Magazine Street

Apr 19

We have maps in our minds. Atlases memorized, compounded over the years of our lives. Since we were children, we drew maps, read maps, committed directions to memory. Roads aren’t merely routes we travel from point A to point B, but are fixtures in our imaginations. Each street is named, and many of them are famous, their mention evoking a specific set of imagery: Wall Street, Park Avenue, Champs Elysees, Via Appia. The naming of a thing grants it identity, and, in a sense, life. A spirit is called up by the mention of its name.

Some roads we know intimately, having driven, biked or walked them innumerable times. They may seem rather mundane, a part of the local terrain, no more marvelous than any other part of our daily lives. As such, people rarely stop to consider just why the street bears the name it holds. But each name holds a story to it, names are given with intentions. And all stories are interesting, no matter how small or local they are. Any real writer will tell you the story is in the telling.

I grew up in Athens, Georgia. Like many cities, there are some rather old streets (by American standards, anyway)-old enough that no one remembers why they bear their names. I’ve done some historical research for a novel and discovered new maps that showed the me the old city for the first time. I was amazed to find that Spring Street-located downtown-bore its name because they old Village Spring was underneath it. The spring came from out of a high granite rock and was an important source of water to the old community. I couldn’t believe it was paved over-and for years, dreamed of seeing the spring. Today you can, some of the asphalt has been peeled away, and the spring is apparent-and yes, it is small, but no less miraculous.

There is a Park Avenue in Athens, a short road that joins Prince Avenue and Boulevard. I always assumed that the road was named after the more famous New York address-but when I looked at the maps, I discovered that a park had indeed been on the avenue. There was once a small lake, trees. Today, it is a kudzu choked gulch lined with dilapidated concrete buildings.

There is a secret topography, forgotten once it’s not relevant anymore. The original court-house, jail and police station were all on Hill Street. This was because, before such things had been built, legal proceedings took place in the house of a man named Hill. None of these are present any longer-the courthouse was torn down, the police station relocated. I, in fact, saw the old jail burn. All that remains is street itself and so the reason for its name passes into distant, obscure memory.

Sometimes, the names are sentimental. Prince Avenue, once an exlcusive address, a road that still bears Neo-Classical estate homes (now, for the most part, long converted to commercial use), was named for Oliver Prince, a young man lost at sea with his wife. Other names were more practical: Market Street (re-named Washington), which led to the city meat market. Many streets bear the names of those the citizens deemed noteworthy-men who today are rather questionable in character, being slave-owners-men who built their wealth on the backs of the exploited.  

Discovering these old streets, sometimes with different names, always with a story behind them, brought out the life of the city and a life out of myself. We often see ourselves reflected in the world about us. Perhaps as we tour the boulevards and avenues of our lives, we also transit stations within ourselves. When we visit places in the outer world, we also voyage to a corresponding point within us.

There was one street I couldn’t find on any map-at first. I only knew about it from having read the writings of Dean Tate. Magazine Street-ostensibly named for the sale of gunpowder. I studied map after map-looking for the street that had so obviously been re-named. Why was its name changed? Perhaps the name’s connection with violence made it odious, perhaps it was on good real estate-and the name of a famous Athenian was now there, perhaps another name better suited to school or industry. But it was none of these things.  

There was once a tradition of burying the dead on College Hill. Jackson Graveyard, the small remnants of a much bigger cemetery, resides next to the Fine Arts building. A century ago, the plots of land occupied by the dead took up much more space. The University grew, and encroached upon these grounds. Another graveyard, Oconee Hill, was opened to accommodate the needs of the school and the town. Before this happened, there was a street that ran parallel to the Jackson Graveyard. It was Magazine Street. They sold gunpowder next to where they buried the dead. Sometimes I grin at this grim and ironic placement-other times, I wonder if the name was meant purely as a joke. Either way, there is some story there, a tale that could be told by the men who paved the road and put its name on signs and maps. The street no longer exists. The University annexed the land long ago.

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The Captain and The King

Apr 07

I remember the day Elvis died: August 16, 1977. I remember, not because I was a big fan or even knew anything about him, but because of my mother. In those days, before the advent of Internet, DVD players or even VCRs, a child’s viewing pleasure was largely determined by the whatever the local television stations chose to air. While this sounds limiting by today’s standards, there were segments where this could be quite fun. A special would air, and all the kids would watch it-one of the few times when cartoons were on at night was something not to be missed. The next day, we would all talk about it, having watched the same shows.

