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Candice Dyer

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Stay classy, Atlanta: Erika Preval teaches modern manners

Erika Preval
Photograph by Ryan Gisson

When new acquaintances learn what Erika Preval does for a living, they react physically. “People automatically stiffen; there’s a visible change in posture,” says the founder of Charm Etiquette, a one-woman training ground for gracious living. Preval’s equable face betrays the slightest eye roll. “Manners are supposed to make people feel more comfortable, not less, but everyone thinks I will force them to walk with a book on their head.”

Pishposh. Preval is busily updating the stuffy image of charm school with a relaxed, democratic, and forward-looking spirit. “I’m qualified to teach cotillion, but what good is that when people are deciding entire relationships by swiping their fingers left or right on a screen?” she says. “I meet people where they are and go from there.”

A debutante in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, before coming to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, Preval interned on Wall Street; worked in Atlanta at JETRO, the Japanese trade organization, where deference is an art form; and honed her tastes as a personal shopper for Tiffany & Co. at Phipps Plaza before earning certification through the Etiquette & Leadership Institute in Athens. Modeling herself as a “hip Mary Poppins,” she launched Charm Etiquette in 2013 for children and young adults. Students develop style savvy at Neiman Marcus (“A-line dresses and pencil skirts flatter most body types”). Girls can also take classes that teach them to garden, practice yoga, or concoct a simple syrup. “Learning table etiquette was fun,” gushes 11-year-old graduate Layla Johnson.

Now Preval is launching Social Studies, which she bills as Atlanta’s only “finishing school” for adults. The curriculum includes a cocktail party, a ladies luncheon, and wine tastings. Also expect instruction on the arrangement of charcuterie platters, ordering the right bottle for a group, and properly exchanging business cards, along with the finer points of cigars (avoid an extended column of ash) and whiskey (no ice; “some purists don’t want to dilute that $40 hit of bourbon”). Prospective students include ambitious junior execs, corporate spouses, and aspiring politicos.

Southerners, she notes, are more likely than other Americans to say “ma’am” and “sir,” but the exigencies of modern life have caught up with even us. “We’re no longer instructing ladies to host teas with friends but ensuring they’re primed to handle themselves in the boardroom.”

For teaching venues, she partners with local businesses. Younger students learn the protocols of dining at St. Cecilia, not the Piedmont Driving Club. “I’m trying to get away from the idea that etiquette equals perfection,” she says. “Country clubs are a little too ‘perfect’ for what I do.”

Generally, smartphones do not belong at these well-set tables, she says, but there are exceptions. “If you ask and receive permission beforehand about accepting an important call, that’s okay. Your attention always should focus on the person sitting across from you,” she says. “I want etiquette to evolve to remain relevant and encourage thoughtfulness in lieu of its sometimes elitist undertones.” In other words, you may bring your iPad without fear that she will make you walk while balancing it on your head.

This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.

How the Big Green Egg became a phenomenon

The outdoor grill barely quivers, without billowing any eye-watering smoke signals, and it provides the only dash of deep color on this otherwise monochrome gray deck. To someone who hasn’t watched a cooking show or attended an upper-middle-class dinner party during the past decade, it would look distinctly foreign—either prehistoric or futuristic, as if it holds the fetus of a brontosaurus or thrums like some ominous extraterrestrial pod from science fiction. In any case, the Big Green Egg is about to hatch something wondrous.

“See, most grills would have smoke all over the place at this point,” says chef Kevin Rathbun, demonstrating the cooker he uses at his Morningside home. “With a low heat, you can walk away from it for hours, all night even, but at this high heat—about 700 degrees—you really need to burp the egg to let air in slowly. It’s demanding oxygen to breathe.” He gently lifts the 40-pound domed lid, which releases a small plume of smoke and reveals a sizzling 30-ounce porterhouse steak. It’s exquisitely charred in eight minutes, and then Rathbun slings a mammoth curl of lobster tail on the grill, along with some lightly seasoned yu choy greens.

Big Green Egg
Photograph by Josh Meister

“See how tender and juicy everything is?” he says. “The tight seal and the sheer thickness of the ceramic material is the best at retaining moisture, so your food never dries out.”

This cooker—which functions as a multipurpose hybrid of grill, smoker, and outdoor oven—has fed friends and philanthropists for the many charity dinners Rathbun holds at home, but he also employs one at Kevin Rathbun Steak, his critically acclaimed steakhouse, and at KR SteakBar. “People associate it with meat and ribs, but I’ve found it’s essential for vegetables, too, because not everybody wants bacon in the Brussels sprouts,” he says. “I also use it a lot for stocks, and I use it for fish and shellfish—especially razor clams—and pork butts, grilled meatballs, fondues, smoked butter, smoked tomato grits. People use it for pizza and desserts. It’s one of the most versatile pieces of equipment. And it’s forgiving—it’s pretty hard to screw up anything on the Egg.”

If this product has a celebrity pitchman, it’s Rathbun. Almost 20 years ago, he discovered the peculiar-looking cooker the way most people do: as the worshipped totem at a friend’s dinner party. He was working as the chef at Nava and sought out the BGE’s headquarters, then a one-man operation in a small strip mall storefront at the intersection of Clairmont Road and Buford Highway. “I was in my chef pants, looking around, and the store owner fitted me out with a large grill,” he recalls. “I loved it but thought I was just trying it out, so I tried to return it a month later, but he gave it to me.”

