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Outta There

In the games played outside the Olympic arena, Atlanta's street people are losing out

by Roy Blount Jr.

Religious argument really ought to be an Olympic event, at least the way it's practiced in the Five Points area of Atlanta. The day before the Games opened, I watched a pickup disputation involving a mixed congregation of eight or 10 young male Muslims, Rastafarians and (I think) Baptists. One of the Rastas began to spring higher and higher into the air, not in a showy or ritual way but just with the intensity of the point he was making.

"No I about it," he cried, leaping with each word. "It is all we."

The Baptist (I think) replied, "I'm saying, I know who my God is," and as several people quoted Scripture at once - point, counterpoint and catercounter - the Rasta came to earth in a high-tensile crouch and froze, his eyes flashing. "Say you do or do not believe in Ja," he demanded, and though his feet were touching the pavement, he somehow seemed to hang there the way Michael Jordan in his youth hung in the air.

The theology got too complex for me to follow after that, but the body language was something to behold. It was hard to find amateur competition in the Olympic ring last week but not impossible. You had to go to Five Points, an area that lies just to the southeast of the Olympic Center but squarely in the middle of Atlanta history.

Five Points got its name because that was where five of Atlanta's most important streets - Peachtree, Marietta, Decatur, Whitehall and Edgewood - intersected. Down along Decatur Street was where the dead and wounded Confederates once lay stretched out as if forever, the living ones moaning and begging for help, in that famous scene in Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara felt she just couldn't stand it anymore.

Five Points was Atlanta's main business district into the '60s. Rich's, long Atlanta's keystone department store, was here. Shortly before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, demonstrators confronted counterdemonstrators near Five Points over the integration of Leb's restaurant. (Comedian Dick Gregory peeked under a Klansman's hood and asked, "Is dat you, Lawd?") Vernon Jordan, the future president of the National Urban League who was working for a regional civil rights organization, integrated Herren's restaurant one day at lunchtime. Fred Powledge, then a local newspaper reporter, broke a century of ignominious decorum by crying out across the room, "Vernon! It's great to see your black face in here!"

Since then Atlanta's business nexus has dispersed over an ever broader metropolitan area. Downtown, Rich's, Leb's, Herren's and any number of former power buildings have been gutted, and Five Points is an area that many suburban whites have long been loath to venture into. Now the Olympics have brought the area back into focus. City, state and private security forces are everywhere, abandoned buildings have been gussied up and pressed into service, and $5 million has been plowed into making a showpiece out of Woodruff Park, a patch of green right at Five Points' heart. What do you know? Famously amorphous Atlanta does have a central core of street life.

"Yes, it's hot," chuckles the erect 82-year-old man whose handwritten nametag says bishop craig. He stands where he has been standing several hours a day, he says, for more than 30 years: on the corner of Peachtree and Alabama, right outside the Five Points MARTA subway station. Although the temperature is up in the 90's, Bishop Craig is dressed in a black suit, crisp white shirt and striped necktie. "But not as hot," he is bound to remind us, "as Hell will be." What is the Olympic cauldron compared to "that lake of fire"? Bishop Craig is holding a hand-lettered sign proclaiming, among other things, god will cure sugar cansor, tbs and (though the old man is wearing heavy black leather footwear) put off your shoes, for this ground is holy ground.

Another man suddenly swoops in and makes as if to grab that sign away from the Bishop. It's the same man who has been making as if to grab the sign most every day for years. "A deef-mute," the Bishop says. "He has a demon." This man too has a ministry, although his only utterance is sort of a yodel, sort of a groan. The Bishop is not about to let this man get his sign: "I ain't afraid of your demon! Give me your hand!"

The man won't let the Bishop have his hand. "Uhluh-uhl-uhl-uh-uhl," he cries, maybe derisively, may-be merrily, it's hard to say. His nametag says elder/h. webb/children/united states army. He's wearing a U.S. Marines T-shirt and an olive-drab military cap and waving a Bible. He makes a snatching motion toward Bishop Craig's nametag, then toward his own, then toward my Olympic press credential.

"He'll shake everybody's hand but mine!" cries the Bishop. "He knows I'll take out that demon! One day I run him all the way around that MARTA station, but he wouldn't take my hand!"

"He ain't no revund," huffs the Evangelist I. (for Inez) Willis, who has been preaching on this corner for the last six of her 60 years. She and the Bishop get along, but brother Webb (if that is really his name) is forever plaguing them. "I'm a prophet," says the Evangelist Willis. She shuffles three densely hand-lettered signs, hard to decipher linearly. The word woe stands out, and the olympics is not of god.

"Atlanta will be done away!" she says. "I been tellin' 'em for six years! But people'd rather it snuck up on 'em!"

