Walk to the Mills Center by Octo G. Enerio
“I see you walk to the gym each day, and then you work out? It must be hard,” commented a new gym-rat who was more than glad to drive his golf cart to the gym each day. I responded with, “Well, it’s not as hard as you might think, but the round-trip day in and day out can get a little boring.” “I assume you have to expect just walking to be boring,” said the new fellow. I smiled and countered with, “I guess you never lived in Downtown Atlanta,” and then related my experiences there.
I don my gym clothing and set out for the daily warm-up walk to the Mills Senior Center clubhouse. How boring, how repetitious it sounds. Yes, Downtown Atlanta is a bustling and exciting mega-city…but walking the same route everyday…it’s got to be boring. But is it?
On the first leg of the walk, I am following a slowly ambling “street person.” I am always a little apprehensive about encounters with such vagrants and am not sure whether to lag back or to pass quickly. Some low-hanging trees lie just ahead on the path, and he is the first to go under them. As I follow close behind, his amble abruptly turns into a wildly gyrating war dance-like spectacle. He is whooping and jumping around and slapping all over his body. As I enter under the trees, I understand the cause. Little green worms are gliding down almost invisible webs from the trees and landing on any unlucky passersby, now including me. I am irked, but he is terrified and loudly demanding that I swat the worms from his back and head.
No longer are we operating in two separate socio-economic worlds but are two comrades thrown together into harm’s way. An observer would be seeing two crazy people jumping around insanely, but we are as two knights meeting dragons head-on. I swat a few of the vile worms from my head and shoulders but soon turn my efforts to de-worming my bellowing companion, who continues loudly protesting against these tenacious little paratroopers.
All the while this action is going on, I am thinking, “Here I am, the prissy retired white-collar worker, dealing calmly with these outdoor city insects and this gritty street guy, who’s used to sleeping in the outdoors, panicking like a sissy.” Finally, he calms down, and we both walk away — back to our own two worlds.
As I progress on my walk, I begin thinking about all the panhandlers that populate corners with traffic lights and how they supplicate drivers with their clever signs requesting money. One guy has cancer and needs chemo funds. Another needs bus fare to get back to his family in Alabama. Another proclaims that he will work for pay, although he can barely stand up. As a driver around town, I am quite familiar with these varied and imaginative signs. The underlying implication is that the driver can afford to own and operate a car while the poor beggar has only his handmade sign, and sharing some of the wealth seems appropriate.
As I continue with these thoughts, awaiting the traffic light to turn green so I can walk across at the corner, a car pulls up to the corner, and the driver lowers his window and addresses me in a loud voice, saying, “Say buddy, can you give me six dollars for gas?” I am taken aback and cannot speak. What’s wrong with this picture? Doesn’t he know the rules? Here I am, the poor walker and he the more affluent motorist able to afford a car. I finally answer with an, “Are you kidding?” And he drives away. Go figure.
OK, there’s Mac and Max. Over the months, I have developed a “greetings” relationship with the two M’s, who also walk and live in a condo on our route. We are now all on a first-name basis (except for Max of course…he is a dog). On this day, Mac‘s wife has joined them, and a real conversation ensues. We find out that we both worked for the same bank. My wife walks up, and now an intense four-way conversation develops. We are now all good buddies. Unexpectedly, the wife invites us for a cookout at their home, and we all depart feeling a new warmth of friendship.
My wife and I show up for the barbeque dinner at their home, located right on the path to my senior center gym. We know we are at the right place, for a pungent aroma of well-marinated, grilling chicken permeates the entire neighborhood. Our mouths begin to water in anticipation of the feast to come. We know that our mouths are not the only ones watering.
The townhouse’s garden backs up to the street, which is used by passing vagrants, who are generally in a perpetual state of hunger. The street is filled with the enticing aroma, stomachs are growling, and faces start to appear through the gate of the garden. Here we are, sitting and enjoying our drinks and snacks as we await the upcoming feast, and there stand the hungry down-and-outers looking in. Oh, the guilt!
Mac is a take-charge guy and addresses the envious audience peering in, saying, “The chicken is not done yet, but if you come back in 30 minutes I will give you some.” Following the code of the street, the two street fellows go away. They return in half an hour, Mac hands them a to-go package, and we on this side of the gate enjoy a pleasant guilt-free repast.