As a thank-you, Rathbun starred in a video tutorial on how to use the product. That’s why, if you’ve popped into Ace Hardware, where the video still plays on a loop sometimes, you likely have heard Rathbun’s bassoon-like voice urging you to burp your Egg.

That promotional gesture—bestowing the product on one of the city’s up-and-coming chefs—is typical of the company’s founder, Ed Fisher, who has built a verdure-hued empire on old-school entrepreneurialism and gushing word of mouth since he began selling the cookers in the early 1970s. Earlier this year, the Big Green Egg moved into a gleaming new 35,000-square-foot headquarters in Doraville, featuring an exhibit of Eggs through the ages and a “Le Cordon Green” culinary center that seats 65 students for two classes a week, with more space on a commodious deck for alfresco grilling. Eggs are sold in more than 3,000 stores in the United States and in 50 countries. Recently the company rolled out an XXL Egg, large enough for suckling pigs, as well as a Mini Max, lighter and ideal for camping. Devout followers (called, Eggheads, of course) turn out by the thousands for “Eggfests” around the country; they’re clad in more green—with hair and dogs dyed to match—than a Saint Patrick’s Day parade.

No one has done formal research on the demographics of the phenomenon, but judging by crowd photos at Eggfests, most users—like the Parrotheads at a Jimmy Buffett concert—are fun-seeking white guys over 35. With a price tag that hovers around $850 or more, the Big Green Egg calls for a certain amount of disposable income, and the traditional division of household labor leaves the barbecue tongs to men. More and more women, though, are mastering this type of cooking; the Big Green Egg Culinary Center offers a Girls and Grills class that fills up fast. “My daddy was an early Egghead in Tifton,” Patricia Tinsley says. “He advised me to leave the grilling to my guy.” Tinsley didn’t take the advice. Now she’s an Atlanta hostess and foodie who bills herself as the “Grill Girl.”

Inspiration for the Big Green Egg
One of the earliest fire clay cookers that Ed Fisher imported from Asia in the 1970s.

Photograph by Josh Meister

The Big Green Egg derives from a simple idea with an ancient lineage, as evidenced by pottery shards of cooking vessels in middens around the world. More specifically, it’s an updated iteration of a commonplace Asian rice cooker: the kamado, a Japanese word that translates as “place for the cauldron.” The Egg’s modern design, which uses durable ceramics, is modeled on the cookers traced first to the Chinese Qin Dynasty and then used by the Japanese beginning in the third century, says Fisher, who discovered the apparatus, like many servicemen of his generation, during his travels in Asia as a Navy engineer.

What makes kamados different from other metal charcoal grills is their heavy, airtight seal that holds in moisture, with small vents at the top and bottom to control air flow with precision. The focused heat also can be held to low temperatures for smoking. A kamado has a quick startup time; it’s ready to cook in just a few minutes. Moreover, the natural lump charcoal burns hotter and more efficiently than briquettes, and it produces little ash to clean up.

In fact, the physics of it prove so straightforward, and the success of the Egg so salivating, that at least a dozen other manufacturers have sprung up. Three other companies—Primo, Grill Dome, and Kamado Joe—are now based in metro Atlanta, which the New York Times pronounced “the de facto hub for ceramic cookers.” Each jockeys to distinguish itself, and each has rabid fans, arguing online with the same evangelical fervor devoted to debates about Carolina versus Texas barbecue. The flatter, oval-shaped Primo grills boast an American-made advantage. (Big Green Eggs are manufactured in Mexico.) “We’re the only ceramic grill made here,” says company spokesperson Derald Schultz. “All phases of our production from mixing, molding, firing, assembly, inspection, and packaging take place at our factory in Tucker. So we have the distinct advantage of controlling our production and overseeing quality control on a day-to-day basis.”

Grill Dome cookers, with headquarters in Suwanee and manufacturing in India, come in three sizes, all customizable. “Mine is pink!” says Lynne Sawicki, who uses it alongside both a Big Green Egg and a Primo grill. She owns Sawicki’s Meat, Seafood and More in Decatur. “Because of their radiant heat, they act as a sort of sauna for meat. I fire them up at night and leave them on while I sleep.”

Kamado Joe, meanwhile, touts the accessories included in the price of one of its China-made grills: an ash tool, the “Divide & Conquer” flexible cooking system (a tiered surface area for cooking multiple items at the same time), and a grate removal tool. The Duluth-based company’s motto is “It Comes with All That?!”

None of these privately held companies will release sales figures, but the Big Green Egg, which cites annual growth of as much as 20 percent for the past few years, clearly dominates the market. Fisher takes an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” stance toward his competitors. “All those companies compare themselves to us one way or another,” he says, shrugging, “and as long as they talk about us, they drive our sales figures higher.”

Ed Fisher Big Green Egg
Ed Fisher and the family of Big Green Eggs

Photograph by Josh Meister

Fisher, an 81-year-old smoothie with Old World courtliness, proudly wears a hunter-green blazer when he is on the clock, and there are fresh comb tracks in his neatly parted thatch of hair. He grew up in south Philadelphia, the son of a furrier who fled Russia. Fisher is a bit of an audiophile—his Buckhead home includes a shrine to Sinatra—but he comes by it naturally: He’s cousins with Eddie Fisher, the late crooner.

Ed Fisher earned a degree in psychology from Temple and served in the Navy, but he dreamed of following the lead of his three older brothers, all successful business owners. He peddled pachinko machines, a kind of Japanese arcade game, in Miami before coming to Atlanta. “I had only been here once, but it was the closest big city to Florida, and my partner and I wanted to branch out,” he says. (A black-and-white photo in the Egg museum shows Fisher grinning and posing with one of his pachinko machines.)

