The Battle of Almost Wounded Knee

Last year they nested in a nearby tree, bumping into our windows drawn to the inside light at night. They looked like mini army helicopters and kind of sounded like them when they hovered around you while outside. They weren’t fat like bumblebees, but bulky like Humvees. These were the biggest and scariest looking flying things with a stinger that my wife and I had ever seen.

“We’re not in LA anymore,” I said to Alex. In LA flying bugs were more scarce than an older woman without Botox. In LA we would see a few bees around our lavender, some flies sometimes when we picnicked, a rare mosquito. These were all outside bugs mind you, not really trying to get in. Here in Georgia it’s like they’re banging at the door with a search warrant.

We made it through last summer without any giant Humvee-helicopter wasps making it into our home, or God forbid onto our skin. Then this summer, I noticed one going into the fascia above our front door. I went online and did some recon and found out that these things are European wasps. Great, I thought, whatever happened to NATO?

Like most things around the house, I usually try to do them myself before calling an expert. I waited until dusk and suited up the best I could. By the time I had my wrists and ankles rubber-banded and my hockey helmet on, I’d worked up a sweat. “Let’s hope these things aren’t attracted to sweat,” I said to Alex through the glass shield of my hockey helmet. “What?” she asked. “Wish me luck!” I yelled. Alex chuckled at me in my getup and just shook her head.

I’d set up a ladder under the entry point earlier. I stepped outside gingerly and climbed the ladder. I put my wasp spray up to the gap in the fascia and let her rip. Suds and white foam went everywhere as I quickly climbed back down the ladder. Unfortunately, I missed the bottom rung and started to run backwards while trying to keep my feet underneath me. Probably realizing I’d need both hands to break my fall, I flung the can of wasp spray out of my hand and it went flying into the front yard. I then crashed into one of our front porch columns. I sat there for a second kind of stunned. I looked through the now foggy hockey mask. Was that a platoon of wasps swarming toward me, or just my imagination? I got up quicker than I’d fallen and ran into the house.

“What the heck happened out there?” Alex asked. “I fell off the ladder.” “Are you okay?!” I checked that all my appendages were moving properly. “I think I’m okay.” “We’ll call an expert tomorrow then?” Alex suggested. “Not so fast.”

The next day I walked out and examined the battlefield. The ladder was still where I fell off of it, and my wasp spray had rolled about 20 yards away. There wasn’t a dead wasp in sight. Suddenly, I heard a Humvee-helicopter over my shoulder. I eyed the wasp spray, but it was too far away to do me any good. Instead, I ran into the house and decided I might want to call an expert…. Or maybe I could bait them? The battle continues.

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Reincarnated as a Horse

We took our French goddaughter, Ines, to horse country while she was here. Not Kentucky, which is no doubt horse country, but seems to be more about the business of horses than the pleasure. No, we took her north of Atlanta, where there are several horse-happy communities.

We passed a house… okay, mansion, with a “stable” built into the side of the place like it was just another wing. It even had a “horse porch” with outdoor ceiling fans… for the horses. We got out and took a picture of a stop sign that said whoa instead of stop. We passed rolling front yards kissed by the sun, the gentle Georgia breeze blowing horse tails and manes.

Our destination was a house in Milton. A friend of ours had heard that Ines was into horses and had offered to let her ride at her house. Ines was confused at first. “Where’s the riding ring?” she asked. “There is no ring,” our friend answered. “Just ride around the property.” Ines couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.

After the ride, we all sat on the front porch for a spell, as they do in horse country. “The horses around here sure seem to be treated well,” I said. “If you only knew,” our friend replied. “There are horse masseuses, horse hair stylists, horse therapists. They are more than pampered. If I die, I’d like to come back as a Milton horse.” Ines’ English was pretty good, but she couldn’t quite grasp that one. “Quoi?” she asked, looking at me for clarification. I translated in my decent but rusty French. She still looked confused. “I’ll explain later,” I told her.

I realize now, I never did explain later. I can just see her telling the story to her friends back in France about the crazy American woman who wants to come back to life as a horse.

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Thank You Debra Messing

Here in Atlanta now, my beautiful wife likes to remind me that we don’t get to the beach enough. Atlanta does not have a real beach, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Back in the 80’s there was a bar called Buckhead Beach with a sandy outdoor area replete with palm trees and hammocks and volleyball nets. Bikini-clad waitresses walked through the crowds holding trays of colorful drinks.

