be digested in a two-hour lunchtime conversation. After most of the screaming and yelling had devolved into tears and apologies, during which time Brian hastily pulled on his clothes, he bowed politely to the couple and excused himself with, “I’ll just be on my way now.”

Two hours later, when the call came from Pastor Williams, Brian had already written his letter resigning as choir director, and packed his bags, and loaded up his car, since he knew it was probably best not to stick around. He gave his mother a somewhat expanded explanation about what had happened after she’d already heard an abbreviated version from the pastor, and left a letter for Charlotte, letting her know he’d stay in touch, and renewing his promise to bring her to Atlanta when she graduated. Once his meeting with the pastor was concluded, he hit I-16 west toward Macon, and from there, took I-75 north to Atlanta.

Killing Babies now Available


Sometimes, in writing, things need to get cut.

My latest collection of essays entitled Killing Babies, is now available for purchase from online bookstores in print, and Kindle format from Amazon.

Purchase the print version from Amazon and download the Kindle version for free.

These essays originated on this blog in their earliest forms, but have been revised, expanded, and, in some instances, combined in the book.

Disclaimer: No actual babies were  harmed in the writing of this book.

 

Great Blue Heron, Chamblee, GA (Photos & Video)

There’s been a Great Blue Heron visiting a pond near where I work and I’ve had the opportunity to get some video and photos of it. I haven’t seen it the past few times I went over there this week, but one’s been dropping in there on occasion for a few years, so I’m sure one will be back at some point.

The first eight still photos are screen grabs from a couple of videos. Below the last video are a few close up photos and at the very bottom is some graphic art I created from a couple of photos.

These were originally posted on my Instagram account, gmatt63.

blue heron 06-06-16 08b


Reflections on the Child Snatcher: Serial Blackface and the Atlanta Child Murders

Wayne B. Williams

Wayne Bertram Williams, the chief suspect in the Atlanta Child Murders. Photo credit: Georgia Department of Corrections, found at Wikipedia; used here under the provisions of Fair Use.

I had the opportunity to see Serial Blackface, a world premiere play by Janine Nabers, at Actor’s Express in Atlanta on Wednesday, 6 April. Serial Blackface is about the struggles of a low income mother and daughter dealing with the disappearance of a younger son, set against the backdrop of what has become known as the Atlanta Child Murders, but which residents at the time primarily knew as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children. While I found the story to be compelling in its own right, I was somewhat disappointed by the attempt to connect it to the Child Murders. Granted, any depiction of that period in Atlanta’s history is going to fall far short of portraying the fear and confusion which gripped the city those two years, but the events of Serial Blackface could just as easily be set in any period of Atlanta’s history, up to and including the current day without losing the focus of the story.

In most depictions of Atlanta I see or read, I often find it difficult to recognize my hometown and Serial Blackface is no exception. While there were news reports on the television that was on throughout the play which sounded authentic, I felt no connection to the city portrayed in the fictional reality. For instance, in real life, from the moment the killings became well publicized, most, including the media, referred to the killer as the “child snatcher” and of victims being “snatched” because that’s how family members referred to the killer in interviews. The sex industry in Atlanta, characterized by strip clubs and X-rated movies, is mentioned in the play, but I saw no evidence of the consistent and sometimes comical efforts of Atlanta, and in particular Fulton County, to curtail the activities. I also felt none of the conflict between Atlanta’s city hall downtown and the monied interests in Buckhead, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which was a very large part of the tragedy of the killings at the time. The theme of dealing with the loss of a child and not knowing where or even if to assign blame is universal and only mildly informed by connecting it to the events in Atlanta at that time. While the play revolves around a lower middle class black family, I recognized many of the characters and situations I knew from West End, the lower middle class white neighborhood in which I was raised, before it became a so-called “transitional” neighborhood in the early 70s. The play is less about color and more about class and the desperation inherent in trying to raise a family and deal with a tragedy when resources are taxed beyond their limits. 

Nothing in the play is firmly connected to the Child Murders except for one or two explicit mentions, one involving identification of a victim — which was very evocative of the times and used the name of an actual victim — and another featuring a victims’ support group. The authenticity of the story comes from the timeless situation of its characters making horribly bad choices for all the wrong reasons, and failing to take responsibility for their actions which exacerbates their suffering. Remove the specific references to the Child Murders or set the action in a different era, and the play would not lose any of its power. The overall plot does contain considerable irony with regards to predatory behavior found in a given segment of society, but again, this could be divorced from the subject of the Child Murders without significantly altering the action of the play. 

