ATLANTA—I am in the big city today, covering the arrival of fall. I am sitting on a bench, reading an Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. I am a longtime admirer of this paper. I’ve been reading it since boyhood, back when we would visit family here in Atlanta.
When I hold this newspaper, I still remember my first pangs of literary ambition. I was a kid who wanted to be a writer. A columnist, even. I dreamed of a thrilling life in journalism, filled with rewarding work, the machine-gun sound of newsroom typewriters, grumpy editors in suspenders, and above all, an expense account.
But some things are never meant to be. I didn’t even start writing until I was a grown man who had barely finished community college.
I am taking the MARTA bus today. I figured, why not? The weather is nice. Fall is here. And most importantly, I hate Atlanta traffic.
When I was a kid we lived here for a hot minute. To live in this city means spending half your life stuck on Interstate 285, physically abusing your steering wheel during gridlock.
Riding the MARTA bus is a more mellow experience. The bus takes me through town while I read the sports section.
The bus arrives at an upscale shopping area. I visit a few stores. A strange lady sprays cologne on me against my will. One man in a kiosk begs me to buy a timeshare. I get a three-dollar massage in a coin-operated recliner. You can’t beat it.
For lunch, I eat at a taco joint. Atlanta is full of taco joints.
“Tacos are huge in Atlanta,” one taco employee tells me. “We cater tons of weddings, everyone wants tacos at their wedding.”
I believe it. A few months ago, I attended a friend’s wedding. It was a fancy event with porta-potties and an outdoor tent. A dance band played “Mustang Sally” for country club members who had been overserved and spent the night bumping and grinding with their spouses, many of whom resembled Captain Kangaroo and Barbara Bush. There are some things you can’t unsee.
The wedding dinner was tacos. These were not regular tacos, but gourmet tacos with weird meat fillings like goat, octopus, and sweetbread.
“What’s sweetbread?” I asked a groomsman sitting next to me.
“It’s pancreas,” he said. “Lamb, I think.”
I guess they decided against the chocolate fondue fountain.
After lunch, I visit a few trendy clothing stores. A retail employee named Erin sees me browsing and gives me free fashion advice. She has lots of tattoos and multiple piercings.
Erin looks at me with a thoughtful frown and says, “Dude, I totally recommend a graphic Tee and a blazer.”
She takes me to see the T-shirts with logos. These are called “graphic Tees,” as opposed to, for example, “T-shirts with pictures on them.” They’re all the rage. Erin shows me her particular favorite graphic Tee. On the front is a pink shark with a little cloud coming from beneath its tail. The text reads: “Mommy farts, y’all.”
“I just love this one,” says Erin.
You have to wonder about America’s youth.
When I was a kid, you had two basic T-shirts. White undershirts with cheap fabric so thin you could read a book through them. And the Leave It To Beaver Special—a tight-fitting shirt that usually exposed your belly and made you look like a mama’s boy who still sucked his thumb.
So I buy a few graphic tees. Erin also talks me into a pair of sensible shoes. Next, I do some people-watching from a bench. I buy an ice cream cone and read a few more pages of the paper.
When I’m done, I wait at the bus stop. Here, I meet a boy. He’s fifteen. He wears an Atlanta Braves T-shirt. I ask if he’s been to any games this season.
“No,” says the boy. “My little brother can’t do crowds. And I won’t watch a game without him. That’s a promise we made each other. We always watch them on TV.”
“That’s pretty nice of you,” I say.
“Not really. He’s my brother.”
In a few minutes we see a boy walking on the sidewalk. The boy has Down syndrome, and is accompanied by a young woman. He is hooking arms with her. They are laughing.
“That’s him,” says the fifteen-year-old. “My little brother. He always tells me he’s gonna steal my girlfriend.”
“LOOK!” says his brother. “I STOLE YOUR GIRLFRIEND!”
“See what I mean?” says the young man.
If I were smiling any bigger, I’d pull a muscle.
Soon, I am on the bus again. I am looking out the window at millions of people go by. The skyscrapers. The cars. The restaurants. A university hospital that once saved my mother’s life. A newspaper that made me want to dedicate my life to sentences and paragraphs. And a baseball team I love.
I don’t know why I feel so nostalgic when I’m here. I’m not an Atlantan. Maybe it’s the tacos.
The bus driver arrives at my stop. I stand. I leave my folded newspaper on the bus seat behind me. Not because I’m finished reading it. But because, who knows, maybe the beauty of the written word will change some little boy’s life.
Like it did mine.