I was too young to go to Buckhead Beach, but my older brother and his friends would talk about it, and in my imagination I saw a real beach, real palm trees, an ocean even. So my geography was a little lacking back then, but not my imagination.

Back in LA, we were probably 10 miles from the beach, and yet we were not there every day either, or even every weekend for that matter. In fact, one of our favorite escapes was like the opposite of the beach: It was a Mexican restaurant in the Valley called Casa Vega.

You’d walk in on a bright hot Valley day with your sunglasses still on and be blinded by the darkness: dark wood paneling, dark booths, dark carpet, and really low light. Eventually your eyes adjusted, but never completely. Especially after a margarita or two.

It’s a bit pricey these days, but back then you could get a couple margaritas, a burrito, and a celebrity sighting pretty cheap. It was dark enough in there that celebrities seemed to blend in. We’d see Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, when they were still together, dressed way down so you’d barely recognize them in the dimly lit place. Rockers in black leather and spiked hair would wander around like extras from Spinal Tap. Big name directors getting booth readings. Hollywood agents in suits. Hollywood wives discussing the latest treatments. And wannabes counting change for a beer at the bar next to neighborhood regulars who’d been coming there for years. It was a real motley crew.

My wife used to get (and still does) that she looks “just like that woman from Will and Grace… What’s her name… You know?” And we’d smile and nod when they’d say “I bet you get that all the time?” If we had a dollar for every time that happened in LA, we’d be rich. But the only thing we ever got out of it was a good seat at Casa Vega one night.

The place was packed. Probably an hour and a half wait for a table. I guess word had gotten out that the food and drink was affordable and the customers interesting, to put it mildly. We had a group of 6 people from out of town. No reservation. Alex and I approached the hostess and were about to put our name in for a table, when one of the waiters pops out of nowhere, all smiles and compliments. “Good to see you again!” He says to Alex. “How have you been?” “Good,” Alex answers. The waiter shakes my hand and says hello like he knows me too. “We have a table for you and your guests right back here, if you’ll just follow me,” the man says to Alex. On our way through the crowded restaurant Alex looks at me with her red hair and high-cheekbones and shrugs. We got the best table and the best service that night. Our out of town guests thought we were celebrities. And so did the waiter apparently. Thank you Debra Messing.

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Making Deals with Mother Nature

When we bought our new home in Atlanta our realtor was surprised that it came with screens on the windows. We were surprised that she was surprised. Coming from Los Angeles, we were used to keeping windows open to let the nearby ocean breeze blow through our house. The breeze was probably saturated with smog, but at least it was blowing. Screens were common in LA, as were window bars in some neighborhoods.

In our area of Atlanta, we didn’t need the window bars, nor, we found out later, did we really need the screens. Our first few months in the home the windows stayed shut anyway, as we were experiencing an unusually cold winter. I had sold Atlanta on Alex by telling her how mild the climate was, but Mother Nature must not have bought what I was selling because it was sub 30 degrees for about 2 months straight.

Alex didn’t own a winter coat, besides a parka, so we had to venture out into the Atlanta arctic to shop: “Where did you move me?” she said through chattering teeth as we walked quickly across the Macy’s parking lot. One soft hooded winter coat later, and at least her teeth stopped chattering.

Coming into spring, I made the bold announcement that springs are the best in Atlanta. I’d lived here as a kid so I was pretty confident. What I forgot was that spring here comes with a yellow dust that pretty much covers everything. It’s like if the smog in LA covered your car and stuck to it like the sugar on a sugar doughnut. Only this sugar in Atlanta makes you cough and sneeze and sometimes makes you feel like you’ve got a cold: So, kinda’ like smog.

Well, that first spring, we opened our windows and reveled at the screens we had been lucky enough to get for free with our new home. The cool Georgia breeze blew through the house, tickling our cheeks and making us feel one with good old Mother Nature again. But the next morning, our white cat jumped down from lounging in an open window sill looking a little less white. “Why’s the cat look yellow?” Alex asked. I ran a hand across a nearby table and looked at my palm which was now the yellowish color of the cat.

The windows remained shut through spring, and the rest of the hot summer. “Just wait ‘til fall,” I assured my wife, “you’ll love it.” Then I quietly asked Mother Nature to make it a good one.

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Hollywood Purgatory

Waiting for a Hollywood callback is a kind of purgatory. It’s like that trip you’ve saved so long and worked so hard for, but you’ve got that stopover in Atlanta, and a thunderstorm rolls through just as you’re walking down the interminably long terminal to your departure gate, and a God-like voice comes over the speakers and announces that your flight has been canceled.