Sales lagged between holidays, so Fisher sought to round out his inventory by importing kamado cookers from Japan. “I remembered this steak that I’d had overseas,” he says. “It tasted so good with so little fuss. I thought the cookers might go over here.”

For a while, they just gathered dust, crammed into storage. He reassessed his marketing. “‘Let’s go down to Pachinko House and get a kamado’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” he says. “So I started thinking about a more American-sounding name. They’re egg-shaped, obviously, and large. I started thinking about colors and thought, Green is a nice enough color. Why not? Big Green Egg seemed to fit just right.”

He also began preparing chicken wings, letting the aroma waft to the sidewalk, and handing them out to passersby. Still, Fisher’s early imports were prone to cracking and other problems, so he began to tweak the design, using input from his customers. One suggested a thermometer, so in it went. Another suggested natural charcoal instead of briquettes, which burned too fast and could leave a bad taste in the food.

Big Green Egg creator Ed Fisher
Fisher with a pachinko machine

Photograph courtesy of Big Green Egg

In 1995, he made a handshake deal with a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, to produce his own, improved version of the kamado, using a higher grade of ceramics. Suddenly there was plenty of green to go around. The company has been courted by “all of the mass-market retailers,” Fisher claims, but he prefers to limit distribution to specialty vendors. “I want them sold by people who are knowledgeable and trained to do a demonstration,” he says.

The Eggfests, too, please him, not so much with the green-haired spectacle as with their spirit. “People come together to cook, and they share their food with each other, along with their recipes and techniques,” he says. “The Egg fosters a sense of sharing that creates community, and that is what matters to me.”

On a recent evening at a Big Green Egg 101 class at Le Cordon Green, the mood is festive, chatty, and clubby, and the crowd of about 25 is diverse, with the male-to-female ratio hovering around 60:40. One man says he drove all the way from Alabama to get some pointers, and a class clown announces that he likes his meat “so rare that a good vet could still save it.” Helpers in green aprons bustle around, providing beer, wine, and soft drinks for students who sample the end results of the folksy, how-to tutorial on recipes such as baby back ribs with sweet chile sauce, spatchcock chicken, and grilled romaine lettuce. “We try to put on a show,” says emcee Doug Goolsby.

One student, Gary Chichester, a construction project manager, offers some testimony: “When I have dinner parties now, everybody congregates around my Egg while I explain it, and they just marvel at it. It really makes cooking fun and makes a get-together more than just a regular party. It becomes an event—a lifestyle, even.”

Eggfests & Eggheads
The fraternity (and sorority) of BGE lovers is deep and wide.


This article originally appeared in our May 2015 issue. BGE

The cemetery discovered near Chastain Park

Illustration by Noma Bar
Illustration by Noma Bar

Ray Mock can remember the “poorhouses” next to the North Fulton Golf Course where he played as a teenage duffer. “Most of the people who lived there were elderly or ‘tetched,’ as we called it—or, as the census at the time cruelly termed them, ‘lunatics,’ ” he says. “They would gather the lost golf balls at night and then try to sell them back to us the next day: ten for a dollar in a strawberry basket.”

Mock, now sixty-two and the operations director for the Chastain Park Conservancy, flashed back to those enterprising characters when he was looking over old maps of the area and noticed a hand-drawn cross. “That’s traditionally a symbol for a cemetery, and it was over a corner of the golf course,” he says. “I’d always heard there were graves here, but I didn’t know precisely where or how many.”

This year, high-tech mapping revealed eighty-six unmarked graves just a few feet from today’s fifth green. These constitute a cemetery that served Fulton County’s “almshouses,” to use the proper Dickensian term. There were two facilities near each other, segregated by race, operating from 1911 into the 1960s, when federal entitlements began to phase out the system for long-term shelter.

“I had a lot of questions,” Mock says, “and I was hoping that nothing offensive was going on, like people playing golf on the graves of black people.” Ironically, the community surrounding this former potters field has become one of the plushest zip codes in the Southeast; the whites-only almshouse is now the prestigious Galloway School, and the dormitory for African Americans holds the Chastain Arts Center.
“I wondered if the indigents were integrated in burial,” Mock says. But racial identity is difficult to determine; most records remain missing, and the remains have decomposed along with any pine box or cloth shroud that held them. When bodies decompose, though, they leave air pockets that can be detected with ground-penetrating radar, which Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services used to find and mark each site.

“It would have been easy to desecrate this cemetery, but the people of Chastain Park didn’t do that,” Strozier says. “The bodies were generally six feet deep, facing the east for the Second Coming—the custom in the Bible Belt—and the golf course was carefully built around it, not over it. It’s one of the more respectful old graveyards I’ve found.”

Researchers have located only four death certificates for the almshouses: three for unnamed African Americans whose bodies were donated to science, not buried at the park site, and one, dated 1922, for L.H. Evans, a seventy-year-old white man.
The conservancy plans to plant wildflowers along the border of the cemetery and erect an interpretive memorial. “Not just an ordinary plaque with dates on it,” Mock says, “but an artistic, vandal-proof glass monument that gives meaningful context. Nobody much cared about these people when they were alive; we want to honor them now.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

“We Cannot Waste a Single Day”

Phil and Cheryl Yagoda
Phil and Cheryl Yagoda

Photograph by Neda Abghari

Last summer, ten-year-old Ian Yagoda miraculously caught not one, but two foul balls during a single Braves game at Turner Field. Then he turned and magnanimously handed one of them to another boy, a kid he did not know, in the stands. “He wanted it, so I gave it to him,” Ian says. “It made him happy, so I’m glad I did.”

