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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Roswell GA not NM

When we moved from LA to Roswell, Georgia, our friends made jokes about hillbillies and aliens. They had the wrong Roswell of course: the only aliens in our Roswell are folks from other countries, like the Frenchman who started a gourmet market with his American wife; and as for hillbillies, they are further in the hills than this Atlanta suburb.

Roswell may not be our be-all end-all, but it has been a nice place to live. The main drag, Canton Street, is about one mile of franchise-free space. It has a unique walkable atmosphere with old houses and brick buildings made into restaurants, bars, art galleries and such. (Alex has some of her fine art photography in Roswell Provisions, the French market. You can see some of her photos here.)

On Canton Street there are always people walking from place to place, or lounging at outdoor tables. There’s an open-carry law, and not the gun kind, that lets you take your drinks with you as you stroll around. The area has even become a draw for the younger, hipper, city crowd. I met a girl in her early twenties at a business meeting who lived in the always desirable Buckhead. When I told her I lived in Roswell, I thought she’d say “that’s nice,” but instead replied, “oh, that’s so cool. We take Ubers up there all the time!”

We’ve found some hidden gems in the area as well. There’s an old mill that harnessed the power of an offshoot of the Chattahoochee river more than 150 years ago. The mill area has a covered bridge, trails and historic markers that lead to a dam. The dam creates a man-made waterfall. In summer kids swim under and even underneath the falling water. So far, the mill area hasn’t been lawyerized with protective fences and redundant signage, or monetized with parking and entrance fees.

There are examples of antebellum architecture in the handful of columned old founder’s homes that somehow survived Sherman’s fiery path. Bulloch Hall sits on probably the highest point in Roswell with a wide wraparound porch and sprawling grounds. Roosevelt’s mother lived here as a young girl. It’s a good place to have a picnic under the shade of its giant oak trees, or sit on a rocking chair on the porch and imagine you’re Rhett and Scarlett.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all old south antebellum either. Alex wouldn’t have moved here if there wasn’t easy access to a Costco, Trader Joe’s, Michael’s, or Jo-Ann’s. Places I’m sure Rhett would say he didn’t give a damn about, and then find himself following Scarlett around looking for fabric she could fasten into her next gown…just as long as he was able to have a mint julep on the porch when they got home.

We’ve found that Roswell has something for all the Rhett’s and Scarlett’s, LA expats, and even aliens and hillbillies.

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Southern Fried

Living in LA we had some of the best and most diverse food anywhere, and we are foodies so we were in heaven. In fact, Alex is such a good cook and home-stylist, that at one time I wanted to pitch a TV show called “Move Over Martha” with Alex as a younger, hipper Martha Stewart.

Moving to Atlanta, I’m sure Alex had her reservations (no pun intended) but she was quick to realize that Atlanta takes its food as seriously as any major city. Just like LA, it has trendy spots with the latest crazes, like farm-to-table; different ethnic areas with signs and menus in other languages; giant world markets like Buford Highway and Decatur Farmer’s, where regular Joes and Janes, and Joses and Juanas, can shop alongside chefs in double-breasted jackets and Crocs who are picking up last minute items for their evening menus. And of course Atlanta has southern food.

In LA, there are a few places that claim to serve southern, but they tend to lean more toward the soul aspect, or the southwest rather than southeast. Tex-Mex is good, but it’s not southern.

In Atlanta, they have southern down: They’ve got shrimp and grits; variations on anything fried, like the green tomato, and of course chicken. In LA, the meat aisle of most local grocery chains is probably half chicken, half beef. In Atlanta it is chicken 60-40, maybe 70-30.

There is great fried chicken at most good restaurants in Atlanta, like Table and Main in Roswell, but the local Kroger grocers have some that competes with all of these. The first time we ate Kroger fried chicken we were in the middle of our move, so an unfair advantage I know—Pizza Hut can almost taste gourmet after you’ve moved a thousand boxes and haven’t eaten all day—but the second and third time at Kroger was unbiasedly just as good. We were so impressed, we started using a soft ‘g’ when saying the name of the place to make it sound more fancy. “Where are you eating tonight?” our friends from LA would ask. “Krozhay,” we would say in our best French accent.

Who knows, maybe “Move over LA” will be my next TV show pitch?

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Alligator hors-d’oeuvres on the Chattahoochee

I shouldn’t have told my wife about the alligator. She had wanted to take a float down Atlanta’s river, the Chattahoochee, ever since we’d moved here and seen people drifting down casually in colorful rafts and tubes as we drove over the river’s few overpasses.

“Few” is an understatement really. You might not even know Atlanta has a river if you blink as you drive over one of the freeway overpasses. It’s a long and wide river, but on Atlanta’s map it’s like a wisp of smoke floating up the western nose of the city and over its head to the north-east.

The river here is not really used like other cities use bodies of water. There is no River-Walk, there is no grand park with a river view, there’s no real commercial center on any part of the river. There’s really only one restaurant with a river view that I know of, appropriately named Ray’s on the River.

The Chattahoochee is more of a nature-protected area for floaters, hikers and fishing. Unless you own one of the nice homes on the suburban banks, or are floating past one of these homes, you really can’t appreciate it too much as a casual tourist.

So Alex wanted to “Shoot the Hooch” as they say locally… that is until I told her about the alligator. I had read an article about a large one living in the Chattahoochee that had been photographed and seen every so often over the last ten years. This was a 7-foot creature that did not belong this far north, but somehow found himself here and adapted (kind of like my wife and I adapting to Atlanta from Los Angeles).

It took me a bit of cajoling and the promise of a raft, not an inner tube, since there’s at least a bottom to a raft and some space to move around lest you get attacked by anything, but I finally talked her back into the idea.

Well, the day we chose to go happened to be Labor Day and the only flotation devices still available on this crowded day were inner tubes. “Oh, hell no,” said Alex. “I am not letting my toes dangle in that water for the next two hours like alligator hors-d’oeuvres.” And that was that.

I recently read the alligator was trapped and toes are now safe to dangle. When I told Alex the good news, she replied “what about the snakes?”

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