January 12, 2003

Uncle Daddy and the Cousin Jumpers--A Vignette of Our Years in South Atlanta

I told him I'd write about it one day. I've avoided it. It's too wide and high to capture into a post--the smells, the stuff under my finger nails, the feelings of awaking in that house.

But that's never stopped me from trying.

ENDING UP IN SKEEZERVILLE

When we moved to Atlanta it was the year before the 1996 Summer Olympics, hosted by this fair city. Atlanta was a boom town then. Which meant there weren't many places to live that were within our modest, newly-relocated means. Houses were renting out for $2,000 a month in the okay areas. Yikes.

My company put us up in the Raddison Inn in Buckhead for four months. That was living. Us and our two dogs in a two-story suite, complete with a maid, a kitchen, free coffee, fresh towels. I never wanted to leave. Who would? Aside from having to walk the dogs three times a day, we were living the high life.

What a rude awakening when those good time days (and my company's money) ran out.

Time to find a place to live, and nothing affordable. Now what? Where could we go?

Fortunately, and I use this term pretty loosely, we had friends--Rochester musician transplants--renting a house in Hapeville, and after what seemed like seven years of looking for a place, we rented the house across the street from them. Anyone from Atlanta knows where Hapeville is (think airport), and if I tell you we were just south of Stewart Avenue, you should probably say, Oh. wow. Why?

There are many fine people who live in Hapeville. There are also lots of nice homes in Hapeville.

We lived near neither the nice people nor the nice homes.

We lived in the skeezy part. Man, it was nasty. Loads of hookers and drugs. Thieves and crime. And rednecks too.



And we lived there for two years. It felt like doing time, though I haven't done time as of yet. It's how I imagine feeling. Yeh, we could go outside. But usually we had to think twice about whether or not it was worth it.

THE LITTLE BLUE HOUSE AND ITS NEIGHBORS

We lived in a little blue house. And believe it or not, I'm still nostalgic about the house. And believe it or not, I don't know why.

Maybe the adversity we faced there bonded us as a couple in a special way. Maybe it was living without expectations of things ever getting any better. Not sure, but there's something I miss about it.

I remember telling my friend Marge in Rochester about the floors of our house. "They're planks, and underneath is dirt. I mean, you can see the dirt through the cracks. No cement. Just a block foundation over dirt." Marge inferred from this, she would later tell me, that we lived in a house with dirt floors. She wasn't far off.

We had a bug man, but we never did win our war against the roaches. We kept the place clean, no crumbs. There wasn't much of a place to clean--it wasn't that hard to keep up. Still, the bugs were undaunted. They enjoyed the dirt beneath the house, and their easy access to the warmth above through the cracks in the floor.

Transplanted northerners have a hard time with the bugs of the south. At least this one did. Especially when waking at night to take a drink from the glass of water next to my clock radio, on more than one occasion, brought me face to face with a roach who beat me to my refreshment. Son of a bitch!

Then there was our microwave. One day I called George into the kitchen. Look. I was pointing.

We stared for a while wondering how that big motherfucking roach found its way inside the front of our microwave, lodging himself just so in front of the LED that was the clock. Huh? If I wanted to cook in that thing, I wouldn't have been able to see the timer for the roach.

"Get this thing out of the house." That was all I could say.



Out it went to the side of the road, roach and all. Made some treasure hunter very happy.

"Nuthin wron with a bitty water bug in the casin." Fine. Take it then.

We rented our little resort from a police officer and his wife. Kief (that's how they say Keith in Hapeville) was the first black Harley rider I'd ever met. He never made eye contact, stood with head to one side and an unending downward glance. He and his wife were nice people. Good landlords all things considered.

It wasn't until after we moved in, though, that Kief's wife told me she wouldn't have rented to us if we had kids. (Jenna wasn't even in the plans back then.) "Why not?" I asked her. "Because the old man next door molested our daughter. That's why we moved. We have a court case against him. We had to move before my husband killed him."

"oh."

That particular perpetrator would be Uncle Daddy.



At least, that's what we named him. Uncle Daddy and Aunt Grandma lived next door to our little blue dirt-floor house. We gave them these names for obvious incestuous reasons, evident in the generations of offspring who lived with Uncle Daddy and his sister/wife.

Did I say generations? I meant urchins.

We came to know Uncle Daddy and the Cousin Jumpers far too well.

I'MA KILL YER DAWG

Uncle Daddy was 170 years old. At least he looked that old. With wrinkles for his wrinkles, and 1/4 inch of flesh on his skeleton frame, he left quite an impression on me upon my first sighting of him. He, the redneck molester. Scary and ugly.

Aunt Grandma (we never could tell if she was his sister or wife) was toothless, 150 years old, housecoat clad and foulmouthed.

In their house, the rumor was, lived a slew of grandchildren from kids in jail, and several rifles.

Out back was a shed that Uncle Daddy only seemed to visit during one of his several drunken rages. Under the influence, he would often take broken furniture out to the shed and toss it in. I guess it was important for him to save these items for his progeny. Or the next time he burned his trash.

I think that's where the boys got their beatins too.

