“Dr. King’s Grave, Ebenezer Baptist Church, & Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia” © 2006, 2007 Stu Jenks
[Image: "Dr. King's Grave, Atlanta, Georgia"]
My E-MU synthesizer and my Johnson mandolin sleep in the their hard cases along the wall. The door to my mini-balcony on the 22nd floor is open, letting in the warm breezes of an early summer Atlanta morning. The soft distant sounds of honking car horns echoes up from the street below. A cup of expensive but good coffee is in my hand. I step out onto the balcony and light a Camel.
Yesterday was weird. Got on a plane out of Tucson at 6 a.m. Landed in Atlanta at Noon. A massage therapist associated with the conference picked me up and got me to the Hyatt at around 2 p.m. Brief sound check at 4. Ate some snacks at 6. And then there I was, a bit after eight, playing my spiritual soundtracks on my E-MU for the meet and greet after the opening ceremony of The Mythic Journeys Conference 2006.
Ari reported later at the bar, that when Carolyn saw me playing the keyboard she said, “Is there anything that Stu doesn’t do?”
Sweet of her to say but the gig sucked. I had no monitor so I couldn’t hear myself and I couldn’t turn up my headphones for they were in series with the master output of the XK-6 (And what I do is lay down ambient background music, loud enough to set the mood for the event, whatever that might be, but not play so loud as to draw attention away from the conversations of others. A New Age lounge performer if you will.) I’ve done this kind of gig before, playing for art openings and parties back home, but this was different. Way different.
First, I didn’t have my own P.A. Was using Mythic Journeys’. Couldn’t hear shit. Playing just from muscle memory, praying it sounded OK, out there on the floor.
Second, there were a shit load of people in the room and they were louder and more rambunctious than I’m use to playing to. At one point, someone almost put a cocktail glass on my keyboard until I gave her a dirty look with a phony smile attached to it and she backed away.
And third, I was dead tired and really hungry and I could smell the strong scent of the pricey buffet table, just twenty feet to my left. But I was working, doing my gig, filling the space with clouds. I couldn’t take a break for chicken wings.
After 45 minutes of playing blind and knowing if I didn’t get a Diet Coke soon I would just scream, I stopped and went to the open bar and got a soda. Standing there, I smiled, thinking about my conversation with Charles a couple hours prior. I had mentioned to him that I was incredibly tired and if I fell asleep playing my music (which I have done at home while recording a couple of times), that I needed someone to come over to me and yell “Shift!” so I’d get off the A Minor 7th I’m stuck on.
Bless his heart, ten minutes ago, he came by and did just that.
“Shift!” Charles yelled, with a big grin on his face.
I laughed as I went to play a big C chord.
There were some good moments though. I did play well (I think), and my atmos did give the room a nice feel, but all and all, it was one weird fucking gig.
After the meet and greet, I caught up with some friends at the bar that I hadn’t seen since the last Mythic Journeys Conference two years ago. Caught a few songs of Michaela’s gig in a back room of the Business Center, but I was too wired and tired to sit still for long. Back to the bar I went, for a few more rabid stories and a few more flirtations with that pretty girl from California and then I was done for the night.
Didn’t sleep well, but that’s fine. I don’t sleep well at home either. Getting old I guess or maybe I just haven’t tasted the soft skin of a red headed woman for a while, and that's affected my sleep. I wish.
I take a big draw off my large coffee. Take another drag off the Camel, and lean over the concrete railing and take in the view from 22 stories up. This is a sweet room. Too bad I don’t have someone to share it with. But who knows. This is a convention. What happens in Atlanta stays in Atlanta.
Another sip of coffee. I look down. A drunk hits up a tourist for change. I check the clock near the king sized bed. Around 9:30. My panel on “What the Soul looks like” isn’t until tomorrow so today I’m pretty free. I checked the list of other panels this morning and there is nothing there I can’t live without.
This morning is when I should shoot. Light blue sky. Few clouds. This’ll do just fine.
I promised Judith I would shoot Ebenezer Baptist Church while I was here, and judging from my MARTA map, a subway station is just one block south of here and then it’s a quick skip and a jump to a train stop near Dr. King’s grave. I smile. I get to take the subway here in Atlanta. The only subway in The South I bet.
