4:13 pm Apr. 4, 20123
MACON, Ga.—At Macon Rescue Mission, they're turning away the locals. It's too nice outside, and the facility space is too limited. But I'm from Warner Robins, the town next door, so I got a bed.
The front-desk guy who answered the phone around 6 p.m. told me to come on over. When I got there, he took my state I.D. and called the Macon police department to make sure I wasn't running from any warrants. In less than 10 minutes, the house man escorted me to the day room, where some guys were shooting pool and others were watching a World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame ceremony on the big TV.
"Leave your bags here," the house man said. "Follow me."
I followed him—with my bags. He gave me a tour of the first floor—laundry, shower room—but bristled at the sight of me still loaded down with bags.
When we got back to the day room, he joked, "You got weapons in there? Drugs?"
Some of the guys laughed.
"Nah, I'll have to borrow somebody's," I said.
"Your stuff is safe in here," he said. "Ain't nobody gonna take it."
Later, I would understand his irritation. There were surveillance cameras everywhere. As a former men's shelter security guard, I should have known better. If somebody stole my stuff, all staff would have to do was pull up the video. No more scrolling through a tape that might have run out before the incident. Surveillance is now a matter of digital files stored in huge hard drives.
Still, memories of losing so much in New York City shelters linger. There was the guy who came into the first floor bathroom at Bellevue Men's Shelter while I was busy inside a stall. He went to take a leak, whistling Madonna's "Like a Prayer" all the way to the sink directly in front of my stall, whistling, I later realized, as he kept his body facing the mirror over the sink, but with one of his arms stretched behind him, into a pocket of the winter vest I had draped over the stall door. The pocket that had my wallet. He whistled on out the door. So, yeah, my bags come with me.
The house man showed me the shower room and warned that I had to get one before 10 p.m. or else wait until the morning. He brought me a thin, bleach-battered white towel and wash cloth.
"You got soap?"
A stocky man dressing a mattress on the hallway floor said to me, "You've come to the right place, brother. This is the place."
I said, "Oh, yeah? I'm glad to know that, thank you."
We introduced ourselves, and I stopped myself from asking why he was sleeping in the hallway. I went into the day room, where, on the television, wrestling legends the Four Horsemen were giving acceptance speeches at their induction ceremony into the WWE Hall of Fame. Each of the inductees had that battered, ruddy wrestler face Mickey Rourke made indelible in The Wrestler—except that they had fresh haircuts and dark, tight dress suits that seemed graffitied on.
The crowd of thousands at the event was thunderous. There was excitement at the Macon Rescue Mission, too: Each time a guy passing through the day room en route to the back courtyard glanced at the TV, he would say, "The Four Horsemen!"
Despite lots of exposure to the WWF long before the pressure of pretending to be a legitimate sport led it to replace the "Federation" with "Entertainment," I couldn't remember the Horsemen. But it seemed like everyone around me was in awe. Each Horseman spoke with great humility about the honor and privilege of entertaining several generations of wrestling fans. A senior member with a silver goatee and piercing gray eyes even took it to a spiritual level, saying that all wrestlers and wrestling fans worldwide are family, connected across time and geography by the abiding love of the show.
There were reaction-shots of emotional audience members, including a few wrestling V.I.P.s like John Cena and the occasional dude in a tux and lucha libre mask. People laugh at pro-wrestling fans the way they laugh at Trekkies or adult gamers. But here were grandfather-aged men confessing that they had devoted their lives to what they clearly considered an art form, with an eloquence the people who laugh at wrestling would almost certainly have deemed them incapable of.
Then Mike Tyson appeared. There he was on the arena's Jumbotron, in a montage of his greatest moments with the WWE. Mostly it was just Iron Mike talking trash to various wrestling superstars before punching them out. I'd had no idea Mike boasted a career in pro wrestling any more prolific than Mr. T's or Cyndi Lauper's.
The montage was sorrowful. Mike just didn't have it in him to play the cartoon bully probably specified in his contract, so we watched him going through the motions as his eyes roamed sadly over the path that had brought him so far from the championship boxing.
Two wrestlers announced his live appearance after one teased the other about being among Mike's knockout victims. Tyson stepped out in a pinstripe suit, flanked by two jiggling glamazons in porn-star dresses. The crowd made a confusing mix of noises that mostly sounded like cheering.
His speech was strange and rambling and human. Attempts at Iron Mike cockiness trailed off into self-deprecating rumination or whiny laments—nothing to rouse your average Wrestlemaniac. There had always been a fragile emo nerd at the dead center of Tyson's psyche, and that was who concluded his speech, backing away with an apologetic grin.
"Mike still bad!" said one of the old guys sitting on the couch close to the TV. "You see those two fine-ass girls he got?"
The guy sleeping in the hallway came into the day room. "Can you come here for a second, brother?"
I followed him to his spot in the hall, where he handed me a plastic shopping bag full of sandwiches, snacks and bottled water.
"I ate already, so you can have this if you're hungry," he said.
I took it and thanked him. The rules said no eating in the day room, so I went to the courtyard. Guys were playing scrabble, smoking and working out.
I sat on a bench near the house man, who spoke to me as if making an announcement to all: "Only thirty minutes left if you wanna take a shower!"
Others looked at me and concurred with nods.
"Yeah, otherwise you gotta wait till the A.M.," one guy said.
What was it with these guys and showers?
"I'm good till the morning," I said, thinking about how I would stack my property as close to the shower curtain as possible without getting it all wet. The nerve of me, pitying Mike Tyson.
A portly middle-aged white guy in wire frame glasses, white tee and sweats took a seat on the bench, jovially talking shit to the mostly black group of fellas. He turned to me with advice on which "brown-nosers" and snitches to avoid—the joke being that the folks he was talking about were within earshot. They all bickered happily.
It's always a treat, the sound of unforced, jazzy verbal jousting between the races, especially in a town like Macon, where WHITE and COLORED signs chiseled over the old train depot bathrooms still provide ghostly context.
These old guys might as well have had guitars and harmonicas. In that sense, Macon is easy to understand as the home of Otis Redding, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers Band. Its location at the state's precise geographic center isn't the only reason Macon is called The Heart of Georgia.
When I went back into the day room, the lights were off and all eyes were on the TV, where The Rock was standing in a wrestling ring wearing jeans and T-shirt. He was speaking calmly to thousands in the arena, not flexing or hollering or bugging his eyes out.
After a decade in lucrative B movies, this was not The Rock but Duane "The Rock" Johnson, free of the obligation to perform in manic character, if not from the task of selling. He sounded like a smooth WWE rep. Or maybe he was aware of the suspense he was creating for the fanboy multitudes. They were waiting for the first eruption of his old persona.
Before I could see whether the suspense crescendoed or fizzled, the house man tapped me on the shoulder. "It's time to get your bed."
I followed him to another man sleeping in the hallway, at the far end. The house man told him to give me a mattress. He peeled back his top one to let me drag the bottom one halfway down the hall, to where the house man pointed before handing me a pile of sheets.