Ian’s voice is soft, measured, and taffy-like, with just the slightest Southern accent that suggests northern-arc Atlanta. He has always lived in Sandy Springs. His teachers praise his gentle manners. In contrast, his father, Phil Yagoda, a Long Island native and finance specialist, communicates in the urgent, staccato tempo of the traders hustling on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “I’m not easy to work with,” he says bluntly. “I try to be nice and not be an ass, but I am very direct in my approach. And when it comes to saving my kid”—he strikes a boxer’s pose—“I’m like, ‘Put ’em up!’ ”

Yagoda caffeinates his pace further with every glance at the clock. When Ian was two, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Aside from some delayed motor skills early on—the symptom that red-flagged the attention of his mother, Cheryl—Ian’s health has remained relatively stable with treatment. He pinballs around the grown-ups as he plays basketball and dreams of becoming “an NBA all-star or a jet pilot.”

Ten-year-old Ian Yagoda in his bedroom, surrounded by some of the stuffed animals he's collected from hospital visits over the years. That's his guinea pig, Honey, next to him.
Ten-year-old Ian Yagoda in his bedroom, surrounded by some of the stuffed animals he’s collected from hospital visits over the years. That’s his guinea pig, Honey, next to him.

Photograph by Neda Abghari

“We cannot afford to waste a single day,” his father says. “If a treatment is not working, then the cell counts could drop too low to apply a different treatment in time. Parents in this situation literally live from MRI to MRI. The night before one of those, I usually throw up and fall apart, and my wife becomes the rock. I want to do all I can to make sure no other parent ever hears those words that turn a family’s life upside down: ‘We think we found something.’ ”

Yagoda, like others in his predicament, has undergone the kind of excruciating, high-stakes education that no one wants. Parents of children with brain tumors typically can rattle off mouthfuls of medical jargon with the fluency of a veteran Mayo clinician, particularly the unwieldy names of promising pharmaceuticals and where they stand in clinical trials. One fundamental lesson Yagoda learned early on is that scientists in this small field—there are only around 100 practicing pediatric neuro-oncologists in the country, and most of them know each other—often struggle to acquire not only funding but also a steady supply of living cancer cells for experimentation. Traditionally, excised tumors are “banked,” or frozen, if they are kept at all. Toward that end, in 2007, the family established Ian’s Friends Foundation, which supports innovative research projects at institutions nationwide, including local laboratories that have achieved some hopeful breakthroughs.

“After years of traveling all over the place, we found the lack of available cells for research remains a huge roadblock to finding the cure or developing new treatments,” says Yagoda, a managing director for Deutsche Bank. “I finally said, ‘Screw it—we’ll just start our own collection.’ ”

So at the beginning of this year, he established the Ian’s Friends Foundation Brain Tumor Biorepository at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The idea, he says, is to foster greater variety and collaboration with as little red tape as possible. “There’s not a lot of sharing in scientific research, which is very territorial and profit-driven, and the government tends to fund only what’s already established,” he says. “We’re looking for novel, outside-the-box approaches, and we keep the application process from being too onerous. There are other biorepositories out there, but they might claim as much as 50 percent ownership of whatever profits come from them. With us, a researcher just has to make a case for an idea. We’ll give him or her cells with an easy material transfer agreement for essentially the costs of shipping and handling, which are only around $50 or $75.”

The repository not only stores tumors, but it also grows new ones from the acquired tissue samples. “This biorepository takes us in a new direction,” says Dr. Tobey MacDonald, director of the Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University. Both a practicing physician and a researcher, he relocated five years ago from Washington, D.C., in part because of the number of patients in Atlanta. With as many as 150 diagnoses annually, we are in the top five in the country, creating a large patient pool to study in a city equipped with sophisticated labs at Emory and Georgia Tech. Much of the Southeast remains underserved by research hospitals, so Atlanta functions as a hub for patients from all over the U.S.

“Some parents are creeped out, for lack of a better word, at the idea of their child’s tumor being kept ‘alive,’ and I can understand the pain in that,” MacDonald says. “However, we need to learn what causes a tumor to grow, to identify those ‘driver’ mutations in order to find ways to stop it.”
In 2012, the Children’s Oncology Group, the world’s largest organization of researchers in this field, designated Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a site for Phase I drug trials—an acknowledgment of the caliber of care here as well as the size of the patient population. That status means the patients with the worst prognoses for survival have access to treatments that are still in the experimental phase. “I try to be honest but also leave room for hope when I meet with patients,” MacDonald says. “There’s no reason that their child might not be the one who beats the odds.”

The brain is the most complex and mysterious organ in the body, with an estimated 86 billion neurons controlling the nervous system, hormone production, and the five senses, as well as that more abstract faculty: the mind, the seat of consciousness. Even a heart can be transplanted, but no pig valve can replace the exquisite coils inside our skulls. A child’s brain proves especially delicate because it has much unfinished business, choreographing the development and maturation of the body. Hippocrates wrote, “Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter, and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.” The five neuro-oncology specialists who conduct research and treat patients in Atlanta are striving for more joy and fewer sobs of lamentations in their hallways.

