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Daytime Downtown Athens: A Mini-Memoir

Last time our Commissioners fiddled with parking rates for the meters and garages downtown, I couldn’t help but notice how incomplete the discussion was. The emphasis was all on how this or that proposal would affect downtown businesses. It was natural to focus on the downtown business district as a center of commercial activity. But that’s not all it is. It’s also an important, maybe the most important, social center of the community. I’m not talking about the crowds that gather there at night, for whom venues like the Georgia Theatre or the 40 Watt Club are the happening places. I’m talking about daytime downtown, which was an important social center, like a town square, long before downtown became a nighttime entertainment district. Daytime downtown is another world and holds this place together in subtler but no less enduring ways than our renowned music scene.

More than just about any place in Athens, daytime downtown is full of connections and continuities for the me that, to poach from Stephen Sondheim, make Athens more than “just an address, a place for me to live in, no better than alright.” They make it home. So, when I feed the parking meters, I’m doing more than renting space to run errands or buy stuff. I’m renewing my ties to my hometown.

When I go to lunch at one of my favorite downtown restaurants, I can usually count on running into somebody I know. Sometimes I meet people I don’t know when they mistake me for one of my two brothers, a very common experience. Often they’re mildly surprised to learn that there’s a “lost” brother who, unlike the other two, moved away at age twenty-one and didn’t come back until age sixty.

When I go to Lamar Lewis to look for shoes, I’m going to the same store where my mother used to buy my Buster Browns and where it was a really big deal when I was eight or nine to stick my feet in the machine that made them look green and highlighted my tarsals and metatarsals or whatever those bones are. I wonder how many rads my feet absorbed before those machines were retired. And I’ve often been helped either by the lady who kept my mother in comfortable shoes into advanced old age or the lady who used to work in my dad’s restaurant, which was at 233 E. Clayton St. for the first couple of decades of my life and before.

Hours spent playing marbles, kick the can and other things kids don’t do anymore were supplemented with generous doses of horse operas at the Palace Theater, which was where the College Avenue garage is now. I sometimes think that parents worry too much about the amount of time their kids spend on video games and television. I’m sure that the countless totally formulaic Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies I sat through shaved a few points off my IQ, but not enough to cripple me in later life.

One of the oeuvre that played the Palace went on to become a cult classic. I’m sure the 1982 remake of The Thing couldn’t match the 1952 original. I was pretty tall for a tween and when I saw The Thing, a kid in the row behind me, who looked to be about nine or ten, leaned forward and asked in a tremulous voice if he could sit by me until an especially nerve-wracking scene was over. I gallantly invited him up and was hugely relieved when he went back to his seat a few minutes later without realizing that I was just as terrified as he was.

When I was old enough to work legally, my parents thought it would be a terrific idea for me to get a summer job. I, on the other hand, thought it was a terrible idea. Spending the summer working for a pittance just didn’t compete with playing softball on the vacant lot my family owned on South Milledge behind our house on Milledge Heights.

And my estimate of my appeal as an employment prospect was richly vindicated when every downtown merchant I halfheartedly applied to for a job turned me down. I felt a momentary (only momentary) twinge  (only a twinge) of disappointment at only one of the stores where they had better sense than to take me on. That was McGregor’s at the corner of East Clayton and Jackson. It was an office supply and sporting goods store, not brightly lit, and smelling of paper, pencil lead and waxed wood floors. I think it was the smell that moved the needle for me off total indifference. You can find things at OfficeMax today that the folks at McGregor’s hadn’t even dreamed of, but you won’t find that smell.

In the days before suburban office parks and malls, Tony’s Restaurant was the unofficial meeting place for many of the community’s business, professional and government worthies. Every weekday at 10 o’clock in the morning, they’d pull three or four tables together in the private dining room and swap stories and jokes over coffee for an hour before they all dispersed to their businesses and offices. The waitresses looked forward to working the “coffee club” because they could pretty much count on tipping at the rate of 100%.

Mercifully, the conviviality was only rarely disrupted by moments of high drama. The one that stands out in what’s left of my memory starred longtime Chief of Police, Jake Porterfield. Chief Porterfield was a heart attack waiting to happen, almost as wide as he was tall. And when the big one caught up with him, he breathed his last sitting at the first table from the restaurant’s entrance chatting with my dad. It was unnerving enough for my dad that his was the last face Chief Porterfield saw on this earth, but my dad had to go to the dress shop next door where Mrs. Porterfield worked and deliver the sad news to her.

Those were simpler times, and I doubt that there’s a gathering place like Tony’s now. But Mr. Haircut on Broad Street (technically Mr. Haircut No 1, even though No. 2 is no more) is a key community nerve center and information clearinghouse. Everybody come in there, from judges, to children getting their first haircuts, and all sorts and conditions of people in between, so it’s a very democratic place, a great leveler. Probably only Athens Regional and St. Mary’s hospitals are more unforgiving levelers, illness, like hair growth, being no respecter of social position.

In another of those connections that I’m always stumbling across, I learned that one of the barbers who used to work there is the granddaughter of the barber who gave me my first haircut. Who knew?

The barbers, who’re gifted enough conversationalists to keep up a constant patter with most anybody about most anything, get wind of things happening or about to happen before the local media do. And even when the newspapers and radio stations scoop the barbers on a story, the barbers often fill in the back story that never makes it into the newspapers or onto the radio. I wouldn’t know half the things I know or think I know about what goes on around here if I didn’t get a haircut once a month.

But even without the education and the colorful rumors I pick up at Mr. Haircut, I wouldn’t take anything for the days when it’s nice enough outside for Pam, the proprietress, to prop the front door open while I drift off into a semi-trance absently watching people walk by with the music of the barbers’ and the patrons’ soft drawls sounding in the background.

No, not just an address, a place for me to live in, no better than alright. This is home. 

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