Well at least in that scenario you get the courtesy of a cancellation call. With Hollywood callbacks, you will not even get that courtesy.

Our house was being considered for a movie. It started with a vague message from someone at the Georgia Film Bureau who asked if we would consider letting a director and a few others into our home to have a look. He said it was for a Robert Redford movie called Come Sunday.

A few days later we greeted four people at our door. They came in and said hello, but you could tell they were only half-listening after the initial niceties. They were eyeing our house like they were already shooting there. Taking pictures, discussing scenes from the script, trying to imagine the world on the page taking life in our home.

The problem was that the story took place in 1990’s Oklahoma and we live in today’s Atlanta. This caused much discussion on how to make this visual trick work. They talked about covering our granite counters with tile, covering the stainless appliances, hiding the 30-foot Tennessee stacked stone fireplace behind a façade of drywall… We weren’t quite sure why they would go to all this trouble, but hey, we’d lived in LA and worked in Hollywood before, and if someone had the funds- and Robert Redford attached- any harebrained idea was feasible.

We had three more visits, and each one got more serious. People from New York, people from LA, a European-accented director of photography, the production designer from the Twilight movies who asked if he could move all of our furniture into our garage for the shoot. We knew they were looking at another home, one that probably fit the time and place better, but we still thought we had it. Then the set designer asked if we had blueprints to our house and we figured it was a done deal, champagne time!

We didn’t want to jinx it at first so we didn’t tell anyone about it, but this was hard to hold in, especially when one of our friends was the biggest Redford fan out there. We told her not to get too excited since we were still waiting, but all she heard was “Robert Redford.” She couldn’t believe it. She even had an old copy of Playgirl magazine- of all things- that he was in: “I’m getting him to sign my magazine!” she proclaimed. A few days later, Redford, announced he would be retiring from acting after one last project: “He could be filming his last role in your house!” she squealed, “I’m going to need those blueprints too, so I can find a hidden spot to live in while they shoot!”

As you can imagine, these things pay bigtime, especially when they take over your whole house for weeks. We started to get ahead of ourselves a bit. We had our bills paid off in our heads and an exotic vacation already planned.

Then we waited, and waited, and waited some more… but alas, the final phone call never came. They were supposed to start shooting in early January. We held out hope until mid-month, but didn’t even get a “thanks, no thanks.”

Welcome to Hollywood purgatory.

And the irony of it all, the main character in the movie was a preacher who was controversial because he didn’t believe in hell. He felt that everyone had the ability to leave purgatory… Like when the storm clears the Atlanta airport and all flights are back on schedule.

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Songs of a City

Cities have songs and musical genres that match each place: sometimes seasonally, sometimes geographically.

When I lived in LA, a friend of mine asked me to write for a documentary he was doing about famed Brazilian musician Laurindo Almeida. We interviewed him weeks before he died and the documentary turned into a tribute concert. The man was a poet and reminisced about how diving with sea turtles in his native Rio painted his dreams and influenced his musical style. He then moved to LA where he had lived for many years, composing for films like the Godfather.

He told me just before his death, what painted his recent dreams in LA was the freeways, and he wanted to do some kind of musical piece that spoke to that. I guessed he was referring to the cars constantly moving in every direction, reflecting light during the day, and giving off light at night. Maybe the ocean-like sound it all created.

LA does have a vibe that you can feel from the road. If LA were a song, it could be a cool jazz samba, like Laurindo Almeida was known for, or it could be a folky tale about driving 500 miles today and never leaving LA, like in the Michelle Shocked song “Come a Long Way.” I’d say depending on where you are in LA, a different song could relate: maybe the Go Go’s “We Got the Beat” for Santa Monica on a clear sunny day; some Jimmy Buffet for Marina del Rey; Joni Mitchell, CSN or Counting Crows for Laurel Canyon…

If Atlanta, where I now live, were a song it might be a rap or hip hop number by Ludacris or Usher. It could be any number of R.E.M. songs, or maybe an older southern rock number like “Champagne Jam” by the appropriately named Atlanta Rhythm Section. This song talks about partying with some “high class booze” and makes me think of the scrappy upbringing of this always growing metropolis with a chip on its shoulder.

What would your city songs be?

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Going Grinch

In LA, we lived one neighborhood over from a place seasonally dubbed “Candy Cane Lane.” Come December, it’s a Christmas wonderland. Cars line up for miles to drive through. I couldn’t imagine buying a house there say in July with no clue, then December 1’st you open your front door to find yourself in Whoville.