A young couple bops by, grinning. "That's right, you laughing," cries the Evangelist Willis. "I know you ain't praying, 'cause you got that nekkid gal!" The gal is wearing a scarcely daring skirt and tank top. The Evangelist Willis is wearing a white hat, a white sweater with lace trim and a long, high-necked, flowered dress. She says she has been arrested four times (for excessive vehemence in criticism of longhaired male and underdressed female passersby, the Bishop explains).

She gives me a steady look. "God showed me a storm coming down that street!" she says. "He showed me a jail building blowing up! He showed me a train climbing steps! A train don't climb steps!" A couple of stairway levels below us, a MARTA train rumbles.

"This Olympits is the end," she says. "I know it is. All Atlanta care about is money! Atlanta with her attitude going to blow up! I been trying to warn 'em, and they laugh. It tears me up! I can't stand it!"

The nonverbal man swoops in again, holding up a newspaper clipping about a Cobb County arts exhibit and pointing to a figure quoted in the clipping: $229,037. Then he gestures inclusively toward himself and the Bishop and the Evangelist Willis and shakes his head. I'm going to say it's merrily. None of them are getting any of that money.

Nor do they ask their listeners for money. They get by. They have places to live. Lots of other people in Five Points don't. For years Woodruff Park has been a bedroom for the homeless. Twenty-four men and three women were sleeping there during last Friday night's opening ceremonies. Uncounted others have been driven away from the downtown area by police (there's a city ordinance forbidding "acting in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals" in a parking lot), by the new sprinkler system in Woodruff Park and by the demolition of three or four shelters during Olympic construction. The soup kitchen at St. Luke's Episcopal church has been converted temporarily to Big Al's 50's Café, which wasn't pulling in its anticipated Olympic revenues at lunchtime on Saturday. I was the only customer. Nine dollars for a bad hamburger, a package of potato chips, a pickle and a cold drink.

Word in the street was that military vans had been rounding up homeless men and stashing them at Fort McPherson, an Army post six miles from Five Points, for the duration of the Olympics. None of the homeless advocates to whom I talked could confirm that - and an Army spokesperson denies it - but Anita Beaty of Atlanta's Task Force for the Homeless says the Olympics have caused a net loss of "hundreds of beds, when we already have thousands too few."

She also says that 28% to 38% of the people who call her organization's 24-hour hotline in need of a place to sleep are working men and women. Many of them have helped build Olympic venues. But they're being ripped off by temporary "labor pools" that contract out the work at $11-$14 an hour, then pay the laborers the minimum wage - less deductions for food and transportation. "Our modern slavery," says Beaty.

"I didn't want to be in Atlanta," says Anthony Knighton. "I was extradited [from Detroit, on a drunken driving charge, he claims]. That's how I lost everything." He does have a place to sleep, at St. Luke's, and he keeps busy informing other dispossessed people of their rights. it's legal to be homeless, says a flier he carries. It goes on:

Police can't arrest you in a public place if you:

  • Sleep.

  • Smell bad.

  • Talk to yourself.

  • Eat garbage.

Police can arrest you in a public place if you:

  • Beg.

  • Cause a disturbance.

  • Obstruct a sidewalk.

  • Spit on a sidewalk.

  • Urinate.

"Georgia will give you food stamps," Knighton says. "But how can a man use food stamps if he's living in a parking lot? The concept of that criteria is fundamentally polluted. So he'll sell the stamps."

"Then if you get on drugs," an affable but vague-eyed young man told me in Woodruff Park, "then they got you. Atlanta's a nice town, though. I helped build where they're holding the boxing."

"Folks in our office waiting for shelter watched the opening ceremony on TV," Beaty says. "They loved it. They're very docile people. They're used to waiting for a place to sleep. I step over women and little children on our floor, and I look down the street and see the new stadium lit up and the fireworks going off, and I can hardly stand it."

Standing things really ought to be an Olympic event, at least the way it's practiced around Five Points. It would restore an element of amateurism - maybe not in its highest form, but amateurism has always been a function of what people can afford. A man I talked to in Five Points would be hard to beat in that competition. He declined to give me his name, partly "for security reasons" and partly because I had never interviewed Mike Tyson, "and if Mike don't trust you, why should I? See what I'm saying?" But he did tell me a story.

"Somebody come after me trying to tell me I owe him money. He's got a pool cue in each hand. I said, 'Man, I ain't got no money. Come after me with two pool cues in each hand, I still won't have no money. Do I look like I got any money? I hate to think how many pool cues you'd come after me with if I did. But I ain't ever looked like I had any money. And even if I did look like I had any money, I still wouldn't have no money. I ain't never had no money.' I got him to where he gave me one of them pool cues, finally."

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