I was probably 15 when we made the voyage to Atlanta, Georgia. In all honesty, my mother wanted to see the whale sharks at the aquarium. That was it. We had no reason to go to Atlanta, but I was beyond excited. We looked up vegan restaurants and booked our flights and hotel.
The restaurant we sought is closed now, but was alive and well in an impoverished corner of Atlanta during our trip. The rental car was nothing special, and we followed our (now vintage) GPS wherever it directed. We eventually ended up within a mile, or so the GPS said, of the restaurant and found a parking area for a few dollars. This is where the adventure begins.
As we pull in to a tiny parking lot, a man on the street starts waving his arms around wildly and trying to get our attention. He came at us hurriedly after we had given the parking attendant the money. “Oh no, oh no,” he cried through the car window after his jostled speed walk over to us,” I was TRYING to TELL you! He’s about to leave, and I was trying to save you your money!” Now, this is actually very kind, but the aggressive and somewhat intrusive way in which he did this, was not. We said our oh-nos and thanks and oh-wells, and sat fidgeting with things in the car until he was out of the area. Sure enough, the parking attendant left about the same time we got out of the car and made us question the safety of our belongings and rental car in an unattended poorly lit parking lot.
We carried on and started following the directions, address in hand, toward the restaurant. But, once we got a few blocks down, it was obvious we weren’t as close as the GPS had led us to believe. We had blocks and blocks to go. Groups of men and boys in opposing shirt colors stood on corners and sides of the street, and walking down the street drew more attention than we had anticipated. The groups continually turned their backs to us, and we began swapping back and forth in an attempt to not disrupt some of the larger groups. A large man, towering over us, hands out like he was about to hug us, came at us with a booming “Hellooooooo mother and daughter.” We nodded as he laughed and kept walking past us.
By this point, 15 year old me is very concerned for my mother. My juvenile brain began brandishing my cellphone like a gun in my pocket (which became an inside joke for years after); but then, the woman. This woman was tall and thin, with short dirty hair. She had track marks up her arms; which in response to, she claimed to have been in the hospital for insulin shots. She then removed the jacket tied around her waste, to reveal blood on the back of her pants. I can’t remember the specifics- but either my mother asked her to show us the way, or she offered to get us to where we were going. Either way, we started following the woman down the road.
These were not tourist streets. These roads were not for rental cars and wandering. This was a community. As an adult, I would now say the community was upset and wanting. We were not welcome, but our tour guide led the way as flamboyantly as if giving a tour on Capitol Hill. She spoke loudly and took big steps. I remember comparing it to hiking in the woods- trying to avoid bears. Making noise often deters predators from coming close enough to attack. It’s possible she had a similar theory. Maybe she was protecting us, maybe we were protecting her, and maybe none of it mattered and nobody cared. It’s possible my teenage mind was simply terrified of this woman and was trying to console myself with thoughts of the woods and camping. We had a few nasty looks and shoulder fronting from a few guys, but we reached our restaurant. Nestled in a strip of gentrified stores and restaurants. I remember my mother bought our guide ice-cream on the strip, and I’m sure some money as well. We thanked her and she walked back down the streets we had come from, as we entered our restaurant.
This story has always bothered me. Was there true danger to us for not belonging in that neighborhood? Why didn’t we belong? What was the purpose of wearing one color shirt on one side of the street and another color on the other side? Why were the groups of men so large, 12-20 per group? Who was this woman willing to show us the way? Why did it feel so dangerous and confrontational? Is this the way the community also felt walking down the streets?
Or did my mother and I truly stumble into a conflict zone while trying out a vegan restaurant on vacation to see an aquarium?