Full circle: ‘Lowlifes,’ drifters and resettled New Yorkers on the outskirts of God’s country
ATLANTA, Ga.—Outside the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, I ran into John Carter, "not of Mars," he said with a grin.
This was John Carter of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His parents brought him from there to Warner Robins, Georgia 30 years ago, when he was three years old. Now the clean-cut case manager said the move had been "a blessing from God."
It was "a direct product of Reaganomics," he said. "The economy wasn't that strong overall but my dad was able to find employment in the Middle Georgia area, so he came here."
Now John's son is turning three, and just as his father's parents had once moved to Alabama from Georgia to stake out a future, he brought the journey full circle here. Well, maybe not a circle, as it seems the loop never quite closes: Given that his specialized field, Adult Protective Services, might not yield enough opportunities for him in Middle Georgia, he fears having to pull up roots again soon.
"Relocation wouldn't be out of the picture," he said, with palpable sadness. "I love it here. It's such a good area to raise kids."
That's what just about everyone says in Warner Robins. The place is pretty and quiet, despite being a city of military industry, where sonic booms and emergency drills sometimes disturb the peace. Still, whether nervous about job prospects there or haunted by past unexpected upheavals, folks generally stand ready to get back on the road, if necessary. It's nice place to live, but nobody I ran into there, young or old, seemed bolted to the ground.
Faith Richardson breezed in from Detroit in 2008. I ran into her while she was on a two-and-a-half mile Saturday walk I mistook for an exercise regimen. She was actually headed to Walmart in her black track suit.
"I really enjoy myself," she said. "Prior to getting here, I was used to a higher tempo, faster pace of work—and a higher workload. When I got here, I was truly thanking the Lord!"
Though she hasn't yet reached 20 years of service in her Air Force career, other officers entering retirement sold her on Warner Robins as a "great P.C.S."—Permanent Change of Station. She says, as comfortable as her husband and kids are with the town, there is no long-term plan: "Wherever the Lord sends us next, that's where we'll be."
So many of the nomads and townies I met in Middle Georgia leave a lot up to the Lord. Suburban Warner Robins and its swampy, bluesy neighbor, Macon, seem to contain as many churches as trees. Billboards and marquees remind the populace to trust in God.
When I left Warner Robins to check out the scene in Macon, I met up with a class of Christian wanderers I'm more familiar with: the homeless. At Macon Rescue Mission, prayers are as essential a part of the diet as bread and water. It was the week of Good Friday, and the mandatory evening service that Tuesday took us through the entire Passion of Christ according to Matthew. Betrayal, torture, death, resurrection.
"He did all of that just for all of us lowlifes," said the jovial, heavyset white preacher in closing.
His sermon focused on the fact that Jesus made the "lowlifes," the Rescue Mission types, his priority. He even washed the feet of Rescue Mission types.
But as with Warner Robins, there were lots of folks from all over, just passing through. That Wednesday morning, I met a man from Brooklyn who had explored New York City's shelter system as thoroughly as I had. I actually lost the pissing match when he described his time in the city's two most notorious prison-like shelters, Bedford-Atlantic (a.k.a. Castle Grayskull) and Ward's Island (a.k.a. Baby Rikers). He recalled waking up face-to-face with a musclebound maniac staring lovingly at him, sucking his thumb. Match point.
Over at the Macon Salvation Army, I bonded with a former casting agent from L.A. who was stuck in the Y's residential rehabilitation program for six months, as an alternative to a D.U.I. jail term. His stories of wild times among the Black Hollywood elite will be a scorching book one day. But what the hell was he doing in Macon and not some jumpin' place like Atlanta? He said Macon's where he happened to get nabbed, in the midst of visiting his uncle, another career military person in Warner Robins. He thanked God that at least he avoided jail.
It seems that every third building in Macon's poorer areas (the depressed, boarded-up neighborhoods that are home to the Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army) is devoted to thanking God. Little wood-frame, pocket-sized ministries and larger brick-and-mortar houses of prayer. Garages, liquor stores and groceries fill in the blanks.