 

Maranda Martin at her grandmother's house, where she's been spending time since her son Brayden died in September. She keeps a box of keepsakes close by: a plaster cast of her son's hands, a pair of his sneakers, and some portraits of him at age five, courtesy of Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that creates uplifting photographs of children fighting cancer.
Maranda Martin at her grandmother’s house, where she’s been spending time since her son Brayden died in September. She keeps a box of keepsakes close by: a plaster cast of her son’s hands, a pair of his sneakers, and some portraits of him at age five, courtesy of Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that creates uplifting photographs of children fighting cancer.

Photograph by Neda Abghari

Maranda Martin has plans to donate her seven-year-old son Brayden’s tumor for research. “I want them to kill it, but first I want them to torture it,” she says. “It’s been torturing my son for years.”

She is glancing around the halls of Scottish Rite, with its Crayola-inspired scheme of primary colors. Surgeries take place at both the Egleston and Scottish Rite campuses of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Long-term and rehabilitative care is handled here, where bald children—sometimes in scarves or tiny ball caps, and clutching security blankets with Spider-Man or Dora the Explorer themes—patrol the halls in tricycles, little red wagons, and plastic cars, all tethered to IV drips. Kleenex boxes sit discreetly within reach in every corner. “This place is a war zone for children,” Martin says bitterly.

In the fluorescent lighting of the hospital break room, she looks puffy around the eyes from weeping, which she is careful to do outside of Brayden’s line of vision. She has trained herself to catch fitful naps on the backache-inducing cot in his room. He had gone home to Norcross for hospice, but complications from pneumonia have brought him back here, and she knows she will never carry him out of this place alive.

Brayden was almost three when he was diagnosed with anaplastic medulloblastoma, classified as a “fast-growing” tumor of the cerebellum. “Survival rates are a little better if they’re at least four years old,” she says, recounting his disease history by dates, treatments, and cruel ironies, “and if they can go five years without a relapse, that’s usually a sign that the worst is over. Usually. If they have even one relapse, though, they probably won’t make it, and six out of ten will relapse. Brayden relapsed five times. I don’t ever want to hear the word relapse again once this is over.”

She dabs at her eyes and recalls his diagnosis in a monotone.

“He kept throwing up, and his little body just wasn’t digesting food,” she says. “Initially, some of the doctors treated me as if I were stupid. They were testing him for diabetes and gluten intolerance, but I sensed that something different, something worse was going on. Finally, a radiologist said, ‘Why aren’t we looking at his brain?’ So they did a CT scan. We were singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ to him when we looked up and saw them reading the results. And their faces all fell at the same time. We just knew. My mother started crying. We didn’t leave the hospital for two months after that. That was the beginning.”

Most of the anecdotal patient histories in this hospital wing follow a similar narrative. The child exhibits headaches, vomiting, a lazy eye, poor balance or coordination, persistent drowsiness, or other vague symptoms that could mean nothing or everything. Pediatricians and general practitioners in the first line of defense often seem clueless and cavalier, at least in retrospect—a little too quick to downplay the anomalies, despite the mother’s foreboding intuition and rising panic. Parents learn to read the body language of medical professionals, to scrutinize facial expressions. They watch their child make and then lose best friends in the ward, and they see kids with the same type of cancer improve while their child gradually loses the ability to toddle, pedal, and speak. Of course, when their child is asleep, they pore over the Internet, where they discover a welter of contradictory information and pseudoscience.

The first clump of hair usually comes out in the tub. “There’s just no good way to prepare a parent or a child for the hair loss,” says Tammy Bates, shaking her head. “It’s a dizzying whirlwind of a ride once that diagnosis is made.” She lost her son Brody when he was eight. “Families need all of the support they can get, even for little things that the average person doesn’t think about: utilities, transportation, rent. Usually at least one parent ends up leaving a job because caring for the child takes over all time and energy. They may live far from a hospital. Families can end up shattered or physically displaced on top of everything else.”

Like a surprising number of surviving parents, Bates continues to work in the emotional eye of the storm, serving as director of Patient and Family Services for the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, which is the country’s oldest organization dedicated exclusively to pediatric brain cancer. Formed in 1983, it primarily handles financial and social support for struggling families, but it recently merged with the world’s largest nonprofit backer of research, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, further enlarging Atlanta’s regional and national profile in battling this disease.

“A culture of foundations and nonprofits, often started and staffed by parents, has sprung up—both to help other families and to fund research,” MacDonald says, “because this disease is largely underfunded compared to others.”

Among all diseases, cancer remains the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., and brain tumors are second only to leukemia as the most common form of the disease. However, only about 4 percent of government funding for research is earmarked for pediatric cancers—a source of much resentment in the children’s wards. “[Pediatric brain tumors] get something like a penny for every dollar directed toward other cancers,” Martin says. “Yet cancer organizations are always happy to use pictures of our bald children to tug at people’s heartstrings in their campaigns. We just don’t get a very big slice of the pie.”

Adds MacDonald, “I tried to lobby politicians at one point. We used the ‘loss of productivity’ argument, trying to appeal to the American work ethic, to no avail. We’ve made great strides in treating childhood leukemia. We’ve brought the survival rate way up in the past twenty years, and that’s largely because people threw a lot of money at it. We need a similar outpouring for this disease.”

Mary Moore, executive director of the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, says losses tend to come in waves. “We lost three or four children in a couple-week period. It’s just horrible.” But the knowledge that her foundation is a help to families—whether it’s in the form of logistical, financial, or emotional support—is a motivator. “When you go to the hospital room, and you see what they’re going through, you leave saying, ‘Man, we have got to work harder.’”