I go to my bags and get out my Brownie. I check the front pouch of the camera case. Plenty of film. I leave the Rollei, and the Pentax. Going for the Artsy Fartsy shot today.
I take another drag off my Camel and drop it in my makeshift ashtray on the balcony, a Diet Coke can with some water in it. I drain my coffee and check my pocket for smokes. Enough. Check to see if my room key is with me. Tucked away in my wallet. Spectacles, testicles. I’m good to go.
My room door slams loudly behind me as I head for the elevator. Sorry, neighbors.
Forty minutes later, I’m getting off the MARTA at the King Memorial Rail Station. I could have walked just as quickly from my hotel downtown as taken the train. Perhaps I’ll walk back.
I follow the signs with Dr. King’s likeness on them and in a couple of blocks I’m there. Been here before, two years ago, twice. First when I was setting up the Open Cairn Installation for Mythic Journeys 2004, a second time with my mother when the conference was in full swing. The first was the most powerful. Ain’t that always the way it is.
These few blocks of Auburn Avenue are now a national historic site, fully equipped with park rangers in dark green polyester uniforms and Smokey the Bear hats. Not a good part of town but not a bad part of town either. And back in the days of segregation, Auburn Avenue was uptown for black folk, coined “Sweet Auburn: The richest Negro street in the world”. Standing at the corner of Auburn and Jackson, I can still see hints of its past grandeur. To the east, up a little hill are the restored homes of Martin Luther King Junior and Senior. Just across the street to the north is the new Ebenezer Baptist Church, a red brick palace of faith rising high to the skies. Next to it, is the expansive Visitors Center, with its many exhibits of the history of segregation and the fight to freedom. To the west on the other side of I-75, the skyscrapers of Downtown Atlanta grow out of the high hill ground. A little off to my left is the elevated tomb of Dr. King, resting in the center of a calm reflection pool. (I can’t see his grave but I know it’s there.) And directly behind me and above me is the humble old Ebenezer Baptist Church, looking the same as it did back in the 1960’s, still displaying the neon-signed cross at its threshold.
I walk in. I know the way. Two black women in green uniforms say hello. I say hey back. Up a quick flight of stairs and I’m in the sanctuary.
A small church really. Modest balcony. A good number of pews. A pulpit for preaching. An altar for prayer. A half dozen narrow stained-glass windows grace the east and west wall. I take out the Brownie and take a few shots. So little light but I’ll try. I pop the shots and then find a place in a pew.
It’s around ten on a weekday when school is out. I’m the only person there. From small white speakers on either side of the altar come the words of Dr. King, his recorded voice loud and strong and digitally cleaned. I remember before, two years ago, listening to the ‘I Had A Dream’ speech. Today, it’s the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Speech, my very favorite one, the last speech he gave the night before he was shot. I sit and listen and after a while, I begin to cry. I know this speech. Have it on tape somewhere at home. I listened as Dr. King talks about almost being killed while at a book signing in New York City in the late 1950’s and that if he had sneezed he would have died, and that he was grateful that he didn’t sneeze. And then he said,
“And then I got to Memphis,” and on the tape, you can hear someone in the audience laughing, as if to say, ‘yea brother, you got to Memphis and things are even worse here than in Atlanta.’
And then the last part of this speech begins and all I do is cry.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s Will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen The Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to The Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Applause explodes out of the speakers in front of me. Still just me in the church. I take off my rose colored sunglasses and for the fifth time in fifteen minutes, I wipe my eyes. I rise from my pew and say an impromptu prayer, quietly but aloud.
“God protect all of those I know and all I don’t know at Mythic Journeys these next few days and most of all, just help me to do God’s Will, OK? Thanks.”
I cross myself, turn and head for the stairs that lead out.
“Hey,” I hear a voice yell from across Auburn Avenue.
A black man waves at me and begins crossing the street. Not badly dressed but he appears homeless. Not a bad vibe coming from him, though. I stop and wait for him to get to my side of the street.