During the late 70’s my neighborhood suffered a dearth of children to play with, and I spent long long hours in solitude (this was, in fact, how I got started writing stories). When I wasn’t writing, reading, or wandering in the woods behind my house, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching television. There was one event I looked forward to every summer: Monster Week. Turner Broadcasting-then a small, local channel-would have a week long monster movie marathon. My mother would indulge me and allow my fare of truly terrible monster movies: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Godzilla versus King Kong, Destroy All Monsters. It was great. All boys love monsters-especially giant, mutated, radiation spewing ones. During a commercial break, I went upstairs to get something (a drink, maybe more popcorn) and saw my mother shedding a few tears. I asked her what was wrong, and Ma, in her Long Island diction, said: “Elvis died today, Petah.”

Now, I tried to be sympathetic, no child likes to see their parent upset. But my mother didn’t know Elvis personally, and perhaps I was too young to understand nostalgia. What was more, I’d seen Elvis on TV-and, to me at least, he appeared to be a slovenly, gaudy creature that played tunes I didn’t care for. How could my mother possibly be moved to tears at his passing? Death is tragic, to be sure-especially when it is early due to unnatural complications like drug overdose. Not really understanding, I soon returned to my monster movies.

Many years later, I was fortunate enough to have children of my own. Everyone says that having kids will change you-and it’s very true. Some of the changes are obvious: we feel more pressure in our jobs-we need to make sure we have enough resources to provide; we feel more anxiety in our behavior-we don’t want to somehow accidentally raise our kids the wrong way. But some changes are not so apparent. For my own part, the understanding that we were all children once-that we are the results and consequences of our youth and family-really sunk in. I started to view humanity differently-and I like to think, if anything, it made me more understanding and compassionate of others. So many of us still live out the roles we assumed at such a young age-believing things about ourselves that are deeply ingrained and difficult to objectify from. I started to see the child inside of others.

When I was a boy, in addition to monsters, I also loved super-heroes. I still do, despite any literary pretensions it may seem that I hold. Heroic narrative is very satisfying when it’s written properly-and somehow, the absurd conventions of super heroica (secret origins and identities, garish costumes, impossible powers) add the proper element of the fantastic…of the mythic.

The universe of super heroes and villains is incredibly vast-with the majority of them being unknown to the population at large, only a relative few make it big enough to earn public recognition. Captain Marvel (Shazam) is, perhaps, one of these, having at one time outsold Superman. His younger counterpart, Captain Marvel Junior, probably doesn’t make the list. However, there was a time, in the 1940’s, when the young Captain Marvel Junior also sold very well-well enough that competitor DC Comics (which eventually bought the good Captain and his attendants) created Superboy. In real life, when a young boy is good, he is really good. You could never doubt his love for his mother, his desire to do the right thing, his eagerness to help others, his joy of learning about the world around him. Captain Marvel Junior, like many fictional boy heroes of the day, was created to exemplify these traits.

Not too long ago, I read that Elvis was a big fan of Captain Marvel Junior; in fact, his collection of Captain Marvel Junior comics is on display at Graceland. I learned that his hair-cut was meant to resemble the young hero’s (and after a moment’s thought, I realized how much it really did). The small cape he wore-it evoked Captain Marvel Junior’s own. Even the lightning bolt (the emblem and mandala of the Marvel Family) insignia of Elvis’ record label hearkened back to the boy hero. The discovery of the King’s love for the Captain completely surprised me. I looked back at Elvis, doing his stage show in costume: the cape, the full black hair, and I saw, in the smile he wore, something younger. There were earlier days in that face: a young boy whose twin died at birth, close to his mother, raised in extreme poverty, berated for his love of music. The boy reads the exploits of Captain Marvel Junior: stories about empowerment, doing the right thing, tales that could help bear a young man through his own trials. I saw the boy in the man and saw the man in a completely different way.  He was somehow even more tragic in that moment, and also, somehow ennobled. And I could at last understand how my mother cried the day the King died. He was a boy king and the death of youth is always a sad thing.

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