Any other time of year, it looked like any other Valley neighborhood with ranch homes, two-story Spanish redos, and garage conversions… which is what always got me: Without garages (or basements for that matter- LA doesn’t do basements) where did they store all the Christmas stuff? There were thirty-foot Santa’s, autonomatronic elf shops, working trains, and lots of smoke and mirrors. And the amazing thing was that these people did the work mostly themselves. Granted, many of them either worked in the entertainment industry, or knew people who did, so getting all the smoke and mirrors was not that difficult.

Now that we are out here in the Atlanta suburbs, it looks beautiful this time of year. There are classy white bulbs following impossible-to-reach roof peaks, giant snowflakes lit up in giant maple trees, and icicle-lights dripping down many a house. But this stuff is done by professional lighting companies, not homeowners.

Our first year here, Alex said she wanted lights out front, so I put a horizontal strand above our front porch. “Can’t you get them to follow the shape of the house?” she asked after not being too impressed with my first offering. “Well, yeah, if I had a thirty-foot ladder, a helmet, and some climbing gear,” I only half-joked while looking up at our high-peaked roof. So, I did what I thought was the next best thing and wrapped our front trees with lights as high as I could (fortunately they were still young and relatively short trees). A few hours later I proudly showed off my work. “Nice,” Alex said, but I got a whiff of patronization. “Hey, we can’t all afford a lighting crew,” I said.

We used to make fun of Candy Cane Lane. It was tacky, but I kind of miss that “do-it-yourself” spirit. In fact, after realizing I’d never be able to keep up with the Jones’ out here, I asked Alex if we could go the opposite direction and steal a page from the Candy Cane Lane playbook. There was a family there who was either really fed up, or possibly Jewish and didn’t celebrate the holiday, who simply put a Grinch in their front window and lit it up with a spotlight so it was the only thing you saw at that house, sitting amongst all the crazy colored lights and moving giant objects of a Candy Cane Lane Christmas.

We bought a Grinch and everything, but Alex said no, not going to happen. I’m keeping the Grinch just in case she changes her mind though. Better shop for a good spotlight too.

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Ceci n’est pas un Cheeseburger

When our French goddaughter was visiting recently, we wanted to show her some iconic Atlanta landmarks. She had been to the Aquarium and World of Coke; seen Centennial Olympic Park, the Margaret Mitchell House, Fox Theater, and MLK museum; she’d even eaten at a Waffle House and liked it. So, I figured we had to take her to The Varsity. Granted, I hadn’t eaten there since I was a kid, and my wife (being from California by way of Florida) had never set foot in the place.

But hey, locals rave about it to this day, so how bad could it be? It’s been there forever and was one of the few pregame fast food joints available to fathers and sons going to see Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets or Atlanta Braves games. Celebrities, president’s and president’s-to-be have all eaten there. The building was a cutting edge design when commissioned, and it still looks retro cool to this day. The sign and logo have that retro cool vibe as well. There’s the catchy “what’ll ya’ have!?” and ordering lingo that includes the gem: “naked dog walkin’.” I’ve even heard it was the largest-by-square-foot fast food place in the world at one time.

We were starving when we pulled into the lot, but I felt obligated to play tour guide to the newbies and offer a brief history. I pointed out the cool architecture, the carhops, and the size of the place. Our goddaughter Ines was impressed. We entered to a throng of people waiting to order and “what’ll ya have!?” being shouted over the din. Ines got a little intimidated by it all, so Alex ordered cheeseburgers, and onion rings for us. “What’s a frosted orange?” Alex asked me as the guy punched in our order. “It’s like a shake,” I said as she turned to add to the order, “but just get two, I’ll have a sip of yours.” Alex was looking at other people’s food coming out as she replied, “I think you’re going to want one.” To which I stupidly said “nah.” After many years together, I should know better and just take her advice.

When we got our food it looked like something from a public school cafeteria circa 1985. They may call it The Varsity, but the food is more JV, or peewee really. The bun was a smashed white bread of the cheapest kind. The cheese was still cold, and the thin burger disc (I couldn’t even call it a patty) was grey/brown in color and had those little grease bubbles that only appear on this type of meat. The onion rings didn’t look or taste much better. Ines wasn’t much to complain, but I swear I heard her mumble “ceci n’est pas une pipe” before digging in anyway.