“Excuse me, but could I bum a smoke?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, pulling out my pack of Camel Filters from my front pant’s pocket. I have a smoke lit in my right hand. I put the butt in my mouth as I fish out the cigarettes.
“Take one for latter,” I say, as I pull out two butts from my pack.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
I now notice that he has a pack of cheap cookies in his hand. You know, those imitation Oreos with the cheap vanilla cookie on one side and the bland chocolate cookie on the other and the creamy filling in the middle that tastes a bit like Tin. Looks to be a small package of ten, with a couple already eaten.
“Need a light?” I ask.
“Yea, that’d be great,” he says. He puts one smoke behind his ear and then cups his right hand around the cigarette in his mouth as I light it with my BIC, all the while holding the cookies in his left hand. He exhales a big cloud of smoke.
“Hey,” he says, “Would you like one?” holding up the clear plastic tray of cookies.
“No thanks. I’m good but thanks.”
“OK, well, take it easy Bro.”
The man walks down Auburn toward Downtown. I’m heading that way too. His stride is longer than mine so he’s quickly out in front. I continue walking, sending a little love his way. Can’t hurt. After about a minute, he stops about 100 feet in front of me and turns, and with a smile on his face, says in a loud voice…
“You know, these cookies are sure making me thirsty!”
I laugh. I reach around and pull out my wallet. I’m pretty sure I got some small bills. I silently pray that I don’t accidentally pull out the couple of fifties I have and show them to the whole street. Doesn’t have a damn thing to do with this being on Auburn Avenue. I don’t like to pull out my wallet at all on any street, even in Downtown Tucson where I’m from.
I find a couple of Ones. I walk up to the guy and give him the cash. Before he can thank me, I say,
“Now, get yourself off the street. Find yourself a good woman, like I did a few years ago” I say.
I wince. Haven’t a clue where that woman line came from. Sure I found women to enable my bullshit years ago but is that really a good piece of advice? Shit, that’s the last thing I would wish on a good woman, is to be the codependent to this guy. He’s a nice guy but still. He’s a homeless addict.
“I’m trying to get off the street,” he said with his head slightly bowed.
Damn it, now I’ve shamed this guy.
“Well, just take care of yourself, now” I say, with gentle compassion in my voice or at least I hope it sounds that way. No condescension or pity please. Pity sucks. I kind of like this guy and I really hope the best for him. I really do.
“You too,” he says, raising his head.
I smile and then he smiles too. I then turn and continue walking toward Downtown Atlanta. He stays a bit longer behind me, looking at the cash I gave him.
I normally don’t give paper to homeless folk, but today seems different. Maybe it was seeing Dr. King’s grave again. Maybe it was just I liked this guy. Maybe it was Grace. I really don’t know. I’m not really this nice a guy.
I finish my cigarette and look toward the skyscrapers a couple of miles away.
Time to get back to Mythic Journeys.
Hmm. I have to be on a panel tomorrow that asks the question: ‘What does the Soul’s look like.’ Well it looks like me, it looks like that homeless man, it looks like all of us, I think.
Sounds a bit glib. Have to work on that a bit.
A block later, I hear a sound. Just a staccato ‘Hey’, in front of me and to my right. Not loud but it gets my attention. I look toward the sound and see a nicely dressed man, in a FUBU jacket. He is making eye contact with me and then he shows me his left hand. In his palm, is a two-inch stack of bills, with a twenty on top. I look at the money. I look at him. He looks at me. I look away. I keep walking.
Twenty some years ago, I would have stopped and gotten a little something for the evening. Not today. Not anymore.
A half a block later, a big grin breaks on my face and I quietly chuckle to myself.
That guy’s got great style, though. My kind of drug dealer.
[Addendum: At the panel on “What does the Soul look like?” I talked about these two men and I on Auburn Avenue the day before. About how my job on Earth is to have my Spirit grow and not to have it be diminished by myself or others, and that also part of my service to Mankind is to, when I can, help other people’s Spirits grow as well, whether it’s through my art work, or loving people when I don’t feel like loving them or gently touching the arm of a friend or just sharing a kind moment and a couple of bucks with a homeless man on Auburn Avenue.
And by not buying any Crack Cocaine for myself for later.]