The young boys who grew up under Uncle Daddy's thumb were not adorable or well behaved. They were the devil's spawn, quite literally. They welcomed us to the neighborhood by swinging from their clothesline and hurling rocks at our dogs over the fence that separated the two yards. They lived to drive us and our dogs insane.

And that was nothing compared to what they did to their own animals. One Saturday they decided to have fun by trying to drown the beagle that some relative or another left at their house. They put him in a "bath" inside a garbage can, turned on the water, filled the can, put the dog in, and used the hose to pour water in the dogs' ears.

Get the picture?

That was one of many times I called the cops. Something I'd never before done in my life before moving to Atlanta. I'm not sure if we ever made an episode of Cops the show, but we could have.

The cops bought the kids' story about their beagle: "We was just tryin to give the dawg a bath."

And me saying, "Officer, the dog was screaming."

The cop saying, "Ma'm, if no one at the house says the boys were hurting the dog, then there's nothing we can do." The dog ended up going deaf. Nice.

The Hapeville Police became regulars at our house. Unfortunately, they were also lifelong friends of Uncle Daddy and his spawn.

Kevin, the eldest urchin, probably about 9 then, had the nastiest mouth I've yet to hear on a kid. A Manson like smile with intent to boot, he'd stand by the back fence, look me in the eye.

"I'ma Kill Yer Dawg," he'd say.

"You're gonna do what?"

"Ima kill yer dawg, bitch."

"Not before they kill you."

What I meant to say was, "Not before I kill you, you little shit."

It wasn't long before I went to war with them at every opportunity. I'd lie in wait beneath the window of the back porch. The ruckus would begin, their kids against our dogs, and I'd be out on the deck lickety split asking them if they wanted to go to jail. Eventually, our shouting matches turned into throwing matches. I hurled shit back at them. They'd go running to Uncle Daddy--"She throwed a stick at us, Daddy!" And the real fun would begin.

"Jew throw a stick at my boyz?"

"That's half of what I'd like to do to them. No, I didn't throw anything at those kids."

I lied. It felt good. I hated them. If we'd had a gun, I might be in jail right now.

"You leave dem boyz alone."

"Tell your boyz to leave our dogs alone, to leave US alone."

"They ain't doin no harm to yer dawgs."

"Yeh, right. I'll call the cops--we'll see what they say."

It wasn't just the dawgs those evildoers attacked. They egged our house, they messed with our cars. They had plenty of time, since they rarely went to school. Their life was an audition for the juvie system.

The one person they were afraid of was George. For obvious reasons. But they'd watch for him to leave. And when he did, it was time to throw down. Them against me.

At first, I did what I always thought you were supposed to do when criminals come on your property and fuck with you. I'd call the cops. They'd come. They'd ask me what the problem was. I'd tell them what particular law the kids had broken this time. They'd go next door. They'd talk with Uncle Daddy or Aunt Grandma. I'd see the casual conversation from my window. Then I'd see laughing, chumming around, talking about mutual friends. These people had grown up together. They were lifers.

We were the outsiders.

The cops would come back to our door, tell me they talked to them, we shouldn't have any more problems. No harm done. Kids will be kids. I'd stare at them in disbelief. Can't you do something about them?

Just a blank stare. Nothing to be done.


THE EXODUS

For two years we lived in a war zone, dancing between Uncle Daddy's drunken back yard rages and the kids' torment. For two years I did battle with them whenever I had to. It didn't change them. It didn't change anything in that house or neighborhood.

It changed me.

It unearthed my Sicilian roots, and that's never a good thing. Before the end, I was scheming different ways to get rid of them all. None of those ways were pretty.

I imagined house fires. I imagined semi-automatic weapons. I imagined hitting the accelerator as I drove down the street aiming for the urchins.

When those fantasies began to take up most of my weekends, something snapped. This just wasn't good.

I remember the day, I remember being in the bedroom, looking out the bedroom window at the kids scheming, our dogs, mean by now, lunging at the fence. My nose burned from butane odor courtesy of the planes taking off and landing from the airport down the road. I'd just come back from being harrased at the gas station, "hey baby hey baby hey baby, can i git a ride?"

I was completely, utterly sick of living there. Sick from living there. I didn't belong next door to Uncle Daddy.

"George, we're getting out of here." That's all I said on "snap" day.

He could see I meant it. I know he wondered where, why now, how. Those were minor details to me.

And I burned with a mission to get us free from that place, to get us a house away from the riff raff, or at least that riff raff.

Within three months of the day I snapped we moved into our new house, 35 miles and a lifetime away from Hapeville.

From what we hear, Uncle Daddy is still alive. By the time we left he was carrying an oxygen tank around, still smoking like a maniac, with throat and who knows what other kind of cancer. He'd apparently had it forever. Bad stuff doesn't kill people like Uncle Daddy. Bad stuff is in their genes. It only makes them stronger.

The kids would be about 16 by now. I imagine them in some juvenile detention center, having the shit kicked out of them. I swear I'm smiling right now.

But life doesn't usually work that way. I'm sure they're still right where we left them.

Roaches are hard to get rid of.

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