Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Thankful to live in Atlanta

"We have no other choice but to … cut the level of health care we provide," said Bill Merry Jr., president of Herndon & Merry Inc., a Nashville ornamental ironworks with 21 employees.

The sixth set of Nashville stories

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"I miss Halloween and trick-or-treaters," my mother-in-law said thoughtfully over the phone, "you, know, every year the neighborhood used to get together and we'd have such a good time."

I made an agreeable sound. Halloween has been dying a slow death in Nashville for over a decade now, as the Conservative Christians have gained more and more power. Indeed, when the husband and I were small in the 1980's, you could see neighborhoods filled with kids on Halloween night. Now, people are much more likely to go to organized events - because half of your neighbors won't celebrate a "satanic holiday". Here around Atlanta, I had been telling my mother-in-law, we still have Halloween neighborhoods. There are still plenty of trick-or-treaters where there are houses, full of running and shouting little kids on sugar highs, and in more grown-up neighborhoods like mine we've got the bars and businesses open late, twenty-somethings spilling out into the street. Halloween is still fun here.

She started to reminisce. "Every year we'd burn a witch. Except that year we accidentally burned a cross."


Turns out in the upscale subdivision my husband grew up in, a couple from some other region had introduced the custom of burning a fake witch in effigy before letting children go trick-or-treating. The idea was that you had a big bonfire, and burned the with, and then it was safe for the kids to go out. I have never heard of this custom and I don't know where it comes from, but I told my mother-in-law it was one of the most horrible things I'd ever heard of. "Good God, and how did you end up accidentally burning a cross?"

Well, one year the folks who normally made the witch to burn were going to be out of town. So neighbors asked mother-in-law to make a witch. She didn't know how, but guessed, starting with two sticks wrapped as a crossbar like a scarecrow. Then she made a witch out of batting and cloth. When they lit the fire, all the fabric burned off right away, leaving the kids to watch...a cross burn. None of the adults knew what to do, as they stood a little aghast at their holiday bonfire.

"And that was the last Halloween we burned a witch." she said.


Back in September, an acquaintance of my sister's was tasered to death by Nashville Metro Police outside a show at the Mercy Lounge. The kid was 22, drunk, and a little bit high. The cops had him outside the bar and were trying to reason with a drunk 22-year-old. He wouldn't listen. They sprayed him with pepper spray, which fucking hurts, if you've never had the experience and he went beserk, running around the parking lot, taking off his shirt, drunkenly trying to stop the pain. When he wouldn't obey their commands to lay down, the police discharged their tasers over 18 times. Onto a drunk, skinny, kid acting like an idiot at a bar. He died.

Atlanta police are underpaid, but seem to be better trained than Nashville police. One day I'll write the story of my sister's experience with the Nashville force in May of 2003. Not enough time has passed yet for me to write that story, but let me tell you; they don't train their police enough in Nashville. The police there make mistakes that could be easily avoided by better training. A twenty-two year old guy is dead, because he got too drunk in a bar and the police didn't know how to handle that simple, everyday occurrence properly. It was an accident that could have been prevented.

My middle sister did not return to Nashville this year for Thanksgiving; she had to work. What she is thankful for most this year is living in Atlanta. The Metro Nashville police force had a little bit to do with that.


I had a good Thanksgiving up in Nashville this year. My mother was there, and so was my youngest sister, and the in-laws. Mom and father-in-law aren't in the best health. Youngest sister has progressed to angry adolescent - and become quite beautiful. It's as if at night her anger and body grow a little bit each day; being a teenager is so, so difficult. In a few years though, I know we'll get to be good friends again.

I let go of a lot of my own teenage anger Thanksgiving weekend. I had a little help. When I was small, my Grandfather made me a cedar chest that I used for my toys. It's one of the things that survived my parent's divorce, but barely; my father, one night in a drunken rage, used a black permanent marker to graffiti all over the inside lid. He no doubt tried to smash the thing too, but failed. He was more successful in smashing the cedar chest my Grandfather had given my mother, which had more detail work that was easier to break.

I had avoided getting the chest of toys from my mom because I didn't know how to deal with dad's graffiti. It had become this physical symbol in my mind of how he was hellbent on destroying everything with his drinking, and every time I thought about the chest I felt like I wanted to vomit. But it was time; my mother is moving on with her life, and that means moving on with her furniture and decorating. She needed my cedar chest to leave her house.

The in-laws know a very good carpenter, an immigrant from Mexico who does some of the most beautiful detail work you've ever seen. He picked up the chest from my mother's house, and sanded down the graffiti. He looked it over; someone had tried to take a hammer to the legs, but found them unable to break. The carpenter admired my Grandfather's craftsmanship, and said this was a perfect example of a chest to give a child - nearly impossible to break but nice enough that they would still want it as an adult.

I sorted through the toys, painfully throwing out those that were now just rags, saving a couple of things, keeping the nicest ones for charity (and, OK, one or two for me). This weekend I'll move the chest into the new baby's room and start storing quilts in there. Maybe. The husband likes the chest so much he's arguing for it to go in our room. I don't know; the graffiti is sanded off, but the chest holds too much weight still.

I can't imagine how my mother feels when she looks at her piece; the divorce has been so expensive that she hasn't got the money to fix it yet. The back is smashed in, the feet broken off, the inside lid also defaced. It can probably be put back together, after some time and expense. I'm thankful for that. If it's one thing I quietly told myself this year in Nashville, it's that I'm thankful for the idea that some things can be fixed; you just have to find the right tools and know-how. Time helps, too.

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