As my niece in Warner Robins informed me, bodies had a habit of accumulating in the blanks that hadn't been filled, gravel lots wildly overgrown and littered with trash and ancient car skeletons. She had pointed out the church stairwell that, when she first landed in Macon (before God blessed her with opportunities in W.R.), someone had told her was the site of a hooker's brutal murder only days prior. I couldn't stop staring at the modest awning.
Further in town, where the hospital and Mercer University draw bright young professionals, God gives way to ghosts. Gorgeous 19th-century estates line each side of many blocks, some of them preserved as tourist sites. Most of it has been carved up into housing for college kids, without any renovations that would obscure their eerie antebellum history.
One placard describes The Stoneman Raid, a Civil War battle that turned Macon into a Fallujah-like bloodbath. As unsettling as it was to walk past the silent crack houses between the Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army at dawn, moving among the former homes of slave masters and confederate officers was far more rattling.
Like General Grant, I was bound for Atlanta, but like General Stoneman I had to spend a little more time in Macon than planned. No money to leave town until week's end. Aside from the shelters, the bleached-white, colonial-looking Washington Memorial Library is the place for transients to kill time.
After doing some research and writing there, I wandered across the street to Washington Park, where a WMAZ news van idled.
"What's the big story?" I asked a technician who was resting in the van's belly, with the side door open.
"Trayvon vigil in an hour," he said. "You're right on time."
It actually turned out to be a tribute to "the Martins"—Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, Jr. About 20 people showed up to hear a little boy recite M.L.K.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and some adults cry for justice in the Trayvon "Stand Your Ground" killing. The event was as dreary as you'd expect of a plea for basic civil rights that folks died making 50 years ago. During the closing moment of silence, I imagined spectral, mocking voices. They were saying: still dreaming?
After two more nights in Macon's overcrowded shelters, I cashed a paycheck and headed northeast to Atlanta, out of God's country. The sky in the Atlanta metro area is much further away than in the high-elevation "heart of Georgia," where the clouds always seem just out of reach, and the churches are just another part of the landscape.
In Decatur, a commuter city which is to Atlanta what the Bronx and lower Westchester are to Manhattan, I found more car-dealership flags than crosses and steeples. The hotel I settled into, the Metro Extended Stay, sees a lot of traffic from local med students, Atlanta Center for Disease Control employees and Emory University undergrads, according to the cool Ray Winstone lookalike at the front desk. People on the move. I thought this was a good place to finally start practicing two of my religions, nomadism and writing, in earnest.
But the next day, I was standing on a platform in a megachurch. I was operating an HD camera for the Springfield Baptist Church's Easter Sunday service. About 200 dancers in eye-popping colors streamed down the aisles as a choir of at least 50 world-class singers on stage behind the pulpit made a joyful noise. The 3,000-seat space was filled to capacity. How did I get here, I wondered, as I glanced up at the two Jumbotron-sized screens that displayed my work live.
Well, it turned out that my brother Rob lived just a half-hour away from the hotel. When I gave him a call upon arrival Saturday, he'd rushed over to see me, then took me to his beautiful home in Conyers, which I had never seen.
We weren't estranged or anything, but our sharply divergent lifestyles had kept us apart for many years. As close as we had been growing up, as adults we simply drifted into different worlds. He became a great success with a wife, two kids and a house Tyler Perry could easily scout for one of his upper-middle class fantasias. I became a writer. Six months in Georgia, I'd seen him only once, when his family dropped in on me at the Warner Robins apartment last fall.
He is the video director at the church, responsible for webcasting, operating a live video switcher and guiding a robotic camera for every event. By coincidence, his main cameraman couldn't make it to the Easter morning service, so I happily filled in.
Just before the service started, Rob climbed up on the camera platform to make sure I was all set. "I must be dreaming all this," he said at one point. "My brother is here."
Feeling a very rare, woozy kind of happiness, I told him not to wake up, then, please. He put a hand on my shoulder, bowed his head, and gave a prayer of thanks for bringing us together.