 

Cancer financials entail, in novelist Henry James’s phrase, a “terrible algebra” of suffering. Around 4,300 children and teens were diagnosed with primary brain tumors in 2013. “Pharmaceutical companies are driven by numbers, and so far there haven’t been enough statistics around pediatric brain tumors to convince them that they could make a large enough profit, at least when compared with other diseases,” MacDonald says, echoing others who yearn for some equivalent of an ice bucket challenge or pink ribbon campaign for awareness and fundraising. According to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States, which is funded by the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, more than 28,000 children and adolescents (age zero to 19) in the U.S. are living with a malignant or nonmalignant brain or central nervous system (CNS) tumor. CBTRUS estimates that of the children between the ages of zero and 19 with a malignant tumor, 540 will die of their disease in 2014.

“I don’t understand why this isn’t better supported,” says Yagoda, who knows all about crunching numbers to build a case. “Is it because kids don’t vote? And if it’s a matter of math, even if only a few thousand children are diagnosed, if they all were able to grow up and have children and grandchildren, then it quickly translates into a ‘5 million people affected’ problem. I don’t get it.”

Many parents, in the meantime, turn to social media for financial and emotional assistance. “I didn’t have a car, which I desperately needed to get him to appointments,” Martin says. “I put that out there, and a friend of a friend at a dealership gave me a car. A foundation gave me some gas cards, too. You learn to juggle among different groups, but money is always tight everywhere.” She has also used social media to raise money for Brayden’s funeral and headstone.

Martin once worked as a preschool teacher. (“I’ve always loved kids,” she says wistfully.) Since Brayden’s diagnosis and the ensuing departure of her husband, she has gotten by on a small Supplemental Security Income check. A year after the diagnosis, she realized she was pregnant again; she eventually gave birth to Brayden’s little brother, Mason. “I don’t know what I would have done without social media,” she says. Her Facebook posts tell a story in the pattern of an anguished seismograph: pleas for prayer; gratitude for small victories; crushing setbacks; photos of Mason grinning while Brayden hams it up, playing air guitar; and now, an ongoing stream of condolences. Brayden died in September.

“I can’t think of my son as a statistic—I hate statistics,” she says, explaining how she intends to keep volunteering in this “war zone,” where kids learn to receive shunts, catheters, and IVs without fidgeting. “I’ve gotta find a reason for this. There’s just gotta be one somewhere,” she says. “Besides, I know all the lingo and how to work every medicine-delivery pump in this place by now. I don’t know what else to do with myself.”

Yagoda, too, copes by channeling his fear into round-the-clock action. Among the initiatives supported by Ian’s Friends Foundation is the Tumor Migration Project, which focuses on mobility. Biomedical engineers at Georgia Tech, Emory, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have deduced how to nudge a tumor out of inoperable interior spots to safer sites for extrication or targeted therapies. The proposal won the coveted EUREKA award (Exceptional Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration), which includes a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Advances in nanotechnology, dyes used to delineate cancer’s borders more precisely, electrical stimulation, and other tumor-shrinking and inhibiting approaches also are showing promise.

Ian, the boy who gives away baseballs and other toys, has not directly benefited from these procedures yet, but he might some day.

“My fantasy, my dream,” Yagoda says, “is that this has all been a horrible mistake, a misdiagnosis. That my son isn’t really sick, but that we were meant to be shaken up enough to help other families by stamping out this problem. Our foundation’s motto is ‘until there’s a cure.’ We simply won’t rest until then.”

 

Help out
On October 25, Ian’s Friends Foundation hosts the seventh annual Evening of Inspiration at Loews Hotel in Atlanta.

On November 8, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation hosts Starry Night at Centennial Olympic Park, an 8.5K walk/run to raise money for the foundation and to draw attention to the 28,000 American children living with brain tumors.

More: Read Steve Fennessy’s editor’s note on how the idea for this story began

This article originally appeared in our November 2014 issue.

Ode to the dive bar

The Austin Avenue Buffet, which legend has it was once Atlanta’s oldest drinking establishment, closed around the millennium with a tearful auction of its artifacts.

I bought one of the barroom mirrors. Blackened by Windex-defying cigarette smoke, they did not reflect much—a blessing for the weather-beaten mourners enjoying one last unsteady waltz to a Faron Young song on the jukebox. Bullet holes in the walls attested to “creative differences” in the ironworkers’ union, an old-timer with a goiter the size of a golf ball explained to me. Since the bar’s demise, John Portman’s heirs have manicured the far end of this Inman Park block to a high-end, mixed-use gleam.

The term dive was coined in the 1800s for the implied descent into discreet cellars. Not as music-driven as juke joints or as violent as “blood buckets,” and too lazy for trivia, dives get defined less by what they offer than by what they lack. You won’t find craft cocktails with elderberry infusions or encounter that most despised demographic, the PBR-swilling hipster. In such a place, irony is wielded about as often as a mop, so don’t set your pocketbook on the floor.

Atlanta, with its less-than-intoxicating brew of blue laws, bulldozers, and preening aspiration, has never embraced the dive as enthusiastically as other American cities, but it has historically supported a few memorable ones. Tipplers of a certain vintage might recall the Bearded Clam, the Cove (dank enough for fungus foraging), and the druggy Crystal Palace. The Crazy Horse, which served pre-orthodontia Cabbagetown, stood its scabby ground against gentrification for as long as it could under the supervision of a loose-limbed character named Shad (“old-school C-Town,” he would say before executing a backflip). Meanwhile, high school kids would road-test their fake IDs at the Rusty Nail, which is still beloved for chummy service. Mostly, though, these kinds of watering holes, like their clientele of working-class heroes, have been jostled farther outside the Perimeter.