As an Atlanta native, certain events are engrained in my memory, and the Atlanta Child Murders looms the largest. I got my drivers license the year the first bodies were found and graduated from high school the year Wayne Williams was arrested. I was not much older than the average age of the victims and younger than the two grown men Williams was convicted of killing. While I was not in the demographic most traumatized by the killings, it was impossible to live in Atlanta at that time and not be affected. The killings literally happened all around us. One body was found within a few hundred yards of the elementary school my brothers were attending at the time along a route I used to travel coming home from school when I was in the eighth grade at South Fulton a few years before. Every few days, the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a list and photos of the victims and I still remember the names of many of them, including Lubie Jeter, Patrick Baltazar, Darren Glass, and Jo Jo Bell.

Children were disappearing and bodies being found at least two or three times a month, and the leadership of Atlanta seemed powerless to address the tragedy. Children were abducted from Memorial Drive to Camp Creek Parkway and dumped in places such as East Point and Cliftondale, along Buford Highway in DeKalb County and in the woods on Redwine Road. Oftentimes all that was found were bones and fragments of clothing making it impossible to determine how they died. Just as everyone was affected, everyone had theories about the killings. Among the more prominent was the rumor of a child sex ring involving high level city officials, and numerous reports of a black man and white woman enticing young kids to get in their car. While the official conclusion was that Wayne Williams was the sole killer, it’s doubtful a single person was responsible for all the deaths. My own belief at the time was that Williams had some involvement but didn’t commit all the killings himself. 

In his book The List, Chet Dettlinger, a former investigator on the case, also raises the specter of a child sex ring along with other possibilities, and establishes a geographic pattern for the killings. Suggestions in the press that, in some cases, the families were being investigated were met with a considerable outcry from the community, as well as criticism of how long it took officials to acknowledge the problem. Once the leadership admitted something was wrong, many criticized how quickly the killings became politicized. There was also considerable controversy about who was included on the official list and who wasn’t — many believe the actual number of murders was much higher. The national news media largely got the story wrong, popping in during sweeps periods or whenever some high profile national figure showed up to demand answers or express outrage. Local media stuck with the case full-time, from gut-wrenching interviews with grieving mothers to allegations that money from the victims’ fund was being misappropriated for tummy tuck operations and new cars. 

In general, Atlanta doesn’t handle high profile crimes very well, whether it’s the rape and murder of a poor Irish girl in 1913 or the deaths of twenty-nine children and adults between 1979-1981. The city cultivates a reputation for being a great place to live and do business, and events which tarnish that reputation tend to get swept under the carpet quickly. Many breathed a sigh of relief when a splash heard in the waters of the Chattahoochee river beneath the James Jackson Parkway bridge led to the arrest of Wayne Williams, and the FBI’s complicated fiber evidence tied him to many other cases with which he’d not been charged. The fact is, Williams was convicted of killing two adults, Jimmy Ray Payne, age 21, and Nathaniel Cater age 28. It was discovery of Cater’s body in the river a few days after the infamous splash which led authorities to focus on Williams as the prime suspect. Since bodies were discovered in numerous cities and counties, there were jurisdictional issues which complicated the trial and limited the crimes Williams could be tried for in Fulton County. The notion that the killings stopped after Williams was arrested has been disputed by Dettlinger among other critics. 

Serial Blackface is a compelling play which presents the audience with a family spiraling out of control and a mother’s misguided attempts to regain stability at any cost. It shows us that all actions have consequences and by failing to consider those consequences, bad situations can quickly become much worse. While I was not always certain of the motives behind each character’s choices, I found the characters believable and relatable. I believe the play suffers by tying itself to the events of the Atlanta Child Murders, because it adds a good deal of weight to the play that the story is unable to support. That being said, I do applaud the playwright for reminding us of this dark time in Atlanta’s history and providing us with a stark lesson that there’s still much work to do if we’re to become a truly egalitarian society. If this work helps to get the conversation started, it has served its subject matter well. 

Total Eclipse of the Hart

On my first visit to Stone Mountain this year, I encountered an entire herd of deer, at least seven or eight individuals, with more probably lurking in the woods.

They were somewhat off the path, along the five-mile walking trail that circles the mountain. I encountered them about halfway between the two and two and a half mile markers. The terrain made it next to impossible to get any closer.

I almost missed seeing them. A passing dog startled the younger one in the first video and the sound of its hooves caused me to look.

As can be seen, they blend very well into the surrounding flora.

Note: These videos were enhanced using YouTube’s color correction and image stabilization tools. The originals can be accessed by searching the title, minus the zero in the number.