Whew, the work-out is done. I begin the return walk home and meet up with a well-dressed fellow who appears to be lost. He asks me for directions to the Department of Labor. I tell him that the building is just across the street from my home and that if he joins me, I can show him the way. Now I have a strolling companion. Who knew he is a philosopher! Wow, is he interesting. He goes on about his working life, career paths, disappointments, and successes. I agree with everything he says. We are truly simpatico. It is a little painful when we reach the Department of Labor building, and he disappears forever…c’est la vie!
As I start my walk I think, “Just because I am on foot, does that make me Mr. Information about all Downtown destinations?” One couple, obviously from the sticks, asks me where the lottery ticket redemption center is. They hear it is someplace near Centennial Park. Redemption center… really? Another couple yells from their truck for me to direct them to the Omni. Another man asks me if he is going the wrong way on Highland Avenue to get to some restaurant I never heard of. Another chap asks me where Jackson Street is, and I tell him to stop and look up at the overhead street sign reading, “Jackson Street.” I flash a sarcastic face. Do the inquiries never stop?
Today is special. My wife joins me on the walk. In the past, we have seen this Latino man strolling by, and we usually exchange nods. This day, because we have begun taking Spanish lessons, we screw up the courage to greet the passing man with a simple, “Buenos Dias.” This opens the floodgates. The hombre stops, smiles broadly, and positions himself for an extended encounter. We have a long, warm, and friendly interaction. I say interaction because his input is in very primitive English, and our answers are all in even more primitive Spanish. It takes us a while to get all of our meanings across. But it is fun and very rewarding.
We find that he is from Acapulco, Mexico, a place I have visited on vacation. He had worked in a hotel there. All three of us are extremely tolerant of our language shortcomings because we are all in the same boat…new foreign-language students. We all cheat a little bit and try to sneak in some of our native language from time to time, and occasionally this works. My wife, Septa, and I begin to meet and chat daily with our new amigo, Epigmenio. We find that he is a recent immigrant having come north with his wife and three children. He works in the Japanese (go figure) restaurant down the street and takes public transport to get there each day. We meet him on the last leg of the trip, which he walks.
Over time, we see that Epigmenio is driven to live the American dream and to work his way up the socio-economic ladder. He is also very friendly and charming. We seriously consider inviting him and his family over for dinner sometime. But then things change. We no longer see him walking on our route. “What happened to him?” we wonder. Thinking about this one day, we hear a beep from a passing motorist in a car we do not recognize. This becomes a pattern on our daily walks, with the addition of an animated wave from the driver. We finally realize it is Epigmenio who is saluting us. It looks as if his dream of upward mobility in the United States is coming true. He now owns a car and has abandoned public transport, leaving it to the “poor folk.” How heartening! But we miss our interactions.
The vigorous workout is over, and I am on the last leg of my long walk back home. Only about 100 yards to go and I can go up the elevator and sit down to lunch. I deserve it. This segment of the walk is surely the safest. It is patrolled by the Atlanta Police, the Georgia State University Police, the Downtown Ambassador Force, and of course, the vigilant guard at our building. Sometimes what seems so obvious can be misleading.
Let me set the stage. The last 100 yards of city street is only two yards wide and bordered by a wrought iron fence on the left and Piedmont Avenue, a heavily trafficked flow of rapidly moving cars and trucks, on the right. No room for the pedestrian to deviate from walking a very straight line. Anyone sticking out a right arm could have it knocked off by a speeding Ford or Toyota. Occasionally a rapidly moving bicycle will come up from behind and pass startled walkers on the left with only inches to spare.
Now, I only have about 80 yards to go…almost there. I stay in my unswerving straight line, anticipating a possible pass from behind by a cyclist. Almost there. Then, a mega-whoosh passes on my left. This is no lightweight bicycle going by at 10 MPH. I am astounded to see a policeman atop a heavy, almost silent motorcycle whizzing by me from behind on the narrow sidewalk at 20 MPH! I am glad I did not swerve at the last minute. Immediately, I realized why the cop was engaged in this dangerous and very illegal performance.
It seems that there is a “no turn on red” sign at the corner of Piedmont and International, and about 80 percent of motorists disregard the sign and make the turn anyway. The police know this, and when they need to give out more traffic citations, they are aware that this corner offers easy pickings. The motorcycle cop hides and awaits the miscreant. He chases the car down Piedmont, stops the motorist, and gives out the ticket. The most direct path back to his hideout is to go back up Piedmont, which is one-way — against him. His solution: take the sidewalk. His convenience tops the safety of citizen pedestrians. As the motorcycle loudly speeds past me…much too close for comfort — much less safety — I read the cop’s ironic license tag, “To Serve and to Protect.”