Dives exist for the elemental consolations of a cold one among other humans just as weary as you are, including the seen-it-all barmaid. It is wise to over-tip and ask about her children (but not about their fathers). She wields more power than the bouncer, and she’s pouring.

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.

Bedbugs are no match for the beagles of Red Coat Services

Bedbugs bite even if you sleep tight, but the pests now face an equally intractable, if cuter, foe: beagles. Red Coat Services, based in Brookhaven, is the only company in Georgia that specializes in employing four-legged workers to detect the pests. It then uses “remediation,” a nontoxic heat treatment, to eradicate them. “Beagles have a powerful nose and tenacity, and they’re compact enough to squeeze behind headboards,” says John Marratt, who owns Red Coat with his wife, Ashley. The two were training detection dogs for contraband when a hotel staffer requested help with bedbugs, which have made an itchy comeback thanks to global travel and reduced pesticides.

“Atlanta is a transportation hub, and it’s easy for bedbugs to infiltrate luggage,” says John, whose company treats residential spaces and more than thirty hotel conglomerates. These dogs, he adds, are hard-nosed pros, not pets—so no “Snoopy dances” on the job.

Meet Eliza 
Birthplace Somewhere in Alabama (She’s a rescue dog.)  
On the job Since January 2014 
Strengths “Her energy level is most impressive,” says Ashley Marratt.
Hobbies Like all working dogs, Eliza spends most of her time off sleeping.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

Lauretta Hannon has a new-school take on the old-school advice column

For that old-fashioned newspaper pulpit wedged between horoscope and wedding announcements, Lauretta Hannon makes a promise to readers of the Marietta Daily Journal: “Not your granny’s advice column.” Hannon’s column, syndicated in twenty-three newspapers, has a readership estimated at half a million.

The Powder Springs–based humorist fields the usual inquiries about meddlesome in-laws, clueless friends, and insolent kids. Readers usually take their cues from her down-home, no-B.S. tone. While some questions can be “gross” (example: “coworkers who pick their noses”), Hannon says the majority “boil down to some variation of: How do I get someone off my back in a nice, polite way? The perpetual dilemma of Southern women.” She counsels her supplicants to speak their mind with candor, and she sets that example herself with detractors: “I love getting hate mail and responding to it, because it seems to get my other readers going.”

What qualifies her to answer? “Nothing but good intentions and a wicked sense of humor.” For help, Hannon turns to her “advisory board,” which is “Pam, a waitress at the Waffle House in Mableton,” lines from Big Mama Thornton songs, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, and her own award-winning memoir, The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Joyful, Jagged Life.

Hannon’s Rules

Men
If it has tires or testicles, it will give you trouble.

Decor, domestic
Research has shown that people with less money tend to have more magnets on their refrigerators. Tolstoy said cunning is a necessary addition to everything, but I believe embellishment is.

Decor, personal
My bright red lipstick is my calling card. I intend to wear it in flagrant disregard of age-appropriateness or the opinions of others. However, the lines on my face are a record of every smile and laugh—and sorrow and grimace. Why would I diminish my rich experience or create a facade that’s not nearly as interesting?

Aspirations
Do not play small. Thou shalt be badass.

All-round advice
Always be a conduit of love.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue under the headline “Modern Manners.”

Will Atlanta ever enact a complete smoking ban?

Photograph by David Arky
Photograph by David Arky

In 2005 Georgia enacted a smoking ban for restaurants and pubs that serve or employ people under age eighteen. At the time, a bartender at Manuel’s Tavern announced, “Don’t worry, we’re not banning cigarettes; we’re banning kids!”

But in 2014 the storied establishment, where countless politicos have done their wheeling and dealing in nimbus clouds of tobacco, banned smoking altogether.

Manuel’s, however, is the exception that proves an enduring rule in Atlanta. Which is this: If you’re heading out to a bar, expect to come home smelling like an ashtray. Of the fifty most populous cities in the country, Atlanta is one of only seventeen without a total ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Not only are we an outlier nationally, but we’re also bucking a statewide trend. Georgia cities small and large—Decatur, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, and Athens, to name a few—already have smoking bans on the books.

Why not Atlanta?

It’s an intriguing question, particularly considering Mayor Kasim Reed’s emphasis on “green” initiatives, like reducing the city’s greenhouse emissions, diminishing its carbon footprint, and supporting urban farms. You’d think banning smoking in bars would fit nicely among those priorities, especially in a city that is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Reed can’t be bothered. Through his spokesman, he declined to comment.

Certainly Reed can’t cite an economic argument. Study after study has shown that smoking bans have no adverse effect on businesses. One study, published last year in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, even focused on the South, comparing cities and counties with smoking bans to those without them. The conclusion? “We found no significant association between smoke-free laws and employment or sales in restaurants and bars.”

Like Reed, Atlanta’s city council isn’t interested. Says council member Alex Wan, who championed a ban on smoking at city parks, “It’s good to see the voluntary bans at institutions, but I’m not sure how restaurant and bar owners would react to a legislative mandate.”