Alex, after a few bites, took a sip of her frosted orange. “You can have my food, I’ll just enjoy my shake,” she said with a smile. I shrugged it off and gave it the old college try. About halfway through my onion rings, I noticed Ines had given up on her meal and was enjoying her shake as she looked at Atlanta’s skyline through The Varsity windows. I got up to order a frosted orange for myself and decided my wife was just as right about the shake as she is about most everything, and Ines was right about the cheeseburger not being a pipe– or a cheeseburger for that matter.

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Sounds of the City

The freeway hums 24/7 like a swarm of bees, dogs bark in staccato, and leaf blowers whine like mobs of Italian mopeds. Add an occasional helicopter chasing a criminal or circling a freeway accident, and this is the LA soundscape. Sure, you can drown it out with the ocean waves at the beach or maybe high up in the hills, but that’s just temporary for most.

When we moved from LA to Atlanta, we thought it would be more quiet, and it is in some ways- it’s not as 24/7 like LA- but Atlanta can have all those LA sounds and more; even in the outer suburbs where we are. We’ve got volleys of gunshots (probably deer hunters, but who really knows), dirt bikes and ATV’s roaming the woods, and the constant beep-beep-beep of construction crew vehicles creating new subdivisions and doing roadwork on seemingly every road in every direction.

Paris has its strange police sirens; Chicago has the noisy L-trains; and New York its Taxi horns (or did that go away with the advent of Uber?). If I were to pick one sound that stands out in Atlanta and its suburbs, it’s that beep-beep-beep. Even at the airport at 8am when you’re trying to calm down after fighting through traffic, parking shuttles, and TSA attitudes, you can’t escape the beep-beep-beep of airport carts.

Atlanta and LA have a lot in common: both are sprawling, car-centric places, with their own music, sports and entertainment scenes; both can be loud in their own ways. Hopefully, there’s just enough quiet to be found in either place for someone to remain sane. That, or I’ll just go deaf from the beep-beep-beeps—then my noise sensitivity won’t be an issue at all.

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Death of the Disco Kroger

I pulled into the parking lot in Buckhead after a long day with Alex hunting bargains at every Cost Plus World Market in Atlanta. This one was our final stop, right in the corner of a strip mall that I suddenly remembered from my youth. “This World Market used to be the hottest nightclub in Atlanta,” I told my wife. “No way?” she said, not quite able to imagine it. “The Limelight. It started out as a disco. They had giant speakers people danced on top of, and various rooms full of debauchery, a velvet rope, and valet parking right here in front,” I said as I pulled into a parking spot in the first row. “A friend of mine told me he woke up in his car here one morning with the sun shining in his eyes, not really knowing where he was or how he got there.” “That’s pathetic,” said Alex, who was possibly learning more about me and my old friends than she wanted.

Getting out of the car, I pointed to the large Kroger next door, “and that is the Disco Kroger.” Atlantan’s are known to nickname their Kroger’s: there’s also the Cruising Kroger, Hipster Kroger, Granny Kroger, even Murder Kroger.

Back in the Limelight’s heyday, the Disco Kroger was named because it was open 24-7, so people exiting the club would pop in for snacks or smokes or condoms or whatever a sweaty, ears-still-ringing, heart-still-pumping-to-the-beat-of-the-music kid needed at 3 in the morning.

Another friend of mine’s mother used to shop there late at night. Her advice to her son: “Nothing good happens after midnight. Only drunks and lunatics are out.” I’m not sure if she was the former or latter, but she had a point.

Walking into the World Market/Limelight we heard what sounded like Turkish instrumental music. Alex said only half joking, “I was kinda’ hoping they’d be playing disco.” There was an older employee sullenly stocking shelves. “He could use a little disco,” I murmured a little loudly. The man perked up when he heard this and smiled, so I asked him: “do you remember what used to be here?” “Do I! I was a regular!” he said; “still am, I guess.”

After a few crazy stories from his Limelight days, he informed us that this was all going to be gone soon anyway to make room for new office buildings or some-such thing. “That’s a shame,” I said, taking it all in. “How about the Disco Kroger? Will it stay?” “Probably not, they have a new spot just up the road.” “And the disco ball?” (Apparently the old disco ball from the Limelight was now in the Disco Kroger.) “No idea,” he answered, “but I hope someone keeps it. Boy, if that ball could talk…” he said, shaking his head wistfully as he went back to work.

The homogenization of Atlanta continues, but hey, the memories are stayin’ alive…. I’ve got a great idea for the new owners: Make the old disco ball the center-piece of the whole new development and call the place Disco Plaza! And hire the World Market guy to be a doyenne. Now that would help keep Atlanta quirky.

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