We know how one would. Michael Benoit, co-owner of the Vortex, says, “A bar is not a place you have to visit, like an airport or hospital. You choose to walk through our doors, and we have the crazy notion that adult members of society should be able to make choices about their health risks. There’s an overall decline in the number of people who smoke—and I don’t smoke—but our target demographic appreciates just having the option.”

Benoit’s attitude doesn’t surprise June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association. “The South, with its heritage of growing tobacco, traditionally has been reluctant to embrace most health initiatives,” she says. Atlanta’s pedigree as a boomtown built on regulatory laissez-faire doesn’t help. Even Manuel’s proprietor Brian Maloof still opposes the 2005 law. “If you’re a business owner investing your blood and sweat in your workplace, you should be able to set the rules about legal products on your property without any interference from the state or city,” Maloof says.

So why the about-face? Manuel’s raffish old guard, unrepentant in its vices, is, not surprisingly, dying out, and is increasingly supplanted by a hot-yoga clientele. “It was just time,” Maloof says. “It’s mainly a nonsmoking crowd with a built-in expectation that a place will be smoke-free. Aside from a couple of complaints, this change has gone over beautifully.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

Romeo Cologne: Ready for show No. 1000 at the Clermont Lounge

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Like other prophets before him, Romeo Cologne experienced a vision and then unearthed his sacred talismans from a lowly, unlikely place.

In the mid-1980s, he had a premonition about a Dumpster dive that eventually came to pass and yielded a large stash of old albums by James Brown, the Gap Band, P-Funk, and others. He cleaned them up and studied them reverently, and David Pierce, a rangy, boheme musician and visual artist in Athens, was transfigured into Romeo Cologne, high priest of funk and an old-school deejay with an indelibly syncopated gospel, swiveling hips, and a big set of disco balls. He eventually brought his retro party to Atlanta, for Velvet and Color Box, before ending up at Star Bar and the Clermont Lounge.

Romeo Cologne works from a well-worn playlist, which features crowd pleasers like Michael Jackson, but he delights in educating audiences about other artists such as The Bar-Kays, Carrie Lucas, and Georgia native Hamilton Bohannon, so each show moves to its own groove. “I try to add a layer of artistic context to it,” he says. “I’m intimate with where the beats change, so I let the music and the crowd’s energy guide me in creating a narrative and building the music to a climax. Every night is Black History Month at my gigs.”

Cologne works two Tuesdays a month at the Star Bar, and on the evening of Saturday, March 1, he will celebrate his thousandth Saturday night spinning vinyl at the Clermont Lounge. “Funk is more than a philosophical force,” he says, “It’s a spiritual release that has never let me down. This will be a serious party.”

Expect to see this impresario, who calls himself “the last of the white peacocks,” in a cummerbund, blaxploitation-flick hat, and some 6-inch platform shoes “with ankle support for dancing.” His act derives almost as much from his sartorial statements as from his music selections. Cologne, 60, who lives near Belvedere Park, hits a different thrift store just about every day. “I’m very particular about my pinstripes, and shag carpet is an essential part of my life,” he says. “Besides, I just don’t look good in modern, normal clothes, so I wear what I wore as a young man.” Meaning polyester leisure suits, wide lapels, and tight, Sansabelt slacks, lavishly accessorized.

“It’s a combination of Hollywood regent and king pimp or foppish court dandy,” he says. “I’m going for a visual creation that honors the outlandish and overdone, and to me this look says ‘royalty,’ with its epic heraldry, its velvet carriage and lovers and angels. I call it: High Pimp.”

And, while other trends come and go, funk and High Pimp remain timeless, he observes.

“Will people still be dancing to today’s Top 40 music 30 years from now? I doubt it,” he says, adding, “I’m not the only pimp at my late-night Kroger. There’s another dude there who is older than I am, and I just hope I still have his style when I’m that age.”

Play that funky music, white boy.

Amy Ray goes country

Amy Ray’s rural-route detour from folkie to folksy is not as out of the way as it seems. This month the singer-songwriter, best known as half of the socially conscious Grammy-winning duo the Indigo Girls, debuts her solo album, Goodnight Tender, a collection of old-school country music in the purest—and purist—sense of the word, fit for any honky-tonk jukebox.

“I want people to cry in their beer,” she says of these dozen songs released by her label, Daemon Records. “This material is more visceral than intellectual, with a wistful sense of the creek and the dirt, as well as unrequited love. I wanted a record that sounds good when you’re driving down a back road.” Some love songs involving dogs were inevitable.

She and Emily Saliers still weave intricate harmonies as the Atlanta-based Indigo Girls, but on her own, Ray usually amps up the volume as a growling ax-slinging rocker. For a while though, since moving to the mountains of Dahlonega, where plinking banjos still echo in the hollows, she has begun to think of punk and country as “kissing cousins.” So Ray convened some old-time pickers, added a keening pedal steel to the mix, and reinterpreted the Nashville sound by way of bohemian Asheville, where Goodnight Tender was recorded.

“I was tempted to slip in a political song but didn’t, because I wanted this album free of anything that defines identity,” says Ray, forty-nine (and a new mother—her partner gave birth in November), adding wryly, “I’m old, gay, and political, which are not qualities that Nashville typically embraces, but I had these songs pouring out of me, in a rush of feeling, that didn’t fit any catalog but country.”

Besides, like most Southerners, Ray, who grew up in Decatur, finds inspiration in genealogy. “The bloodlines and kinships in music feel infinite to me these days,” says Ray.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue with the headline “Key Change.”

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